In his new book Terrorists at the Table, Jonathan Powell discusses the difficulties working with inexperienced negotiators and underscores the problems this presented for the UK in reaching agreement with the IRA prior to the Good Sunday Accords. Neil Irwin, in the New York Times “Upshot” column on July 2, 2015, outlines the Greek government’s negotiating strategy under SYRIZA and explains, to a certain extent, why it failed – leaving the country in what can only be seen as a Never-Never land at best and a disaster at worst. (Temple of Nike, Acropolis, Athens by WJ Kushlis 1981.)
What went wrong? Here are some thoughts not necessarily in priority order.
1. Inexperience on the part of the Greek government negotiators: Although Irwin doesn’t so state, neither the new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras nor his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, an academic, had prior experience in government let alone as government negotiators. Their expectations in what they could accomplish in dealing with the Troika were inflated - built more on wishful thinking than on hard cold reality. Their seeming erratic and volcanic behavior sat poorly with the Germans and other Europeans with whom they were negotiating.
Various sources indicate that Varoufakis’s approach to the negotiations was grounded in his reliance on game theory – but as Powell and Lawrence Freedman point out, game theory – and its ensuing brinksmanship - is not effective in real world negotiations. It is, in reality, not a negotiating strategy. Far better to read Getting to Yes, Getting Past No or Powell’s new book Terrorists at the Table. Negotiations are about give and take, splitting differences, and best of all – and especially in the Greek case - finding creative solutions for mutual benefit.
2. Intransigence on the part of creditors who upped the debt payback ante by substantially raising interest rates instead of allowing the Greek economy to gain firmer ground before insisting on higher pay back.
The negative effects of the deep five year depression and expectation of continued high unemployment resulted in the election of the far left SYRIZA much less willing to work with the Europeans and the Troika than previous more moderate and internationally experienced governments were. The result: vastly increased chances of a Greek exit from the EURO and an ensuing government default that will result in a no-win situation for the creditors, the Greeks and more broadly, Europe as a whole. The prospect of potential disarray in the wider EURO-zone and beyond is real – although we’re told this is far less likely than when the Greek economic crisis first emerged in 2009. But just from a political standpoint a fragmented Europe will have far less influence and power internationally than a cohesive one. Mr. Putin, who is doing his best to help bring about this weaker Europe for his own purposes has undoubtedly taken note.
3. The stark cultural and behavioral differences between Southern and Northern Europeans - British educated Varoufakis should have been able to recognize and factor in such stark behavioral differences and use them to his advantage far better than he did. Instead, both he and Tsipras unnecessarily angered Troika negotiators reportedly turning even potential friends into opponents. (Varoufakis just resigned as Minister of Finance and Tsipras plans to return to the negotiating table presumably bringing Euclid Tsakalotos, Varoufakis’ replacement. If, that is, a negotiating table still exists.)
4. Ideological and historical baggage: both sides have painted themselves into ideological corners for domestic political reasons - the leftist position of SYRIZA’s Greek constituency versus the conservative austerity-driven position of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic constituency. Yet, even the far more moderate Greek center-right and center-left leaders had been unable to meet the Troika’s stringent requirements: to turn government finances around through the restructuring of public hiring, reform of the pension system, raising the retirement age; improvement of taxation policies and more effective tax collection; and an overall reduction in government spending including privatization of government assets without throwing the country into a deep depression and unbearable unemployment. The leaders of the major Greek political parties have now agreed to support Tsipras through a statement of national unity announced July 6.