Pragmatism is the most assured guiding force for good government. It is possible to run a government based on ideology or its close cousin, fanaticism, but rarely do such things end up being successful.
More often than not, the antithesis of pragmatism ends in failure.
The controversial 20th century British politician Enoch Powell once remarked,
“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs”.
This is true not only of individual politicians but also of political systems which are governed by extreme forces which sooner or later come up against the brick wall of manifest realities.
It is of course possible to govern a country whose Constitution has an ideological component and do so in a manner that is pragmatic.
Two great examples of this are Ataturk in the early Turkish Republic and Leonid Brezhnev during the halcyon days of the Soviet Union.
Ataturk led a ferocious resistance against what he saw as a humiliation of the Turkish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres.
Many of these grievances were eventually settled in Turkey’s favour in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
However, many Turks were still raging against the loss of Ottoman territory to Balkan powers as well as the loss of Ottoman territory in the Arab world. Many were desirous of Turkey to capture former territories of the South Caucuses which by the 1920s had become a part of the Soviet Union.
However, on each of these fronts, Ataturk resisted the more extreme calls for further war and conflict and ended up making peace with many of Turkey’s historic enemies.
In 1921, Ataturk and Lenin signed a Treaty of Friendship and Brotherhood between Soviet Russia and Republican Turkey. It was the first such treaty of its kind between a Turkish and Russian state.
The Soviet state and Ataturk’s Republican Turkey were young states who were still in the midst of civil conflict in 1921. Each country pragmatically showed solidarity with the other as both sought to set aside past conflicts and accept emerging new realities at face value. It was a bold and correct move by both Lenin and Ataturk. In Lenin’s case it was quite possibly his most important early foreign policy move and one of his few foreign policy moves which wasn’t ill advised, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk being Lenin’s most catastrophic moment.
Ataturk went on to make peace with an even more ancient enemy; The Hellenic Republic. For centuries, the Hellenic people had been occupied by Ottoman Turkey. Between 1919 and 1922, the Kingdom of Greece fought Turkey over the restoration of historic Greek lands in East Thrace and Western Anatolia. The war ended in a Turkish victory.
However, by the early 1930s, Ataturk and Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos signed an accord designed to end centuries of war and hatred between the two peoples.
Turkey and Greece signed a treaty of friendship in 1930 and a more formal Entente Cordiale in 1933. Such a move would have been unthinkable even in the 1920s, let alone in the preceding five centuries.
This paved the way for a Balkan Pact wherein Turkey recognised the sovereignty of the Balkan states which Turkey once ruled as a colonial overlord. It was a bold move and one which ultimately helped bring a measure of peace to one of Europe’s most fraught regions.
Ataturk also made peace with Iran, Britain and accepted Turkey’s losses in the Arab world, something which Erdogan has been violently trying to reverse.
Ataturk’s pragmatism helped turn a young Turkish Republic from a cauldron of war into a stable country at peace with its many formerly adversarial neighbours. This was without doubt one of the most remarkable accomplishments in modern history. Ataturk may have had a Constitution that was ideologically secular and nationalistic, but he generally governed through compromise, reconciliation and realism.
Turning to the Soviet Union under its most successful leader, Leonid Brezhnev, one sees a Communist state, but one governed by a man interested in preserving both Soviet strength as well as geo-political peace.
Brezhnev’s rhetoric did not include the firebrand extremism of his wily predecessor Nikita Khrushchev, nor did it rule through the iron first of Stalin. Brezhnev was able to increase Soviet power and prestige abroad while bringing the Soviet people their highest living standards and internal peace in history.
Brezhnev walked quietly but carried a big stick. His steadfastness and measured strength led western leaders to do what they had never done before, not with Imperial Russia nor with the early Soviet Union. They came to the table to acknowledge the borders and sovereignty of the USSR and made a vow to renounce violence as a means of settling disputes.
All of the sudden, western aggression against Russia had evaporated, albeit temporarily. The Russian lands which British political scientist Halford John Mackinde described as a ‘pivot area’ that western powers should use in their attempts to subdue Asia, were now sovereign according to an international agreement.
Sadly, under the ideological fanaticism of Mikhail Gorbachev and his lieutenant Alexander Yakovlev, the Soviet Union ssacrificed its stability which Brezhnev secured, on the altar of forceful ‘westernisation’. This led to the very collapse of the state which Gorbachev thought he was saving.
Had a pragmatic Deng Xiaoping type of figure emerged in Soviet Union of the 1980s, things may have turned out differently. Deng Xiaoping was of course the pragmatic reformist who was able to maintain China’s sovereignty while modernising the economy, paving the way for China’s economic super-power status that it enjoys today.
Turkey’s President Erdogan would be wise to learn from the pragmatism of Ataturk, Brezhnev and Deng. Ataturk in particular, as a comparatively recent Turkish example, was a man whose influence on Turkey has eroded more rapidly under Erdogan than many could have imagined or feared.
It is only through pragmatism that a state becomes strong in the long term. The zeal of ideologues like Ergodan often leads to ruin.
It is why Ataturk himself cautioned, “They go as they come”.