When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Greece, she praised the Greek government's austerity measures to reduce deficits and cut spending. The U.S. and Greece face a common challenge of dealing with soaring deficits, but they also face something else in common: a refusal to deal with out-of-control military spending. And given that the United States is a major arms seller to Greece, Hillary Clinton will encourage the Greeks to slash workers' wages and pensions, but not its enormous military appetite.
With a population of just 11 million, Greece is the largest importer of conventional weapons in Europe -- and ranks fifth in the world behind China, India, the United Arab Emirates and South Korea. Greece spends a whooping 3 percent of its gross domestic product on military hardware, compared to an average 1.7% in the other European NATO countries, including nations involved in international conflicts such as Britain, France and Germany.
The justification has been the ongoing disputes with Turkey over Cyprus and disagreement over the sovereignty of certain islets of the Aegean. But for years now there has been no military conflict over these decades-old disputes, and relations with Turkey have been steadily improving.
I recently spent time with Greek activists who have been camping out in Athens' Syntagma Square to protest the austerity program. They are not happy with Clinton's visit, or her thumbs up for a financial package that slashes wages, reduces pensions, increases joblessness and privatizes government services. And they noted that the very nations in the European Union and the United States that have been pushing the Greek government to squeeze Greek workers are the same ones that have been, for the last decade, pushing Greece to purchase massive amounts of worthless weapons.
Nikos Milonas, a member of the Greek Green Party, said that Germany, France and the United States have been the biggest purveyors of weapons, weapons that have only benefitted foreign corporations. "If we had slashed our military spending years ago, we wouldn't be in this crisis," he said. Military spending over the past 30 years accounts for over 1/3 of Greece's current debt.
Much of the equipment comes from Germany, the country most responsible for bailing out Greece and the loudest in condemning Greeks for living beyond their means. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel scolded the Greek government "to do its homework" on debt reduction, she wasn't talking about revisiting the over one billion dollars that Greece had spent on two submarines from Germany or the more than two dozen F16 fighter jets it bought from the United States at a cost of more than 2 billion dollars.
Greek Alternate Defense Minister Panos Beglitis, who is in charge of military procurement, said Greece would postpone military purchases as the nation struggled to pull itself out of a financial crisis that has pushed it close to bankruptcy. But it remains in talks with France over the purchase of six frigates, while Germany, France, Israel and the United States are eager to sell the country more fighter jets.
According to Sissy Vovou, a member of the Anti-Militarist, Anti-Nationalist Initiative, Greece's recent cuts in military spending have been ridiculously small. "Our government has cut the military budget by a few percentage points when it should be dramatically slashed," she said. "But the government is afraid to go against the military, as well as the foreign governments where the weapons manufacturers are based. They are telling Greece that if it wants a bail-out, it must keep buying weapons we don't need or want."
When Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan visited Greece in May 2010, Greek Deputy Prime Minister Theodore Pangalos was quoted as saying that he felt "forced to buy weapons we do not need," and that the deals made him feel "national shame."
The people of Greece are fed up with this wasteful military spending. "Our government cares more about the demands of a few powerful nations than the needs of its own citizens," said 22-year-old Achima Tzavaras, who has been camping out in Athens' main square for weeks. "That's why there has always been plenty of money for new tanks, missiles, submarines and fighter planes but not for schools, hospitals and public transportation." Tzavaras, who has been unemployed for a year and helps organize other unemployed young people, said the government should focus on creating jobs not buying weapons.
The same could be said for the United States, which is undergoing its own financial crisis while maintaining massive military expenditures. But don't count on Hillary Clinton advocating an austerity plan for Greece or the United States that would alienate her friends in the weapons business.