By Constantine S. Sirigos
TNH Staff Writer
NEW YORK – During the Greek crisis the concerns of Hellenes and Philhellenes around the world have extended beyond the economic dimension. There is a clear link between domestic realities and foreign policy, and generally, the stronger a nation’s economy the greater its military power and international influence.
Economic weakness undermines national security, but Greece has taken aggressive and impressive steps to protect its interests and territorial integrity according to Dr. Aristotle Tziampiris, Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Piraeus and director of its Center for International and European Affairs.
Born and raised in Thessaloniki, he is currently a Visiting Fellow at NYU’s Remarque Institute. He spoke to The National Herald about the recent dramatic developments in Greece’s international relations.
His op-ed pieces have appeared in various publications, including The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post, The Washington Times and National Interest, and the fellowship will facilitate the completion of a book titled “The Emergence of Israeli-Greek Cooperation.”
Before Tziampiris offered an overview of Greek foreign policy, he emphasized what for him are the two most disturbing elements of the crisis: the devastating 25 percent decline in Greece’s GDP and the 27 percent unemployment rate that threatens destabilization in the present, and a massive brain drain that undercuts Greece’s future.
“Maybe 100,000 Greeks have left, and they tend to be younger, more educated, ambitious and talented,” he said.
Tziampiris began to talk about Greece’s foreign policy by noting it current frailties. It has been forced to shut down embassies and consulates – ambitious countries are opening more – and in the Balkans, where once Greek firms and banks had been expanding their country’s presence, they are now in retreat.
And, naturally, there is fiscal pressure on the military.
States can also deploy soft power – which includes general attractiveness, credibility, prestige – in support of their interests abroad, but he noted “Greece has taken a beating on all these fronts.”
Such hits to Greece’s hard and soft power have been accompanied by the rise of Turkey as a regional economic and military power.
“It’s a strategic perfect storm,” Tziampiris said.
Turkey’s undeniable rise has been clothed in what is called Neo Ottomanism, an expansive view of its role in neighboring countries with Moslem populations, and a more ambitious attitude in the Middle East.
THE BEST DEFENSE IS A GOOD OFFENSE
Greek policymakers have faced the challenges forcefully, however, “by working to get its internal act together,” and by finding new friends, Tziampiris said.
He spoke about two major recent efforts to reorient Greek foreign policy, the first, involving Russia, was a failure, but its outreach to Israel has been a great success.
Regarding Moscow, he disagrees that the Orthodox faith of the Russians makes them natural allies. “I don’t think there is anything natural in foreign policy, only interests,” and he pointed out that Greece has a name dispute with FYROM and has gone to war with Bulgaria despite their majority Orthodox populations.
“And we now have great relations with Israel,” he said, “so religion is not a good indicator, although at a popular level it helps expedite the process of improving relations.”
The Moscow dreams revolved around making Greece an energy hub and purchasing Russian weapons systems, but it came to nothing, partly due to “a ferocious American reaction.”
Greece then immediately turned to Israel, which had the full support of its vital American ally.
“For more than 60 years relations were not good. They were somewhat normalized in the 1990s, but until recently “relations were nothing special. Now they are something special,” he said.
Tziampiris acknowledged Israel and Greece have drawn together partly because Israeli-Turkish relations deteriorated, but is was also the result of strong diplomatic efforts in Greece.
“What we have now is a cooperation that is very much real, and not just at a declaratory level,” he said.
He gave as one example the fact that this year 500,000 Israelis visited Greece. That is important not only because Greece needs that money “but because it brings the two peoples closer together.
“For example,” he said. “Few people in Greece knew that Greek music is very popular in Israel. He told the story of being picked up by a taxi driver in Tel Aviv who told him excitedly: “Glykeria is coming!”
There is now a memorandum of understanding (MOE) for military cooperation. “Before we get carried away, it is clear that this is a peacetime military cooperation,” not an alliance calling for direct involvement in one another’s conflicts, he said.
Nevertheless, it is an important development, regularizing joint, army, navy and air force exercises.
There are also economic deals being planned in the promising areas of agricultural technology, various kinds of investment and trade. He emphasized that investment deals are crucial because “states can only do so much. You also need private investment.”
There are also initiatives in the area of education, including joint research programs, and exchanges of Ph. D students. “All you need is a framework, some funding and political will for there to be major developments in fields across the board.”
“The big elephant in the room,” however, “is energy.”
Greece, Israel and Cyprus are now constructing an electrical cable between the three states. In August an MOE was signed in energy and water cooperation so, “you now have an institutionalization of cooperation, which is very important.”
Cyprus and Israel have a lot of gas at its looks like part of it will be exported. Decisions are being made regarding choice between building pipelines or liquefying natural gas, which would bring Greeks into the equation since they own many LNG tankers.
The pipeline option is also exciting because it has the potential to transform Israel’s relations with Europe.
“What is impressive with this story is how quickly it happened, there was a palpable sense of urgency behind the leaders making the decisions,” he said, and he believes that “to a great extent, bilateral cooperation is now independent of Turkish-Israeli ties…they now have their own raison d’etre.”
THE DIASPORA CAN DO MORE
Although he believes the process has been helped by ties between the Jewish and Greek-American communities, “More has to be done.” At the elite level a lot of cooperation is taking place and more is planned, with organizations like the American Jewish Committee at the forefront, but he says the next step is to have a wider understanding among the two communities that this is not just a fleeting moment, that there is a sturdy foundation. Once that is understood, it will facilitate further cooperation.”
He said “there has to be more information out there that this is real. There are so many affinities and much more can be done at a rank and file level,” both in the diasporas and the homelands.
Towards that end, he himself has undertaken a lecture tour.
GREEK ENERGY DREAMS
Among the game changers in Greek foreign affairs is the fact that “Greece is belatedly, slowly, but steadily moving forward to exploit its own energy resources. There are no guarantees but Samaras is persuaded that there is energy in Greece.”
He added that it is clear that Israeli firms will be involved so that a loose powerful energy triangle is emerging between Greece, Israel and Cyprus which will further ground those relationships and facilitate more economic activity.
Regarding Greece’s hydrocarbon and mineral wealth “the question is not only what exists, but what is the cost of extraction,” although technology change alters the calculations over time.
It is important that Greece is finally moving ahead, but he cautions about the attitude that “Greece has discovered El Dorado and is now energy rich ‘and now don’t need Germany or the IMF anymore.’”
He said “it could well be the case that Greece has a lot of energy but a lot of conditions must be met before celebrating…if everything goes according to an ideal case scenario, we are talking seven to 10 years from today to start seeing some money out of it. It’s not a quick fix.”
The important point is that serious countries plan ahead, well past the next electoral cycle.
Nevertheless, the energy wealth possibility “provides hope and it is something that we have to move along… it cannot happen overnight…but it shows political maturity to plan ahead and this is exactly what is happening right now in Greece.”
One gets the impression that in Tziampiris’ experience, maturity is rare quality in the governing classes – and there was no time to discuss the recent American political circus.
It is an attribute that will come in handy in Cyprus as well. He said the Cyprus problem will be an important international agenda item in the coming months.
He noted, however, that “it’s an issue that has bedeviled several powers and international institutions for decades. It is immensely complex both in its resolution and it implications, so whoever is dealing with it should approach it with a touch of modesty …which is how you get a Nobel peace prize, and one that you actually deserve.”