Syria and the West

As the US prepares to launch an attack in Syria, against the Assad regime which allegedly used chemical weapons against its own citizens, the debate has focused mostly on tactics and ethics rather than strategy. The British parliament decided against joining the Americans principally on the, rather sensible and practical, grounds that an air strike would be of little consequence and sending ground troops to Syria is out of the question. Critics of air strikes over the use of sarin point to the fact that the West has stood virtually idle as over 100,000 people have died during the Syrian civil war. Skeptics of assorted ideological persuasion underline the divisions within the Syrian resistance camp whilst warning that air strikes will empower extremist Sunni elements, i.e. the same kind of people who threaten the West with terrorism. Almost everyone (in the West) is tired of meddling in muslim Middle East. The record of disastrous interventions in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan is too fresh and too vivid to be forgotten. And yet the US administration is poised for an attack. Why?

The main argument of the Obama administration is that the West cannot sit idle while there is extensive use of chemical weapons.  But this is a tactical argument; it implies that the West has a role as the watchman of the world. This is the implicit idea behind the current debate. It is this very idea that needs to be understood and addressed.

A beautiful, Byzantine-style, rendering of Saladin, the hero of Syria and of the Arabs.

A beautiful, Byzantine-style, rendering of Saladin, the hero of Syria and of the Arabs.

But let me say a few words about Syria first. I travelled there extensively in the 1990s, when the world was a different place. The memory of the Hama massacre was still fresh then, and the hold of the regime on the populace absolute. And yet I could see, very clearly, a new generation which was more educated, and more informed about world affairs, feeling uneasy with the status quo. As the years went by I had the opportunity to travel to many other Arab countries, where I saw the same thing: the tectonic forces that would bring about the “Arab Spring” gathered momentum as young people with access to the Internet felt deprived and oppressed under outdated, Cold War era, regimes.

When the revolution started in Tunisia, it spread like wildfire. But instead of those youngsters claiming a new future, the past caught up with them. Divisions forcefully pacified by the Ottomans and, later, by western imperialist powers and nationalist regimes, resurfaced with a vengeance. The Arab world is nowadays torn by the unfinished war between Sunni and Shia; it will not find peace until this war comes to an end. Not unlike the religious wars of Christendom the Muslim religious wars will be bloody and protracted.

The Empire of Saladin.

The Empire of Saladin.

It is a historical coincidence that the United States found themselves with a vast conventional army as the Cold War ended, and with presidents under the ideological influence of neo-conservatism. The demise of the Soviet Union gave the impression of the “end of history”. To the victor the spoils: international institutions are dominated by the West and built on western values and ideals. To many ideologues in the West, the West is therefore the keeper, the watchman, the policeman of the world. It is this self-appointed “manifest destiny” that gives West the “right” to intervene and “punish” whoever breaks its “laws”.

I am of the West too. I am shocked and horrified by what goes on in Syria, as I was about what went on in the Balkans during the Yugoslavia partition wars. But I am afraid that the Syrian conflict will be the final curtain of western supremacy. The fact that the United Kingdom will not follow the US on this adventure is not a hiccup. Equally, when Obama asks Congress for approval for the attack (thereby relinquishing the presidential prerogative for taking military action) is not out of democratic politeness, as he claims. Both are historical signs of exhaustion. Signs that the governing elites of the West feel that they can no longer drag their unwilling populace into the high pastures of global glory and leadership.  No matter what happens after the congressional vote (which most likely will support the President’s demand) the all-mighty West appears to have lost its will to fight.

Greece and Europe: a troubled relationship

On March 25th 2013 I was invited at the Catholic University of Lille to give a lecture on Greece and Europe (see my slides above). My lecture explored some of the ideas in my Washington Post article.

March 25th is Greece’s National Holiday commemorating the Uprising against the Ottoman Empire in 1821. My talk attempted to provide a historical insight to the lack of trust between Greece and Europe. This lack of trust has become evident during the crisis. It plays very strongly nowadays in the Cyprus crisis. Since 2009 German media, and German voters, subscribed to the narrative of Greeks being untrustworthy, liars, lazy, embezzlers of other people’s money, etc.; and that they should be punished. Greek media, and Greek voters, adopted an equally hostile stance against their German “saviors” by portraying Chancellor Merkel as a female impersonation of Hitler and claiming that Greece is under a new German Occupation. This decoherence persists five years later and getting worse. Why?

In my talk I tried to give a historical perspective to this uneasy relationship between Greece and the West. It is often that the actions of people and nations are conditioned by cultural stereotypes. Indeed in times of crisis, when rational thinking and analysis is in short supply, automatic behaviour takes over. The engine of automatic behaviour is heuristics based on stereotypes. Cooler minds wishful to understand what is really going on, are advised to analyse the roots and source of stereotypes. And that was the objective of my talk.

My talk began by introducing three persons whom I consider important in the different ways that Greeks and Europeans regards each other: East Roman Emperor Alexius I Comnenus, German historian Jakob Philliipp Fallmerayer, and English naturalist Charles Darwin.

I went on explaining the idea of “Hellenism” in archaic and classical Greece; i.e. the idea of a cultural unity of people sharing the same language, religion and customs – and explained how it resembled the modern idea of “nation” but also differed, since for ancient Greeks it made no sense to have a “nation-state”. Greek city-states had a long tradition of fighting with each other.

Alexander changed that by uniting the Greeks and invading the Persian Empire. The result of his expedition was that Hellenism transformed from an exclusive to an inclusive idea: the Near East adopted the Greek language as lingua franca. The Hellenistic era was also responsible for geographically (re)positioning, and lodging, “Hellenism” from the Aegean and “Europe” (Southern Italy and Sicily were as Greek as Asia Minor and Greece proper) in the Near and Middle East and thus away from the West. (Interestingly, Alexander’s next military goal was to attack Rome and expand to the West, but he died before embarking on that plan).

Then came the Romans. In the centuries starting from the sacking of Corinth in 146 BC leading to the closure of the Athens Academy and the cessation of Olympic Games, and all the way to the reign of Emperor Heraclius, Hellenism gradually (and sometime violently) dies. The Eastern Roman Empire becomes a place of Greek-speaking Romans worshiping the One God Jesus. Inhabitants,  rulers and ruled, consider themselves to live in God’s kingdom upon Earth. As the Western Roman Empire is run over by Goths and other barbarians, the Eastern Romans feel that they are the only true descendants of Rome.

The Greek-speaking Roman Emperors of Constantinople get their first great shock that something has changed in the “barbaric” West when Charlemagne becomes Roman Emperor in 800AD. From this point on the Latin-speaking West is seen as an adversary by the Greek-speaking East. Things become progressively worse with Otto the Great’s coronation in 962 AD and arrive at an open, ideological, conflict with the Great Schism of 1054 AD. And then, only a few years later during the reign of Alexius I Comnenus, the First Crusade arrives in the East…

Alexius I Comnenus was the man who convinced the West that “Greeks” were not to be trusted when he failed to support the crusaders during the siege of Antioch. This was not due to Alexius being untrustworthy but because of the different world views between him and his western allies. For Alexius what was important was the integrity of his kingdom; this took precedence before supporting his Christian allies.

Interestingly, by then the West used to call the Eastern Romans “Greeks” not only because of their language but because westerners wanted to diminish easterners; by calling them “Greeks” they suggested that they were not “real Romans”, and not “real Christians”. Alexius’s daughter the historian Anna Comnena, accepted the characterization and turned it on its head: the Eastern Romans were indeed “Greeks”! “Hellenes”! The descendants of ancient Hellenes! Thus Anna, to counteract the rising military and political power of the West rediscovered Hellenism. The “Greeks” of Constantinople, as the Hellenes who founded civilisation, were now once again “superior” to the western barbarians. If there was any love left between East and West it was lost completely in 1204 AD when the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and replaced the Greek-speaking monarchy with a Flemish one.

The Greeks reoccupied Constantinople and the Empire survived for a little while longer, till the arrival of the Ottomans in 1453. For the next four hundred years the Ottomans provided a safe haven of the crystallization of Hellenism as the dominant idea of Greek-speaking people within the Ottoman Empire. The antagonism between Greeks and western Europeans was thus further attenuated.

In 1821 Greeks fought for independence and in 1830 a Greek State was created in southern Greece. But who were these “new Greeks” that inhabited it? And how close were they to the ancient Greeks?

The dominant ideology in Europe at the time was race-based, and so the German historian Fallmerayer claimed that the new Greeks were in fact Slavs, Vlachs and Albanians. To oppose this idea Greece developed its national narrative based on race (“genos”); the narrative was institutionalized by the historian Paparigopoulos and persist to this date as the official history that Greek children learn at their school; i.e. that modern Greeks are direct, biological, descendants of ancient Greeks. This narrative is nationalistic, racist and unscientific – as shown by Charles Darwin and proven by evolutionary biology. Not surprisingly, Darwin is only taught at Greek schools as a “selective subject”, and even at Greek Universities biology students learn about evolution in their final year! I therefore consider Darwin important, indeed vitally important to this narrative decoherence, by his omission!

