Dr. Andrew Mango
I thank the Atatürk Society for marking with this award its appreciation of my biography of the founding father of the Turkish Republic. It is an honour I value, and which I owe to the kindness of my Turkish friends and of my readers. I am grateful also to the Turkish Embassy for hosting this ceremony, which takes place three days before the 80th anniversary of the proclamation of the republic. The anniversary is an occasion to look back with pride on what has been achieved and with hope to the future, but also with realism, which was the distinguishing characteristic of Atatürk’s genius. Realism is always in short supply. Few people have the ability to see through the fog of current affairs and of the contradictory interpretations to which they give rise and discern the solid ground of underlying facts – facts, which will determine the future and on which, therefore, we should base our order of priorities. Atatürk had this rare ability. He knew what needed to be done and in what order. His vision of the future did not blind him to the miseries of the present, to the obstacles that stood in the way of realising that vision.
Atatürk’s vision can be stated simply – a peaceful and prosperous independent Turkey as a member of the family of civilised nations in a peaceful world. He defined his aim as “Peace in the country and peace in the world.” It is probably his most frequently quoted saying, but is circumstances and implications have drawn little attention. The slogan “Peace in the World” comes easily to the lips of any idealist, of any politician in search of applause. One is reminded of peace demonstrations in most Western countries during the course of the Cold War, demonstrations which almost invariably disturbed domestic peace. But in Atatürk’s mind, domestic order and international order were linked, and domestic order came first, because this was the primary responsibility of the state.
The full quotation is “We are working for peace in the country and peace in the world”, and it occurs in the electoral programme, which Atatürk presented on behalf of his party in 1931. It was a difficult time. Turkey had been badly hit by the great world depression. In a number of European countries, democratic regimes incapable of containing popular resentment at the hardships the crisis had caused gave way to dictatorships. In Turkey, which had been under single-party rule, Atatürk went in the opposite direction and encouraged the formation of an opposition party to give legal expression to discontent. But the new party did not prevent disturbances, and it was dissolved after a few months in order to prevent social upheaval.
Atatürk’s electoral programme did not touch on foreign affairs. What he did was to outline measures to “mobilise the resources of our country and thus to open up a brighter future for ourselves”. He gave a clear definition of the role of the state in economic development, saying “While safeguarding individual effort as the basic principle, [our aim is] to involve the state and ensure that it should act where the general supreme interests of the country require it, particularly in the economic field, in order to bring prosperity to the people and development to the country.” This involves little more than recognising that the state must regulate the free market in the general interest and take care of needs which private enterprise does not meet. Supporters of the free market and of free enterprise today should find nothing objectionable in this formulation, particularly since Atatürk added that any economic activity undertaken directly by the state should be profitable. But the essential point, which I should like to stress, is that the main objective, which Atatürk had set, was “to bring prosperity to the people and development to the country.” This was his objective and it has also been the objective of the vast majority of the Turkish people throughout the eighty years of the republic’s existence.
One can criticise the development strategies of this or that Turkish government; one can blame some of them for yielding too readily to electoral pressure for immediate improvements in the standard of living. But one cannot understand Turkey without realising that the country is informed by the sane, rational desire to lead a richer and – to use a term, which remains meaningful – and more civilised life. This desire has shaped both domestic and foreign policy. Books on Turkish foreign policy have recently been pouring off the presses. But in the mass of detail which they contain, one can easily miss the essential point that the aim of Turkish diplomacy is to safeguard and, where possible to augment, the resources available for the country’s development. I would argue that viewed from this angle, the foreign policy of the Turkish Republic has been a resounding success.
The primacy given to economic development is what distinguishes Atatürk from his predecessors. Atatürk set out his objectives before the proclamation of the republic, at the economic congress he convened in ?zmir, a few months only after the city had been liberated in the Turkish War of Independence. “Foreign policy,” he said, “must rely on domestic policy and organisation; its ambitions must not exceed domestic capacity.” But Sultans had done the reverse, they had given pride of place to their personal ambitions in foreign fields and then sought domestic resources to realise them. As for the government which Atatürk led, it would give meaning to full independence and national sovereignty, by concentrating its efforts on developing the country and making its people prosperous. Economic strength was the country’s best defence. But a strong economy needed a framework of order in which to develop.
