Len Smith: From Sèvres to Lausanne: How the “Game” of Peacemaking Changed and Who Changed It

Diplomacy involves much more than a “game” among Great Powers and those over whom they exercise authority. But it remains a “game” in that it operates among known agents competing for some kind of advantage according to known rules. In the end game of the Great War in the Middle East, what international relations theorists call agents and structures created and recreated each other.

At the time of the Armistice with Germany, the principal Allied and Associated Powers agreed to make peace underpinned ideologically by “Wilsonianism.” While few have ever agreed on the exact meaning of the term, it had real consequences. Among other things, Wilsonianism affirmed and legitimized the ethno-national successor state as the proper locus of sovereignty in replacement of the dynastic, multinational empires. But these successor states not easily controlled, in Europe or beyond. In other words, a new kind of agent legitimized by the conference would be able to shape the structures of peacemaking

By the time the Paris Peace Conference turned its attention to the Middle East in a serious way in the late spring and summer of 1919, a serious disconnect had developed between discursive and material power. The Conference still held discursive power in that it alone wrote treaties and expected the concerned agents to sign them. But material power proved something else, altogether, as became glaringly clear in Anatolia.

In a nutshell, the emerging Turkish successor state called bluff of disconnect between discursive and material power. The outcome in Anatolia sharply demarcated power of European empires. Yet the new republic in Turkey proved interested not in rejecting the discursive structure of international relations, but joining it on terms agreeable to itself.

From the outset, the Allied and Associated Powers confronted the delicate task of reconciling “Wilsonianism” with wartime agreements to divide up Ottoman domains—notably as the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 and the St Jean de Maurienne agreement of April 1917. As the Conference proceeded, the allies continued to deal with the regime of the Sultan in Constantinople/Istambul as though it were the actual site of sovereignty in Anatolia.

Against this backdrop, Treaty of Sèvres signed in August 1920 became a parody not just of the Conference as it had originally proclaimed itself, but of the actual situation. The treaty adopted a template inherited from Versailles Treaty defining the defeated Great Power. A “war guilt” clause reproached Turkey, not for anything it had done against the Armenians or Assyrians, but for having joined the “war of aggression” alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary. Consequently, post-imperial Turkey owed reparations clearly beyond its capacity to pay, particularly with the loss of the Arabic-speaking lands. Accordingly the treaty set up an inter-allied Financial Commission with vast powers. It would have nearly complete control over the government budget, and authority over paying present foreign loans and undertaking future ones. No other defeated power was subject to such a commission. Moreover, Sèvres set in motion a process that would have divided Anatolian peninsula among allied spheres of influence and/or direct control.

In other words, residual discursive power of the allies at the Paris Peace Conference had produced treaty, based in the belief that discursive power was sufficient. The conference proper closed up shop after Sèvres. The allies relied on a proxy, the Greek successor state, to materialize their discursive power, through its ill-conceived extension of the military campaign in Anatolia.

The disastrous results of this campaign evoked the disintegration of allied coalition. The French and Italians made bilateral deals with Ankara regime. The British Empire itself fragmented with Chanak crisis of September-October 1922. In response to direct appeal from London, all of independent Dominions except New Zealand refused to send troops in the event war broke out between Britain and Turkey. If an empire cannot command, just how is it an empire?

The Treaty of Lausanne, signed in July 1923 reflected the “real” locus and attributes of sovereignty in Anatolia. Not strictly speaking part of the Paris Peace Conference, the treaty constituted a multilateral agreement among the Great Powers and Turkey. Greek “war guilt” now replaced its Turkish counterpart. But Turkey renounced its right to reparations based on the straightened circumstances of the Hellenic state. Gone were the Financial Commissions, the hated capitulations, and the external restrictions on the size of the Turkish military. Lausanne made no mention of an autonomous Kurdistan let alone an independent Armenia.

Yet non-trivial qualifications on Turkish sovereignty remained. A demilitarized zone was to be created on both sides of the Straits, overseen by international commission under the auspices of the League of Nations. The treaty made elaborate financial provisions set up for retirement of the Ottoman debt. The Turkish republic undertook to employ Western jurists from non-belligerent countries to modernize its legal system. After the frequently brutal “population exchange” legitimized by a bilateral convention between Greece and Turkey annexed to the treaty, remaining minorities in Istanbul and Western Thrace given were protections similar to those in the treaties from the Paris Peace Conference.

Why would the new regime in Turkey agree to such qualifications? The Great Powers remained in a position to grant some trade and loans. But more importantly, they could still grant international recognition to the new regime in Anatolia. Discursive authority of European Great Powers to set the rules of the international system was challenged, but not overthrown. The new regime in Turkey wanted to join that system as a fully sovereign member of family of nations, which the Ottoman Empire had never been. In so doing, the new regime conferred its own measure of legitimacy, both on itself and on the system.

Full Text of the Treaty of Sèvres (10 August 1920):



Full Text of the Treaty of Lausanne (24 July 1923):


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