Greece and the West: Shifting towards Eurasia?
In the past few decades the concept of “Eurasia” was popularized once again by the controversial Russian philosopher and diplomat Alexander Dugin. Yet its history reaches far deeper than that. Essentially, it means that the merging of Asia and Europe into one continent (regardless of civilisational identities) would become the strongest proponent of world politics, degrading the Western Hemisphere to a secondary area with its vast land, resources, demography and possibilities for interconnectivity. Even though Greek history is full of Eurasian civilisational exchanges, think about Alexanders Macedonian Empire or Byzantium, the modern Greek nation state has been thoroughly transatlantic and western. Yet it seems as if history is returning and Greece has to evaluate, both on a geopolitical and on a spiritual level what its current position in the West means and how a shift towards the East might help it progress.
A brief history of modern Greece
The modern Greek nation state as we know it was founded by values of the European Enlightenment. Its modern identity would have been unthinkable if it was not for French, German and even Russian philhellenism. In the early 19thcentury brave Greek revolutionaries started revolting against the Ottoman Empire and they were helped by their Western allies. The defeat of the Turkish fleet in the Battle of Navarino 1827 paved the way for Greek Independence and the Kingdom of Greece 1832.
Its territory barely one third of current Greece, it was still dependent on its Western protecting powers. The big Greek communities though lay not only outside of the small state, but also outside of Europe, in Smyrna, Constantinople, Trabzon, Alexandria. Greece was set for expansion. Western powers, especially France & Britain continued to help Greece and use it as their leverage against the Ottomans. In 1864 the British Empire ceded the Ionian Islands to Greece. Shortly thereafter it guaranteed Greece parts of Thessaly and a special administration for Crete.
Greece’s involvement in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 remains the country’s biggest success since the revolution. It doubled Greek territory, expanded towards Epirus, Macedonia and the Aegean islands. But it was also a crucial point for Western support as Greece could have grown into a much bigger and stronger state which would pivot it towards a more independent policy. Thus the Western powers denied Greece Northern Epirus (modern day Southern Albania), a territory Greece conquered not once but twice but was forced to abandon. When Greece then launched its Asia Minor campaign in 1919 with prospects to reconquer Ancient and Byzantine cities with significant Greek populations the Western support dropped quickly. Neither Britain or France seemed inclined to wage full war and Italy even supported Turkey, fearing a stronger Greek Mediterranean power. Ultimately, it led to the Asia Minor catastrophe, following the defeat in the Turkish War for Independence, after multiple pogroms and massacres against the Greek population to the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the population exchange and the end of a Greek presence in Asia. Nowadays the Greeks in Southern Albania form the last significant community of autochthonous diaspora Greeks.
From this moment on and especially with the end of World War 2 and its subsequent Civil War, Greece remained in Western hands. Greece joining NATO in 1952 was the final nail in the coffin for any view towards the East. The rise of communism rendered Turkey, with its control of the Bosporus and presence in the Caucasus / Middle East infinitely more valuable to Western powers than Greece. Even today, many Greek Westerners still do not understand that for the West Turkey, however illiberal it may have become, poses a significant ally to counter Russia’s southern flank or serve as an entry point for Middle Eastern adventures.
Subordination to the West: Blessing or Curse?
While anti-Western sentiment was present in parts of Greek society, the overall direction of the Greek establishment has been fully integrated into the Western sphere (NATO, EU, US), especially the ruling New Democracy and its “conservative” followers. Its political idols include Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, its dogma is conservatism with Western elements of free market capitalism, staunch anti-communism and Atlanticism. In short, many Greek conservatives don’t understand how hollow and empty much of this aggressive pro-Western attitude really is. Western inaction during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, their antagonism towards Greece in the Macedonian naming dispute, the bombing of Belgrade and the military adventures in the Middle East have all but downgraded the image of Western leadership in the minds of many Greeks.
That is nothing to say of the Greek financial and government debt crisis that saw Greece’s GDP lose half its value over the course of less than a decade during which the Greek public felt betrayed by both the IMF and the EU. That period led to the rise of SYRIZA and Alexis Tsipras who promised a left wing anti-Western Greece (growing relations with Russia, boosting Chinese investment, even visiting Iran) but ultimately failed to articulate a coherent strategy.
Of an equally high importance as the financial disaster sits the refugee crisis following the Syrian Civil War in 2015 and mass migration towards Europe in general. It was a time that shook the entirety of Europe and the rushed response showed the lack of any realpolitical understanding on behalf of the European Union.
Eastern Greek islands quickly became the hotspot for massive and illegal immigration, the images coming out of Lesbos or Chios are horrific, both for the migrants and also for the Greek population.
It’s a tragedy knowing how much Hellenic blood was spilled to liberate the Aegean islands from Islamic rule and to now see them getting overwhelmed. It’s a lesson for Greece to know its geographic capacity, as an eastern Mediterranean country with many vulnerable islands. Greece has to notice that these destabilisations (The West toppling Gaddafi in Libya, attempting to topple Assad in Syria) have grave ramifications for itself more than for anybody else.
