American-Greek relations at odds

Dr. George Voskopoulos
June 01, 2008

The US and Greece have been strategic allies ever since the end of the Second World War. Greece became a NATO member in 1952 thus cementing the alliance´s south-east European flank against the Warsaw Pact. In this way the leaders of the country hoped to strengthen democracy and assist development in the only country that prac-ticed free market in the region.

During the Cold War years the Atlantic Alliance provided a reliable casus foederis against non-alliance members, a fact that left out of this collective security mecha-nism the biggest military threat the country faced. Still Greek governments supported alliance policies vis-à-vis neighboring countries and refrained from upsetting its cohe-sion and its overall effectiveness in dealing with Soviet expansion. This explains Greek subtle policy vis-à-vis non-aligned Yugoslavia and Tito´s expansionist dreams.

However, today the picture of bilateral relations looks rather gloomy. One of the causes of the rift is the Greece-FYROM dispute over the latter´s constitutional name. At the end of the Cold War the issue originally appeared to be a technicality, yet it proved to be more than that.

Under the circumstances FYROM is treated as a de facto and de jure ally and Greece as alliance outcast. All of a sudden the US appears willing to overlay the essentials that brought the two countries together. They give Athens wrong signals and adopt an inconceivable policy that affects bilateral relations. The prerequisites of turning American-Greek relations into a meaningful strategic partnership again are simple. Most of them apply to every single partnership built on consensus not coercion. Even-tually going back to the basics will assist the revitalization of this strategic partnership and trigger the so needed by both sides understanding of the issue at hand.

The first refers to the US being able to acknowledge the vital interest of a local part-ner who faces multidimensional hostile activities by a neighboring state wishing to join the Atlantic Alliance. Vital interests are defined in terms of threats, their percep-tion and intensity and the degree they affect the survival of a country. Eventually they may turn into non-negotiable national interests and lead to a dead end.

In the so called “Macedonian dispute” [1] Greece has made every single effort to meet the other side half way. It is obvious that the Greek political elite is ready to accept a name with a geographical definition that leaves no space for further misunderstand-ing. Greece has taken a step back in its rhetoric and policy with a view to enhancing stability in the region.

However the other side refuses to adopt a name that clearly distinguishes it form the Greek province Macedonia. Constructivism may be a useful, at times, approach to international relations, yet, it runs the risk of over-extending into relativism, thus making any claim, whether sustainable or not, appear attractive or noble. Eventually it dramatically blurs the dividing line between facts and beliefs, something American officials should comprehend.

The semantics of Skopje rejecting the covertly implied by the Greek government solu-tion enhances suspiciousness in Athens and eventually reveals the real motives behind Macedonianism, a state ideology built on Great Idea inspirations. These are external-ized in the form of a demand, a historical duty on the part of Slav-Macedonians and especially the Diaspora to unite geographical Macedonia. A part of this strategy in-cludes “liberation” of Greek Macedonia. A less informed or misinformed reader would probably think that there used to be a united country dismembered by neighboring states. Yet, the truth is different. What we know is that “the region of Macedonia, inhabited by Slavs from the fifth century, was never able to have its own independent state” [2]. Still even if history had proven an unfortunate experience for our neighbors they would not be liable to advance irredentism as a means of purging it. This would certainly give many in the region the right to start claiming possessions of the past. It would probably give me and another 1.200.000 Greeks forced out of Asia Minor the right to claim our property. This is not the case and we should all ac-knowledge certain facts of history, politics and reality.

Second, the issue at hand is not related to race purity or historical accuracy but secu-rity. The concept affects not only inter-state relations but national psychology. After all, the feeling of security bears a strong psychological aspect. This makes the in-volvement of the Atlantic Alliance imperative on the basis of its being a collective security mechanism. Once an ally faces hostile propaganda and overt irredentist claims NATO should be in a position to intervene and protect existing non prospec-tive members. It is a matter of priorities stemming from alliance commitments not vague ideological stances. Providing stability is what gives NATO its raison d´ être and makes it a meaningful (or meaningless?) alliance.

