Category Archives: Diplomacy

When US presidents meet Greek premiers: Tales of high significance and low expectations

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

White House photo by Joyce Naltchayan

As he rides up Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Thursday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras might allow himself a wry smile. For so long an outcast of Greek politics and more recently a pariah among European peers, Samaras has seen international leaders rally around him since he came to power last June. And now, the big one: A meeting with Barack Obama in the White House.

Leaving aside the moment’s personal prestige, Samaras is actually following a well-trodden path, which has led Greek premiers from Athens to the White House over the course of eight decades. Since Konstantinos Tsaldaris left the civil war behind in December 1946 to visit Harry Truman and ask for financial and military assistance, eight Greek leaders have made a beeline to Washington in the hope of finding some succour. In fact, Costas Simitis, who met George W. Bush in 2002, is probably the only Greek prime minister who arrived with something to offer. The ex-PASOK leader gave Bush a new euro coin and a sweat shirt with the Athens2004 Olympics logo on it.

Samaras will be in Washington when Congress is not in session. Some have seen this, along with the fact he was not offered a working lunch with Obama, as a sign that his visit is of minor importance. The Greek premier, however, can take comfort in knowing that his arrival will be less of an inconvenience to the US President than the April 1961 visit of Constantine Karamanlis. The conservative leader was having lunch with John F Kennedy at the White House on the same day that the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was launched in Cuba.

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Europe and Asia to work together to fight piracy

Godollo, Hungary – Asian and European countries, including Greece, have agreed to cooperate more closely to tackle piracy off the coast of Somalia, which has been a particular problem for Greek-owned ships.

In a statement issued at the 10th Asia-Europe Foreign Ministers (ASEM) in Godollo, near Budapest in Hungary, the 48 members of ASEM described the frequent attacks on vessels in the Gulf of Aden as “a major security threat” to international maritime safety.

Piracy is estimated to cost shipping companies up to $12 billion a year, as insurance costs skyrocket.

While agreeing that a key to tackling the problem is to support, under the auspices of the United Nations, measures to establish law and order in Somalia and to encourage sustained economic development in the region, the ASEM partners, who comprise 60 percent of the world’s trade, agreed that they should work together to tackle the actual practice of piracy.

“Emphasis should be laid on the development of a long-term approach and on support for regional cooperation frameworks, including in the area of capacity-building through concrete activities such as information-sharing, training of officials and holding joint naval exercises as and when appropriate,” the ministers’ statement said.

The European Naval Force, Navfor, is currently patrolling the area but activity from gangs remains high. A Greek-owned freighter with 23 seamen on board was seized just last month. As of May, pirates in Somalia were thought to be holding more than 25 vessels. Over 400 sailors are currently being held hostage, the highest number since 2007.

Piracy has become a multi-million industry for the gangs, who demand large ransoms for the release of the vessels they seize.

In the most recent incident, Somali pirates released a Greek-owned, Cyprus-flagged ship for a reported ransom of $6 million. The MV Eagle, a 52,163-deadweight-ton merchant vessel and its crew of 24 Filipinos that was seized in January about 500 miles south-west of Oman, while it was en route to India from Jordan.

The theme of this year’s ASEM meeting, which concluded on Tuesday, was “non-traditional security challenges,” which energy security, climate change, growth and poverty reduction.

Nick Malkoutzis

The wrong battle

Illustration in linocut by Manos Symeonakis

“There is no Greek-German war,” government spokesman Giorgos Petalotis said last week. “Greece and Germany are not on collision course,” said Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas. All these statements can only mean one thing: Greece and Germany are very much at loggerheads. But their dispute is not just a bilateral squabble; at its heart it’s about divergent views on how to respond to the crisis threatening the euro and, beyond that, on the very purpose of the European Union.

The frantic attempts by the government to play down any rift between Athens and Berlin came after Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou decided on November 15 to dust himself off, stand on the ruins of the Greek economy and hit back at German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a rebellious passion. Speaking in Paris, Papandreou accused Merkel of driving up bond yields for weaker eurozone members by insisting that private investors should foot part of the bill for a permanent mechanism to support countries with failing economies, like Greece’s. “This could create a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Papandreou. “This could break backs, this could force some economies into bankruptcy.”

