Can Syriza’s Use of ‘Soft Power’ Be Reconciled with the Values of the Radical Left?
Costas Douzinas, the Syriza MP who chairs the Greek Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Relations, defends Syriza’s efforts to act as an ‘honest broker’ in international affairs
DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris for The Real News Network reporting from Athens, Greece. This is part of our ongoing coverage of the economic crisis in Greece. We’ve come to Greece for the fourth time in three years to examine whether Greece has ultimately or finally begun to emerge from this punishing economic crisis. And today we have the pleasure of being joined by Costas Douzinas. Costas is a professor of law, and founder of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at Birkbeck University of London. He was educated in Athens during the US-backed dictatorship of George Papadopoulos. And Professor Douzinas was elected to the Greek parliament in 2015 as a member of Syriza, and he’s currently the chairperson of the Greek parliament Standing Committee on National Defense and Foreign Affairs. And I’ve learned that his most recent book, one of several, is ‘Syriza in Power, Reflections of an Accidental Politician’, a very intriguing title, professor. Thank you for joining us today.
COSTAS DOUZINAS: Thank you for inviting me to join you, and I hope that we’d be able to enlighten in parts your audience.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’m very intrigued by the title of your book. It’s quite a striking title. What prompted you to write it, and what was sort of the central message you think that emerges from the book?
COSTAS DOUZINAS: What prompted me to write it? A pretty radical change in lifestyle and indeed a kind of cultural shock. As you kindly mentioned, I have been a professor in London. I’ve lived in London for 41 years of my life, the larger part of my life. And, of course, all my life, I’ve been in the academy. And then 2015, in September, the second election was in 2015, after the referendum, when the government of Prime Minister Tsipras called the elections, I was asked whether I wanted to stand to help Syriza in time of need, and I accepted on proviso that I would participate in the elections, but I would be placed in a non-electable seat. So I would be elected and change my life, and my commitment of lifetime, really. And then as it happened because Syriza had a much better result than was expected, I was elected parliament for my home city of Piraeus. Now the central, I suppose, the central idea or the central experience for this book, which explores what it means, after a lifelong experience in the academy, and in London, in England, returning to Greece and moving from the university to Parliament and politics, is this. I mean speaking about a more political message that we on the left were elected on a program of rejection of austerity, and deep reforms that would introduce into Greece for the first time since the fall of the Junta, a social justice agenda.
And of course that was not possible. Not in any case in its full force, as a result of the third memorandum and the impositions that this government had to accept in that fateful July negotiations in Brussels.
So, what I’m trying to explain is what it means for a party, for a government, for people like me who have spent all their lives on the left, in my case the intellectual left, to have to serve in Parliament and to pursue programs which are not necessarily in keeping with our ideas with ideology, in my case, with books I was writing against austerity. Actually, sometimes contradiction is a kind of powerful force that allows you to move forward. And this is what I hope that I’m trying to show in the book, that despite certain compromises, despite certain agreements that went against the main positions of the party of the radical left we’re still there, we’re still committed to ideas and policies of social justice and I think we’re still remain, certainly in Europe and the European Union, the only government that speaks and tries to implement a different program for what the dominant forces of the European Union want us to do.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: In that election, the one that Syriza won for the first time, it campaigned on something called the Thessaloniki program. And many regarded it on the left as a modest but nonetheless, modest looked at in terms of left values, but perhaps radical looked at in terms of the standards of the European Union, which have become intensely neo-liberal.
And some of the key elements of that platform were substantial haircut on Greece’s unsustainable debt, higher salaries for some of the lower paid employees, the abolition of a property tax called Enfia, more money for municipalities and local authorities, 300,000 new jobs, restoration of public radio and television which had essentially been brought to an end by a predecessor government, and the restoration of the minimum wage at 751 euros.
In your view, what of these main planks, and if I’ve missed any feel free to mention them, what has your party managed to implement in the face of this austerity program.
COSTAS DOUZINAS: Not a whole lot of them. I mean, two or three of those have been implemented. I mean you mentioned the closing down of public broadcasting, I mean to use the British example, it is like closing one day the BBC down, you know with many TV talents, radio station and so on and that was restored.
In terms of the economic program, all those items you mentioned, many of them were not implemented. That was a result of course of the agreement between the Prime Minister Tsipras and the European powers in that July set of negotiations.
However, if we look at the totality of things that happened since September 15th, when I was elected, you would say that while the policies and the measures that this government has introduced are not in any sense a grand left-wing program, it has achieved quite lot. The first and most important thing was that it had to deal with an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. The fact that more than a quarter of the national wealth of the GDP had been lost, that some 27 percent of people were unemployed, 60 percent of young people were unemployed. The fact that the average income of families had fallen by 40 percent.
So, we were in what we call a humanitarian crisis. And the government committed all its rather limited resource towards helping people in that situation. And we have had a few pretty substantial achievements, for example: 2.5 million people who were not insured for health are now fully insured and can go to hospitals and get free health care and get free medication. That was a very major achievement.
We did help with the repossession of family homes which have been stopped and therefore families hugely in debt who were unable to pay for their mortgages did not lose their homes.
We have moved very fast on the second plank of the left-wing program in the contemporary western world, which is a problem of rights, a problem of human rights. So, we have introduced civil union for gay/lesbian people, we have recently passed a law that will allow the reassignment of people whose identity card is shows a gender that does not accord with their own self-identity. And we have throughout the period developed what has become known as a parallel program, a parallel program of economic justice.
So, while on the one hand we had to implement those extremely harsh measures that were imposed upon Greece as a result of that third agreement, at the same time, we unraveled, or we are unraveling, what is known as a parallel program, a program which tends to ameliorate the effects, the very bad effects of those measures, particularly for the poorer members of society. But I should finish by making a further point, a political point.
The September 2015 elections in which Syriza got elected again had something quite unique, had never happened before either in Greece or in the other countries that went through this program, so called Transformation Reform Program. Tsipras came back to Athens, called for that referendum and after the deal that you signed to get in early June fell through, and when he won referendum, and had this long night, 17 hours of negotiations, instead of staying in power as other governments would have done, honestly explained to people what had happened, honestly accepted that the Thessaloniki program but more widely the ideology that the radical left government, had been defeated. And then asked people to choose their future government between the defeated but still pretty honest government committed to the dignity of the Greek people, and the other opposition parties, which were clearly totally in favor of that program, particularly the right-wing opposition because it forms their basic ideology.
And the Greek people voted for it. So to that extent, this government has a certain legitimacy. Of course, we don’t like many of the measures we had to implement. I mean, in my case, I’m a member of parliament from Piraeus, obviously we did not like the fact that the port of Piraeus had been privatized and sold off to a Chinese government, uh, company, something against which the citizens, the Piraeus people had always opposed.
So, you have to live in a new situation, in which you’re fully aware that you’re faced with a pretty negative balance of forces and a quite vindictive and indeed failing economic orthodoxy. And you have to zigzag your way through there. In other words, on the one hand, accept those measures and try to implement them. But at the same time introduce measures which will help people to stand up again. And I think now we’re reaching a point at which, perhaps a tilting point, at which for the first time the government may be able to pursue its social justice program, with fewer impositions from the Europeans.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, let’s talk about zigzagging on the international stage. You’ve been focusing on zigzagging in terms of domestic policy and social and economic policy. Prime Minister Tsipras just completed a visit to Washington with President Trump. As I pointed out in several of the interviews that I’ve done thus far, and I’ve done that because I think this is something that’s really not well known to many of our viewers in North America, that the US government, the administration of Richard Nixon enthusiastically supported the dictator Papadopoulos, who was, or had been during the Second World War, a Nazi collaborator. And I think it’s fair to say that President Trump has not, until now, shown a particular regard for democratic institutions and principles. But nonetheless, Prime Minister Tsipras yesterday or the day before, talked about shared democratic values specifically mentioning President Trump, not focusing so much on the American people’s values, but on those of President Trump. And in response, or around the time he was having these meetings and this discussion was going on, you were quoted in The Guardian, talking about the use of soft power. And you commended the use of soft power.
I’m curious to know what you meant by soft power, and even more curious to know what you feel are the concrete benefits, or have been up until now, the concrete benefits of Syriza’s employment of soft power for the ordinary Greek citizen.
