COMMENT

The US is not just Washington

TOM ELLIS

Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, seen in a file photo.

TAGS: Politics, Diaspora, Diplomacy

A meeting at the White House is always a significant event. However, the United States is more than Washington, the capital, where Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is set to arrive on Monday. There are other major cities, such as Chicago, which Tsipras is also scheduled to visit – and with good reason. The large Greek-American community, which could (under the right circumstances) be of great service to Athens, also has a significant presence in other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia and Florida. Most of these places are of considerable political importance.

Chicago is home to the very effective Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC). The Greek-American advocacy organization, which has links to the country’s executive and legislative power, helped set up events and meetings for the visiting prime minister. During his stay in Chicago, Tsipras will attend a working dinner with US Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. The event will also be attended by numerous members of the House – among them many members of the Committee on Foreign Affairs. The committee recently published a report on energy in the Eastern Mediterranean that was co-signed by HALC executive director Endy Zemenides.

Ignorance about the way the US political system operates means that Greek politicians often fail to understand or adequately acknowledge the importance of the members of Congress. In contrast to Europe’s parliamentary systems, in the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives have huge power and enjoy full autonomy from the government of the time. In this light, it is useful – or rather necessary – to build channels of communication with legislators who have a major influence on decision making on the economic, commercial and geopolitical level.

In Chicago Tsipras will also meet with many business leaders. And, as a senior US official recently told me, New York may be the world’s financial center, but cities like Chicago are home to major companies and influential Greek Americans who could potentially direct business activity toward Greece and create jobs. So engaging with these people on a higher level would only be good for Greece.

Finally, and besides the above – and rather obvious – parameters of Tsipras’s presence in Chicago, there is a more profound dimension, which everyone likes to repeat, but very few seem to really mean. The contact with the Greek diaspora, particularly that in the US, should be on the agenda of every Greek prime minister. We are talking about millions of people who love their mother country, in some cases perhaps more than those who live in Greece.

This is not just theoretical talk, but an observation based on decades of firsthand experience from Boston, New York and Washington. In this light, Tsipras’s visit to Chicago is, politically and economically speaking, a right move that conveys a strong message.

Online