When asked about the wisdom of backing an American-aligned Third World dictator, Anastasio Somoza, then-U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt supposedly remarked that while Somoza might have been an SOB, in a bi-polar Cold War world "he was our SOB." Today's version might run along these lines: Greece may be an embarrassing mendicant, but it is our mendicant.
The Cold War may be over, but that does not mean that the world is not divided into camps and that alliances don't matter any more. Nor can we ignore the fact that traumatic or unexpected events can cause countries to abandon long-standing commitments. Egypt can go almost overnight from Israel's implacable enemy to its ally. Taiwan can be dropped as the official government of China in favour of Beijing. Iran can fall to a poplar Islamist uprising and go from being a staunch American ally to holding its diplomats hostage.
In the real world, because so many issues intersect, we cannot always have the perfect outcome on any one question. Trade-offs have to be made. Greece is a perfect example.
Looked at on its merits, Greece's behaviour with respect to its debt and its creditors is an appalling embarrassment. No one made the Greeks borrow several times the value of their gross domestic product in order to support levels of public services and social benefits far beyond what the Greek economy could afford.
When something cannot go on forever, at some point it will stop. That is what has happened to Greece. Its creditors have now understood that Greece has mismanaged past borrowing and no one is willing to backstop further loans without better accountability, discipline and transparency by the Greeks themselves.
If there is a national humiliation, as claimed by the country's hard-left Prime Minister, it is not due to the conditions imposed by the country's creditors, who are not under any obligation to lend further money or to let the Greeks decide by themselves what their repayment obligations are. The humiliation lies in a Western democracy so nonchalantly believing it can unilaterally free itself from its obligations by popular vote while insisting that others should feel bound by the result.
Yet economic issues are not the only ones at stake in Greece.
For example, while the Cold War may be over, there is clearly still a struggle for power and influence between the West and Russia. The latter, stung by the defection to the West of former colonies like the Baltic republics and Ukraine, and Western support for Kosovo's independence from Russian ally Serbia, has struck back with a vengeance.
It goes much further than the military incursion into Ukraine and the increasingly aggressive probing of Western air defences. Russia has clearly decided on a policy of undermining the solidarity of the Western alliance, including through politicization of energy and other trade relations, extending credits to governments in exchange for political complaisance and efforts to turn Western allies into fifth columnists for Russia, especially in Europe's soft southern flank, including Italy, Cyprus and Greece.
Russia stands eagerly ready to "befriend" a Greece that believes itself ill-used by the European Union and the West generally, with easy credit terms, offers of profitable pipeline construction and closer military ties to name but a few of the enticements on offer. Russia is already more popular and more trusted in Greece than the EU is, and the governing coalition is composed of parties that have a history of cozying up to Moscow. Russia may be an economic basket case itself, but for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the tiny marginal cost of detaching Greece from the West would be more than compensated by enhanced Russian prestige and consternation among his adversaries.
Nor is it necessary for Greece to leave NATO. From Russia's point of view, a Greek Trojan horse within NATO (and the EU) acting as a spoiler and obstructing Western action against an aggressive Russia would be just fine. Similarly a Russian-aligned Greece might feel emboldened to stir up trouble with fellow NATO member Turkey, including over Cyprus, causing even more friction and confusion within the alliance.
There are thus practical limits to how hard and how far the West can push the Greeks before their now well-established affection for temper tantrums over cool calculations of long term interests leads them to make a disastrous geopolitical miscalculation. Keeping Greece locked in as a constructive member of the Western alliance in a dangerous and unstable part of the world is worth a great deal compared to allowing this tiny country to become a destabilizing influence over the West's security for decades to come. It is our mendicant after all.
Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa.