The national interest

President of the Republic Costis Stephanopoulos is to chair an all-party meeting today in order to assess UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s reunification plan for Cyprus and to hammer out a common course on this crucial issue – the course that will best serve our national interest. However, the «national interest» is an ambiguous concept. People often claim to be acting in line with the national interest, but they still end up damaging Greece’s interests for lack of clear judgment. That is because our judgment can be distorted by external factors such as the political cost and public pressure. Greece’s modern history demonstrates many cases where the national interest was undermined or poorly served. The most recent one concerns the organization of the Summer Olympic Games in Athens. The Greek political leadership and the public were both dragged into an affair which does not advance the national interest. Quite the opposite in fact. The Games became an excuse to waste scarce and precious resources, to redistribute money into the pockets of a small minority – all that at a time when Greek society had very different needs and priorities. Instead of spending money on sports venues, feasts and costly celebrations, the country should rather have invested part of that money in education and culture. And yet, the organization of the Olympic Games was heralded as a major national cause, it was endorsed by all political leaders, and it is now putting the country to a test, threatening the economy and exposing the country to perils that it would otherwise not emerge. All this may sound irrelevant to today’s meeting of Greece’s political leaders. But it are not. Pinning down the national interest in the case of the Cyprus issue is also blurred. The specter of political cost or the pressure from a sentimental public may also obscure our genuine interests. The Greek political elite must weigh all regional parameters, assess international developments, take into consideration the country’s alliances, examine the history of the Cyprus issue and, most importantly, predict the repercussions of each verdict. Should our political elite find itself at odds with pubic opinion, it should not hesitate to come into conflict. In a similar meeting 12 years ago, the political leadership went on to identity itself with public opinion. Greece gained nothing from this. Our political leaders – and, above all, our prime minister – should know that identifying oneself with public opinion is not always the best counsel.

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