On the face of it, there seems little wrong with Merkel’s insistence that private bondholders should accept losses, or a “haircut,” on their investment as part of a debt crisis mechanism to be adopted by 2013. Most Europeans would accept that this would create a fairer system although, clearly, German taxpayers would benefit the most as they’re the ones who would be called on more often to bail out failing eurozone members. But the self-serving element to Merkel’s position is not what should be of most concern to Europeans. Instead, it’s the way Berlin has tried to steamroller other EU countries into accepting the inclusion of the “haircut” clause ahead of a decisive EU leaders summit in Brussels next month. It’s this lack of consultation and the absence of consideration for struggling eurozone members that is undermining the Union.

Papandreou argued that making such a big fuss about investors having to pay their share simply gave jumpy bondholders a seriously aggravated case of the jitters, pushing up the yields on government bonds for Ireland, Portugal and Spain to dangerous levels. Few EU leaders backed Papandreou openly but there is great concern about Germany’s stubbornness. “When the history of the eurozone is written, last month’s German-driven EU summit agreement to devise a crisis resolution mechanism for countries to service their debts may well be cited as the event that pushed Ireland over a cliff,” Bloxham, Ireland’s oldest stocbrockers, said last week, a few days before Dublin turned to the EU and the International Monetary Fund for emergency loans.

In Germany, though, there is a different view. “If Merkel were to abandon her plans, then it would be paradise for investors and weak governments,” wrote the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper last week. “The speculators could charge higher interests on Irish or Greek bonds without any risk of losses. And the Greeks could continue with their record indebtedness because they would have no more pressure from the financial markets and in an emergency would be rescued by their euro partners.” However, this ignores that when Greece tries to go back to the international bond markets in 2013, its borrowing costs will be pushed up anyway, as investors will be wary of having to take a haircut should Athens have to revert to the permanent EU mechanism for further loans.

The Greco-German dispute is symptomatic of the differing views emerging within the EU about how to combat the debt crisis. There is a tendency for the EU to speak with two voices and to pull in two different directions. “The euro, which was supposed to make European integration irreversible, could become its undertaker,” wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily last week. Every day the debt crisis gnaws away at the EU’s confidence, making the Union seem an exhausted shadow of its former sprightly self. This dissipation of energy and will is leading to division and, whether through bad luck or design, Merkel is at the forefront of creating ever-deeper rifts.

Speaking at a rally of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Karlsruhe on November 15, the same day that Papandreou challenged her scheme for private investors, Merkel said her predecessor as chancellor, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder and his Finance Minister Hans Eichel had blundered when they allowed Greece to join the eurozone. “In 2000, Schroeder and Eichel couldn’t let Greece join the euro fast enough and they ignored all the warnings,” she said. “It was a political decision… political decisions are important but those which ignore the facts are irresponsible.”

It’s now obvious that Greece was not ready in 2000 to stick to the single currency’s fiscal guidelines, as prescribed by Germany. It’s also clear that allowing Greece into the eurozone was a political decision — one aimed at giving the nascent single currency numerical, if not necessarily economic strength, but also the opportunity to encourage economic reform and German-style efficiency in a sluggish European state. A decade ago, it was a convenient political decision for Germany — Greece, after all, became another market in the eurozone for its exports — but now it’s a terrible inconvenience for Berlin. But that’s the thing about political decisions: You take a risk. Sometimes you ignore the facts because you have a conviction that something greater is at stake, even if the numbers don’t back you up.

Merkel might consider, for instance, that the Marshall Plan, which ensured Germany’s post-war reconstruction and helped it become the economic powerhouse it is today, was a political decision. The United States, which led the effort, could have decided that paying to help rebuild Germany did not make economic sense but Washington chose to look at the bigger picture — the opportunity to fight “hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos” as US Secretary of State George C. Marshall said when he unveiled his plan in June 1947. Using words that are eerily relevant to today’s Europe, Marshall said: “The United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” Peace in Europe is not under threat in 2010 but the EU’s faltering economic health is putting its unity at risk.

While leaders argue over bond yields, haircuts, bailouts, deficit and debt, one very important factor is being overlooked. As was the case in the Europe of 1947 before the Marshall Plan, it’s the people that are suffering. They are the ones that pay the cost of failed economic policies and soaring bond yields — people who have fulfilled the wishes of politicians and bankers by mortgaging their futures to buy houses and cars and who believed the euro would bring the permanent stability they were promised. This is why unity must be restored.