COSTAS DOUZINAS: Yeah, I mean, soft power is a term used in international politics, international relations, and was in this context, particularly because of my position as chairperson of the Defense and Foreign Relations Committee, that I was mobilizing this time.
Let me start from a more general point. You remember during the Cold War we always talked about the two superpowers, you know, deterrence, mutual assured destruction, you know, this idea that the whole world is stabilized around the relationship between the west and the east, what Reagan used to call the Evil Empire, which of course, once it fell opened the gates of hell because in the first period of 1989, after George Bush announced The New World Order, people talked about single hegemon, you know the United States had become the only power in world politics, both economically, militarily, politically, and the rest of it.
But then after the financial crisis, which then became economic and political, particularly in places like Greece and the wider Mediterranean, we have seen a new development in international politics, the creation of a multi-polar world. I mean, you mentioned Nixon supporting the Greek dictatorship but then Nixon also went to China. And it was the beginning of that thaw in Sino-American relations which was led to China becoming the second in the world economy and then moving fast to overtake the United States.
And then you have other power, Russia, you have the so-called BRICS, you know, Brazil. So we’re moving in a New World Order, in which Trump in terms promises in its campaign, in a sense mark a clear change from the position of the United States, in the past and its current position, a clear change towards a certain degree of protectionism of the American economy. Of course, the United States always protected its steel and it’s coal and so on. But now it was very clear, The Trump message was “We have to protect our citizens, our workers to create jobs and so on.”
And secondly, that kind of isolation, Jacksonian politics as we call them, you know sort of the retreat from the position of the global shelf, but you know, we knew the United States to be, up until recently.
Now that seems to me to be a recognition of that changing configuration in the balance of forces. Now what does Greece, a small country and a small party, a party committed to the left, do in that situation? We are Greece’s in a situation, let’s put it, of poverty, of poverty not just economic but also in terms of its influence and so on. You see that there is a new configuration developing in international affairs with new powers emerging, old powers re-acquiring a certain importance and influence internationally.
So, what a Greek government, whether the left or the right, should do, is precisely to develop links with all the emerging players, so that it can help itself by being a kind of honest broker. And I think only the left could actually do it. I said the left or right, but only the left could do it.
I mean, Mr. Tsipras went to the United States and met Trump and said some good words about the President Trump, that certainly I did not share, and very many other people did not share. But on the other hand, Mr. Tsipras in the year preceding the White House visit, had been to China twice, had been to Iran, we had here President Obama come to give his valedictory speech. We had President Hollande of France coming over, Putin of Russia. Suddenly out of this act of poverty that Greece had found itself and a certain isolation because it was the only radical left government preaching a different lesson from what the Europeans and of course the Americans are talking about, Greece emerges as a small player which does not have economic power, remains poor but has a certain moral standing as the only government that stood up, and despite the concessions and even defeats that she suffered, is prepared to speak a different language internationally and domestically.
For me, soft power meant that Greece is emerging as a player that can speak honestly even to people who are totally opposed to its positions.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: So, Prof. Douzinas, you talked about the concept of the honest broker, you identified a number of states in this new multi-polar world, such as Iran, Russia, China, so forth. I think it’s fair to say that all of them, to varying degrees, have the ability to look out for their own interests. But there’s a case which, in which the whole concept of the honest broker, I think, needs to be challenged, insofar as Greece’s foreign policy and concern, if that’s the case of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people are in a position of extreme vulnerability and weakness , vis-a-vis their principal adversary, the state of Israel, and we know it’s been widely reported that the United Nations Security Council at the end of last year unanimously adopted a resolution condemning the settlements on the West Bank as a “flagrant violation,” that was the UN Security Council’s term, of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The UN Security Council called on member states to distinguish between the territory of Israel and the occupied territories in its dealings with Israel, the international court of justice has unanimously ruled that the settlements violate the fourth Geneva Convention. And yet the press reported in 2015 that the government of Prime Minister Tsipras was going to disregard an EU directive which simply required, it didn’t boycott or ban settlement products, which would have been an entirely reasonable thing to do given their legal status under international law, it simply required that those products not be identified as ‘product of Israel.’
