In the aftermath of discussions around which countries are and are not paying their dues to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or which have failed to pay their fair share, one thing is clear: Greece is among the biggest spenders (as a proportion of GDP), second only to the United States. This may come as a surprise to many, especially given that the country is only just starting to show signs of climbing out of its decade-long crisis. But here’s the thing: Even in the face of that crisis, tiny Greece continued making its requisite payments – spending more than 2.0 percent of its gross domestic product on defense. Despite the extreme difficulties that plagued its economy, Greece continued making its payments.
Think about that. For the last 10 years, it would have been easy for Greece to abandon its NATO defense expenditure in favor of much more immediate needs. Successive governments of all political stripes didn’t though. Why? Understandably, some would suggest the obvious elephant in the room: a much larger and, as of late, increasingly bellicose neighbor to the east. With both countries as members, NATO provides some counterbalance. It could also be that being a top NATO spender gives Greece more clout at the table.
Arguably, there is another reason. Greek dignity. This is something controversial former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis writes about in his captivating tell-all “Adults in the Room,” a must-read for anyone interested in politics and behind-the-scenes deal-making, or simply those who want to understand a crucial period in Greek politics with additional clarity. Recalling being asked in 2012 to choose a single word to describe what the people were afraid of, he writes: “The word that Athenians had chosen more than any other was not jobs, pensions or savings. What they feared losing most was dignity.” One thing I’ve observed in reconnecting with Greece over the past six years has been the lack of visible signs of some of the pressing matters challenging communities and societies in North America, such as Vancouver. There, for example, homelessness is a major issue that all levels of government are grappling with.
In talking with people here in Greece, having observed that homelessness didn’t seem to be evident, I was told it was to preserve the dignity of the family – that homelessness would shatter that dignity. Given its strategic location in the Mediterranean, and as home to seven NATO facilities, it would have been easy for Greece to shirk its responsibilities. But, as a proud people, perhaps that same spirit of dignity – that spirit of pride in honoring its commitments – has been at play here.
Andrew Tzembelicos is a Greek-Canadian writer, editor and communications consultant who is currently based in Athens.