The Geopolitics of Greece: «One cannot afford anymore to manage the Greek crisis without due consideration of its geopolitical consequences» — Thanos Dokos (ELIAMEP)

“Completely ignoring the geopolitical consequences of the Greek crisis is yet another symptom of the European foreign policy malaise. Europe is sliding into strategic insignificance, losing its global role and influence as it is becoming more and more introvert as a result of its own economic and political crisis,” say Thanos Dokos, General-Director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (Greek acronym: ELIAMEP), an independent, non-profit institute that does policy-oriented research and training, based in Athens. He suggests to the Eurogroup: “What is needed is a policy that goes beyond bean-counting and tackles the Greek problem in the context of the EU‘s regional and global role, not merely its economic policies.” The Greek specialista thinks “Greece could take advantage of its central position in the Balkans and also of its privileged relationship with countries such as Israel, Egypt, the Palestinians, Russia, Iran and China and try to play the role of a complementary bridge between those countries and the West.”

Thanos Dokos 3

Interview by Jorge Nascimento Rodrigues, February 15, Published February 16
A Portuguese edited version of this interview was published at Expresso newspaper in Portugal, at the daily digital edition of February 16 (only for subscribers).
© JNR, 2015

Short Bio: Thanos P. Dokos received his Ph.D. in International Relations from Cambridge University, UK, and has held research posts at the Hessische Stiftung Friedens und Konfliktforschung in Frankfurt, Germany (1989-90), and the Center for Science and International Affairs (CSIA) at Harvard University, USA (1990-91). He served as the Director for Research, Strategic Studies Division, Hellenic Ministry of National Defence (1996-98) and as an Advisor on NATO issues to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1998-1999) in the mandates of PM Costas Simitis from PASOK. He was a NATO research fellow for 1996-98. He has taught at the Universities of Athens and Piraeus, the Hellenic National Defense College, the Diplomatic Academy and the Hellenic National Security School.

Greece is still a geopolitical asset for the European Union, or Berlin and its allies do not give a cent for the geostrategical importance of this Aegean and East Mediterranean shatterbelt?
Given the extremely unstable and fluid situation in Europe’s periphery, including the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, the transformation of Libya into a failed state, and the confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, one would be justified to ask whether Europe, the U.S. and NATO could afford the creation of a security vacuum and a “black hole” in this critical region by allowing Greece to become another unstable factor in the area and a consumer rather than a producer of security. One should also underline Greece’s role as a ‘buffer country” in the
context of immigration, as well as the movement of jihadists, and its contribution to Europe’s energy security through the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, and its potential involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon exploitation and perhaps in the so-called “Turkish Stream”. Even if the EU could live with Greece’s economic collapse (although even that hypothesis is challenged by experts, not because of the size of the Greek economy but due to the highly symbolic, but also quite tangible damage to the Eurozone’s credibility), one should ask whether a country with Greece’s
geopolitical location (and military facilities) and its “special relationship” with countries such as Israel, Russia, China, much of the Arab world, and even Iran, would constitute an acceptable loss for an EU with any ambitions to play a meaningful global and regional role?

Between the two world wars, the gold standard was the dominant monetary system in Europe and the governments that followed religiously that rule were blinded by that orthodoxy forgetting its consequences in geopolitics. Brussels and the Eurogroup is repeating now the same mistakes and ignoring the geopolitical consequences of its acts regarding Greece?

Without underestimating Greece‘s own substantial responsibility, at the global level it was the EU‘s inability to successfully manage the crisis that has been perceived by competitors and friends alike as a signal of weakness and has hurt the image of the Union as an important strategic actor. Completely ignoring the geopolitical consequences of the Greek crisis is yet another symptom of the European foreign policy malaise. Europe is sliding into strategic insignificance, losing its global role and influence as it is becoming more and more introvert as a result of its own economic and political crisis. If one agrees that, yes ―it‘s the economy stupid!,― money makes the world go round and geo-economics are increasingly important BUT nevertheless geopolitics still matter, then one cannot afford anymore to manage the Greek crisis without due consideration of its geopolitical consequences.

A Grexit has now higher probability than in 2012 and the risk of a security vacuum in that part of Europe is also higher?

Although an “accident” is still possible, the possibility of a GREXIT is smaller today than in 2012. However, the regional security situation is much more complicated (especially in view of Ukraine and the Islamic State) and the geopolitical consequences of a GREXIT would be more severe.

What is your suggestion to the Eurogroup regarding Greece?

No one is seriously arguing for giving Greece another free lunch (and obviously no one would be willing to). Instead, the EU should be looking for a highly pragmatic policy which would be reasonably effective in achieving Europe‘s geopolitical and geo-economic objectives and promoting its interests. A policy seeking to support and engage a country in deep trouble is much more likely to succeed than policies intended to punish such a country, as students of German history may remember from the periods after the two World Wars. What is needed is a policy that goes beyond bean-counting and tackles the Greek problem in the context of the EU‘s regional and global role, not merely its economic policies. The onus would be, of course, mainly on Greece (who should implement a series of wide-reaching structural reforms), but also on its EU partners.