What is going on here? Do you think you can fairly be described Greece’s position vis-a-vis the Palestinian people and Israel as that of an honest broker? Do you think that this accords with the fundamental values of Syriza and of a left-wing party to deal in this manner with the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, who Richard Falk, international legal scholar, says is committing the crime of apartheid. How do we explain the attitude of the Greek government towards the plight of the Palestinian people?
COSTAS DOUZINAS: Let me start by saying that I had great honor to draft the resolution for the Hellenic Parliament, asking the government to recognize the state of Palestine. And I have the further great honor to be the person who introduced President Abbas in the Greek Parliament in December of 2015. It was one of the great moments of my life and to come now to the beef of your question, It is true that over the last 3 or 4 years, there has been a coming together, coming more together if that was the case, in the past between Greek foreign policy and Israel. This however has not affected, to my knowledge, the extremely warm, the extremely friendly, indeed warm fraternal links of the Greek left with the Palestinian people and the help for their suffering.
So, every time that I go to Israel invited by the Israeli authorities as a chair of this committee, I always go to Ramallah, indeed in my more recent visit I did get involved in that sense of the honest broker in the business of the hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners, if you remember a few months ago, and I expressed in the strongest possible terms, in the Knesset the problems that exist with the Israeli policies, in relation to the occupied territories, prisoners, and a number of other issues involving human rights.
The question is this, in a sense it takes us back to my other point. When you’re involved in a situation in which, you have to deal with conflicts that go back to long histories and which have become intractable. To be an honest broker, to try and help move this situation forward, you have to talk to both parties. And Greece traditionally was closer to the other world, and closer to the PMO that opened offices in Athens in 1988, at the point at which there were no close relations with the state of Israel. The position has changed over the years, and at this point in time were all kinds of questions about energy security, about international links, international relations, international coalitions and so on, is so much at the center of our attention, having good relations with a state like Israel, while at the same time, every opportunity given I think to me or to Syriza’s party, and so at the same time we insist on criticizing Israeli policies and we do everything we can to help the Palestinian people.
I’m not speaking here as a representative of the government, you know I’m a parliamentarian, I am an academic. I have written these things and I repeat them again and again and again. And there are differences, opinions, nuances, between members of government, between the government and the party, between the opposition, the left-wing opposition and Syriza itself. These are all well understood.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’d like to ask you, as a citizen, not as a representative of Syriza, and as a man with keen understanding of human rights law and the plight of the Palestinian people. Do you think it’s right for the Greek government to defy an EU directive requiring the accurate labeling of settlement products?
COSTAS DOUZINAS: I’m not aware of this instance. I take it your information is correct. Actually this is the first time I’ve heard about it, because in all of the international meetings I have been present with Israeli representatives, they always bring it up as a question of criticism of European Union and they have not mentioned to me that Greece has exempted itself from that position. You may be right. Let us assume you are right. I don’t know … I take your word for it.
If that was the case, yes we disagree. I disagree.
You know Greece was created as part of this multifaceted foreign policy, a number of tri-partite links was staged. One, that we are discussing, is that between Greece, Cyprus and Israel. But at the same time we created another tripartite relationship between Greece, Cyprus and the Palestinian authority.
International relations are weird. Of course you are right in saying, and for me for someone who has written many book on human rights, occasionally I’m not fully satisfied if, for example, in the very good relations that this government has with the government of Egypt, does not always, does not always strongly criticize some of the policies of President el-Sisi.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Right, who was accused of crimes against humanity by Human Rights Watch…
COSTAS DOUZINAS: …all kinds of things and some of the evidence we have you know is extremely serious. However, you know as an experienced journalist, that in international relations, human right are used in a very hypocritical way. You have now lots of criticism against China, or against Russia. Well at the same time, China holds the largest part of the American debt, or Russia is the main provider of natural gas to western Europe. And I am always reminded of the fact that I think perhaps Madeleine Albright has said when she was state secretary that before going to China, one would say Ah, what about this or that dissident? And perhaps the Chinese made a cosmetic move or two, and they would feel that our conscience is fully satisfied and then we go and discuss trade.
