The Geopolitics of the Greek Financial Crisis

29 July 2015


Draghi and Padoan

If the Greek financial crisis were merely a financial crisis, i.e., a financial crisis and nothing else, it would be much less of a crisis than it appears to be today. Many commentators have remarked that Greek GDP represents only a very small portion of the total Eurozone economy, so that the amount of agony expended on the Greek problem is far out of proportion to the size of the problem. But the Greek financial crisis is not merely a financial crisis, it is also a political crisis, and it is a political crisis on many different levels. In so far as the Greek financial crisis is a political crisis, the financial crisis sensu stricto may be viewed as a trigger for larger events. It is this that has magnified the crisis.

Analyses of the crisis sometimes focus on the symbolic importance of a Eurozone nation-state going bankrupt, which is crisis for the idea of Europe, while others focus on the potential fallout and knock-on effects of allowing the Greek financial crisis to run its course without outside assistance (i.e., a bailout and debt forgiveness), which is a financial crisis that ripples outward and grows with its expansion — a trigger event with catastrophic consequences, the textbook case of which is the beginning of the First World War.

A few voices — not many, but a few — have suggested that, implicit in monetary union without banking union was the idea that future crises in the European Monetary Union (EMU) would force a reckoning that would presumptively be resolved by turning to ever closer European integration, so that Europe would gradually, hesitatingly, two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back, lurch its way toward full economic integration, and eventually even to full political integration. This is a more sophisticated analysis that sees the Greek crisis in a larger context, and I will not dismiss it out of hand, but I also cannot bring myself to make the many leaps that this argument requires. When have European crises been resolved by tighter integration? European integration has come about, when it has come about, as the result of peacetime negotiations, and not as a response to crisis.

This scenario has been hinted at (although not made fully explicit — nowhere is this formulation fully explicit) by no less a figure than ECB head Mario Draghi:

“This union is imperfect, and being imperfect is fragile, vulnerable and doesn’t deliver, doesn’t deliver all the benefits that it could if it were to be completed. The future now should see decisive steps on further integration.”

Even more recently, in an article on the front page of the Financial Times, “Italian finance minister says political union needed to ensure euro’s survival” (Monday 27 July 2015), Pier Carlo Padoan is quoted as saying, “The exit and therefore the end of irreversibility is now an option on the table. Let’s not fool ourselves… If we want to take that risk away, then we have to have a different euro — a stronger euro… To have a full-fledged economic and monetary union, you need a fiscal union and you need a fiscal policy… And this fiscal policy must respond to a parliament, and this parliament must be elected. Otherwise there is no accountability.” Here the whole program is laid out with the relentless logic of a domino theory: if you want to have the Euro, you need full-fledged, economic union, and if you want to have a functioning economic union, you need to have a European government with real power. The only thing missing in this account is the expectation that the first formulation of the Eurozone would inevitably result in crises, and the crises would be the trigger for these dominoes to fall.

Those who see the Greek financial crisis in its geopolitical context express concerns of Greek alienation from the Eurozone resulting in closer ties with Putin’s Russia, recalling Cold War fears when Greece was one of the proxy theaters of the Cold War. It is entirely possible that Greece, rebuffed by the Eurozone, may turn to Russia for loans, and the Putin would be ready and willing to provide these loans, despite the desperate condition of the Greek economy (and, for that matter, of the Russian economy as well), for political reasons rather than for economic reasons. (And in a changed political climate Russian loans would likely be paid back even if European loans were not paid off.) This strikes me as a more plausible scenario than the above interpretation involving a purposeful trainwreck.

It was a great Cold War coup that NATO was able to persuade rivals Greece and Turkey both to join NATO in 1952, when Greece was the only Balkan nation-state to be part of the western military alliance. Now other Balkan nation-states are NATO members, and Greece is not isolated in the region as a consequence of its NATO membership, but it would be a source of particularly acute tension to have a leftist Syriza government courting closer ties with Putin’s Russia at a time of European unease over Russian actions in Ukraine.

The attempt to unify Europe economically dates even to before NATO, and began as a geopolitical project to forestall European wars on the scale of the mid-twentieth century, and now that Eurozone is facing its greatest challenge since the implementation of the EMU, the unification of Europe will continue, if at all, as a geopolitical project.

