Hades and the Hegemon: Greeks face up to elections in the US

Today openDemocracy launches a special global feature: How do the 2012 US elections look from here? And we launch it in Greece, Europe’s cradle of democracy and twenty-first century scandal for democracy worldwide.

Given the worsening economic conditions and the increase in support for the fascist right, forthcoming elections in the US are not of central concern to most Greeks. “It's just not important” was the comment of a Marxist friend when asked over lunch. This is in itself a remarkable change.

Liberty bound? Greeks viewing the US for the first time, from Elia Kazan's “America, America”Liberty bound? Greeks viewing the US for the first time, from Elia Kazan's “America, America”

Gone are the days when all power revolved around the ‘proconsul’, as the permanent representative of the ‘hyperpower’ was known from the Civil War until just over a decade ago. The 1980s and 1990s when a central goal of Greek foreign policy was the preservation of the 7:10 ratio vis-a-vis Turkey in US military aid have been eclipsed by more immediate economic concerns. ‘Junta’ is now scrawled on walls and bandied about in blogs and the media not as a reference to 1967-1974, but as a parallel to contemporary Greece. The US role behind the facade of democratically elected governments in the post-war period, and in support of the 1967-1974 dictatorship, is recalled for the most part in historical seminars and among groups of increasingly greying left-wingers. For the latter, still yeah-yeahing ballads from the Vietnam era, the US remains the paradigm of imperialist capitalism; Greece's executioner, however, speaks with a Teutonic drawl. 

Despite this sea-change, it would be absurd to conclude that the US elections are irrelevant. The US is the major shareholder in the IMF and so exercises considerable influence over one of the three parties to the ‘troika’ overseeing the Greek budget. The US administration has also been a voice for looser fiscal and monetary policies on a global level. With regard to Greece, Barack Obama has pressed Angela Merkel publicly to prevent a Greek default and exit from the Eurozone. “It would be disastrous for us to see an uncontrolled spiral and default in Europe because that could trigger a whole range of other events” he argued in June 2011. Mitt Romney's emphasis on the paramount importance of budgetary discipline is viewed as closer to policies being pursued by Britain and Germany. As it is only through looser fiscal and monetary policies elsewhere that Greece can hope to export (and with regard to tourism, import) its way out of depression, such policies, and any influence Obama may have on European governments, is appreciated.

By some. Others have been critical of US ‘assistance’, arguing that Greece would have been better off defaulting on its debts and that it is being used as a scapegoat for faults intrinsic to the design of the Eurozone. Conspiracy theorists profess Obama's interventions will not last beyond November 6. In the US itself, Greece has been called “the real swing state” determining the outcome of the election; making the most of a novel allegory for Hell, Romney accused the President of leading America down “the road to Greece”.

Events in the Middle East also reveal the ongoing relevance of US policy in a region abutting Greece. A decade ago, I taught immigrants in a rundown part of Athens; these were mainly Albanian, though they also included a number of young people from the Caucasus and also Iraqis fleeing wars in their homelands. Afghanis arrived later. The current tide is increasingly Syrians seeking refuge from civil war. Even if substantial extra aid is provided by third parties, they will not find Greece welcoming. Unless the EU changes its policies with regard to the granting of asylum, refugees will end up trapped in a no-man's-land of destitution and violence. In this context, turmoil in the Middle East is viewed with consternation in Greece. Romney's proposal to arm the Syrian opposition while ignoring the consequences of an eventual Sunni victory for Syria's minorities (Syria's Christian minorities being a particular concern for many Greeks) has been likened to the EU policies that contributed to the break up of the former Yugoslavia without sufficient thought having been given to the consequences for minorities in each of the new states. “A balanced approach is required” Themos Stoforopoulos, former Greek Ambassador to Syria, who has been a voice in the press against the “neo-Ottomanisation” of the wider region, claims. “Assad is a brutal dictator, but the West needs to consider what a complete victory of either one or the other side would mean. Funneling arms into Syria, and a blinkered one-sided approach, are proving, once again, a catalyst for wider suffering in the region as a whole”.[1] The violence is already spilling over into neighbouring Lebanon. There is no need to comment on the anticipated consequences of war with Iran.

