Greece and Turkey have come close to hostilities in the past but pulled back. NATO and the European Union played limited to no roles in these episodes and their internal and institutional dynamics work against timely, forceful and successful interventions in such bilateral disputes.
The degradation of a rules-based international system gives more scope to aggressive actors, adding greater risks for Greece and Turkey. The United States has often interceded to de-escalate tensions and defuse crises, and of course will continue to play such a role in the future, assuming Greece and Turkey are open to such a role.
Today, conditions are substantially different. Turkey’s relationship with the US is scratchy, with multiple flash points and trust levels at near historic lows. Ankara has withdrawn its ambassador from Washington; the US does not yet have an ambassador in Ankara.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s administration is primarily focused on North Korea, China, Iran, trade and immigration, with Russia and the Middle East also occupying attention. The majority of senior State Department positions are unfilled. Expertise in Greece-Turkey issues is less pronounced than it once was across multiple agencies. Middle- to upper-echelon staffers are unseasoned and untested in Aegean crisis management.
Although Trump has a predilection for authoritarian strongmen such as Erdogan, he is also influenced by the last person to speak with him. In short, Greece and Turkey are well advised both to engage the US early and often and also to use direct channels with one another. Better to avert than try to manage a crisis. Once one starts, risks grow exponentially for crisis instability and events can spin out of control, with consequences far beyond the original stakes.
Greece should be clear-eyed and hard-headed. At the same time, it’s in Turkey’s self-interest to recalibrate, dampen provocative statements and actions, and exercise better risk management. Turkey already has genuine security and economic challenges without creating unnecessary and avoidable ones.
Alexander Karagiannis is a former US diplomat.