05/10/2012 04:26 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2012

The Greek Opportunity for Europe

Will the Euro, and Europe, survive? In one predominant scenario the answer hinges on Greece. The image of a Europe without Greece is being sharply tuned to produce world-wide anxieties. What actually happens in the coming years, however, may depend on which of the key actors are able to abandon this view.

We normally think of fear as a problem. In politics, however, as anxiety shapes beliefs and motivates actions, it presents opportunities. That is why opinion-makers have correctly identified the possibility of a Greek exit as a source of power. It seems like the ultimate threat and bargaining chip.

But who actually holds this power? The Germans have used it as a big flag to rally public opinion against the corrupt and spendthrift Greeks, and as a big stick to extort concessions from them. "Pay your bills!" and "keep your promises!" or "you shall be cast out!"

There is some sleight-of-hand in this, but how many people see it? The treaties bringing Europe together have no provision for such a power. No member can be expelled by Europe, and certainly not by the Germans alone. As a matter of institutional design this is an amazing oversight of the sort common to many critical moments in history.

Obviously the Germans are not powerless. They have set the terms for restructuring the Greek economy. They did this directly, in negotiations, and through their influence within the policy-making institutions of the "troika." And the Germans have the cash. A decision to cut off financial resources would further limit policy options for the Greek state, starve Greek society, and accelerate flight from Greek bonds. This is not a game.

Yet, there are new specters haunting all of Europe -- the Germans included. Global financial speculation is hunting new prey and will eventually touch everyone. The political unity necessary to make Europe a world power for another century is at risk. As Greek departure threatens to incite the vultures and to extinguish that dream, a tremendous leverage is linked to exit. In this moment that specific power accrues to the Greeks. Does that make it their best option?

The symbol of this power is the self-image of a David Greece striking down a German Goliath. As personal hardship and frustration grow around Greece a popular reaction against austerity gains ground. The shockingly corrupt mainstream politicians of the last thirty years -- conservative New Democracy and the Socialists -- have been hung out to dry in this week's election, down 14 percent and 30 percent respectively.

To almost everyone outside of Greece and many inside, the crisis seems to have come to a head in just these stark terms: Germans with their stick and Greeks with their lever. Few have noticed that both threats amount to the same thing. Mutual suicide is not a solution. This is a stand-off where no one wants, and everyone will suffer from, the apparently inevitable result.

In such situations, possibilities for new or unforeseen powers emerge from agenda-setting imagination and authentic public leadership. The chance to seize this new and productive power, or more precisely the chance to create it, will not derive from the leverage of exit. That chance must instead be channeled through a political position grounded in loyalty to Europe.

Whoever next governs in Athens will have to address himself to Greeks but speak at the same time to the other member states and half a billion fellow citizens, declaring that "Greece will never leave Europe; we commit ourselves this way for the sake of Europe because we are Europeans."

Can this happen? Is it credible? The answer today depends on political will, skill, and intelligence, and these are in perilously short supply. The clock is ticking and two especially obdurate obstacles stand in the way.

Nothing will happen if the leader of a new Greek government does not confront the Germans, which is to say confront the myth of German power diffused day-in and day-out by the global media, and consolidate the Greeks, which is to say consolidate the self-image of Greek democracy and its significance for life in Greece and the future of Europe. At this juncture these amount to the same thing. A single declaration will suffice: "Germany! You cannot decide who will be European and who will not; Greece! The power to refashion Europe is in our hands if we maintain our place in Europe."

Since the crisis began, Greece has largely been compelled to fend for itself against a Franco-German alignment in favor of austerity. By another operation of chance, on the very day that the Greek political landscape was blown apart and a minuscule and treacherous path forward cracked open, that alignment may have suffered a fatal blow. Many believe that the election of Francois Hollande will turn the debate on European policy from austerity towards a politics of growth. Despite Hollande's refusal to meet with Alexis Tsipras (leader of a surging Left coalition untainted by corruption), this could make France some kind of ally for Greece against the harshest of German demands.

This will surely appear to many Greeks as a ray of light. But the fact is that it constitutes the second looming obstacle. For the real issue in Greece today is not between austerity and growth. It is between two kinds of austerity.

With an exit from Europe that austerity might be partially alleviated in the long-run by a return of the drachma. But -- as the precipitous advance of the criminal fascist party Golden Dawn suggests -- it could also involve the collapse of republican government.

For a Greece that remains within Europe, austerity will certainly be a brutal affair. But at least the country would continue to be buffered by partnership in the Article 2 European commitments to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.

Moreover, by vociferously rebuffing the Germans with a refusal to leave the Greeks could win what, in this terrible situation, is the best they can hope for: a real chance to renegotiate the terms of the "memorandum" and to take back their country from the crooks. Whoever shall instill a program like this in the hearts of the Greeks and the brains of the Germans, his name will be known for centuries to come.