Hellenic American Leadership Council
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The great Athenian politician Pericles is rumored to have once said that “just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Those words hold tremendous weight as we embark on a year of transformation for Greeks around the world.
If you thought Greece grabbed headlines in 2011, brace yourself for 2012. Poverty among Greeks will only increase this year as Greece teeters over the precipice of default (and perhaps over it). Chicago, home to one of the largest Greek diaspora populations in the world, will host this year’s NATO’s summit, and occupied Cyprus will assume the rotating presidency of the European Union in July. Add to that escalating tensions between Turkey and Israel, and clearly Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and their impact on global affairs will dominate this year’s headlines.
That reality has prompted a new debate about the Greek American community, from the effectiveness of its national organization to what it should do to help those who are suffering through a humanitarian crisis a hemisphere away.
As frustrating as the daily headlines about Greece’s debt crisis are, there is little we as Americans can do to substantially affect the current national economic debate in Greece. From our distant perch across the Atlantic, we can only treat the symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself. Many have noted the need to ramp up our humanitarian efforts to help address the immediate needs of Greek citizens. Helping Greece, however, also requires a long-term strategy that will benefit both our ancestral land and our community here at home.
As Kathimerini’s Alexis Papachelas notes, the diaspora is “enraged by the behavior of the Greek state” and is experiencing a “spiritual and intellectual distance” with the land of its ancestors. Some Greek Americans are rightly disgusted with the corruption in the Greek political system or feel that modern Greece bears little resemblance to the homeland they left behind years ago. Others are second or third generation Americans of Greek descent who may not feel much of a tie to the land of their grandparents other than the occasional attendance at their local Greekfest.
Many fall somewhere in between. Greece is in their hearts. They have family living through the crisis there. They try to spend their summer vacations there. They thrive on the vibrant music and culture that still emanate from a nation that can be called anything but poor in spirit. For this core of the diaspora, however, love of Greece has thus far failed to overcome a numbing sense of powerlessness.
The wave of negative news coming out of Greece is so overwhelming and so demoralizing it causes the question to morph from “why help Greece” to “where do we even start” to “why even try?” Without voting power, without the ability to storm the streets of Athens and with international forces singlehandedly dictating Greece’s fate, it’s not surprising that many in the diaspora don’t know what concrete action they can take to help Greece.
A strategy becomes clearer when we look at the broader factual landscape. While the cultural arguments for helping Greece are well-known, it’s important to remember that the Greek debt crisis and stability in the Mediterranean region are not just “Greek” issues. They are issues that directly affect the economic and national security interests of the United States.
Indeed, we are so often focused on the first part of “Greek American” that we forget the latter. Yet, it is precisely our status as American citizens that gives us the most power to help Greece.
If the Greek American community were to unite and become full participants in our own democracy here at home, we could help Greece rebuild while simultaneously strengthening our own community and helping it thrive.
1. Repairing Greece’s brand, one Greek American at a time.
On the turn of an owed euro (well, a couple hundred billion of them), Greece went from being defined by gorgeous lands and welcoming culture to being an international punchline about fiscal irresponsibility, corruption and laziness. The collapse of the Greek brand happened almost as quickly as the collapse of the nation’s economy.
If there is any silver lining to be had in this nightmare of a crisis, it is that out of the ashes of a burned culture arises a renewed vigor for survival. Many new organizations aim not only to rebrand Greece but to renew worldwide Hellenism for the greater good. Our own nonprofit, the Hellenic American Leadership Council, seeks to revitalize the Greek American community through unprecedented advocacy, education and leadership training programs. Programs like The National Innovation Conference, Reinventing Greece, Repo(we)r Greece, The Next Generation Initiative and others are also taking up the cause of rekindling the creative fire in Greece and abroad.
Let there be no question: a rebuilt reputation is key to saving Greece. Investors, tourists, and even members of the diaspora need to feel that they are partners in writing Greece’s new chapter, not the sole participants.
Each of us can do our own part to restore brilliance to the term “Greek” again. Striving for excellence in our respective workplaces, becoming engaged citizens, increasing our local charity endeavors and otherwise upholding Hellenic values in our daily lives make each of us a marketer of what it really means to “be Greek.”