Somewhere between Papandreou’s rebelliousness and Merkel’s intransigence, we’ve forgotten that the EU and its institutions were created to improve people’s lives. Many of these people are now losing their jobs, homes and hope. That’s why, even though Greece and Germany may not be at war, their dispute is confirmation that Europe is fighting battle, but the wrong one.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on November 26, 2010.

Mission unaccomplished

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There have been many occasions during the Iraq War when the conflict has felt like a badly stage-managed show rather than a chaotic, bloody affair: from the sound and light display of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign of late March 2003, to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square the following month and George W. Bush landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 to declare “mission accomplished.”

There was another moment like this on August 19, when the 4th Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division, rolled over Iraq’s border with Kuwait to signal the end of US combat troops’ involvement in the war. Almost two weeks ahead of the deadline that President Barack Obama had set, American soldiers left the country they had invaded on March 20, 2003. In another piece of slick presentation work, Obama is due to deliver an address on August 31 from the White House, in which he will officially declare the USA’s participation in fighting in Iraq over.

Like the media-set pieces that went before it, though, Obama’s speech will ring hollow. At the same time that the President will be addressing the nation, there will still be about 50,000 US troops active in Iraq. Technically, they’re not “combat teams” but “advisory and assistance brigades.” But these soldiers will be accompanying Iraq troops on missions and if they come under fire from insurgents, I imagine the Americans will not hesitate to turn their “advice” on the enemy combatants and “assist” them to death.

Perhaps it’s fitting that a war born out of mendacity, falsehoods and exaggerations should be ushered into its closing stages – although clearly not its end – by half-truths and manipulation. Like his predecessor and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Obama, who is desperate for a public relations windfall, appears to be relegating the Iraq War to nothing more than a media spectacle. It also devalues his stance on ending US involvement in Iraq, making it seem a policy of convenience rather than an attempt to provide answers to the very profound and troubling questions posed by the conflict.

More than seven years after the first coalition troops moved in to find weapons of mass destruction and overthrow Hussein, the West – the countries that backed the war and those that opposed it – still desperately lacks self-knowledge. For all the flag waving on one side and the banner unfurling on the other, we are in a state of ambivalence about if or when it is right to use force. Apart from the deaths (between 97,000 and 106,000 civilians according to the Iraq Body Count website), the destruction and the geopolitical ramifications which have seen Iran and Turkey drawn into events, the Iraq War has had another devastating impact – it proved to be the moment when democratic politics broke down.

It failed on two accounts: firstly because Bush, Blair and several other leaders chose not to be straight with their electorates about an issue as important as going to war. This breakdown in the democratic process was compounded by the fact that, despite the attempts of their leaders to obfuscate, voters who knew they were being hustled still remained powerless to prevent the relentless march to war. Secondly, the right and the left both produced very shallow responses in the face of a complex situation. The neoconservative-led right claimed the moral high ground because it was supporting the ousting of a dictator and moves to bring democracy to not just a country but a whole region. The left felt it was superior because it was rejecting armed conflict as an option and drawing attention to possible ulterior motives for the conflict. To a small extent, both sides could claim to be right but in actual fact they were mostly wrong.

The moral bankruptcy of the neocons has long been proven. For all the bluster of bringing freedom to Iraq, it soon became obvious that there was no reconstruction plan to ensure its people were free to lead normal lives. For all the talk of wiping out “evil” with democracy, there was clearly never any intention of tackling dictators in other countries, such as Zimbabwe, or intervening to stop innocent people being slaughtered in places like Darfur.

The weakness of the left’s position took a bit more time to become evident but it’s clear now that it too has been guilty of treating the Iraq War as a zero-sum issue, when it’s actually a much more complex equation. Although the left clearly had plenty of fodder to support its argument against the war, it has not come up with a convincing alternative. As British journalist Nick Cohen wrote in “What’s Left?”, his 2007 critique of the antiwar movement: “They didn’t support fascism but they didn’t oppose it either. Their silence did not bode well for the future.”

