We learned foreign policy from experienced and prudent individuals like the late diplomat Vyron Theodoropoulos. That is, from people who had lived through all the milestone events of Greek-Turkish relations and had, for instance, heard the sound of smashing glass at Greek stores in September 1955 in Istanbul.
These people always said that “you need to be on speaking terms with the Turk, even at the time of crisis.” They believed that a fair settlement was possible in Greek-Turkish disputes.
I now think that they had a different kind of Turkey in mind. I have always believed in the need for dialogue, and I have suffered the consequences of this belief. I have always detested the Theodoros Diligianis-type of politicians – meaning those experienced populists who would go stirring up passions among the Greeks before realizing they could not hold them back in the face of the approaching disaster. In the end, they would blame the foreigners for not having intervened in time to stave off disaster. And I have always considered major foreign policy achievements the fact that Greece a) managed to secure Cyprus’ membership in the European Union and b) switched its dogma by supporting Turkey’s membership in a way that disarmed powerful critics that had used Greece as an excuse in relations with Turkey.
Turkey was very different, even in Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s early years. It would never go as far as to challenge the Lausanne Treaty or make the absurd claims that it does now. Today’s Turkey is a revisionist force through and through. It challenges no less than the status quo. The way Turkey understands itself has also changed. Erdogan sees himself as the leader of a regional superpower whose geopolitical influence extends all the way to Somalia and Qatar. The card of EU membership is no more. Add to the mix the religious-neo Ottoman dimension of his hegemony and you will realize we are faced with a whole different Turkey.
“You are right, but what do we do?” one will naturally ask. There is no easy answer. Erdogan is flirting with strategic hubris. Turkey is at risk of an overstretch, that point where a country has extended itself beyond its capacities. On the other hand, it’s very dangerous to fall asleep on the delusion that your enemy will one day break down.
We must never let the channels of communication collapse or give the impression that we are the intransigent side in this relationship. We must act with determination and deterrence, while avoiding failing into the trap set by Ankara. We must win the time we need. This is certainly not a time for Diligiannis-style politics, but, given today’s Turkey, I am far from certain that this is also a time for compromise.