Yogi Berra and the Greek Debt Crisis

06/12/2015 02:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

The diplomatic imbroglio and vicissitudes surrounding the current Greek debt crisis are best explained by the wit and wisdom of Yogi Berra, the former NY Yankees catcher and manager, Baseball Hall of Famer and (hopefully) future recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (full disclosure: I signed the relevant petition).

Of course, Nobel Prize laureates, journalist big wigs and political heavy weights have already contributed their five cents of expertise on Greece. But none can surpass Yogi, who after all did explain that "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."

Like Albert Einstein, Yogi was a poor student who actually abandoned formal education after eight grade. Apparently, an exasperated teacher called him out once, saying "Yogi, don't you know anything? Yogi's reply: "Know anything? I don't even suspect anything" (perhaps this is apocryphal, though the great sage did warn us: "I really didn't say everything I said!") But this story is also applicable to the new Greek administration of Syriza which governs the country in a coalition government with the much smaller Anel party.

Syriza won a historic victory with an ambitious, leftist, patriotic agenda. It is fair to say that no other European country has in power politicians professing such leftist views. At the same time, the sheer brain power of (most) Cabinet members is astounding. Few are life-long politicians while most are prominent professors or successful professionals who have won numerous accolades. They wanted to change Greece, change Europe and deliver a mortal blow to the destructive politics of austerity. Problem is that they did not fully understand the power dynamics prevalent in the eurozone and in international politics. They seem not to have suspected that the actual world of high diplomacy often operates in a brutal, unfair fashion. Results were predictable.

What is frustrating is that many of the Greek arguments have merit. Austerity doesn't seem to have worked well in Greece which in recent years lost a quarter of its GDP and unemployment still hovers at around 26 percent. Is that not enough to persuade European leaders of their mistaken ways? Is it not self evident that things should change? Absolutely not, according to Yogi: "If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be;" And to those (especially German) politicians who insist that theory does prove that austerity delivers and all one has to do is stay the course (seemingly for ever), Yogi would caution: "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

The new government in Athens did try some unusual pressure tactics. Relations with Moscow improved dramatically in almost no time. The Greek state went into overdrive into supporting Greek Stream, a natural gas pipeline that will be the extension of Turk Stream, both Vladimir Putin's priorities and pet projects. Objections were raised against sanctions on Moscow for its behavior in Ukraine. Greek foreign policy professed to be multifaceted and coming closer with the BRICS countries. Joining the BRIC's New Development Bank is now being explored. Official visits and deals with China are strongly pursued. Threats were made that if Greece went under, jihadis would swarm Europe; and certain European politicians were routinely vilified, lectured or patronized for their ignorance and insensitivity.

These policies are fascinating (especially from an academic standpoint), some have merit and many deserve to be at the very least explored. But within an asphyxiating negotiating time frame of only a few months and with liquidity in Greece fast disappearing, they ended up isolating Greece and losing the country friends and support: a majority of Germans apparently now are in favor of Greece exiting the eurozone (the so called Grexit scenario), governments in Spain and Portugal are openly hostile (for their own partisan reasons), the Baltic States and Poland are rather disappointed, the United States clearly and publicly opposes Greek Stream, many European politicians consider Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis a persona non grata of sorts, and even the European Commission seems to have cooled off on Greece.

Perhaps all this is unfair. But if Yogi had a talk with Greece's young Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, we can imagine the great Yankee being philosophical and perhaps stern: "you made too many wrong mistakes" he would have probably said. And please keep in mind Mr. Prime Minister that "If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else." But Yogi might have been a little understanding as well. He would have realized that Greeks have an underdog mentality, do not like to be bossed around, enjoy a good fight and ignore long odds against them (which is why we were the first to break away from the Ottoman Empire, ferociously fought against all odds the Nazi invaders and occupiers and were the only peoples in the Balkans not to suffer Communist rule). Given this historical perspective, we can almost picture Yogi nodding his head: "It's déjà vu, all over again."

There is still time for Greece to snatch victory from the jaws of a looming defeat. The Summer has arrived and throngs of tourists will descent upon some of the most beautiful islands in the world, providing a much needed lift to the economy (let us hope that Yogi's warning will not be applicable: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded"). Meanwhile, negotiations in Brussels are still ongoing. Course corrections are occurring on a daily basis, mistakes rectified, compromises struck, valuable lessons learned; and Greece is probably too big to fail. In Yogi Berra's eternal words: "It ain't over till it's over."

Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Piraeus and Standing Fellow at New York University's Remarque Institute.