So human rights in the international field is something that is used basically to help friends and condemn enemies. It is not something that is being used universally and consistently across the field. So just to ….
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I will not contest that proposition one iota; I think that’s precisely correct. But I also …
COSTAS DOUZINAS: I write a whole book on human rights and empire, in which I explore precisely that hypocritical and opportunistic use of …
DIMITRI LASCARIS: But one hopes that a party committed to the principles of progressivism and human rights will depart from that nefarious conception of human rights and international law and international relations.
Let me move on, thank you for your candor in answering my question.
Let me move on to the question of NATO. And I’d like to conclude our discussion here, this came up, I understand in the meeting with Prime Minister Tsipras and President Trump, the level of military spending and President Trump commended Greece for spending in excess of 2 percent of its GDP on its military. Perhaps there was even a trade-off there — in exchange for that, he was prepared to say something like I’m going to endorse responsible debt relief for Greece.
But nonetheless, 2.3 percent, 2.38 percent of GDP being spent by a country that by any rational measure is bankrupt. The debt is completely unsustainable, 329 billion euros. I think it’s 188 percent of GDP now. How does the government explain that it is the second-highest spender in NATO, a very wealthy collection of states, when effectively the state of Greece is bankrupt?
COSTAS DOUZINAS: That takes us back to the whole history of the political military establishment in Greece, which of course has put at the center of both domestic and international policy, the different threats that Greece has faced in recent history. So in the 50’s and 60’s it was the threat from the north, the communist countries, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia. Now it is Turkey. That is very major issue with Turkey. Turkey is a huge country, has one of the largest, if not the largest standing army after China. Greece is a small nation of 10 or 11 million people, and we have continuous challenges and continuous threats coming from Turkey – on Cyprus, of course, and you know the Cyprus issue, that this is the only country that is still divided by occupying troops. And all kinds of challenges and provocations, in the Aegean, in northern Greece and so on.
Now do I agree with the proposition that the defense budget of Greece should be well above 2 percent, and this was the case well before Trump started using the number of 2 percent, as a kind of Shibboleth, as a kind of the big number.
As an academic seeing the state of our universities, the lack of teachers, the non-replacement of retiring professors, the lack of school teachers, and primary care teachers, of course, it is not something that I would accept if I were to have a clean slate to start from scratch as to how you’re going to distribute your very limited budget. No, I wouldn’t do that.
On the other hand, you have inherited a situation that was exactly like that well before Syriza got into power and of course as you know, Syriza is in a coalition with a small party which stands to be very very voluble on the question of defense and security and links with Turkey. Had Syriza been in absolute majority and not in need to enter a coalition with the independent Greeks party, the leader of which is the secretary for defense, perhaps this is a situation which would be different.
But to finish are we in an ideal world? Of course we’re not in an ideal world. Do I like what is happening in Greece? No there are other issues we have not discussed so far. No, nobody is. I don’t think the government is. On the other hand, we’re trying hard. The interest that I think the international left has on Greece, which has remained, in my experience, totally undimmed, after the compromise, defeat, whatever word you want to use, remains huge. You know, this is the first radical government in Europe, elected democratically on three separate occasions, and with a huge referendum result, which finds itself in a minefield. The reason that Syriza has not succeeded and still many powers do not want to succeed, is that any success would have given a sign to all kinds of left and patriotic and democratic forces in Europe, that if you stand up, you can eventually win.
That debt of Greece is huge. In relative terms, it’s really very little for the great European powers like Germany, France and so on. However, Greece and Syriza had to be defeated politically. And I feel that we have resisted that. We’re still there, we’re still fighting and certainly in the next period where as I said, we have a bit of room to maneuver, perhaps we’ll start doing even better, according to your criteria.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well I can’t thank you enough for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure speaking to you. And I hope we’ll have the opportunity to visit with you again as the reign of Syriza progresses.
COSTAS DOUZINAS: Thank you very much, Dimitri, and I think programs like yours are of huge importance because there is quite a lot of misinformation about Greece internationally. And we need more of that to get the other side’s position to put forward to the American and the global public.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well thank you again. And this has been Dimitri Lascaris reporting for The Real News from Athens, Greece.