Well, the future has arrived and the silence is still ringing in our ears. We have a Democratic president in the White House who appears to have no moral blueprint to guide him on US intervention around the world. We have European leaders who have plenty to say about fiscal deficits but nothing to say about democratic deficits. We have a feeble United Nations that seems unable to have an impact even in places where it has mustered up a presence – an investigation has been launched this week into how its troops missed the rape of 150 women and boys in the Democratic Republic of Congo when they were patrolling the area. In Greece, we have a prime minister who is a democratic idealist that wants to contribute to the Middle East peace process but is not willing to commit more than a few dozen troops to Afghanistan, where the specter of another brutal Taliban regime hangs over the country.

Iraq, many thought, was going to be the watershed moment for this generation, when beliefs would be honed and theories sharpened — but now that the dust is subsiding, it’s clear we’ve been left with only an ideological bomb crater. When lines were drawn over the invasion, it gave decision makers a chance to turn their backs on vital moral and political questions. More than seven years later, we have made no apparent progress in being clearer about when there is legitimate cause for intervention. In that sense, as well as others, Iraq has been a failure.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 27, 2010.

Opportunity or opportunism?

It’s never really been determined where the proverb “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” originated. In a way, it’s fitting we don’t know because it’s a philosophy that has been applied throughout time and across the world. Many people feel that Greece’s rapprochement with Israel over the past few weeks, culminating in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Athens this week, shows that this age-old proverb still has relevance today.

There is no doubt that relations between the two countries have come a long way in a very short period of time. It was only in the 1980s that Israel viewed Andreas Papandreou’s Greece as a rogue state that gave succor to Palestinian terrorism and Arab radicalism. Papandreou had aligned himself with the Arab world when many in his PASOK party felt that Greece should play a leading role in the Third World, creating a new force that could spring up between the communist East and capitalist West. He also believed that by currying favor with the Arabs, he could ensure their support in his dealings with Turkey and perhaps convince them to invest in Greece.

It is ironic that Papandreou’s son, George, should now attempt to follow a dramatically different course, one that runs between the Arabs and Israelis rather than veering to one side. Of course, he does so in an environment that is nothing like the one experienced by his father. There are no eastern and western blocs now: The pieces on the geopolitical chessboard are in constant movement. Also, Turkey is now the region’s big player – when it talks, the Arabs listen, not the other way round. And, as far as foreign investments go, the weak presence of Arab capital in Greece never seemed to merit sacrificing the country’s foreign policy. Attempting to lure the Chinese yuan rather than Arab petrodollars appears to offer far greater rewards.

So, in brutal, realpolitik terms, it seems to make perfect sense for Greece to upgrade its relations with Israel and continue a process of reconciliation that began tentatively in the 1990s. But, by reaching across to Israel, Papandreou runs counter to a strong anti-Israeli, and in some cases anti-Semitic, current in Greek society. Israel is still regarded with suspicion and anger by many Greeks who view the Palestinians as their spiritual kin. Israel’s decision at the end of May to board six ships, two of which were Greek, carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza – leading to nine activists being killed and 35 Greeks arrested and deported amid claims of abuse – fed rage among many Greeks about Israel’s role in the Middle East and rocked relations between Athens and Jerusalem.

So, many find Papandreou’s decision to warm to Israel rather shallow. They are convinced that Greece is only interested in playing its newfound friendship with Netanyahu’s government against Turkey, at a time when Ankara and Jerusalem, who for so long had a flourishing relationship, are failing to see eye-to-eye. There is little doubt that the breakdown in relations between Greece and Turkey has acted as a catalyst for Netanyahu and Papandreou, and that the dividing line between opportunity and opportunism is very thin indeed. However, anyone believing that Turkey would be overly concerned by Greeks and Israelis conducting joint air force exercises or working together to manage their water resources is fooling themselves. Turkey, which is seeking an ever more active role in Iraq and closer ties with Iran, is jostling for position at the bargaining table with the USA and the world’s other major powers, where Greece is far from the biggest chip in the pile.

Rather than a brave piece of triangular diplomacy, Greece’s approach to Israel should be seen as a common-sense move. At a time when so many aspects of international relations are in flux, especially in the broader region around Greece, and when the local economy is being tested like never before, it seems only logical that Athens should aim to have as many friends and as few enemies as possible.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and was published in Athens Plus on August 20, 2010.