Learning (Ethical) Lessons from the Greek Revolution

March 30, 2021

United States President James Monroe presides over a cabinet meeting, 1823. CREDIT: Granger Historical Picture Archive/Wikimedia (Public Domain)

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

Paul Glastris has a must-read article in Washington Monthly about the lessons we can learn from the U.S. reaction to the Greek War of Independence (March 25, 2021 marks the bicentennial of the Greek declaration of independence from the Ottoman Empire), for what it says about balancing different baskets of interests and values (self-determination, freedom, non-intervention, balance of power, etc.).

As he notes, the U.S. government (under the presidency of James Monroe with John Quincy Adams as secretary of state) attempted to split the difference: the government adhered to a policy of non-intervention but put no barriers on the part of the U.S. private sector and civil society from aiding the Greek cause. As he describes it, "By insisting that the U.S. government remain neutral but tolerating and even enabling private involvement by the American public (U.S. naval forces actively protected the private cargo ships ferrying supplies to Greece), they found a clever way to balance the tension between realpolitik and idealism. It allowed them to minimize the risk of war while continuing to pursue a trade deal with the Turks."

Perhaps not the most satisfactory outcome—even if this was an excellent example of how governments come up with satisficing compromises when faced with competing and contradictory impulses—but the Monroe/Adams response to the Greek fight for independence is worth re-examining given the realities we face today. We are emerging into a more truly multipolar system where non-democracies and authoritarian states have more power and influence (both to deter the U.S. as well as to exert some degree of compellence on U.S. actions). We want to avoid what Colin Dueck has characterized as a tendency within the U.S. to issue "statements of concern" as a substitute for action.

Glastris argues:

What Biden needs is a doctrine of his own—a comprehensive and workable strategy that can both advance our economic and security interests and defend democracy against resurgent authoritarianism. In the forthcoming issue of the Washington Monthly, Wesley Clark, the former supreme allied commander of NATO who led the successful military intervention in Kosovo, proposes such a strategy. It would involve a new binding agreement among the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom on policies such as trade, antitrust, and technology transfer to counter the predations of tyrannical states like China while reversing the economic gutting of the middle and working classes that breeds right-wing populism here and around the world.

This has aspects of the "democratic community" narrative we’ve identified and aligns with Ash Jain’s proposals for coordination among democracies. This is a proposal which may gain support among a wider group (for instance, possible alignment with ideas advanced by Representative Gallagher) and could be part of the creation of a new consensus and organizing principle.

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