Greece’s relationship with the rest of the world is something of a see-saw oscillation between self-absorption and extroversion, between navel-gazing and punching above its weight in the international arena. On the one hand, this is the result of the intense local politics in which all Greeks are involved and, on the other, of the demands placed on the country by its responsibilities as a member of international organizations. Greece’s current presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), like its presidency of the European Union in the first half of 2003, is purely the result of chance. The fact that the country finds itself handling major crises during these rotating presidencies is merely a consequence of these chance developments. And Greece rises to the challenge, just as it did when – after tough lobbying – it gained a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.
The lead-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was perhaps the most difficult time that the EU had faced. The Community was divided between countries opposing the invasion – including Germany and France – and those that threw their weight behind the United States – mainly Britain, Spain and former Eastern bloc countries. At one point this seemed to be leading to a permanent rift. Greece’s presidency, under Prime Minister Costas Simitis, rose to the challenge of trying to gain at least some consensus between all EU members. The invasion of Iraq went ahead anyhow and the European Union did not split – and Athens had played a part in papering over the worst cracks.
Now Greece finds itself in the middle of the standoff between Russia and most other members of the organization over the OSCE monitoring force in Georgia. The monitors have been there for the last 16 years but Russia refuses to allow them to extend their mandate, which expires on June 30, following the war between Russia and Georgia over the disputed region of South Ossetia last August. (Russia is also vetoing plans to extend the mission of UN monitors in Abkhazia, another disputed territory). Athens, expressing the wishes of most OSCE members, has pushed for the mandate’s renewal, drawing an angry response from Russia. In recent years, Athens and Moscow had strengthened ties, with Vladimir Putin and Costas Karamanlis exchanging several visits, mainly to discuss cooperation in the energy sector. The United States – Greece’s major ally – has expressed reservations about Greece’s growing dependence on Russian gas, which Athens denies. However, closer ties with Russia do not seem to have helped Athens push Moscow to a compromise over the OSCE mission (unless we are pleasantly surprised at this weekend’s meeting on Corfu).
Greece made a point of staying out of Iraq, arguing that the invasion and occupation did not have the UN’s blessing. But it has lived up to its obligations in other missions, with contributions to peacekeeping and monitoring efforts in many countries. Close to 2,000 members of the Hellenic Armed Forces are serving on missions organized by NATO, the EU, the UN and the OSCE on three continents. These include 639 officers and troops in Kosovo, officers and medical staff in Afghanistan and a turn leading the EU’s naval force fighting pirates off the Horn of Africa. Greeks are also involved in missions in Albania, Bosnia, Lebanon, Georgia, Sudan and Western Sahara.
Whether in diplomacy, peacekeeping or nation-building, Greece has repeatedly shown that it can play an important role, with its diplomats and troops showing skill and empathy in winning the affections of the local population or managing to achieve political compromise. Such successes receive very little news coverage at home because the Greeks remain fixed on their domestic problems. But only when we have the self-confidence that comes from being citizens of the world will we have the inspiration and determination to tackle our domestic and foreign policy problems seriously. It is only when Greeks feel at home in the world that they feel the need to make their own country better.