Washington´s support to a revisionist state constitutes today´s paradox with American policy in the issue. The US joins lines with extremists in FYROM and supports the weakest but aggressive party, a non-NATO member not a strategic ally that has de-fended the territorial status quo and served the alliance´s interests ever since 1952. Greece is the only NATO member and EU country that still faces military and non-military threats. It is the only NATO member whose security has been solely con-structed on the realist concept of self-help.

A substantial number of US senators have acknowledged that Greek worries are not imaginary and do not constitute a side-effect of national psychosis. Actually this could not have been the case since there are tangible facts that turn FYROM into the odd man in the Balkans. It also exposes the inability of the political establishment in Skopje to define real enemies as illustrated by the 2001 crisis.

What is disappointing with US policy is its easiness to dismiss Greek security consid-erations, at least on the practical level, since in terms of rhetoric the State Department is more careful. What we have seen so far is a policy of punishing a NATO ally for defending territorial status and regional stability, a policy that means to consistently provoke Athens through the use of the term Macedonia, a policy of supporting all those inside and outside the country that wish to destabilize the political system.

It is fully understood that America´s strategic priorities vary from balancing short-term needs and long-term interests in a region prone to Russian influence. Yet, long- term allies and their interests cannot vanish into thin air. They have been there to sup-port what used to be the West and they will be there in times of need. Supporting a country that has just discovered the merits of Atlanticism (this is what I call opportun-istic Atlanticism) gives merit to those – like me – who suggest that NATO has lost its collective security meaning, a debate inaugurated in the early 1990s after the demise of the Soviet Union.

US policy during the last years has been a challenge to foes and allies since it has lost its “persuasive credibility”, arbitrariness and ability to see the obvious. It has led allies to question NATO´s scope, its utility and above all its ability to impose norms of in-ternational behaviour based on rigid, uncompromised principles and values. Above all it lacks the ability to devise policies formulated outside the current militarily and power-imposed ethos.

In 2005 T.K. Vogel and Eric A. Witte, senior fellows of the Democratization Policy Council, commented on the gap between American policies and rhetoric suggesting that “grand rhetoric about democracy and freedom only resonates when it is supported by actual policy”. [3] In the same way American policies cannot bear multidimen-sional semantics that can be interpreted in many contending ways. It has to be clear at least vis-à-vis allies such as Greece.

One of the greatest challenges leaders and simple individuals have always faced is to cope with power and how to put it in good use. Whether a university professor or the leader of a superpower one needs internal balancing mechanisms to reconciliate needs, values, prerogatives and commitments. In the case of an alliance priorities should be formed on the basis of the needs of those inside and the advertised ethical basis of American active involvement in world politics. It takes at least two to have least two to go to war and at least two to form an alliance.

1] The term “Macedonian issue” is rather inaccurate, since “the Macedonians of to-day are not, as many in the West think, descendants of the long vanished Macedoni-ans of Alexander the Great. They are Slavs, who speak a language related to the Serbo-Croatian and the Bulgarian. Together with other Slavs, they came from the Russo-Polish-Ukrainian plains at the end of the Great Migrations, in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. and settled in the mountainous Balkan land then ruled by the Byzantine emperor. All the Slav tribes that almost fourteen hundred years ago had established in the Byzantine provinces known of old as Macedonia in the second half of the nineteenth century began to use the name of that province as their own national appellation”. See Stoyan Pribichevich, Macedonia, its people and history, The Penn-sylvania State University Press, University Park, 1982, p. 2

2] Stephane Lefebvre, “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM): Where to?”, European Security, vol. 3, n. 4, winter 1994, p. 711.

3] “America should ditch its tyrant friends”, International Herald Tribune, August 15, 2005.

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