The United States (and other Western powers) do not have to bear the problems of their interventionist wars in the Middle East, simply because of their geographic situation. Greece on the other hand will feel these consequences and as Erdogan’s demographic warfare in early 2020 showed, it will have to respond with uncompromising force.
Shifting away does not mean abandoning the West
Shifting away does not mean abandoning the West. Greece cannot, and probably never will really abandon the West. It is still a European country, geographically and on a civilisational level. It is still considered the birthplace of democracy and its ancient literature and philosophy are still being taught in Western European and North American universities. Greece still enjoys a comfortable image in the minds of many Westerners, even if that image has come under attack in the past decade. Its culture and history are still admired by many Westerners. Next to all of its economic activity is with Western nations. It is simply impossible to fully break away from the West for Greece and even if, it would not be desirable. What one should strive for is a comfortable balance. Greece could serve as a connector of Western European to Eastern European countries, guide them through EU applications, expand economic ties and so on. It could also serve as Europe’s gateway into the Middle East. It does not have to be one sided.
What Greece should not be though is a puppet, a colony that only serves the interests of Western European powers and lacks a cohesive strategy on how to manage its own problems without adapting a Western mindset to them.
Learning from Turkey
Now of course, Greece should have no delusions about finding gold in Eurasia. There can be no definitive and absolute decision in “good or bad” when choosing your geopolitical tendency. One should note that Turkey, Greece’s historic foe, is one of the biggest profiteers of Eurasian integration, serving as the interconnector of Europe, Asia and Africa with its landmass spanning from the Balkans to Mesopotamia. It has for a long time sought to expand its influence in neighbouring spheres and through the use of both soft and hard power and has mostly been successful at it too. Of course this is a negative development for Greece, but it should not be one without a lesson.
Even as a historic enemy and geopolitical rival, there is a lot Greece can learn from Turkey in terms of soft power.
Turkey has many varied TV channels and news agencies functioning in Turkish, Arabic and English (with other offshoots in the Balkans and Africa), each with different civilisational approaches, each broadcasting different topics. It produces TV shows aimed at Islamic or Asian audiences on the one hand, and liberal programming for Western audiences. And all of that serves as a vehicle for Turkish soft power – exporting Turkish state doctrine & government interests with subtlety. That may be subversive, but it works. It is the third corner of Turkey’s global strategy and something that neither its rather mediocre economy or strong military can wage: informational warfare.
It's a field in which Greece lacks behind by a significant stretch. Many Greek institutions have yet failed to adapt to the digital world and struggle to find reach. Greek soft power includes history or beautiful landscapes (tourism) but none of it is customized to a certain audience and most of it is not even global. The entertainment exports of Greece are virtually non-existent; Can anyone name popular Greek movies, TV shows, television programming out of the past 10 years that have a significant audience abroad?
It does not have to be this way. Greece could produce entertainment based on Byzantine Orthodox history, a topic that would serve as a connector of Greece with Russia and Serbia, two historically very close allies that Greece was forced to antagonize (or in the very least grow distance to) in its Western doctrine. It could also utilize the ancient Greek / Indian connection to bolster cultural, historic and commercial ties. It could gain economic and informational leverage in smaller neighbours like Albania or North Macedonia. The possibilities to expand and diversify Greek soft power abroad, and especially towards the East are endless and yet for that the Greek government needs to create and modernize its institutions and actually follow through with ideas.
It is already happening
This geopolitical shift is not just a pipe dream or wishful thinking. Especially in the past few years, the Greek nation has engaged in more and more activity towards the East. This includes military agreements & joint exercises with the UAE and Egypt (in 2020 no other government was as prominent in Greek foreign policy as Cairo), diplomatic outreach to Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and a growing connection to India as a counterweight to the Turkish-Pakistani axis. Greece also doesn’t seem to be inclined to follow the heavy anti-Chinese rhetoric from other Western powers, as it enjoys strong and growing relations with Beijing.
How this diplomatic work is going to pay off remains to be seen but the direction is promising.
Still, there needs to be more than just rhetoric or diplomacy. For Eurasian integration Greece must follow an independent foreign policy that isn’t fearful of going against the western one if necessary. Restoring ties with Assad’s Syria is a perfect example. Even the contact to Libya’s Haftar can be of importance. Bolstering ties with other historically or culturally close countries like Lebanon would be the next step. Utilize the Orthodox Church for political and demographic gain in the Levant. For too long the Greek state has forgotten about its religious and ethnic kin in the Middle East.
If Greece’s (& Cyprus’) geographic reality is that of the Eurasia and the Middle East, there is no reason to follow the geopolitical dogma of Western Europe or North America.
And if Greece wants to promote its own sovereign interests, it will have to shift away from being a Western satellite and adopt an Eurasian doctrine.