The economic rationale for European economic union seems to be present — i.e., the economic union of Europe seems to make sense, but just because something seems to make sense doesn’t mean that it is practicable. In the particular case of Greece, accession to the Eurozone was highly impractical. Greece entered into the European Monetary Union (EMU) with a wink and a nod. There was a sotto voce acknowledgement that Greece did not meet the macroeconomic requirements of joining the EMU, but everyone looked the other way anyway because it was thought that Greece was hitching its wagon to a star; the EMU and the European wide common market was going to be such a grand success that the problem was going to be keeping the “wrong sort” out (like Turkey, which repeatedly expressed its interest in joining the Eurozone, but excuses were always found to exclude the Turks). Here the political rationale trumps the economic rationale.

When a large and diverse geographical area is contained within the borders of a single nation-state — as with the United States, Russia, China, India, or Brazil — this geographical diversity is often expressed in economic diversity, with wealthy regions and cities contrasted with impoverished regions and cities. Within a single nation-state wealth transfers will sometimes be undertaken to offset these extremes in the form of state institutions and mechanisms. These wealth transfers can range from generous to nearly non-existent depending on the nation-state in question. We see this in a much more limited way in the international system, when wealthy nation-states will sometimes give aid and assistance to impoverished regions of the world, but this kind of aid never reaches the level of wealth transfers seen within a single nation-state.

The unification of a nation-state from multiple territories, and the subsequent imposition of a unified system of banking and taxation, constitutes a microcosm reflecting the opportunities and risks that face larger-scale attempts at economic and political unification, as in the case of the Eurozone. The unification of Italy from 1815 to 1871 — a process requiring more than a half century, but roughly corresponding to the span of time of post-war Europe — and the unification of Germany in 1871, both contain detailed lessons for a unified Europe. The unification of Germany has, of course, been a fraught matter. Libraries of books have been devoted to the topic. The unification of Italy has sometimes been cited as one cause of the economic backwardness of southern Italy in comparison to the dynamic north of the country; coupling these diverse norther and southern regions into one national state with a single set of national institutions has not come without consequences.

The reader who has made it thus far may find themselves expecting me to make a case for the rescue of the Greek economy at any cost in order to salvage the geopolitical project of the Eurozone, which was, after all, never conceived primarily as an economic project. It is an economic project secondarily, but a geopolitical project primarily. I am not going to make this argument, which has been made many times, and which is fatally flawed. Europe remains a continent of nation-states (like every continent except Antarctica). Power lies in the sovereign legislatures of each nation-state, in their economic capacity, and in their respective militaries (or the lack thereof). If Europe is salvaged as a geopolitical project, it will be because some European nation-state, or combination of nation-states, determines that it is in their sovereign interest to salvage the Eurozone, and not because some abstract entity like “Europe” commands the loyalty of any population or its military forces.

In Armed Prophets of Revolution I cited Machiavelli’s distinction between armed and unarmed prophets. Here is the passage in question:

It is necessary, therefore, if we desire to discuss this matter thoroughly, to inquire whether these innovators can rely on themselves or have to depend on others: that is to say, whether, to consummate their enterprise, have they to use prayers or can they use force? In the first instance they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered. Hence it is that all armed prophets have conquered, and the unarmed ones have been destroyed. Besides the reasons mentioned, the nature of the people is variable, and whilst it is easy to persuade them, it is difficult to fix them in that persuasion. And thus it is necessary to take such measures that, when they believe no longer, it may be possible to make them believe by force.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VI

While it is no longer the custom in Europe to offer up prayers for ideological programs, the secular equivalents of prayers are daily being published in the organs of mainstream thought in Europe. The Eurozone (and its advocates among Europe’s elite opinion) are unarmed prophets of transnational political unification. As unarmed prophets, we would expect them, following Machiavelli, to be destroyed. But Europe exists under the security umbrella provided by the United States, so that while the Eurozone itself may be an unarmed prophet, it is an unarmed prophet with an armed faction prepared to defend it.

What will the US, as the security guarantor of Europe, see as its geopolitical interest in European unification? Will the US provide the muscle to allow the great European experiment to continue, or will it accept European fragmentation, as long as that fragmentation does not follow the pattern of the Balkan wars following the breakup of Yugoslavia (that other great European experiment in the political unification of the South Slavs, whose earlier fragmentation provided us with the term “Balkanization” and triggered the First World War)? At present, the US is making only cautionary statements and is not actively involved in what is, in effect, the re-negotiation of the Eurozone. With an upcoming US election, one would not expect any new political initiatives from the US in regard to the Eurozone. With the US deeply mired in crises in other parts of the globe, Europe is not high on the agenda.

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During the initial iteration of the Eurozone Crisis I blogged extensively on the problem, and have occasionally returned to the problem in subsequent pieces, including the following posts:

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Shorting the Euro

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

What would a rump Eurozone look like?

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

Europe and its Radicals

Default in the Eurozone

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Grand Strategy Annex

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