Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on Greece.

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The dominant perception in the 1980s was that reactionism, unreliability, and unpredictability characterized Greek foreign policy. Since the mid-1990s, the pattern has been one of a more pragmatic, reliable, and rational foreign policy—although to different degrees according to the government in office.

Greek foreign policy looks much more ambitious today than in recent years. But Athens needs to quickly readjust to a changing security and economic environment.This is due mainly to the influence and impact of the deep Europeanization process that has shaped various facets of Greek political, economic, and social life. The deepening of the EU remains Greece’s top strategic objective, despite the country’s current problems.

Concerns about economic survival overshadowed the importance of foreign policy issues during the past five years. Now, Greek foreign policy in principle looks much more ambitious, scoring a level of ambition of 4.5 out of 5. But Athens also needs to rapidly readjust to a changing regional and global security and economic environment.

Even before the economic crisis, Greece was consistently punching below its weight on most foreign and security policy issues, allowing itself to lose some of its regional role in Southeastern Europe and letting its active role inside the EU atrophy. An inward-looking and passive mentality led to few foreign policy initiatives and to limited exploitation of opportunities for multilateral initiatives or new tactical and strategic alliances.

Greek foreign policy looks much more ambitious today than in recent years. But Athens needs to quickly readjust to a changing security and economic environment.An assessment of the impact of the crisis on Greek foreign policy would conclude that the country’s image, prestige, and credibility have been dealt a serious blow, and that Greece’s influence both in the EU and in the union’s neighborhood has been negatively affected.

Defense expenditures have been significantly reduced, although Greece still spends the equivalent of 2 percent of its GDP on defense. In this context, Greece’s participation in international peacekeeping and other operations has already been trimmed down. Greek facilities are still being offered for use in NATO (and U.S.) operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, but the benefits of Greek membership are probably suboptimal for both the country and the alliance.

Yet Greece remains important for the West’s geopolitical interests for five reasons.

First, in the Western Balkans, Greece is still an important actor in terms of economic investment and political influence. The dispute over the name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is a major obstacle to Greece’s policy of strong support for EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. Athens objects to the country’s use of the name “Macedonia” without a qualifier, to avoid monopolization of the name by any of the three interested parties: Greece, FYROM, and Bulgaria. No substantial progress should be expected on this issue in the short term because of domestic factors in Athens and, especially, Skopje.

#Greece remains important for the West's geopolitical interests.
 
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Greece’s position on Kosovo, whose independence it has not recognized, will continue to evolve; and Athens may be expected to try to strengthen its ties with its EU neighbors Bulgaria and Romania, as well as with Serbia and Albania.

Second, the management of migration and refugee flows, the movement of jihadist fighters, and the threat of radicalization remain issues with important external and internal dimensions for the EU. Greece, alongside Italy, is located at the EU’s most sensitive external border and is struggling to deal with these challenges efficiently. Athens needs all the support it can get from its EU partners.

Third, Greece can make a contribution to European energy security through the Trans Adriatic Pipeline, the proposed gas interconnector between Greece and Bulgaria, as well as the exploitation of potential hydrocarbon deposits in Greece’s maritime zones. Participation in the so-called Turkish Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey across the Black Sea should not be excluded, provided the project conforms to EU regulations.

Fourth, following the example of its European partners, Greece is exploring available opportunities for improving economic and political relations with Russia and China. A quick diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis is a priority for Athens. On this issue, Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea bears a remote but existent similarity to Turkey’s 1974 occupation of Cyprus.

The Greek government is critical of the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after its actions in Ukraine and believes that Russia is a difficult neighbor for Europe. But at the same time, Athens regards Moscow as an indispensable element of the European security architecture and would support a combined policy of deterrence and engagement. Greece aspires to become a complementary bridge between Europe and Russia by being Europe’s voice to Russia, not the other way around.

Fifth, Greece occupies a geostrategic location in a difficult neighborhood and offers key facilities, especially Souda Bay, arguably the most important—and dependable—allied military facility in the Eastern Mediterranean. In addition, Greece has a rather privileged relationship—of varying degrees—with Israel (where the emphasis will be on building deeper strategic ties without abandoning Greece’s traditionally good relations with the Palestinians), the Arab world, and Iran.

Athens could play the role of a complementary facilitator in the Middle East, in addition to being a reliable regional partner for the West and promoting regional cooperation schemes. Of course, this presupposes that Greece would be willing and able to successfully implement a more active and effective foreign policy.

Beyond these five issues, Greek-Turkish relations will remain at the top of the Greek foreign policy agenda. Overall, the two countries are better off today than in the past in terms of bilateral relations, including trade and people-to-people contacts. Neither side appears prepared to make any meaningful concessions to fully normalize bilateral relations, and that will probably remain the case for the immediate future, especially in view of Ankara’s ambitious but rather unpredictable foreign policy.

On Cyprus, Athens will remain supportive of a settlement to the island’s division but will defer to Nicosia on the substance of an agreement.

The threat of #Grexit is imposing a number of constraints.
 
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Greek foreign policy makers will function for the foreseeable future under the Damoclean sword of the country’s economic crisis. The threat that Greece might leave the eurozone either by design (“Grexit”) or by default (“Graccident”) is imposing a number of constraints and limitations. Greece needs to find its own niche in the distribution of regional roles and convince its partners and allies of its own added value in managing common security challenges.

By necessity, the key concept for Greek foreign and security policy in the next few years will be the smart use of the country’s resources. The best option—as it could have a multiplier effect for Greek efforts to accumulate diplomatic capital—would be to actively participate in shaping the new EU, especially vis-à-vis the Mediterranean and the Middle East (where Greece is promoting the protection of remaining Christian communities), and in formulating transatlantic regional policies. At the same time, however, Athens should not ignore the need for national initiatives and the further multilateralization of its foreign policy.

Despite its high ambition, Greece’s ability to deliver will be hampered by limited economic means and institutional capacity, as well as the diplomatic inexperience and lack of ideological homogeneity of the new left- and right-wing coalition government. The jury is still out on whether Athens can overcome these obstacles.

 

Thanos Dokos is director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy in Athens.