Facing the turbulence of the great depression, Atatürk stated in his 1931 electoral programme: “The foundation of all our endeavours is the establishment of the effective authority of the government which by its domestic and judicial organisation and its laws is capable of protecting unhesitatingly the fruits of the reform movement, the total security of the citizens and order and discipline in the country.” Today liberals inside and especially outside Turkey criticise Atatürk policy on the grounds that it was top-down authoritarian, and some allege that this authoritarianism derives directly from the habits and practices of Ottoman Sultans. But Atatürk had his feet firmly planted on the ground. He had fought for freedom, but he knew that freedom and material progress could flourish only in a framework of order, security and legality. He dismissed as fantasies grand designs, which disregarded this. He was a rationalist drawing his inspiration from positivist philosophy, and the slogan of positivism was “order and progress”.
Atatürk conception of progress was comprehensive. Material development and cultural development were inseparable, and improving education was the pre-condition of both. Education was also the key to social mobility. In a recent study of a poor neighbourhood in Istanbul, the American anthropologist Jenny White noted that while most of its residents were focused on economic survival, education was available to the masses, both men and women, thanks to early Republican reforms. Critics who today talk of the Turkish establishment or the Kemalist elite, forget that for many years now Turkey has been ruled by people who had come from modest backgrounds, people like Süleyman Demirel, born into a poor family of peasants, like Turgut Özal, son of a provincial bank clerk, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the son of a sailor brought up in a run-down rough neighbourhood of Istanbul. All owed their careers to their education in schools and universities set up by the republic, which trained them in what used to be called “positive science”. This education did not weaken their attachment to their religious tradition, but it taught them to combine that tradition with a rational approach to practical problems. And it taught them also to integrate that tradition in a modern world-view. As a result, Turkey enjoys an advantage compared with some of its neighbours. It does not rely on a single resource, such as oil. It has advanced on a wide front adding to its traditional skills in soldiering and administration, new skills in industry and trade. Similarly, its development has not been one-sided. It has not been confined to the accumulation of material possessions, but has encompassed advances in the arts and sciences. Atatürk encouraged painting, sculpture, architecture, music. Thanks to his pioneering work, activities such as the Istanbul festival of music and film, or the Istanbul Biennale have become a part of the world arts scene, that Turkish commercial corporations sponsor universities, museums and symphony orchestras.
In many, perhaps most, countries today the basic division is between those who are afraid of the outside world and those who are not and who are eager to engage with it. Fanatics, whether religious or ideological, hate the outside world, because they fear it, fearing not just its might but its power of attraction, which affects them too. Such people exist in all countries and in all cultures. The conspiracy theories, which they spin, derive from their lack of self-confidence as much as from their ignorance. Atatürk, on the other hand, had both the self-confidence and the knowledge to engage with the outside world, without fear or favour. But this encounter could bear fruit only if peace prevailed.
Atatürk started by making friends with all of Turkey’s neighbours. From Soviet Russia in the north to French-mandated Syria and British-mandated Iraq in the south, his government signed treaties delimiting frontiers, securing non-interference in internal affairs, and progressing from non-aggression to co-operation. In additional to bilateral agreements, Atatürk promoted regional cooperation schemes like the Balkan Entente and the Saadabad Pact – the latter embracing Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. In the 1930’s as fascist Italy embarked on a policy of expansion, Atatürk supported British and French efforts to contain the threat by the use of sanctions and, in the last resort, military action against piracy in the Mediterranean. But whenever any particular measure was discussed, Turkish diplomacy stood by the covenant of the League of Nations as a guarantee of international legality. In 1935, a visiting American journalist, Gladys Baker, asked Atatürk whether he thought that the League of Nations was an effective instrument for the preservation of peace. His reply was characteristically frank. “No,” he said, “the League of Nations has not yet proved that it is a decisive and effective instrument. On the other hand, it is the only organisation all the nations can use to achieve their common purpose.” Asked whether the United States should have joined the International Court of Justice, Atatürk replied: “The United States would have undoubtedly helped preserve peace for all had it joined the International Court of Justice. It is not right for a nation whose influence and whose humanitarian ideals are so strong to refuse an active part in the peaceful resolution of international conflicts.” It was in the course of this interview that Atatürk foresaw that the United States could not stay neutral if war broke out. “The United States,” he said, “is like a resident in the most luxurious apartment in a building. If one apartment is set on fire, the others cannot escape its effect. The same is true of war. It is impossible for the United States to distance itself from it.”
