The Ottoman Empire, which was founded in the late 13th century and thrived for more than 600 years, resembled the Roman Empire in the sense that it was a vast imperial enterprise that encompassed three regions: Western Asia, Southeast Europe and North Africa. Although it was a Muslim country, the Ottoman Empire embraced diverse religions and cultures such as Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which coexisted peacefully.
As Rhie Won-bok writes in his graphic narrative “The Ottoman Empire and Turkey,” the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire brought forth three important historic events: First, the threat of the Ottoman Empire to Europe ignited the Crusades; second, the rich cultural heritage and sophisticated, high-level learning of the Ottoman Empire inspired the Renaissance in Europe; and, finally, by blocking the only known sea route to Asia, the Ottoman Empire prompted the Age of Exploration or the Age of Discovery in Europe. A good example of the latter was Columbus, who sailed west to find another passage to India and eventually found the New World. For these reasons, the importance and influence of the Ottoman Empire cannot be overstated.
In the early 20th century, however, the Ottoman Empire made a bad decision and consequently perished. During World War I, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers that comprised Germany and Austria-Hungary, not the Allied Powers that consisted of the UK, France and Russia. In particular, the Ottomans did not like Russia because Russia openly instigated the Slavic people in the Balkans to revolt against the empire. In the eyes of the Ottoman leaders, therefore, Germany seemed to be the only country that was not a threat to the empire. Thus the empire decided to become an ally of Germany and made a pact with the Central Powers.
This, however, was to prove a fatal mistake. The leaders of the Ottoman Empire did not realize that the US would intervene and Germany would lose the war. When the war was over, the Ottoman Empire became a defeated nation and lost most of its territories as a result. Because of its fatal mistake the Ottoman Empire, which had lasted gloriously for 623 years, perished in 1923.
Unlike the Ottoman Empire, Greece made a wise decision during World War I. Greece joined the Allied Powers and became one of the winners. Initially, Greece declared that she would be neutral. However, the leaders of Greece listened carefully to the case brought to them by the UK and decided to join the Allied Powers just before the war ended in 1917, thereby becoming a country of victory thanks to her leaders’ wise decision.
The two cases of the Ottoman Empire and Greece reveal the importance of political leaders’ decisions. When the leaders of a nation make a mistake, they put their nation in harm’s way and the outcome can be disastrous. The case of the Ottoman Empire well illustrates that political leaders’ mistakes can ruin a country’s future.
Therefore, it is a blessing to have a wise and able leader who can make a good decision for his country. If, on the contrary, the leader of a country is obstinate and incompetent, his people will suffer the consequences. If the leader cannot read the sea map and takes his people to uncharted seas full of unknown reefs and rocks, his nation will be wrecked eventually and his people will become miserable. Thus it is extremely important to have a great leader, especially in times of crisis.
Who, then, is a great leader? If he is well attuned to the complex web of international politics and has superb diplomatic skills that allow him to effectively maneuver through its vortex, then he is a great leader. If he has a global mindset and embraces differences and thus is not parochial or nationalistic, he is an ideal leader as well. Such an admirable leader will not be myopic but will wisely avoid unnecessary conflicts with other countries.
A highly esteemed leader is the one who leads his people in the right direction, not steering them toward the wrong path, the dead end or the one-way street. Instead of being preoccupied with the past or an obsolete political ideology, he should have a fresh vision for the future and be capable of changing the old paradigm to a new one. A good leader should also be able to freely converse with world leaders in the global language, English. Moreover, he should not divide the nation into two antagonistic groups and let them fight each other with blind hatred. Instead of political skirmishes, he should seek reconciliation, coalitions and unity. And he should not use populism for political gain, either.
We should learn from the Ottoman Empire, which perished due to her leaders’ fatal mistake.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.