He could have told the Turks of America’s role in ending the universal scourge of slavery.
(Apr. 11, 2009) No country on Earth is more responsible for the abolition of slavery than the United States of America. Barack Obama’s blackening of America’s past – he repeatedly referred in his European trip this week to America’s “darker periods” of slavery without acknowledging Americas redemption through its abolition – did America an injustice and cost him a precious opportunity to promote security in vulnerable regions. Ironically, Obama repeated his references to slavery in Turkey, the very nation more responsible than any on Earth for the institutionalization of slavery.
Of the countries that Obama visited in his diplomatic tour of Europe, Turkey, which he courted purposefully, is the most consequential. Without Turkey – the only conduit by which Central Asia’s natural gas can reach Europe – Germany and other EU countries will remain dependant on Russia for their energy supplies, and thus incapable of fully exercising their sovereignty.
The Central Asian energy producing countries, meanwhile, will return to Russian domination without Western export markets. The vital importance to the West of fastening Turkey to its sphere of influence explains why Obama courted Turkey by, for example, supporting its aspiration to join the European Union.
But another part of Obama’s courtship – his attempt to soften America’s image by dwelling on Americas past failings – could backfire. For one, Turkey’s slave past is far more extensive than that of America. Turkey needs no reminder that it has no less to live down than the United States, any more than it would welcome a reminder of the Armenian genocide. For another, Turkey does need a reminder of Western idealism, and assurances that it did not err a century ago when it broke with Orientalism and the Islamic state to embrace Western values.
Throughout most of the world, and throughout much of human history, slavery was the norm, whether in great civilizations such as that of the Chinese and the Romans or in remote tribal societies in Africa and the Americas. The Turkish empires of the Seljuks, and especially the Ottomans – one of the world’s greatest dynasties – did more than any others to institutionalize slavery throughout a highly structured society. Slaves – most often white Christians – not only performed menial work but formed crack fighting forces, served in the bureaucracy and, of course, sumptuously supplied the sultan’s harems.
Constantinople’s slave market was the world’s largest. Slavery was so entrenched in Turkey that it continued into the 20th century; not until 1933, a decade after it had become a secular republic, would Turkey ratify the 1926 League of Nations convention on the suppression of slavery. In all, slavery thrived in Turkey for a millennium.
The contrast with America could not be more stark. Even before the United States of America was founded in 1789, the American colonies were a hotbed of opposition to slavery. Pennsylvania’s Quakers’ first declaration against slavery was signed in 1688 (it would be another century before British Quakers started the British abolition movement, in 1783; William Wilberforce, the U.K. evangelical and parliamentarian often credited with stopping the slave trade, began his opposition to slavery in 1787).
Rhode Island limited slave trading in 1774, Vermont’s 1777 constitution abolished slavery, followed by laws to emancipate slaves in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania in 1780 and Connecticut in 1784. By the time George Washington was elected the first president of the United States, abolition movements pervaded all states and territories.
Moreover, the leaders of the abolition movement were not fringe activists but establishment elites, including America’s founding fathers. John Jay and Alexander Hamilton founded in 1785 the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been, or May be Liberated, and Benjamin Franklin in 1787 became president of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and the Relief of Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. The U.S. Constitution itself included a provision banning the importation of slaves within 20 years.
By 1807, the United States had prohibited slave trading with Africa. In another half-century, after a civil war waged in good part over slavery, the United States had emancipated all slaves through the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. No country of slave owners before or since would so quickly overthrow an established slave-owning order. Along the way, much of the Western world abolished slavery, often inspired by the example set by the U.S.
The American democracy’s swift consignation of slavery to the dustbin of history, and the American role in ending a universal scourge that, until recent times, was unrecognized as an evil, is a story Barack Obama could have told with conviction, reigniting the American ideal in Europe and reassuring Turks of their wisdom a century ago in choosing Western values.
Instead, in his description of slavery and of other wrongs, President Obama has become the face of a kinder, gentler, apologetic America. Whether this new America can help a Turkey torn between its Western and Islamic factions, a Central Asia unable to export energy and a Europe without an alternative energy supplier to Russia, will be seen soon enough.