The title does not fully describe the value of this insightful and informative book. Ambassador Vasilis Kaskarelis offers anyone interested in current events a highly readable, often riveting, narrative of some of the most momentous chapters in recent European history. He chronicles the final stages of the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the tumult inflicted on the U.S. relationship with its European allies by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the lack of foresight that led to the current reigniting of the Cold War.
In one section, in a dozen pages, this tome provides the best layman’s description of NATO, what it is and how it really operates, that I have ever read. For those interested in the sad history of post-World War II Greek foreign policy (or more precisely the lack thereof), the author leads us through an objective history and analysis of Greek government decisions in the first decade of the 21st century and the damage they inflicted on Greek national interests.
Ambassador Vasilis Kaskarelis deserves praise as one of the few Greek public servants in the past seventy years after the end of the Greek Civil War who has displayed the courage to write an honest and credible description of the political fecklessness of successive Greek administrations. Although my own career never took me to Greece, I often found myself observing and occasionally participating in the exercise of American relations with Greece. Every word that Ambassador Kaskarelis writes rings true.
Over a career spanning more than three decades, Ambassador Kaskarelis served as a diplomat in many posts of key importance to Greece, culminating as Permanent Representative first to NATO and then to the European Union from 2000 to 2009. The decade after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of both the Warsaw Pact and of the Soviet Union, had led many to believe that NATO was as an institution on life-support, in an American-provided ICU. The European members of the alliance, unwilling to spend significantly on defense, had ceded the future of NATO, the ongoing conflict in Yugoslavia, and the future relationship with Russia to the United States. Washington just took over.
Kaskarelis arrived at NATO as the United States, with little European input, laid out the parameters of the political entities that emerged from Yugoslavia’s disintegration. Greeks who read these chapters will find many of their preconceived notions exploded. Greek public opinion may have supported Serbia, but the Serbs treated Greece with disdain and instead undermined Greek influence in the region. (Kaskarelis attributes this disdain to an exaggerated Serbian sense of superiority.) Nevertheless, Greek politicians, out of a fear of pro-Serbian public opinion in Greece, looked the other way.
The narrative next rolls into the dramatic events of 9/11. Kaskarelis describes the dramatic NATO meeting the following day when, for the first time in the history of the alliance, its members unanimously invoked Article 5, a declaration by our European partners that the attack on the United States was an attack on all. Rather than show appreciation, the neocons running the U.S. Government made it clear that they did not need NATO. Washington even turned to Russia without informing NATO.
For a brief time, it appeared that a historic rapprochement could develop between the two Cold War adversaries. Alas, the neocons, especially Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, sabotaged Secretary of State Colin Powell’s efforts to bring this about. One wonders what U.S.-Russian relations would be today had Powell been allowed to succeed. More troubling to Kaskarelis were the Cheney-Rumsfeld efforts to marginalize NATO. Rumsfeld’s comments on the eve of the Iraq invasion that “old Europe” was out of step with “new Europe” i.e., the new members from former Warsaw Pact country planted seeds of doubt about the future of the transatlantic relationship. Kaskarelis’ account of the momentous first decade of the 21st century alone would make this book invaluable.
Kaskarelis weaves into every chapter the failure of Greek politicians to take risks that would advance the interests of their country. He writes with a calm and detached style that disguises what must be his deep bitterness at their failures. He discusses at length his efforts as Permanent Representative to the European Union to prevent Turkey from imbedding itself deeper into the EU by participating in European defense planning. He succeeded, as he wryly notes, because of Turkish rigid intransigence rather than Greek foreign policy.
Given an opportunity to assert Greek influence over Albanian and Muslim minorities in the region, Greek politicians clutched out of fear that they might offend (unrequited) pro-Serbian sentiments. Athens barred Greek peace-keeping forces assigned to the NATO missions in Kosovo from providing humanitarian support to, or even interacting with, Kosovar Albanian civilians.
Kaskarelis recommended in vain that the Greek government embrace the inevitable and support an independent Kosovo (and an American policy objective). Such a move would have made Greece a key power broker in the region, he argues, and contained Turkish influence.
Widespread anti-Americanism from the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and leftist resentments going back to the Greek civil war (1944-49) continuously paralyzed Greek government decision making. He is particularly caustic about Greek policy failures of commission and omission repeatedly undermining its national interests. For example, an American offer presented by then USAID Director, Greek-American Andrew Natsios, to give preference to Greek companies for a major reconstruction project in Iraq foundered when the Greek government refused to officially put Souda Bay at the disposal of the U.S. Navy for Iraq operations. This story, sadly, illustrates the schizophrenic nature of Greek foreign policy. Greek governments regularly denied the United States official permission to use Greek facilities, and then looked the other way when we used them anyway.
Kaskarelis, as a good diplomat, prudently refrains from naming the officials who undermined Greek national security interests. As an exception, he commends Dora Bakoyannis as the only Greek foreign minister who had the courage to take strong positions. He notes that during her tenure (2006-2009), she staked out strong positions that led to greater Greek influence and countered Turkish ambitions.
A quote from the back of the book’s jacket, concludes his argument better than can the reviewer: “While you, the reader may consider my views pessimistic, my 35 years in the diplomatic service taught me that none of us can afford not to look at the truth and facts in the eye. It is the only path towards understanding the world and resolving its issues.”