Up until now, President Obama’s speak-softly strategy on Greece made a certain degree of sense. The country’s financial crisis, and its long-running disputes with the rest of Europe over how to solve it, were not America’s problem. Obama has largely deferred to European leaders, even as the impasse deepened over the last six months.
Over the past week , though, some of those European politicians turned the crisis into a more profound question about Greece’s future in Europe. It’s an unhelpful escalation in rhetoric, which the United States shouldn’t endorse. With Greeks headed for a key referendum on Sunday, Obama should make clear that the United States will respect either outcome, and continue to support Greece.
The referendum follows years of disagreements about how to handle Greece’s large debt. Unable to pay its bills, the government in Athens received a bailout from Europe in 2011. The money came with conditions attached that required spending cuts and tax hikes — the much-hated “austerity.” Tired of cuts, Greeks elected an anti-austerity party in January, but its leaders have been unable to convince the rest of Europe to ease back their demands.
The referendum puts the question to Greek voters: Do they want to continue to suffer under austerity, or spurn the final offer of the creditors and risk the consequences? A “no” vote would probably lead to Greece’s exit from the euro, with potentially devastating economic consequences, but it would also free Greece to devalue its new currency and perhaps ultimately revitalize its economy. It’s a painful decision that voters in democracies have the right to make.
To hear some European politicians tell it this week, though, the vote is about more than economics — it’s a question of whether Greece wants to secede from its place in the West. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said a “no” vote “would mean Greece is saying ‘no’ to Europe.” Politicians from France, Germany, and Italy have also been ratcheting up pressure on Greece to vote “yes” by characterizing the vote in such existential terms.
That kind of talk has the dangerous possibility of turning into a self-fulfilling prophesy. But the eurozone is not the European Union, and the European Union is not Europe. Greece is still a democracy and a NATO ally, and the United States should publicly distance itself from the rhetoric that seems aimed at scaring Greek voters. It would be better for the United States if Greece remained in the euro, but it’s not vital.
If Greece votes “no” on Sunday, it’ll still be an American ally on Monday. For Obama to say so — and do it in public, even at the risk of appearing to break with European leaders — might counter the unhelpful pressure campaign from Europe that seems aimed at browbeating Greece into a “yes” vote. Greek voters face two bad choices in Sunday’s referendum. But they deserve the space to cast their votes based on what they conclude is best for their country’s economy and future, without fear of international ostracization.