Ever since the Second World War, relations with the United States have been key to the stability and the security of Greece. However, it would not be an exaggeration to say that in light of recent developments and the inability of the European Union to safeguard the sovereign rights of its member-states, Greece’s relationship with the incoming American administration is now more important than ever. As a result, it’s only natural that one would be interested in the outcome of the November 3 presidential election, as well as anticipate a further strengthening of ties to the new US administration.
For a more pragmatic and objective understanding of the possibilities and expectations, however, one should look at developments in the region from the perspective of Washington; understand what is constant and what is not in US foreign policy, so as to shape a clear understanding of the limitations and the possibilities in Greek-US ties.
Already since the presidency of Barack Obama, the US had shown a tendency to isolate, giving up the role of the world’s policeman. The trend grew stronger under the Trump administration. And even if it slows down under Biden’s administration, it will not be completely reversed, given that it has deep social and political roots. After all, the American security mechanism has already been focused on the Pacific and China since the time of Obama. As a consequence, interest in Europe and transatlantic relations has to some extent waned. In recent years, the US appears to be interested in the European continent only in terms of the Russian threat. American relations with Europe and NATO are expected to improve, but they will never go back to what they were during the Clinton years, or before that.
Meanwhile, US interest in the Middle East has also declined. Shale gas, the declining importance of oil, the empowerment of Israel and the relative lifting of its isolation from the Gulf countries (which was a success of Trump’s foreign policy) have restricted US interest in the security issues caused by the activity of Iran (and, to some extent, ISIS).
In any case, all the aforementioned trends have their limits, which are set by reality itself. Regardless of America’s inclination to isolate, instead acting as a mid-range power with a more narrow focus on its national interests, it still remains the most powerful state with interests across the globe. The world has gotten smaller in a way and extended instability in geopolitically sensitive areas, such as the points of convergence of international maritime activity (like the Suez Canal), and the undermining of the principles that underpin the international system will ultimately influence America’s interests.
Greece, being a maritime country with the biggest commercial fleet, has no option but to maintain a strategic relationship with the world’s greatest naval power which makes sure sea routes are kept open and sets the rules for world trade. This is why Greece is a strategic and reliable ally and partner, as opposed to Turkey, which has always operated in an opportunistic fashion in international affairs. Turkey’s membership of NATO is not the result of some ideological and political bond with the West, but rather the product of cynical calculation. Turkey’s relationship with the Alliance does not run deep, nor is it guided by shared objectives. The relationship is upheld to the extent that it serves Turkey’s interests, which are increasingly divergent from those of the West. Although this has largely been understood by the American political establishment, the US is not (yet) ready to sever ties with Turkey for the lack of an alternative.
Whether we like it or not, Turkey is a strong regional power in a crucial and strategically sensitive region. Without Turkey geopolitically, its absence would create a power vacuum that no US ally would fill, but rather Russia or Iran. Furthermore, one should not overlook the fact that the Obama administration (and the Biden administration is likely to be a continuation of the Obama administration) treated Turkey as a role model of a pro-Western political Islam. In this light, Turkey’s effort to style itself as a leader of Islamic world, annoying as that may be, can be seen as an acceptable (if not desirable) development. The most likely scenario is that the two sides will try to kick-start relations.
Of course, the Turkey that Biden came to know as vice president is very different to the Turkey of today. The anti-American, and more generally, anti-Western discourse reverberates with the average Turk. The increasingly aggressive and atavistic nationalism cuts across society and the political system (with the exception of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP). If in the past Turkey kept the pretext of a Western-style democracy, it has now grown into a blatantly autocratic state that has more in common with the Russia of Vladimir Putin or Belarus of Alexander Lukashenko than any other country in NATO. In terms of international affairs, Turkey is not interested in being a strategic partner of the West, but aspires to be seen as a strong regional power that can deal with the US, the EU, Russia or even China as an equal partner, and on an à la carte basis. The stronger Turkey becomes, the more unchecked its power will be, posing a direct threat to Greece and Cyprus, and in the mid-term to Egypt and Israel. Turkey has a hand in every source of volatility in the region, and its actions undermine the cohesion of NATO and the security architecture of the West, and the rules of the international system.
In light of all this, the new American administration will most likely seek to contain Turkey while at the same time trying not to fatally injure US-Turkish ties. In this context, the Biden administration’s policy will probably resemble a continuation of the Trump administration. A key difference lies in the personal ties of the two leaders. In spite of the millions of dollars that Turkey spends on lobbying, Erdogan will certainly no longer enjoy the same access. In any case, the US has many levers of pressure at its disposal, such as sanctions that have already been voted through by the Senate and the judicial investigation into the Halkbank scandal – and all that with a Turkish economy in crisis. A decision to pursue a policy of containment without creating a rupture, assuming that this is a possible scenario (although it seems more unlikely with time), also serves Greek interests.
Greece should invest in the shared interest (not only with the US, but also with Israel and Egypt) of containing the extreme and aggressive Turkish objectives. Ankara’s Blue Homeland dogma is one of domination in the Eastern Mediterranean. And efforts to bring it to fruition pose a geopolitical risk to the countries in the region. Should Turkey not be contained, it will seek to dominate across the sea area east of Libya, thereby controlling the sea routes from Suez but also the Black Sea to the Mediterranean for Greece. The danger is almost an existential one for Greece and it threatens its vital interests. Taking the above into consideration, Greece must move immediately to activate all channels of communication with the new president and his team. It must also seek to create new channels of communication with all the players that make up the US security system and foreign policy. We must undertake a series of targeted actions and a public awareness campaign in Congress, as well as for the think tanks and public opinion, which is the strongest level of pressure.
To achieve all that we will need to cooperate with the Greek-American community, as well as Israeli and Armenian organizations. So far, Greek cooperation with the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has been exceptional and it has produced results. But we must deepen our relationship with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has a great influence across the spectrum of the American political system. Within the same context we could put forward a few more innovative ideas, such as the creation of a diaspora-based political action committee (PAC) that would undertake public awareness campaigns, like for example on the issue of Hagia Sophia, or even the organization of a joint mission made up of Greeks, Israelis and Egyptians (three allies, three religions, three continents) that would undertake to inform all agencies. The political symbolism would be huge.
On a strictly bilateral level, it’s time to make the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) a permanent deal (instead of having to renew it every year). Doing so would symbolize a long-term commitment to cooperate. Finally, on an operational level, we must rid ourselves of past taboos. We want the presence of the US 6th Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean and in this context we could provide Greek naval units to accompany the American naval force.
In order to achieve all that we will have to invest money and time. Dealing with an unchecked Turkey, we will have to use every means at our disposal. The strategic objective is countering the risk of Blue Homeland. It is important that we move quickly, because as we know already from the time of Pericles, “Time will not wait.”
Alexandros Diakopoulos is the former national security adviser to the Prime Minister.