Thessaloniki – I sit, as I write this, perched atop my glorious hotel, in this lovely, vibrant northern Greek city, staring lovingly into the wine-dark sea that is Homer’s Aegean.
At the height of the euro crisis last year, things became so bad that café life – the glory of modern Greece – ground to a halt, as people waited for financial Armageddon to descend. Now all the bustle has returned, as Greeks go back to people watching, basking in the country’s unbeatable weather. As a shrewd local friend of mine put it, “nothing has changed, but people can get used to anything”.
My friend’s telling comment is a pretty fair description of life in central and eastern Europe just now. No one alive thinks the euro crisis has been “solved”, or its complexities mastered. Presently, the reconstituted government of Alexis Tsipras is bickering with the other members of the Eurozone about the implementation of the conditions for its most recent bailout, with the spectre of the endemic crisis lurching back to life.
The political Catch-22 remains: The Greeks do not wish to make the painful structural reforms necessary to alter their current doleful condition (but want the Eurozone’s money), while the northern Europeans want a total commitment to fiscal rigour (while shelling out as little cash as possible). This impossible situation amounts to a Kafka novel, not political reform on either side.
And Greece is not alone in the region in finding itself geostrategically stuck. If the euro crisis divided the continent into northern and southern tiers, so the present refugee crisis has divided it on an East-West axis. The West, led by Angela Merkel’s Germany, wants a coherent European plan for managing the torrent of refugees fleeing Syria, and cannot understand why an Eastern Europe that has so benefitted from joining the EU won’t go along with it as a matter of solidarity.
The East, with no tradition of immigration, let alone assimilation, is decidedly unenthused about what it sees as German political bullying, never historically popular in this part of the world. And so Europe limps on, never settling anything, as bad feeling and bad blood spread like a poison across the union.
It is into this unpromising thicket that an important new book has arrived. The Unquiet Frontier, published just now by Princeton University Press, and written by Jakub J. Grygiel and my close friend A. Wess Mitchell, reminds us in this time of Trumpism why alliances actually matter geostrategically. Grygiel and Mitchell note that, even in this time of waning American involvement in the world, other powers are testing America at its frontiers, by probing the still American-led order for weaknesses.
Such a view can be overdone. There is far less coordination between China, Russia, and Iran to establish an anti-American axis of power than one might imagine. For such an entity to come into being, for example, President Putin of Russia would have to accept junior status to that of Beijing, something very unlikely to happen.
Nor are all the possible revolutionary powers rising; China certainly is, but Russia, given its sclerotic and oil-dependent economy, is not. But saying all this does not negate their basic argument that, as America looks ever more inward, rival powers are bound to contest it, and to begin to do so at the margins of American power, in terms of its long-standing alliances with countries such as Israel, Taiwan, and Poland.
Grygiel and Mitchell are entirely correct to point to this alliance system (for all its many frustrations) as a vital source of enduring American power, as well as global stability. It is too important to be thoughtlessly thrown away, or merely left to hapless Germans and Brussels to squander. Instead, the US must act, while Berlin dithers.
First, Nato must immediately (as the Obama administration is coming round to) forward deploy troops in far greater numbers in Eastern Europe, to remind Putin there are real limits to his adventurism. Second, Hillary Clinton mush eschew her cynical pretence not to be a free trader and instead embrace TTIP (The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), binding an economically becalmed Europe to a more vibrant America.
Finally, here in Greece, America must use its clout with the IMF to convince mindlessly stubborn Germans that the only way to ever really get Greece on its feet again is to demand real structural reform of pensions and labour markets in exchange for significant debt relief. America must remember, as Grygiel and Mitchell so importantly point out, that Europe must be saved from itself.