OPINION

Unchartered waters

Sometimes, being a little behind the times can turn out to be an advantage. As when Greece was one of the few countries in the Western world that was blissfully relaxed over the «millennium bug» as the year 2000 approached, mainly because most computers here had been purchased after the paper tiger of the millennium bug had been dreamed up and began to loom like a doomsday rendezvous. As it was, it turned out that not too many people had reason to worry about the crash of our digital civilization – either because billions had been spent pre-empting the chaos or because the chaos was not as chaotic as expected. Either way, a latecomer to the world of computers, Greece sailed into the new millennium unperturbed. But it’s also a matter of timing. Greece was not among the first to join the European Monetary Union, doing so only last year. But it was in in time to be among the 12 countries adopting the single European currency this year. In effect, Greece joined the eurozone when it was clear that the concept worked. It also gained all the benefits of the large EU members, escaping the storms of chance and speculation that could sink a small economy at precarious times such as this. And it managed all this while avoiding the fate that had plagued it so many times in the past: Being left out of a major European development. We missed the Renaissance, we missed the Enlightenment, and we missed the Industrial Revolution because we were too busy being the slaves of a foreign oppressor. But we are not missing out on the unification of Europe. So Greece sails onward as part of a fleet of countries facing the future together. That is the good part. The bad part is that the waters are now unchartered. The good-and-bad part is that Greece, still trying to find its footing as a mature nation, is used to pushing ahead through such uncertain times. It brings with it not the institutions and the experience of other countries but the instincts of the survivor and the inventiveness of the perpetual migrant and trader that is the Greek throughout history. And it is amazing to consider what a pregnant time this is. Just 13 months into the new millennium, much of what we took for granted is up in the air. It is almost as if the systems that existed in the past have run out of steam at the same time. The September 11 attacks showed clearly that a few fanatical individuals have the ability to kill thousands of people at a time and will not shrink from doing so. The military response by the United States has raised questions regarding national sovereignty and international law that will have to be solved. The old model of sovereign states being inviolable and allowed to do whatever they like inside their borders has been eradicated in practice with the US-led NATO campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 and the US elimination of Afghanistan’s Taleban regime and destruction of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist gang in that country. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that the future must guarantee individual rights rather than national sovereignty. But the ease with which the United States was hit in the heart by the terrorists showed also that no country is safe, that no country can work on its own to protect itself. Not only do the developed countries of the world have to create a network with each other to defend themselves, they must also work with regimes that they would turn their noses up at if the circumstances were different, while also doing something to offer hope to those whose bitterness and despair can be channeled into murderous rage. In the meantime, punishing those who would destroy us creates a legal quandary, as the prisoners being held by the Americans in Cuba illustrate. What are they? Members of a defeated enemy and therefore prisoners or war, or members of a gang devoted to attacks against civilians? What does one do with them if they are guilty? And if they are innocent? So, international law is in limbo regarding the rights both of the individual and the nation. We can expect to see a lot of reshuffling of the cards over that. The international organizations that have overseen the world for the last half century or so appear to be searching for new modes of operation – from the United Nations to the European Union. The latter, in particular, is trying to find ways to work as a group of between 15 and 25 countries without being paralyzed by the need for each state to have a veto. But how can any country be expected to give up the right to look after its own interests for the sake of a group? These are problems that faced the first thinking beings on the planet. We are still working on them. The need to offer hope to the hopeless means, after the end of communism and the evident inadequacy of capitalism, that a new ideology has to be developed that will allow a greater distribution of wealth and welfare without dragging down the right of the individual to excel through private initiative. If every nation, for example, lived the way the Greeks (on average) do, there would be no more war. Amid all our whining and missed opportunities, we have somehow managed to get the best of being members of a group while retaining our identity (for good or, sometimes, infuriatingly bad). And then there are the more practical matters. The Greeks used to look with great envy at other societies and the way in which they could offer their people great benefits at low cost. We managed to achieve this by offering a minimum of benefits to all (in terms of health and pensions) with the minimum paid by them but the maximum by their employers. This meant a cap on productivity and encouragement to hire people without putting them legally in the system. Now, just as we were thinking about how necessary it was to reform the social security system, with the collapse of the giant Enron energy broker in America we saw the serious problems faced by a social security system that is at the opposite pole from our own and which had appeared as a model to draw some lessons from. Now, with Enron’s former employees having lost both their jobs and their pensions in the form of their now worthless shares, we see that the American model too leaves a lot to be desired. The consultants and analysts and auditors and all those imperial institutions that created a veneer of stability and civilization over the big-fish-eats-the-small-fish world of business have also been found to be wearing no clothes. It took the collapse of Enron to see how wrong we could be about the world that seemed so neat and logical and run by the rule of law. It turns out that we should not be so depressed about the thievery that goes on in our midst, or the complacent incompetence that so often passes for a day’s work in Greece (and probably many other countries too). The way in which the Japanese have seemingly frozen up, not daring to tackle the huge problems that face their economy, shows that the devotion to not doing anything rather than risking the wrath of those who will lose benefits is an international phenomenon, not just a Greek one. All this leads to one point: The world is changing rapidly. Every country, every person has to contribute toward a solution. Greece was late getting into the first rank of countries but it is there now. It faces the same questions as others. It is up to it, up to every one of us, both in Greece and outside of Greece, to do our best to think, to come up with ideas, to work toward solutions that will help the world move forward in an orderly way. It is at times like these, when the pack ice of the past is breaking up rapidly, that one must know when to jump. And in which direction.