Are the Greeks Anti-American?

By
Ted Couloumbis and Athanasios Moulakis

January 2007 -
The image of America abroad has suffered in recent years. Whatever the reasons for such loss of favor and face, it is remarkable to find Greece- a nation that has been through history on the same side with the United States- near the top of the list of countries critical of America. Evidence of such distance between old friends is disconcerting, not least to the Greek-American community which is a vibrant and fiercely loyal part of American society.

The extent and intensity of anti-Americanism in Greece, as registered by Pew, Gallup and other public opinion surveys, is indisputable. However, it would be most important to sort out the nature of animosity in the Greek case. Is it caused by a rejection of the American way of life? Is it more a reaction to policies of the United States in its global role? Or is it mostly occasioned by grievances particular to US-Greek relations?

One finds in Greece none of the visceral disdain against American popular culture (and its supposedly corrosive effects) as it exists, for example, among some French intellectuals. Perhaps the comparative advantage of souvlaki and gyro shops offers sufficient protection against the encroachment of fast-food concessionaires. The metaphor here stands for a resilient sense of Greek identity maintained in parallel with a process of rapid modernization.

Greece is no longer a poor, isolated and dependent country that exports its young as immigrants in all directions. It is no longer compelled to ape the West and hate itself for it. On the contrary, it is a member in good standing of the Eurozone and Schengen, while steadily improving its previously troubled relations with Turkey and its northern Balkan neighbors. Deep social, economic and political divisions of long standing have been bridged. Devastated by World War II and the bloody Civil War that followed, and having suffered in the crucible of the Colonels' dictatorship, Greece has emerged since 1974 as a stable, liberal democracy resting on broad popular consensus. In a recent Economist Intelligence Unit survey, ranking democracies according to five variables (electoral process/pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties), Greece placed 22nd among 167 countries evaluated, just ahead of Britain and France and just behind Belgium and Japan.

Greece today, as part of the club of advanced economies and consolidated democracies, has common interests with all its EU partners (old and new) and with the United States. Beyond common interests, furthermore, the country shares in the values of democracy, pluralism and economic interdependence. Greeks no longer have reasons for the psychological compensation of reflexive anti-Americanism, which in earlier days was probably motivated by a sense of wounded inferiority.

Residual traces of compensatory anti-American resentment remain, given the great disparity in size and power between the two countries and what often appears, urbi et orbi, as arrogant and hegemonic behavior by the world's sole remaining superpower. Carryovers of Cold War anti-Americanism also play a role in a segment of Greek society. It comprises the heirs of the communist side that lost the Civil War, now stabilized at about 5% of the electorate. Greek communists, however, are no longer ostracized and they participate fully, albeit loudly, in the Greek political process. Concurrently, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the removal of the threat it represented, has dampened the anti-communist motivation that underpinned much of Greece's pro-American sentiment that welcomed the Truman doctrine and the Marshall plan. American influence in Greece in our days is refracted through the prism of European integration.

With regard to the policies of the George W. Bush Administration, such as unilateralism, preemptive war, questionable tradeoffs between security and human rights, and the refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol, Greek public opinion is in line with the overwhelming majority of what former Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, deprecated as "old Europe," conveniently exempting Great Britain. The same can be said of some well known characteristics of the American political order, such as easy access to firearms, the death penalty, and the persistence of indigence in the midst of prosperity.

It would be a mistake to dismiss such critical distance as "anti-Americanism" in the sense that the term is used by some commentators of the American Right, i.e., as emotional spasms and self-serving ideological delusions of European intellectuals -- though there may be some truth in that. The distance rather represents a moral and political intuition of a Europe that is "new" in a different sense than the one intended by Rumsfeld. Old Europe was about colonialism, regional and world wars, totalitarian and authoritarian ideologies, the holocaust, walls and other passionate divisions. New Europe is about integration, accommodation, cohesion, subsidiarity, advantages granted or withheld on condition that rules are observed and economic, political and social goals achieved. This is not an "effeminate" lack of nerve versus a "manly" propensity to knock heads together, as Robert Kagan would like us to think. It is not, using his phraseology, about a European Venus versus an American Mars. It is just the product of bitter experience of half a century of conflict as experienced in the European homeland, of cities destroyed and generations wiped out in a measure which 9/11 does not even begin to resemble. In short, one could assert that Greek public opinion is as critical of American policies as is the rest of Europe, yet even less critical of American values than some of its European partners.

What accounts, then, for the particular intensity of Greek feeling registered by the polls? In addition to general considerations already mentioned, Greeks nurse grudges regarding US actions and patterns of conduct since WWII - of which the American public and even the American elites are largely unaware. In the nature of things, America matters a great deal more to the Greeks than Greece matters to America, and their respective perceptions and obsessions differ accordingly. The military and economic assistance provided to Greece in the post WWII years is not forgotten, but neither does the fact that such assistance corresponded to US strategic interests. The resulting dependence was bound to produce a degree of resentment – and in the case of the vanquished of the civil war outright enmity.

Many small acts of highhandedness contributed to creating bitterness. American considerations of anti-Soviet and anti-Communist containment often were translated into support for a political role of Greek extra-parliamentary institutions such as the monarchy and the armed forces. It is manifest, and not only to Greek opinion, that the United States acquiesced to, if it did not inspire and actively embrace, the military dictatorship (1967-74), in the name of the maintenance of military bases and facilities (deemed "essential" by the Pentagon during the Junta years, but only "significant" thereafter). When the folly of the Greek Colonels in the summer of 1974, an attempted coup against President Makarios, triggered the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the United States adopted a position of "equidistance", amounting to a pronounced pro-Turkish tilt in the troubled Greek-Turkish relationship. The American position of alleged neutrality was all the more apparent given that the Junta, by then an international pariah, had no patron other than official Washington. Finally, the present American stance with respect to Cyprus also strikes most Greeks as partial and dictated by military considerations favoring Turkey in the strategic scheme of things rather than the merits of the case.

After the restoration of democracy in 1974, following the unceremonious collapse of the Junta, the Greeks were often lectured by the United States about their supposedly lax response to a small but deadly band of domestic terrorists, called "November 17." Most of "November 17" members were eventually arrested, tried and sentenced to long jail sentences. Also, in the early 1980s, the populist anti-American sloganeering of Andreas Papandreou did not exactly help Greek-American relations. His tier-mondist rhetoric no doubt strengthened negative stereotypes. Yet, despite a perilous course, Papandreou managed to defang the traditional revolutionary left and channel its forces into a center-left party that could alternate with the center-right in an orderly democratic pattern. Papandreou's policies, having given verbal vent to the worst popular frustrations, have contributed, paradoxically, to improving Greek American relations in the longer run.

The new Greece that has emerged as a mature democracy and advanced economy, anchored safely in the European Union, can afford to overcome old grudges. It may take some time before Greeks fully internalize their newfound objective dignity, so aptly demonstrated by the flawless handling of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. If this dignity is matched by the respect it rightly deserves, the future of Greek-American relations will be better for all concerned.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant