WASHINGTON – In the midst of bitter bailout negotiations between Greece and Europe, warnings proliferated of a possible Greek fifth column. The European Union and even NATO would collapse should Athens turn toward Russia. It is one of the stranger paranoid fantasies driving U.S. foreign policy.
For five years Athens has been arguing with its European neighbors over debts and reform. The issue doesn’t much concern the United States. A European economic crisis would be bad for America, but Grexit is not likely to set off such a cataclysm.
Nevertheless, some analysts speculated that Athens might fall out of the European Union and NATO as well as the eurozone, resulting in geopolitical catastrophe. Thus, the U.S. should insist that Europe pay off Greece. Despite an apparent bailout agreement, another crisis seems inevitable, in which case the specter of a Greek Trojan Horse likely will reemerge.
This fear betrays an overactive imagination. “You do not want Europe to have to deal with a Greece that is a member of NATO but which all of a sudden hates the West and is cozying up to Russia,” warned Sebastian Mallaby of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Worse, Athens might leave the trans-Atlantic alliance. Warned Robert D. Kaplan of the Center for a New American Security: “Europe will be increasingly vulnerable to Russian aggression if its links to Greece are substantially loosened.”
It sounds like the Cold War redux.
In fact, this all appears to be a grand bluff. To start, Russia poses little threat to Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin is an unpleasant authoritarian, but he is no Hitler or Stalin. Rather, he has taken Russia back to a pre-1914 Great Power, concerned about international respect and border security.
While Moscow has ignored human rights and international law, so far its aggressive interventions have reflected traditional Russian security concerns and, like NATO’s unprovoked attack on Yugoslavia, have been limited in scope. Nothing suggests that Putin has lost his mind and hopes to rule over territory filled with non-Russians, let alone Europeans.
George Petrolekas of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute noted that the “Aegean islands control approaches to the Bosporus and the island of Crete has long been important as refueling facility for NATO fleets at Souda Bay, and its airfields used to support NATO operations in Libya.”
Useful, yes. Vital, no. After all, the Mediterranean is essentially a NATO lake and the Libya intervention was folly. Despite such fevered speculations, Greece is not geopolitically critical for America.
Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev raised another issue, complaining that “Russia uses every opportunity to divide and weaken the European Union.” Beyond a couple of friendly meetings, however, little has come from the supposed Athens-Moscow axis. So far Moscow has provided no financial aid. One suspects that Moscow prefers Greece to remain Europe’s problem.
“There is fundamental value to Europe in having Greece as part of its orbit,” argued James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, but the reverse also is true. Irrespective of the debt negotiations and eurozone membership, Greece will continue to have much at stake with Europe.
Greeks are relatively less enthused about America and more favorable toward Russia, but Washington and Brussels have consistently ignored Athens’ interests when making Balkan policy. Nevertheless, Greece has remained with the West.
Moreover, the Tsipras government did not obstruct continuation of sanctions against Russia in January, shortly after taking power, or in June. Athens has consistently affirmed its participation in Europe.
Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, head of Syriza’s small coalition partner, threatened: “If Europe leaves us in the crisis, we will flood it with immigrants, and it will be even worse for Berlin if in that wave of millions of economic immigrants there will be some jihadists of the Islamic State, too.” However, the Syriza government would not want to open its border to jihadists, especially with the demagogic, far-right Golden Dawn party ready to take political advantage.
Athens has criticized sanctions against Russia. However, Greece is not alone in taking this position. Obviously the penalties have failed to reverse Russian policy in Ukraine. Best would be to use sanctions repeal to negotiate a compromise deal. Such an approach would be entirely consistent with Greece remaining part of the West.
The Greek saga is far from over. The paranoid panic that Greece’s economic problems could destroy Europe’s and America’s geopolitical standing should generate a mix of scorn and laughter.
Washington should calm down, leaving the Greeks and other Europeans alone to solve their problems. Greece subsidized or not, in the eurozone or out, really isn’t America’s business.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington who writes regularly on military non-interventionism. He is the author of several books.