Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Isn’t ‘democracy’ a Greek word?

Within the next 24 hours, observers say, we are likely to see an agreement reached among Greek political parties that will clear the way for a second bailout from Europe and the IMF. Observers have been saying this for two months now, but never mind. It is certainly possible that the members of the Greek ...

ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU/AFP/Getty Images
ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU/AFP/Getty Images
ORESTIS PANAGIOTOU/AFP/Getty Images

Within the next 24 hours, observers say, we are likely to see an agreement reached among Greek political parties that will clear the way for a second bailout from Europe and the IMF. Observers have been saying this for two months now, but never mind. It is certainly possible that the members of the Greek ruling coalition will meet the demands of "the troika" of lenders -- the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. And even plausible suggestions of a crisis resolution have tended to bring a feeling of euphoria to markets -- a good Greek word.

There are optimists and pessimists about Euro zone prospects. I'm in the latter camp, but it's interesting to see where the analyses diverge. You would probably get broad agreement that the essence of the euro zone problem is that a number of countries on Europe's periphery have racked up unsustainable levels of debt. There is also a general consensus that if those peripheral countries followed the traditional prescription of devaluing their currency (by leaving the euro zone), this would be a large economic shock for Europe and, thus, for the rest of the world (note, though, the different views among Northern European leaders on whether Greece alone might be expendable).

The divergence in opinion really comes in the analysis of potential solutions. Here are three ways one might look at fixes:

Within the next 24 hours, observers say, we are likely to see an agreement reached among Greek political parties that will clear the way for a second bailout from Europe and the IMF. Observers have been saying this for two months now, but never mind. It is certainly possible that the members of the Greek ruling coalition will meet the demands of "the troika" of lenders — the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. And even plausible suggestions of a crisis resolution have tended to bring a feeling of euphoria to markets — a good Greek word.

There are optimists and pessimists about Euro zone prospects. I’m in the latter camp, but it’s interesting to see where the analyses diverge. You would probably get broad agreement that the essence of the euro zone problem is that a number of countries on Europe’s periphery have racked up unsustainable levels of debt. There is also a general consensus that if those peripheral countries followed the traditional prescription of devaluing their currency (by leaving the euro zone), this would be a large economic shock for Europe and, thus, for the rest of the world (note, though, the different views among Northern European leaders on whether Greece alone might be expendable).

The divergence in opinion really comes in the analysis of potential solutions. Here are three ways one might look at fixes:

1. Could Europe as a whole handle the debt issue?
This is the question the optimists ask. The answer, they find, is yes, Europe could. While individual countries within the euro zone have debt problems, the zone as a whole is roughly in balance. If everyone agrees that the money is there and that failure to find a solution could be very costly, then it’s just a matter of a little obligatory posturing before the money is reshuffled and the matter solved. Another way of putting this would be that economic hurdles are difficult to overcome, but political hurdles are trivial.

2. Could current national leaders in the Euro Zone handle the debt issue? Posing the question this way takes political constraints a little more seriously. While there are certainly now phone numbers and interlocutors for an apocryphal Kissingerian call to Europe, the major players are still national. Chancellor Merkel ultimately answers to a German electorate, President Sarkozy to a French citzenship, and Prime Minister Papademos to a Greek. Those German voters are distinctly unenthused about bailouts and a central bank that is willing to print money to solve problems. Those Greek voters are distinctly unenthused about austerity programs in the face of 19 percent unemployment. With these political constraints, the problem looks significantly harder. The question becomes whether these leaders can overcome the reluctance of their respective electorates and ‘do what must be done.’ Those who analyze at this level are hanging on every report out of Athens and Berlin.

3. Can countries commit that all future governments will follow the paths agreed today?
This is the pessimists’ playground. What happens when leaders fail to persuade their electorates that their unpopular measures were really necessary? They’re usually ousted in the next election. There are certainly some policies that, once undertaken, are very difficult to revoke. But the central issues in Europe now revolve around annual national budgets, for which commitments are eminently reversible. One can try to lock in good behavior at a constitutional level — as much of Europe just did with its brand new fiscal pact, and as it did at the zone’s inception with the Stability and Growth Pact. These have proven exceedingly difficult to enforce in practice.

A story on Greek politics in the New York Times nicely captured the essence of this last problem.

"After years of turning its back on its social welfare platform, the Socialist Party, known as Pasok and Greece’s dominant political force since 1974, has virtually disintegrated, falling to fifth place with 8 percent support, according to a poll that the firm Public Issue released on Tuesday.

…The most probable winner of future Greek elections would be New Democracy, which held power from 2004 until 2009, when Greece’s debt soared from slightly more than 100 percent of its gross domestic product to at least 127 percent.

Its leader, Antonis Samaras, has been criticized repeatedly by European leaders as irresponsible, but with every new tax increase in Greece, some voters are warming to his constant critique of austerity in the absence of growth measures. The party is leading in opinion polls, with Public Issue putting its support at 31 percent of the vote."

The story also noted that "the hard left and extreme right are rising."

Thus, Greek acquiescence today guarantees nothing after the next vote. The magnitude of this problem is not lost on the major European players. In fact, the quest for a solution can be seen as the unifying theme behind Northern European proposals to address the crisis: the fiscal austerity pact, fiscal union, Brussels oversight of national budgets, even political union. Each of these would insulate future tax and spending decisions from the whims of Greek voters.

Barring a momentous development along such constitutional lines, Greek voters still have a say. So if, in the near future, there is an announcement of an accord among current political leaders, the question will be which Greek word is most pertinent: euphoria, or democracy.

Phil Levy is the chief economist at Flexport and a former senior economist for trade on the Council of Economic Advisers in the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @philipilevy

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.