One of the repercussions of the cooling relationship between Turkey and Israel has been an increase in Greek-Israeli cooperation. This has proved useful both to the Israeli and Greek governments. It has resulted in a much needed increase in Israeli tourism to Greece in 2012, Greece importing Israeli tear-gas (purportedly at below market prices), and military cooperation. In a reversal of its previously pro-Palestinian stance, George Papandreou's government prevented a flotilla from sailing from Greek waters to the Gaza strip. And in an unparalleled move, Greece's current Prime Minister Antonis Samaras travelled to Israel shortly before the 2012 Greek elections.

Useful allies and old enemies

Alexandros Philon, formerly Greek Ambassador to the US, has been working to improve Greek-Israeli relations for more than a decade. Efforts have largely focused on encouraging the teaching of the Holocaust in schools, including training conferences in Greece and Israel. “We have many interests with the Arab world, but also with Israel,” he explains. “Both Greeks and Israelis have much to gain from this relationship, in particular we can work together in the fields of high-end technology, energy and tourism”.[2] This change of stance has done wonders for Greece's position in Washington. There is an increasing realisation in foreign policy circles that though anchored to the EU and NATO, Greece can strengthen its hand through selective cooperation with other powers such as Israel, Russia, China and, of course, the US. A Romney victory may even increase Greece's importance as regional support for an increasingly isolated Israel. Still, it is hard to envisage this budding alliance surviving should the opposition SYRIZA, with its pro-Palestinian human rights agenda, gain power. And it is even harder to avoid the impression that the Greek foreign policy consensus lives in terror of what the Greek people might do next.

Barack Obama's close relationship with the Turkish Prime-Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been noted by Greek commentators. This has not however prevented the Obama administration from pressing a number of issues that concern Greeks, and particularly the Greek diaspora. Thus Obama extracted a promise from Erdogan that the Hakli Seminary on an island near Istanbul would be reopened in the immediate future, a promise which has not thus far been implemented. Vice-President Joe Biden(opoulos) is reported to have a close relationship with Greeks in the US. Greece's relationship with Turkey is in any case in a state of flux, with Turkish soap-operas and dramas being repeatedly shown prime-time on Greek television to public (if not always critical) acclaim. Tourism and economic exchanges have markedly increased in recent years, though there is some scoffing at the ease with which the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutuglu abandoned his professed policy of “zero problems with neighbours”. One such difference involves Cypriot drilling for gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has been called “a game changer” for both Israel and Cyprus. As long as the Cyprus issue remains unresolved, and until Turkish troops withdraw from the island, however, closer ties between the US and Turkey will continue to be viewed with suspicion. 

Greeks of my generation grew up with their fears and dreams largely framed in terms of the United States. Theo Angelopoulos shot American soldiers dancing with their Greek girls on the waterfront. Until just a few years ago, the focal point of all demonstrations was the square named after the nineteenth century translator and liberal statesman, Lorenzos Mavilis, site of the US Embassy in Athens. Greek-American politicians such as Paul Sarbanes, Olympia Snowe and (needless to say) Mike Dukakis were household names. Nixon's reprobate Vice-President Spiro Agnew was vilified for his support of the Junta. It is with a touch of nostalgia that the (greying) poet Aggelos Kalogeropoulos conjures up tunes of Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana, tunes hummed by refugee's sons in the shanty-towns of old Pireus. “There was a house in New Orleans / called the house of the rising sun / they sang it in Perissos /  […] and the Communists would come down and shout / and say that the Americans should go”.[3] There should be no nostalgia for American hegemony, of course. Just a goodbye to an era that seems to be passing.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.


[1]          Telephone interview for this article, October 19 2012.

[2]          Telephone interview for this article, October 19 2012.

[3]          In Greek the verse reads: “Ὑπῆρχε ἕνα σπίτι στὴ Νέα Ὀρλεάνη / Τὸ λέγανε τὸ σπίτι τοῦ ἀνατέλλοντος ἡλίου / Τὸ τραγουδούσανε στὸν Περισσὸ / -λὰ μινόρε, ρὲ ματζόρε, ἁρπίσματα- / […] Κι ἔβγαιναν οἱ κομμουνιστὲς καὶ φώναζαν / Νὰ φύγουν ἔλεγαν οἱ  Ἀμερικάνοι”. From “Water” by Aggelos Kalogeropoulos in “Ἔτσι εἶναι”, Aρμός.

About the author

Iannis Carras is an economic and social historian of the 18th century Balkan and Russian worlds. He is active in Greek NGOs and has been a parliamentary candidate in the Athens region for the Greek Green Party.

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