In the worst scenario of a Grexit, Athens can found alternative financing through the US, China and Russia?

Whereas the Greek government will try to strengthen relations with important countries like China and Russia, speculation about a shift of Greece’s geostrategic orientation is clearly unfounded. Similarly, Greece could not expect to find alternative funding sources outside Europe, as the US, Russia and China would be either unwilling or unable to provide sufficient financial assistance.

If Greece exit the Eurozone, Cyprus will follow? The eurozone will be expelled out of the East Mediterranean?

Despite the close links of the Greek and Cypriot economies, there is no reason why Cyprus should follow Greece in the unlikely case of a GREXIT. The geopolitical “departure” of the EU from the Eastern Mediterranean would be an additional reason preventing such a development.

Greece is the only member of the EU, NATO and Western European Union in the area of Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean. Do you think the United States and NATO can stay aside of what is going on in the Eurogroup regarding Greece?

Obviously the US (and Israel, with its strong influence in the US Congress) has a strong interest in developments both in Europe in general and in the Eastern Mediterranean in particular, as demonstrated by President Obama’s strong urging for a different policy mix in the context of the European economic crisis. A weakened Greece outside of the EU would not be in Washington’s interest.

Can Greece, with this new government, re-acquire diplomatic capital and be more proactive in the Balkans and the East Mediterranean?

Because of the economic crisis, foreign policy has not been an issue of high priority during the last five years. This should and could change. Greece could take advantage of its central position in the Balkans and also of its privileged relationship with countries such as Israel, Egypt, the Palestinians, Russia, Iran and China and try to play the role of a complementary bridge between those countries and the West.

It was reported that Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades announced that the country was ready to host Russian aviation and naval bases. The official agreement on military cooperation between the two nations is expected be signed on Feb. 25, according to Lenta.ru. Due the close relations between Greece and Cyprus what will be the consequence of this move?

This is not correct. Cyprus will provide some temprorary facilities to Russia but not any permanent military facilities. This is a red line that the current Cypriot government is not willing to cross.

Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of ANEL, the coalition small partner, visiting Cyprus, said recently the two countries, along with Israel and “possibly” Egypt would begin joint exercises within the coming months aimed at improving regional security. What is the importance of the “triangle” Greece-Cyprus-Israel in security and energy fields?

In the context of the strategic rapprochement between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, the key factor is energy cooperation. The relationship should be nurtured by all sides involved, who should try to build upon common interests, not perceived common adversaries. The latter would be a rather shaky ground for a strategic relationship. Athens and Nicosia should engage Tel-Aviv on a number of issue areas and proceed with enthusiasm, but also with caution as the whole region is undergoing a deep transformation and fluidity remains a key characteristic. The three countries are faced with a complex security equation that has a number of known variables but also multiple unknown ones. The regional security matrix involves a number of influential regional and extra-regional actors, with bilateral and multilateral relationships changing, shifting and evolving on an almost continuous basis, hence the need for caution and pragmatism.

If officialy confirmed, the first visit of PM Alexis Tsipras to a great power could be his travel to Beijing, after rumors of an invitation from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. In its global strategy China give great importance to strategic ports and energy. What do you expect from the relationship with China?

There is an element o continuity here with the policies of the previous Greek government of Mr Samaras. Regarding its relations with extra-regional powers, Greece is not in principle uncomfortable with a greater role for Russia and China in the region, provided their presence and activities fulfill the dual criteria of mutual economic benefits and of no destabilizing political consequences. China appears to consider Greece as a regional hub for increasing its economic (and perhaps in the future political) footprint in southeastern and central Europe and the current economic crisis cannot but increase the attractiveness of such a prospect for Athens. Chinese companies have invested in the Port of Piraeus, with a promise for additional investment and Greece is hardly in a position to discourage FDI of almost any legitimate origin. As long as China‘s Mediterranean presence remains basically economic and is not causing any friction with Greece‘s western partners, Athens will not be faced with difficult dilemmas.

How do you see the relationship between Greece and Russia? Can Athens have a role as a “bridge” between the EU and Russia, or the EU talks directly to Moscow and Greece is disposable?

In the case of Russia, there are historical ties as well as current common interests and the two countries have been exploring various schemes for energy cooperation (it should be noted that Greece is heavily dependent [approximately 57% of total imports] on Russia for its natural gas needs). Furthermore, Russia has always maintained excellent economic and political relations with Cyprus.The new Greek government, apparently willing to play a more energetic, constructive and moderating role in the context of the EU-Russia crisis, could play the role of a complementary bridge.

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