Writing in Sunday’s New York Times, Robert Kaplan writes one of those geopolitical big-think pieces capable of launching a thousand blog posts.Â He argues that Greece’s current predicament, and by extension that of Italy, Portugal, and Spain lies in its position on the Mediterranean and in the type of land in contrast to northwestern Europe which was less conducive to oligarchical land-owning patterns.Â Religion then formed a crucial overlay on geography —
It is not only the division between north and south that bedevils Europe. In the fourth century, the Roman Empire split into western and eastern halves, with dueling capitals at Rome and Constantinople. Romeâ€™s western empire gave way to Charlemagneâ€™s kingdom and the Vatican: Western Europe, that is. The eastern empire, Byzantium, was populated mainly by Greek-speaking Orthodox Christians, and then by Muslims after the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453.
Now if you’re into a philosophy of history that sees it all as tectonic plates of deeply-rooted influences, this will seem logical.Â And perhaps because Kaplan doesn’t want to sound like too much of pessimist, he ends on this note —
In a century that will likely see a resurgent Russia put pressure on Europe, especially on the former Soviet satellite states in the east, the state of politics in Athens will say much about the success or failure of the European project.Â The good news is that northern Europeans know this, and will not let Greece fail. Indeed, to let Greece drift politically eastward would forfeit any hope of a big and inclusive Europe â€” geographically, politically and culturally â€” in favor of a small and petty one, Charlemagneâ€™s empire pretending to be Rome.
Yet for all the attention he pays to Greece’s position between Roman, Orthodox and Islamic worlds, there’s one thing missing: the resultant political meddling by the associated powers of each world and the distortions it causes in domestic politics.Â Indeed, when it’s put in that light, Greece looks less unusual.Â If there’s one thing worse than being a small country in the orbit of a very big country, it’s being a small country in the orbit of two (or more) very big countries.Â Thus Europe has not just the Balkan complications that Kaplan knows well but a fault line right in the middle of what he sees as its Charlemagne core: Belgium needs yet another government this week.
In fact, for modern Greece, the Cold War context seems particularly important.Â The negotiations between Stalin and Churchill over Greece are fascinating reading, and if you make your benchmark the fate of countries that were viewed as pawns on the Cold War chessboard, then Greece’s economic performance looks a lot better (think Africa, Middle East, and Latin America).
Anyway, this alternative approach makes one less optimistic about Greece’s bailout prospects.Â Kaplan is essentially saying that Europe will sort out it because it has to.Â But the people who actually live in Greece might see just another iteration of outside powers deciding what’s good for them and picking their horses accordingly.Â Whatever is proposed in the debt package will need to be Î±á½Ï„ÏŒÏ‡Î¸Ï‰Î½.