The racist, unscientific, historical narrative of Greece legitimizes the ideology of far-right party Golden Dawn and wins them popular support from Greeks who were taught exactly those things at school. It underpins the rhetoric of every other political force in Greece (excluding libertarians) who views Greece as a “victim” and  “under occupation”. For most Greeks who suffer a brutal recession “Europe” is once again the un-Christian (i.e. protestant, catholic) barbarian who wants to destroy Greece because of envy.

There can be no relationship of trust between Greece and Europe unless we all understand our history, and our biology, better.

Eurozone’s endgame: why Germany will have to ultimately ditch the euro

In 1999, when the euro was created, Milton Friedman famously predicted its demise within the next ten years. It seems that he was wrong only by three years, for everything points to the Eurozone’s dissolution in the coming fall 2012.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the crisis: Greece, the weakest link in the Eurozone, was the first to give way in 2009. The sheer size of the national debt made it obvious to every analyst then that Greece was destined to default. The only reason it (barely) survives to this date was because the Germans had to (a) save their banks who were exposed to Greece’s debt and, more importantly (b) to take time in order to decide what to do with the Eurozone.

The Germans understand very well the historic role of their country in Europe, and their obligation to preserve the European Union. Their dilemma since the beginning of the Greek crisis has been whether to preserve the Eurozone as well. It is precisely this dilemma that makes them appear “indecisive”.

It seems that, at least back in 2009 and till recently, they honestly tried to save the Eurozone. They “punished” the Greeks hoping that the terrible plight of the “profligate” Greeks would send a strong message of confidence to the markets, as well as to the rest of the southern peoples to whom, sooner or later, the same bitter medicine was going to be administered.

The markets were not impressed. Spain and Italy, although they were amply terrified in accepting the German plan for the preservation of the Eurozone, find themselves today on the brink of disaster. Greece’s problem, because it was systemic and had to do with the structure of the Eurozone (the obvious weakness that was so obvious to Friedman and many others), spread contagiously to all the other Eurozone economies that the markets deem uncompetitive. Until the latest eurosummit Germans seemed to command the field and enforce their terms.

But in the latest Eurosummit something obviously changed. The German plan for preserving the Eurozone, based on austerity and rapid internal devaluation, was deemed a failure. The Spaniards and the Italians, fully aware that they had now entered the spiral of death, “revolted”.

Germany must now face this internal revolt by deciding if it will go ahead with a federalization of the Eurozone or not. I believe it has already decided the latter, and here is why.

The federalization of the Eurozone sets two insurmountable problems for the Germans. The first is fiscal: the German taxpayers must take up the colossal cost of bailing out Italy and Spain. The second problem is historical and political: the Germans believe, correctly, that the European Union is more important than the Eurozone. If they proceeded with the federalization of the Eurozone they would create enormous issues of democratic legitimization in the northern countries, since it would mean that the northern taxpayers would have to forever transfer part of their taxes to the support of the southern states. Additionally, the federalization of the Eurozone would marginalize countries that are not members. In other words a federal Eurozone would mean the end of the European Union. The British understand that very well, and have said so in many ways.

If one follows carefully the rhetoric of the German chancellor and her cabinet after the latest Eurosummit, it is rather obvious that the Germans have taken the only logical decision they could take: to abandon the euro in the coming fall.

Germany abandoning the euro would give breathing space to the economies of the south since it will mean the considerable devaluation of the euro. Germany has enough power to manage effectively the reintroduction of the mark, which will probably happen in stages.

A cheaper euro does not guarantee by itself the rescue of the European south, nevertheless it will give time to governments to enact the necessary reforms, while creating a better investment environment. The southern states, following Germany’s departure (and possibly a few other German satellite states), will have the time to decide whether to keep the devalued euro or return to their national currencies. I believe that ultimately they will opt for the latter; the transition being far smoother in conditions of a devalued euro. Quite possibly the euro may be preserved as a “second” currency to facilitate trade and travel in the EU.

George Soros recently gave Eurozone till fall to take the right decisions for its preservation. If these decisions are not taken then the desperate peoples of the south and the angry people of the north, together with the markets, will decide instead of the governments and the result will be the catastrophic defaults of Greece, Portugal and Spain followed by the collapse of the Eurozone. I believe the Germans will not let this happen and that they will thus leave the euro in good time.