COMMENT

‘Greece can be major force for Balkan stability,’ says former US ambassador

TOM ELLIS

TAGS: Diplomacy, US, Interview

The United States looks to Greece to “maintain stability” in the Eastern Mediterranean, former American ambassador to Greece Nicholas Burns tells Kathimerini in an interview. He adds that following the Prespes agreement, there are now no more obstacles blocking Greece from expanding its role in Southeastern Europe. At the same time, he notes that Turkey has become a “major headache” for Washington.

Regarding the economic turmoil of the last 10 years, Burns says that Greece has survived one of the “most devastating crises of this century” and that the Greek people should be “proud that they have not only survived it but are on the road to recovery.” Still, much will depend on the “continued discipline and effectiveness of the government in its economic and investment strategies.”

Burns, who also served as ambassador to NATO and rose to the position of undersecretary of state, and is now Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, sees a “successful” relationship between the new Greek government and the Trump administration.

How do you see Greece’s prospects after the crisis?

Greece has survived one of the most devastating economic crises of this century. I think the Greek people should be proud that they not only survived it but are on the road to recovery. Still, the costs were extraordinarily high for Greek families. I know that many young people have moved to Europe, the US and elsewhere to find work. As a friend of Greece, I can only hope that foreign investment increases, Greece’s credit rating strengthens and tourism continues to succeed. Much will depend on the continued discipline and effectiveness of the government in its economic and investment strategies.

What role can Greece play in the region?

Now that the Macedonia name issue has been resolved, there are few impediments to an expanding Greek role in Southeastern Europe. Greece can be a major force for stability in the Balkans. It can also continue to be an important source of support for Cyprus.

How concerned is the US about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

Turkey has become a major headache for Washington. Erdogan has been difficult in Syria in criticizing and opposing US work with the Syrian Kurdish forces. By purchasing the Russian S-400 missile system, he has forced the US to suspend Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter program. NATO will also not permit Turkey to integrate that system into the NATO Air Defense system as that would be tantamount to accepting carcinogens into the bloodstream. Turkey’s decision has created a major problem for both NATO and the US.

How do you assess the state of relations between the US and Greece?

I am optimistic that the US and Greece are entering into a new and promising era in our long alliance and friendship. When I was ambassador in Athens between 1997 and 2001, it was a rocky and often difficult time due to disagreements with the PASOK government over Kosovo, terrorism and other issues. That is all behind the two countries now. Greece and the US are strengthening our economic and energy ties. The two are working much more closely together on NATO and military cooperation. As the US and Turkey have encountered difficult relations, the US looks to Greece to maintain stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.

What about beyond the geopolitical dimensions of the relationship?

Our people-to-people ties remain very strong. As I live in Boston, I see first-hand the commitment that many of my Greek-American friends have to Greece. I serve on the boards of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens and the Gennadius Library in Kolonaki. Both represent more than a century of American involvement in archaeology and Greek history. I think these bonds will continue to flourish and to build over time. I do think this much more positive period in our relationship will endure and sustain itself. President Barack Obama was a good friend to Greece during the crisis when his government argued for debt relief for the Greek economy. I want to pay tribute to Ambassador Geoff Pyatt, who is a remarkably effective ambassador. He is working very hard to cement our ties in energy, trade and investment and an improvement of our military cooperation, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean.

What is your impression of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis?

He is a very impressive leader. I have known him for many years and admire his intelligence, sophistication about global politics and economics. He is highly regarded in Europe as well as in America. From what I have observed, he is strengthening Greece’s ties and credibility with the European Union. I expect he will have a successful relationship with the Trump administration. His new government will need some time to change global attitudes about investment prospects in Greece. But he will help Greece to recover its image and credibility as a country with a serious government that is reliable and meets its commitments.

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