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Pompeo: US worried about tension in the Aegean

ALEXIS PAPACHELAS, VASSILIS NEDOS

US State Secretary Mike Pompeo answers a question during a discussion at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC), in Athens, Greece, 05 October 2019. Pompeo is on a two-days official visit to Greece [Yannis Kolesidis/EPA]

TAGS: US, Diplomacy, Politics

The new defense deal signed between Athens and Washington will contribute to Greece’s security, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Kathimerini in an interview during of his recent visit.

Pompeo said he hopes that Greece and Turkey will resolve their differences peacefully. Turning to Turkey’s violation of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Pompeo referred to “widely recognized international waters,” which every nation has to respect.

Asked what would happen if Turkey infringes upon a block that US firms have interests in, Pompeo said it was a hypothetical scenario, but nonetheless underlined that the US always does what is necessary to protect its interests.
 

We had a feeling, especially at the end of the Obama administration, that the US was withdrawing from the region. Are you back? What are the strategic goals of the US?

It’s a great question. We’re back. And when I say we’re back, we’re committed, because it is in America’s best interest to be committed. It’s always the most reliable barometer. Nations always act to take care of themselves and their interests. Greece does the same for its people. We have lots of strategic objectives and what you’ve seen today in my trip to Greece is we have a new defense cooperation agreement which will matter. It will not just matter tomorrow, next week, it will matter in the years and decades ahead, and it’s more than just basing rights. People say, “Oh, it’s just some basing rights;” it’s much deeper, much broader than that, and it gives us political signals that it is much deeper and broader than that as well. We want a successful, thriving Greece – it’s good for American entrepreneurs, it’s good for American business, we’ve had Deloitte and Tesla and General Electric just closed a big deal here which will be great for American jobs and there will be fantastic outcomes for the people of Greece as well. More broadly than that, we care deeply to see that the Balkans are stable. This has been a region that... has been fraught with challenges and we want to see Greece lead the way forward. We want it to have this awakening with this new prime minister and that new team that can drive growth through Europe and create stability in the region.

This is a very important agreement, but a lot of Greeks are asking what Greece can expect in return in concrete terms.

For starters, I think Greece will be more secure, that’s probably the primary reason that the two countries made this decision. It’s a win-win from a security perspective. Each benefits from the close relationship that is created by our militaries; the common set of understanding and operating rules between our militaries will serve each of us well if there should ever be the need to either defend or deter from a determined adversary. Second, I think there will be important commercial benefits. Any time there are deep interactions like this around complicated technologies, the host country often benefits from collaterals, things that spin out of this relationship, and of course wherever you host Americans, and you do this in many places – you are most gracious to our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen and marines – there’s good economic benefits in those host locations as well.

We had bases here during the Cold War and we knew who the enemy was. Who is the enemy now and what are these bases being used for?

NATO has laid out its strategic mission, the United States has its national security strategy [and] I’m confident that Greece has a deep understanding of the things that potentially threaten it, but make no mistake: The Soviet Union is gone, but Russian malign influence continues. In the Middle East – not too far away – there are difficult challenges, the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to sponsor terror around the world, challenges to freedom of navigation abound in waters that Greece so heavily depends on for shipping and transportation, and those are the kind of things that nations like Greece and nations like the US depend on, having access to those waterways, and so, having a capable military, having a deterrent force that reminds everyone that they need to engage in behaviors that are consistent with the rule of law, I think it’s an absolute imperative, and you don’t know where that next threat will come from. We stare out there and we think we’re smart and we see them all, but the truth is history is replete with days that you didn’t think someone was an adversary and it turns out you needed to be ready.

We have a big country across the water from us which has become unpredictable. It’s a difficult ally – you have first-hand experience on that. How do you see Turkey developing as an ally? Do you see it drifting away from the West, from NATO and so on? What can the US do to stop it from becoming more unpredictable?

We’re doing all we can to prevent that from happening. It is an important commercial partner for us. They are obviously a NATO ally where we have important infrastructure. We have important political objectives – you know well the risk of refugees coming from Turkey or from Syria or from the region. So, a successful Turkey, a growing, prosperous, economically thriving Turkey is important for not only Greece, but for all of us. So we work diligently to try and deliver that set of outcomes.

