A Greek prime minister’s meeting with the president of the United States is always a watershed event. Alexis Tsipras’s visit to Donald Trump’s White House is the latest in a long history of such meetings after the United States took over Britain’s role as the Greek government’s patron during the civil war that followed World War II. Even after acceding to the European Union, Greece has depended greatly on the United States, not least in order to keep fellow NATO ally and neighbor Turkey in check.
The fact that this meeting is between this particular prime minister and this particular president shows how much things have changed since Harry Truman’s policy kept Greece in the West’s camp. Tsipras is the heir of the left-wing forces who were defeated in their bid to gain power in the 1940s; Trump, with his repeatedly-proven aversion to any kind of agreement, is not likely to have devised or approved of anything like the Marshall Plan which helped rebuild European countries’ economies, nor the Truman Doctrine.
If anything can highlight the strange ways of democracies, it is how these two men came to represent their countries. For both, the rise was unexpected and dependent on rising discontent. A few years ago, Tsipras’s SYRIZA party barely scraped into Parliament. Trump was a larger-than-life tycoon and television celebrity who looked like he would never have a chance of winning his country’s highest office. In Greece, the debt crisis and the discrediting of the mainstream parties of the center brought fringe parties to the fore. Tsipras pushed a shamelessly populist agenda – promising voters that his party would ensure a painless return to the glory days before the country hit the wall. In the United States, Trump similarly made promises that he could not keep, and, like Tsipras, flattered those who were with him and ridiculed those who were not. Neither came to power by pretending to be a unifying force – they widened divisions and, with grandiose promises and lies, made sure that their side had the momentum to win.
In Greece, 66 years after communist forces were defeated, the leader of a radical left-wing party became prime minister. This may have seemed impossible earlier, but, from the start of the crisis in 2010 until the elections of January 2015, Tsipras and SYRIZA were gaining such momentum that it seemed inevitable that they would win. When the prime minister realized that his actions threatened Greece’s membership of the eurozone and perhaps the European Union itself, he made an abrupt U-turn. Overtures to Russia and China had not been successful, as no agency other than the European Union and the International Monetary Fund had the money – and the interest – to bail out Greece. Tsipras’s tactics since then have been based on the understanding that Greece belongs to the West while, at the same time, on the domestic front, SYRIZA carries out policies more in keeping with its left-wing ideology. This may cause periodic theatrical outbursts from SYRIZA’s junior coalition partner, Panos Kammenos and his Independent Greeks party, and it may be very cynical, but it is a pragmatic policy: Tsipras has managed to hold his government together, even as harsh taxation and foot-dragging on reforms take a heavy toll on the economy and society, prolonging the crisis.
Tsipras’s meetings with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde on Monday and with President Trump on Tuesday underline the change from a few years back when SYRIZA was vehemently opposed to the IMF’s role in Greece and to the US military presence in the country. Tsipras said on Tuesday that this was “a great moment to enhance Greek-American strategic relations.” Centrist politicians in Greece could be excused a sense of outrage at a politician who came to power fighting all that he now embraces, but it is in the nature of moderates to put the common good – in this case, the national interest – above party considerations. There is great irony that SYRIZA was in the forefront of activism against the military alliance with the United States. There is further irony in the fact that Tsipras is praised for the Greek economy appearing to have turned a corner when it is evident that the economy was making gains in 2014 until it became clear that SYRIZA would force an early election by refusing to back any candidate for president put forward by the then government of New Democracy and PASOK.
However, despite the cost of the SYRIZA-Independent Greeks coalition to the country, it is providing two benefits. First, it is “demystifying” and “deconstructing” the myth around the moral infallibility of the left (a result of the real hardships suffered by communists and their families for decades after their defeat in the civil war); second, a more pragmatic (even cynical) approach to politics and diplomacy can only be an improvement on the blind passions and inability to compromise that have driven public debate in the past. If “Tsipras in Washington” can be a “Nixon in China” moment, something that can only be achieved by its hitherto most vehement opponent, then Greece can only gain. It may sound simplistic, but a common understanding that working with our allies, rather than complaining about their past behavior and their perceived favoritism toward our rivals, could go a long way not only toward making diplomatic gains, but also achieving a new maturity in domestic politics. The Greek Civil War and the military dictatorship of 1967-74 still set the tone for much political discourse in Greece. The current crisis gave new impetus to these tensions and divisions, but it also gave them room to expand to their full, absurd limits. We saw mass protests in Greece that brought together the extreme left and the extreme right, which had been lurking in the shadows since 1974. We saw a coalition of the radical left and the nationalistic right holding together. Perhaps now more voters will see that the divisions of left and right are less important than effective government and pragmatic foreign policy.
Greece faces many challenges in the region and it is fortunate that European and American interests are, in many ways, allied with Greece’s interests. This is a time for clear thinking and strategic planning. If Alexis Tsipras’s meeting with Donald Trump strengthens their countries’ ties and opens the way for more rational debate, it will be not only historic but valuable.