Two years earlier, Atatürk had replied to proposals sent by the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt on measures to overcome the world depression and to promote disarmament. Stressing that he was in agreement with Roosevelt’s ideas, Atatürk set out his priorities. “The sole objective of my government,” he said, “is to ensure its freedom to promote the country’s prosperity in the economic field and to serve the cause of general prosperity for the good of every individual country; and in the political sphere, to live in peace, and while keeping legitimate means of self-defence for and against everyone, to eliminate the means of aggression in step with others.” This was the content of the slogan “Peace in the country and peace in the world”, which Atatürk repeated in another telegram in which he replied to Roosevelt’s congratulations on the tenth anniversary of the foundation of the Turkish republic. In this second telegram Atatürk spoke of his people’s admiration for the achievements of universal civilisation and its belief in progress.
Atatürk’s speech marking the 10th anniversary has kept its salience in Turkish collective memory. Saying that what had been achieved in the first ten years was by no means sufficient, Atatürk made this promise “We shall raise our country to the level of the most prosperous and civilised countries … We shall raise our national culture above the level of contemporary civilisation.” This, he declared, was possible because “Positive science is the torch held aloft by the Turkish people as it progresses on the path of civilisation.” Belief in the power of reason, expressed in science, forms the core of Atatürk’s philosophy. And he reaffirmed his faith in reason in 1933 at a time when unreason was about to pervert some of the most civilised nations in the world.
It is true that eighty years after the proclamation of the republic and sixty-five years after Atatürk’s death Turkey has not attained to the level of the most prosperous and civilised countries, let alone risen above it. But it has secured a better life for its people whose numbers have risen six fold since the proclamation of the republic – from twelve to seventy million. Depending on the date of Turkey’s accession to the European Union, it would be either the second most populous country in it, after Germany, or if accession is delayed, the most populous of all. This is one of the main reasons why some Europeans hesitate to accept Turkey in their fold. But irrespective of the date of accession, think for a moment of Turkey’s weight in and around Europe. I am not referring here to Turkey’s geopolitical and strategic importance. Geopolitics are a rickety foundation for a country’s prosperity, and there is some truth in a comment I read recently in a Turkish newspaper, whose argument was “To hell with our strategic importance. It stands in the way of the effort we have to make to develop our country.” Atatürk did not rely on his country’s strategic importance, when he told his people: “Be proud, hard-working and self-confident”. This advice has, by and large, been followed. At home and abroad, Turkish workers, professionals and businessmen are making their way in the world with assiduous determination. But the golden apple of prosperity is not easily snatched.
One economist has calculated recently that if the European Union grew by 2 per cent a year and Turkey could sustain growth at a rate of 7 per cent, which it has achieved intermittently, then it would take forty years for Turkey to achieve European Union levels of prosperity. Of course, no one can predict what will happen in forty years’ time. But even if events belie them, such long-term projections give food for thought. The very fact that one can contemplate the possibility that in the first half of this century Turks will achieve the material wealth of West Europeans points to the magnitude of the progress made by a country which was backward and poor when Atatürk proclaimed the republic and determined its policies. For we are talking of a country which by the time it draws level with Europe will have the largest population in the European Union. We are talking of a country, which is set to become a European great power. Today no one is surprised when people note that Turkey has the second largest army in NATO – larger, in other words, than the armies of Britain, France and Germany. This would have been inconceivable in Atatürk’s days. Consider now a Turkey, which would have the largest gross national product in Europe, for this is what achieving European levels of development would mean. This is not an idle pipedream. When Atatürk was born, Russia was a colossus compared with Turkey. In 2001, the gross national product per person in Russia was 8,700 dollars, calculated on the basis of the purchasing power of the currency. In Turkey it was 6,600 dollars. The gap is narrowing. The Russian economy relies largely on its resources in hydrocarbons and other raw materials, the Turkish economy on the skills of its people and their social organisation.
The importance of coherence, of solidarity in society was a theme to which Atatürk returned again and again. Yesterday, he was criticised by Marxists for his refusal to countenance a class struggle; today he is criticised by proponents of multiculturalism – which is, incidentally, a concept unknown in his day – for following the example of the French republic and building solidarity on the basis of a common Turkish culture. Fashions change, but social solidarity remains a pre-condition of progress, and solidarity must be based on the common ground we call culture. The British anthropologist David Shankland has said in a recently published book that Atatürk “has been successful in that the national ethic he created remains similar today to that formulated in the earliest days of the Republic, and that the reforms he instigated have substantially remained the same.” Shankland goes on “While Kemalism, the religious philosophy has been a partial success, Kemalism, the source and unifying symbol of national identity, has been a triumph.” I agree with this judgment, except that I would not describe Atatürk’s approach as a religious philosophy. In my experience, the majority of Turks do not see it in that light either. What they see in Atatürk’s approach is a non-dogmatic openness to the modern world, and, if you like, an implicit metaphysical choice, to rely on reason in one’s actions.
