“What’s National is what’s true”

Loukas Tsoukalis, President of ELIAMEP and professor at the School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, Paris. 

When considering foreign policy issues, especially in tense times when vital national interests are at stake, the question often arises of whether and to what extent one can express views that differ from the official line promoted by the country’s government at a given time. This is not an easy question to answer, and no answer is unassailable. In a democracy, of course, it’s up to each of us to decide, according to our personal sense of responsibility. Because you can’t have censorship in a democracy.

In Greece, the hard patriotic line used to divide ‘us’ from ‘them’ – ‘them’ being our enemies – leaves little room for differing opinions. This line delineates national rights rather than national interests, because the other side can have interests as well. And precisely because national rights cannot be disputed, the hard patriotic line leaves little room for dialogue – much less for negotiations – with the other side in a given dispute. And it leaves even less room for compromise – a notion with a meagre tradition in our political culture. In other words, a true and hard-line patriot has no doubts. He is ever vigilant, with his rifle at hand. And he demands the same of everyone else. And, according to this hard-line patriot, those who do not fall into line lack national consciousness. He holds the measure of patriotism.

But might this, after all, be the right line when the country is facing an aggressive neighbour that keeps escalating its provocations and demands, as Turkey is doing now, with a president who is attempting to unilaterally impose what he thinks is right? Mr. Erdogan obviously feels that might makes right. In such an instance, is there really any point in talking about dialogue and negotiations or referring to our own errors, exaggerations and omissions?

I think there is, and I will try to explain why, very briefly. As a country that believes in peaceful coexistence and rules of law, Greece must always be willing to engage in dialogue with its neighbours, but on the strict condition that the dialogue is not taking place under threat. If and when our neighbour is again ready for such a dialogue, we have to be ready too. We have to make this clear to everyone, and we have to mean it. Which means not adopting the view of our own hard-liners, which is that, because they think we’re right about everything, we have nothing to discuss with Turkey. In the past, and not just with Turkey, such views have taken us to impasses. And the cost was high.

Can we talk about exaggerations in our negotiating positions when our neighbour isn’t holding the same conversation? Aren’t we undermining our foreign policy by doing so? The lines are thin here, and one must tread carefully, especially in times of crisis. The exaggerations of one side fuel the exaggerations of the other side, creating a vicious cycle. At some point, we have to break this vicious cycle. But can we break it on our own? One of the biggest differences between Turkey and Greece right now is that Greece has true democracy, with free expression of differing views, and not just the view that one person imposes on everyone else.

This difference is one of our most powerful weapons. We are patriots because, first and foremost, we defend our freedom, for every individual woman and man. Pericles put it best in his famous Funeral Oration, which he delivered in Athens two and a half thousand years ago. Democracy and pluralism of views are also key to our country’s credibility with its partners and allies. To face an opponent effectively, we cannot do as it does.

What’s national is what’s true, as our poet laureate once said. Let’s take him at his word. If we do, our country will come out of this stronger.

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