Do you see Greece substituting Turkey in terms of military facilities, or some other strategic operation?

I hope they’re not in competition in that way, I don’t think about it that way. I don’t think our military does either. We see each having its own unique set of characteristics, its own unique opportunity to deliver good outcomes for NATO and for the host countries, as well as for the United States.

You made some very strong statements about what Turkey is doing right now around Cyprus and its exclusive economic zone. How will you express concern or dissatisfaction with Turkey’s behavior? Will there be a sanctions proposal to Congress or any other concrete action?

At this point we’re using diplomatic efforts. We’re talking to them. We do this in many places in the world where all we’re simply asking is that there are widely recognized international waters, there’s a set of rules, we ask every nation to comply with them, we ask friends to do that, we ask those that are less so friends. Everyone has the expectation that each country that wants to protect its own sovereignty will offer other countries that same opportunity.

There are US companies engaged in energy exploration around Cyprus. If Turkey disputes those areas, will the US intervene in a more concrete way?

I don’t do hypotheticals. I hope it’s the case that not only will international law be respected but I think every country needs to recognize that America always does what it needs to do to protect commercial interests and to protect its own people, so we’ll do our best to do that, and there’s no reason to think it will be any different here.

Are you worried about tensions between Greece and Turkey, about what’s happening in the Aegean and so on? Traditionally we have expected the US to intervene if something happens.

We always worry when any two countries have tensions that could escalate, could end up in a bad place and create a military confrontation. No one wants that to happen. So I don’t want this to happen between Greece and Turkey. I don’t want it to happen between North and South Korea. There’s no place. Our diplomats are out every day trying to create conditions where countries can talk and engage in dialogue and resolve their disputes in a peaceful way. We are optimistic that that can happen here as well.

US-Greek relations are at their best, and there is something of an expectation that the US might provide some kind of security guarantee toward Greece, if something happens. Is that in the cards, or is it too much to ask?

I don’t know. We haven’t been asked for that yet. But things like we did today by signing the defense cooperation agreement certainly provide better security, not only for Greece, but for the Balkans, for the region, and frankly we think creates stable situations that reduce the risk to America – American businesses, Americans traveling in Greece. So America has a deep interest in making sure that Greece is safe and secure.

I was struck by something you said in your speech, that Greece is kind of unique in the sense that the rest of Europe is moving toward a recession while Greece is moving in another direction. Do you see the potential of Greece becoming a success story?

What I said in the speech is just facts. Greece has turned the corner, it has real opportunity for economic growth ahead, we see real foreign direct investment coming not just from the US but from other places in the world as well and too many places in Europe have put up signals that perhaps they are not interested in that. I hope they will change and do what this new prime minister has done – slash red tape, welcome businesses and make sure projects can speed along – and do it all in a way that protects all the concerns that people have but making sure that the government runs at the speed of the world. And I hope that every European country does that. Frankly I hope that every state in the US does that too. When you do that you get global growth, you get wealth creation, you lift humankind up and that’s the mission set for every leader.

You also talked quite a bit about China during your trip to the Balkans and Greece. The counterargument is that when Greece was in a real crisis and in need, the Chinese were the only ones who came to invest a huge amount of money. How should Greece handle this? How can Greece say no to an investment like this?

I remember that when Greece was in this time of crisis, America came alongside too and helped maintain a system that you could all move your way forward on. America has always been at its best when countries are in a time of crisis to come alongside and help them. As for the decisions that Greece will make, Greece makes its own sovereign decisions – every country has the right to do that, we would never stand in the way of that, but we ask every country to have their eyes wide open. When China shows up with a real business deal and it’s a good deal, we think Greece ought to take it or Greek business ought to take it. When China shows up and the deal looks too good to be true, it just might be. And, sadly, we have seen that in too many places in the world. 

What is the next step in the Strategic Dialogue? What should we expect?

There are lots of technical elements. Technical elements about the defense cooperation agreement that we signed, but also talking about people-to-people exchanges, opportunities for tourism, for educational growth, training efforts, opportunities to upgrade equipment. There’s a couple of dozen different workstreams that will be engaged in the various levels, all of which will put meat on the bones of the agreements that we’ve put together over the past days.

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