Europeans are regularly skewered by Americans for having messed up Greece. Meanwhile, the United States is doing no better with its own special ward, Afghanistan. There is plenty of blame to go around, writes The Globalist's Stephan Richter, but ultimately nowhere more than in the two troubled countries themselves.
The parallels between Greece (from a European
perspective) and Afghanistan (from an American perspective) are astounding.
Both have turned out to be very expensive engagements, taking up extraordinary
amounts of decision-makers' time in Brussels and in Washington. Both have
disproportionately dominated global news headlines for quite a long time.
And yet, for the extraordinary degree of European and
American engagement, the growing expectation is that much of the effort will be
for naught. The principal reason for this disappointing state of affairs is
that Greece and Afghanistan have political leaderships focused mostly on
serving their own personal interests. In both countries, there is widespread
corruption and a general inclination among the elites to take foreigners for a
No wonder then that, in both Europe and the United
States, there are now profound questions about the viability of their ventures.
Greece adopted the euro on January 1, 2001, a mere nine
months before the events of 9/11 put Afghanistan squarely in the American
consciousness. The Europeans and the Americans embarked on their respective
endeavors of reshaping Greece and Afghanistan with high hopes. The general
expectation was that their engagements would help remake what were notoriously
troubled countries by modernizing their economies, societies and politics.
And yet, for the hundreds of billions of euros the
Europeans have put into the bailout of Greece (with at least a couple of
hundred billion more to come), and for the trillion or so dollars the Americans
have spent on the war in Afghanistan, the results so far are sobering. Both
places are hardly in better shape today than they were a decade ago.
To be sure, the Europeans and the Americans are culpable
of having taken their eyes off the ball for key periods of time during their
supposed intense engagements.
Unfortunately, once Greece had adopted the euro, the rest
of Europe treated it in a manner reminiscent of how the Americans treated
Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1989. Its
"engagement" was perfunctory at best. Left to its own devices,
Greece's old wounds festered once again, only now with much more money flowing
Politics of corruption
For the Americans, it was the costly and unnecessary
involvement in the Iraq war that jeopardized, if not fatally undermined, their
high hopes for remaking Afghanistan. That "sideshow" nixed what was
already slim chance of turning what is, at its core, a fundamentally medieval
society into a functioning nation.
Afghanistan's tribal conflicts simply run too deep to be
"fixed." Its economy, insofar as it is not based on opium production,
depends heavily on inflows of financial aid from the United States. Moreover,
its broader neighborhood, treacherous as it is, provides no support for the
United States' vague hopes of creating a "new Afghanistan."
Yet, when offered a helping hand for the reconstruction
of their country, Afghanistan's leading politicians and cabinet ministers
choose instead to take the whole arm. Their destructive practice of using high
office, through family ties, for private gain, starts right at the top with
President Hamid Karzai. But he and his clan are just one of many focused almost
entirely on their self-interest, rather than the nation's interest.
In Greece, it is not so much that the top politicians are
corrupt. Rather, their vice is that they have proven incapable (or unwilling or
both) to put an end to endemic corruption throughout society and to curb tax
evasion by the rich.
The end results, though, are the same. Despite the inflow
of billions — whether predominantly in financial aid (as in Afghanistan's case)
or capital inflows (as in Greece's) — very little has been used by those in
political power to remake their own countries.
As a consequence, Europeans and Americans now both resort
to surrealist rhetoric. Europeans still claim that Greece won't default. After
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta blurted out "we're winning" during his
trip to Afghanistan last December, official U.S. proclamations have tended to
employ squishy statements like "making progress," "fulfilling
commitments," and "achieving goals."
In both cases, a realistic, if highly sobering,
assessment seems still quite a distance away.