At the end of his presidency, Barack Obama eulogized Elie Wiesel as “one of the great moral voices of our time, and in many ways, the conscience of the world.” One of the most famous sayings of the Holocaust survivor and Noble Peace Prize winner is especially relevant today: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
Statecraft is not easy. Since there is a field called political “science” we forget that managing international relations depends as much on art as it does on science. Diplomats and policymakers might prefer the pragmatism of Thucydides, but we would be wise to understand the world the way Herodotus did – with equal attention given to culture, national myths and moral lessons as to economic strength, military power and geography.
Today, we must finally heed Wiesel’s great moral admonition: Neutrality in the face of aggression is immoral.
Over the past year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey has by every definition acted like a belligerent against Greece. By belligerent, I am not referring to the general definition of “hostile and aggressive” but the definition of “a nation or person engaged in war or conflict, as recognized by international law.”
The US Department of State is sincerely scrambling to de-escalate the situation in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. Yet their preferred tactic is exactly what Wiesel warned against: neutrality and equidistance. Take, for example, the typical line from State Department spokesperson Ned Price: “We urge our allies to avoid rhetoric that could further raise tensions… we will continue to urge both of them to de-escalate tensions.”
To be fair, this statement is typically preceded by support for the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity. There are plenty at the State Department who probably believe that this is a clear and principled statement of policy. It is neither.
There are not two aggressors here. Only one side employs its military to challenge the sovereignty of the other, even conducting armed overflights over inhabited territory. Only one side files nonsensical but formally legal claims at the UN challenging the very existence of Greek islands (in the case of the farcical Turkey-Libya EEZ agreement) or Greece’s sovereignty of its own islands. Only one side has launched a full disinformation campaign on its news channels to make its public question the sovereignty of its neighbor. Only one side weaponizes refugees to put pressure on its neighbor. That side – in all of the above cases – is Turkey.
Last October, Illinois prosecutors were lambasted for rejecting police recommendations to charge five suspects with murder and aggravated battery after a deadly gang-related shootout in Chicago. The reasoning of the prosecutors? “Mutual combatants was cited as the reason for the rejection,” according to a police report.
The State Department’s public posturing on Turkey’s belligerence in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean deserves the same level of ridicule that these prosecutors were subject to. There is no “mutual combat” here. There is a well-armed gangster – Erdogan – who is only emboldened to believe he can get away with anything on his turf because the justice system will let him get away with it.
Indeed, in some cases the State Department is even worse than these prosecutors. When some officials speak to think-tankers and journalists and give credence to Erdogan’s preposterous claim that Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speech to Congress was somehow responsible for tensions – although Turkey’s escalation started months before that speech, it is the equivalent of the aforementioned prosecutors pointing at one of the victims in the shootout and declaring, “He had it coming.” This behavior goes beyond helping the oppressor via neutrality, this is explicitly taking the side of the oppressor.
Erdogan’s tactics in the Aegean have far more serious consequences than merely “tweaking” Greece and they should not be dismissed as “more bark than bite.” The whole of society’s adoption of his regime’s rhetoric and reasoning – in the media, among analysts, in the public posturing of the opposition – signals that this tension can (and likely will) remain even after Erdogan is off the scene. The failure to publicly call him to account for this undermines the very principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity that the US has rallied the West around in the case of Ukraine.
“Sometimes we must interfere,” Wiesel reminded us. In the Aegean, that time is now. If conflict in the Aegean comes, history will treat those that resorted to the immoral tactic of neutrality harshly.
Endy Zemenides is executive director at the Hellenic American Leadership Council.