A recent draft resolution of the European Parliament claimed that Kemalism was an obstacle to Turkey’s accession, because it defended the principle that the country and its people were indivisible. The claim was removed from the final text, but the misconception on which it is based persists. One can argue about the means needed to achieve national unity, means, which will obviously vary from age to age, but not about the need for unity particularly at a time when the dangers of fragmentation stare us in the face in the area in which Turkey is situated. One might as well claim that the French Revolution is an obstacle to the continuing membership of France in the European Union. Two centuries after the Revolution, France has moved from centralisation to decentralisation. Eighty years after the foundation of the republic, Turkey is moving in the same direction. But in both cases, care is taken to preserve a unifying culture. The loss of such a culture would lead to a domestic conflict, even to a civil war. One of the greatest merits of Atatürk’s approach is that it has contained domestic conflict and that, as a result, Turkey is one of the few south European countries, which have avoided civil war. No sane person would wish it otherwise.
Another fashionable line of criticism is that Turkey “must make peace with its history”, meaning that it should acknowledge continuities between the old Ottoman Empire and the new Republic. Of course, there are continuities: the Republic was built on the ruins of the Empire and not on a green field site. But it is the proclamation of the Republic and not the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire which is the salient fact of Turkish history, just as it is the Revolution and not the story of the Bourbons which is the salient fact of French history. However, there is this difference between Turkey and France: in Turkey the Revolution finds its embodiment in one man; in France it had many protagonists. This explains the importance of Atatürk as the author and continuing symbol of renewal.
Today the West has chosen democracy as its supreme value and as the yardstick with which to measure the achievement of individual countries and regimes. Democracy is indeed a noble ideal. It has evolved gradually over the centuries and is constantly being re-defined. Atatürk prepared the legal and cultural framework for democracy, introducing the concept of the supremacy of parliament, gender equality and universal franchise. But while democracy, in the sense of a free contest for power between different political parties, came only a decade after Atatürk’s death, there was one concept, which he immediately put into practice – the concept of rational government. Rational government, averse to adventure, while being responsive to popular demands for a higher standard and quality of life, has prevailed in Turkey over the last eighty year’s. This is one of Atatürk’s greatest achievements. Would that his example was followed elsewhere.
Rational government, a government, which seeks practical solutions to current problems on the basis of knowledge and experience and not of ideological commitment, presupposes the secularity of the state. Secularism, or to use the French term laicisme which was adopted by Atatürk is the foundation stone of his reforms. It does not mean that the state is hostile to religion, but that it is neutral vis-à-vis all religions, while taking care of their material needs. The implementation of this principle is subject to constant evolution, to constant negotiation, in Turkey as in other developed countries as new areas arise in which the neutrality of the state is tested, and as the culture of a society changes. Thanks to the spirit of pragmatism, which Atatürk inculcated and of national solidarity, which he fostered, the negotiation of the practice of secularism has been peaceful in Turkey. To quote Jenny White again:
When Kemalists support [the] Welfare [Party, and today the Justice and Development Party], when leftists become Islamists, when Islamists are Yuppies, environmentalists and secularists, the ground slips away from any simple division of society into Kemalist secularists and Islamic radicals. Other divisions remain, or take up residence in the new terrain: rich and poor, sectarian and racialist, moderate and pragmatic versus confrontational styles of doing politics, and generational differences.
These are divisions common to all developed societies and rational government can keep the peace along their shifting frontiers. It is on the basis of Atatürk’s rationalism that Turkish society today can be both diverse and coherent, both self-critical and self-confident.
At a time when we are obsessed by the wish to establish democracy in countries torn by internal conflict on Turkey’s periphery, think what even a moderately rational government could do to bring about an immediate improvement in conditions. A recent book on modern Turkey published by the Russian Academy of Sciences pointed out that Turkey was indeed a good model for the Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union, but that these could learn more from the evolution of the Turkish republic than from Turkey as it is today. In other words, it is Atatürk’s tactics, which are particularly relevant to the solution of the problems these republics face today.
The reputation of great historical figures is subject to constant revision as new problems arise and as hindsight augments such wisdom as we may have. Atatürk is no exception. All one can say is that his reputation has fared better than that of most of his contemporaries, and that he remains a source of inspiration in his country and beyond. His place is secure in the front rank of statesmen who have fashioned the modern world.