2. Fight the growing attempt to defund U.S. assistance to the IMF
As the debate about helping Greece has focused on what we can do on a micro-level (donations, business investment, increased remittances, etc.), another debate has been taking place in the halls of Congress that may affect Greece on a much larger scale. Using Greece as a scapegoat, some of Washington’s most prominent Senators and third-party interest groups are planning to “defund” the International Monetary Fund. Yes, that’s the same IMF that’s providing critical loans to Greece.
As a practical matter, as The Wall Street Journal reports, U.S. participation in IMF loans to Greece are “relatively modest.” Greece is expected to repay the IMF loan within 5 years, and no nation has ever experienced a loss from contributing to the fund. In any event, the Obama administration has made clear that it “does not plan to make a bilateral loan to the IMF to help fund possible bailouts in Europe.”
But that isn’t stopping some very vocal members of Congress from lashing out at Greece and using Greek’s crisis as an excuse to eliminate the U.S. commitment to the IMF (a long-standing policy goal for some in Washington).
Senator John DeMint (R-SC) has been leading the charge. He has authored an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for an end to U.S. assistance to Greece through the IMF and demanding instead that Greece continue the drastic austerity program that has resulted in shocking poverty across the country. Senator DeMint’s bill to defund the IMF already has over two dozen cosponsors.
The tactics used by the IMF, the European Central Bank and other institutions in saving Greece may be up for debate. The fact that Greeks would become more impoverished without their help is not. The IMF serves as a lifeline to Greek citizens, and the fight to preserve that lifeline is just beginning.
3. Demand the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Cyprus and an end to Turkish belligerence
President Dwight Eisenhower famously said that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Relative to GDP, Greece has the highest military spending in Europe. While Greece has scaled back considerably on its national defense (its 2012 defense budget is €4.1 billion, down 16.22% compared to 2011), no other governmental arm of Greece holds more debt than the Ministry of Defense.
Globalsecurity.org sums up the situation:
“Since 1974, when Turkey began its occupation of Cypriot territory, Greece has maintained the highest level of defense expenditures as a percentage of gross national product (GNP) among NATO countries. More specifically, high military expenditures and intensive training have been deemed by Greece to be necessary to compensate for Turkey’s quantitative advantage in military equipment and manpower. Although there is consensus among major political parties and the Greek people that this expense is necessary for national security, military expenditures constitute a heavy burden for the Greek economy.”
So what do Greek Americans have to do with tensions between Greece and Turkey? On no other issue is the “American” part of “Greek American” more important.
Despite increased belligerence by Turkey with Israel and Cyprus, the relationship between the United States and Turkey is closer than it has been in generations. That relationship is so close that the government recently approved of an “unusual” and “rare” arms deal allowing for a transfer of armed U.S. military attack helicopters to Turkey. Although federal law allowed the deal to be killed through congressional action, only a handful in Congress opposed the deal.
Going forward, the Greek American community can use the close ties between Turkey and the United States to embark on a sustained campaign to promote peace in the Southeastern Mediterranean. The relationship is a valuable pressure point that can and should be used to demand that Turkey end its occupation of Cyprus and end its belligerence in the region. Only when Turkey no longer threatens the region will Greece be able to reduce its military budget and dedicate those funds directly to the people of Greece instead.
It’s our task in 2012 to build up the infrastructure needed to make the Greek American community a vibrant, rational and influential voice for peace. Help us start by joining our international effort to end Turkey’s illegal occupation of Cyprus. Sign your name to our petition to free Cyprus by clicking here.
The tasks outlined above are not simple ones. They aren’t the types of actions that make us feel as if we’ve accomplished something in an instant. They don’t involve fun dinner dances or weekend conventions. They don’t call for a quick money donation or ticket price. They call for something much more.
Rebuilding the fabric of the diaspora calls for the type of courage and fierce resilience that we read about Greeks in history books. It requires us to don the mantle of our ancestors again; it mandates that we reawaken the warrior spirit that has defined our past and use it to save our future.
It is up to us to take the long view, to look beyond the heat of the news at the moment and to recognize our power as Americans, as Greeks, and as members of a community that holds unlimited potential. Using that power and potential to help Greece and to strengthen its diaspora is the cultural calling of our time.Back to top