Relativity, catharsis and hubris: The Aegean conundrum and the role of external actors

The ongoing crisis in the Aegean and the formulation of a new revisionist strategy by Turkey under the maximalist strategic doctrine of ‘Mavi Vatan’ or ‘Blue Homeland”, reveals the geostrategic asynchrony between Athens and Ankara.

While the former acts as a status quo state, wishing to see no alterations to the Aegean legal condition, the latter freely expresses the view that it no longer wishes to abide by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that it signed and which defined the borders of the modern Turkish Republic wherein Turkey gave up all territorial claims to areas of the former Ottoman Empire that were outside the boundaries of the new Turkish state in exchange for full international recognition of its sovereignty.

It goes without saying that this current condition brings an unpleasant Hobbesian image to the serene horizons of the Eastern Mediterranean, leading to the direct or indirect implication of external actors too.

Trying to rationalize the origins of the crisis is to take a dive into the subconsciousness of the Turkish deep state, one that requires a sterile analytical process of normative assertions on the state’s systemic aggressiveness and its inability to function.

I am taking a step away from the acuteness of Turkey’s malignant behavior to focus instead on the roles of the two major European powers in this crisis – France and Germany – and, of course, that of the U.S.

To thoroughly analyze German foreign policy in Europe today, one must begin with a look towards Washington. Germany, since the end of the Cold War through to today, and despite limited communication between the White House and Berlin, continues to be the United States’ main offshore balancer.

The U.S. has developed a more cautious approach in international engagements after being over-exposed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Berlin has thus been given the role of the regional pacifier in the European zone, including the belt of the Eastern Mediterranean.

The continued efforts by Chancellor Angela Merkel to find an equilibrium between Turkey’s aggressiveness and Greece’s neo-appeasement have a direct connection with the American desire to preserve NATO’s unity on the alliance’s south-eastern flank. Currently, Germany is pushing hard to establish effective channels of communication between Athens and Ankara, despite Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ assertion that no sincere dialogue can be held under the shadow of Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy.

Germany continues to lose the struggle for public opinion and popularity in Greece by its even-handed treatment toward the aggressor and the victim in this case, despite its simple adherence to the American guide-lines.

epa08631795 German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (R) and EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrel give a press conference after the informal talks between the EU Foreign Ministers and their EU counterparts in Berlin. The participants discussed the dispute over natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. EPA-EFE//KAY NIETFELD

Is the U.S. allured by Turkish charm? The answer is negative. Quite rightly, Washington wants to preserve the unity of NATO in the Eastern Mediterranean, as the alternative could result in the Balkanization of the region, were a regional conflict to spark. As well, there is also the necessity of minimizing the continuing rise of Russia’s influence. The mistake that Washington commits is that it unintentionally feeds Turkish revisionism even more by allowing Ankara to believe that its role in the Eastern Mediterranean may be greater than that of a regional pivotal state.

If Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sees at the other end of any negotiation table Mitsotakis sitting alone, the former will be unconstrained. Erdogan will be convinced that raw power is effective and will resort to its use even more frequently than he does now, The result will be that peace in the Eastern Mediterranean becomes severely undermined.

The Germans could do something to protect its already beaten down Hellenic prestige akin to a posting a 19th-century Wild West saloon sign with the appeal ‘Please don’t shoot the piano player’. Yet, I am not sure if many in Athens would easily understand such an innuendo.

Obviously, some may support the view that Germany downgrades the potential it may have in order to exercise a more independent foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. The reply to that interesting view is quite simple, yet not simplistic enough to satisfy everyone. Berlin is neither able nor willing to cross the Rubicon and play a decisive role in shaping the future of the Eastern Mediterranean. Germany is the archetypical representative of the European Union, which fundamentally always refrains from any kind of initiative that may prove harmful to the EU, itself, or to its connection with the United States.

The French, on the other hand, are moving at the other end of the political spectrum. After the finalization of Brexit, Paris is trying with all its might to fill the void left by the UK in the Eastern Mediterranean. This has manifested itself in France’s open support for Greece and Cyprus, along with Paris’ fervent desire to be actively involved in the new energy map of the Eastern Mediterranean.

France aims high, however, there are two main issues that should worry the population of that country. Firstly, France’s presidential elections are not that far off. Undoubtedly, President Emmanuel Macron has demonstrated unique leadership skills under difficult conditions on both economic and security issues. Notwithstanding, French Euroscepticism continues to rise, giving an opportunity to populists like Marine Le Pen to keep alive the hope for a “Frexit”.

As the results of the next presidential election are not clear, an aura of uncertainty over the French national prestige exists. The other topic is that the U.S. is still the decisive influencer in the Eastern Mediterranean, therefore any French attempt to promote its national interests without prior American consent is doomed to failure. Macron is not naïve. He knows this fact very well and, therefore, France can continue to snarl at Turkey so long as it does not undermine NATO’s approach. France is an important actor in the Eastern Mediterranean but is not in the position to defy Washington’s directions.

The Greek-Turkish crisis is very bad for both the ineffective application of International Law and for the tacit imbalance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean, as no actor seems eager to decisively cope with Turkey’s blatant aggressiveness. The only positive outcome is that the spirit of trans-Atlanticism is still alive in the region, a fact that can be seen by the recent flurry of American activity in regards to the crisis and in the way that local state-actors ave reacted positively to Washington’s engagement. All of this fosters a bright prospect for the future of Europe and for the Western world, in general.

If eventually Greece and Turkey sit down at the negotiating table, the stakes will be equally high for both governments. Athens will have to explain to Greeks why it decided to agree to discussions with Ankara while still under pressure from Turkey’s aggressive actions, while Ankara will have to rationalize to Turks how the current blend of nationalism and populism will work to elevate the Turkish economy, both in quality and quantity.

No matter what, the present crisis will force Turkey to face the diplomatic and economic isolation that its aggressiveness has brought. After all, both time and timing are relative for the systemic functioning of the international arena and state-actors must never forget that fact in case they are in search of catharsis after hubris.


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