Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks with the media before an enhanced honor cordon arrival of Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos at the Pentagon in Washington, October 9.
The frequent changes of foreign and security policy officials in the Trump administration are not helping US allies, including Greece, in their efforts to chart their own long-term foreign policy plans.
In January 2017, a few days before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias met with the man who would take over as the new president’s national security adviser, retired US Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. Exactly a month later, Flynn was forced to resign.
Later on, Kotzias started building a relationship with his replacement, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, with whom he had the first detailed conversations on Greece’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, including a possible solution to the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Thirteen months later, McMaster resigned.
During the same period, then former secretary of state Rex Tillerson was fired, a little over a year after he took over the position. Athens and especially Nicosia had pursued channels of communication with him early on given his previous position as chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil. The US oil and gas giant is participating among others in exploratory drilling in Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.
Now, just a few days after Defense Minister Panos Kammenos’s meeting with his US counterpart James Mattis at the Pentagon, President Trump suggested in an interview with CBS that Mattis could be the next administration official to depart his cabinet.
Putting aside Kammenos’s recent statements to US officials on the FYROM name deal during his visit to Washington, we see again an element of uncertainty creeping in. Any government in Athens would have difficulty building relations, identifying intentions and chartering policy when officials on the other side of the Atlantic keep changing.
It is true that, for a number of reasons, the US foreign policy establishment, both in the State Department and important think tanks, recognizes Greece and Cyprus’s elevated role and, in theory, US strategy will be consistent. Serious countries respect continuity, especially in foreign affairs.
Still, policies are implemented by people, the ones that head ministries and services, and they often have different approaches. In that context, the frequent changes of high-level officials in Washington make it all the more difficult for Athens to work on long-term policies in specific areas of mutual interest.