PRINCETON – US President Barack Obama’s recent call to ease the austerity imposed on Greece is remarkable – and not only for his endorsement of the newly elected Greek government’s negotiating position in the face of its official creditors. Obama’s comments represent a break with the long-standing tradition of official American silence on European monetary affairs. While scholars in the United States have frequently denounced the policies of Europe’s monetary union, their government has looked the other way.
Those who criticize the euro or how it is managed have long run the risk of being dismissed as Anglo-Saxons or, worse, anti-Europeans. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accurately foresaw the folly of a European monetary union. Gordon Brown, as British Chancellor of the Exchequer, followed in Thatcher’s footsteps. When his staff presented carefully researched reasons for not joining the euro, many Europeans sneered.
And that is why Obama’s statement was such a breath of fresh air. It came a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Greece should not expect more debt relief and must maintain austerity. Meanwhile, after days of not-so-veiled threats, the European Central Bank is on the verge of cutting funding to Greek banks. The guardians of financial stability are amplifying a destabilizing bank run.
Obama’s breach of Europe’s intellectual insularity is all the more remarkable because even the International Monetary Fund has acquiesced in German-imposed orthodoxy. As IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde told the Irish Times: “A debt is a debt, and it is a contract. Defaulting, restructuring, changing the terms has consequences.”