COMMENT

Biden and the Greek-American community

TOM ELLIS

Joe Biden addressing members of the Greek-American community during the annual OXI Day Foundation event, in October 2016.

TAGS: Analysis, US, US Elections, Diaspora, Politics, Diplomacy

National interest, rather than personal ties, is the key factor which determines a state's foreign policy-making – even more so when we are talking about the world's leading power. That said, the personal dimension remains part of the equation.

One thing that differentiates US president-elect Joe Biden from his predecessors is his long-standing and close ties with the Greek diaspora. Of course that alone should not generate too much enthusiasm. After all, when it comes to the main issue occupying Greece and Cyprus at the moment –i.e. Turkey's behavior – calculations are complex and they take into account parameters that exceed personal preferences and sensibilities, even those of the president.

Nevertheless, the relationship between Biden and America's Greek diaspora is genuine and sincere. One expects that it will make up a piece of the puzzle, although how big a piece remains to be seen.

The former vice president maintains personal ties with many Americans of Greek and Cypriot descent, and in the past he has often responded to their concerns.

I remember Biden attending a diaspora conference held at Congress back in 2008 during which he thanked the Greek-American community for its long-standing support as he vowed to always stand by its side. In an emotional speech, Biden spoke of his 1988 bid to win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, when he lost to Michael Dukakis (he tried again in 2008, losing again, this time to the eventual president Barack Obama). A teary-eyed Biden told the crowd that he would never forget what they'd promised him 20 years earlier: The Greek-American community would obviously back Dukakis but at the same time support him as well. More specifically, for every 5 dollars that they would collect for the Dukakis campaign, they would contribute 1 dollar to Biden's own campaign. Biden emphasized how much he was moved by the gesture and noted it was something that he would "never forget."

His words were colored with similar emotion as he addressed a 2016 event organized by Andy and Mike Manatos' OXI Day Foundation commemorating Greece's October 28 national holiday: "Aristotle once asked, 'What is a friend?' He answered his own question. He said, 'A single soul living in two bodies'... That pretty well sums up my relationship with this community. Your loyalty, your friendship when things were lousy as well as when things were good have been a continual source of strength to me. You stood up with me, you defended me, and you've been alongside me since my earliest days in the Senate," he said. "It's no exaggeration to say that the Greek community has helped shape my political conscience," he added.

Biden is emotional by nature, but this does not diminish the significance of his remarks, which were made when he was still vice president.

A key channel of communication with the new administration in Washington will be Endy Zemenides, the executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC). Zemenides, an expert on regional issues, often serves as a source of information for officials at the executive and legislative branches, as well as think tanks. In addition, the Greek diaspora seeks to influence the White House through advocacy organizations such as the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and the American Hellenic Institute (AHI), as well as the archbishop of America. Also, Father Alex Karloutsos, who has for over four decades served as a very effective channel of communication with all US presidents, has been friends with Biden for many years.

Also worth noting is the fact that Biden is one of the very few American politicians to have met with and know firsthand most of the leaders of Greece and Cyprus in recent years. From George Papandreou, whom he met on several occasions, including during the latter's tenure as foreign minister and while Biden was a member of the Senate's Foreign Affairs committee, to Alexis Tsipras and Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Biden visited Athens in December 2011 (during the administration of Lucas Papademos) and Nicosia in May 2014. He also took part in the first Concordia Conference in Europe that was held in Athens in June 2017.

His interest in Cyprus is guided by personal sensitivities as many of his acquaintances among the diaspora community are of Cypriot origin. It was no coincidence that when Cyprus President Nikos Anastasiades was hospitalized in New York in December 2014, Biden visited him at the clinic.

The president-elect – who has just chosen Greek-American Jen Psaki, former State Department spokesperson and then president Barack Obama's White House communications director, to lead a team overseeing the confirmation process in the Senate – is one of the few senior US politicians to have a good command of Greece-related issues. He dealt with them as a senator for 36 years, particularly as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, where he also served as chairman, and as Vice President for eight years. Contrary to other presidents (the only possible exception being George H.W. Bush, who had served as CIA director, UN ambassador and vice president), Biden knows the particularities of the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean and is expected to seek to utilize the new role of Greece and Cyprus in the region.

In this context, the relationship with the diaspora will influence (access has in the past proved to be effective) but not determine the president's geopolitical priorities and America's policy in Greece's broader region. This is not how states operate – or at least, it's not how they operated until the emergence of Donald Trump, an anti-systemic president who often made decisions on the basis of personal friendship, if not personal interest.

Biden has been part of the establishment for half a century. In that sense, he won't speak or act driven solely by any private sensibilities. Both he and his experienced foreign policy aides do not want "the West to lose Turkey." This is something that we need to keep in mind. On the other hand, it is impossible for any politician to shut down his emotions and personal ties and friendships.

The next president's foreign policy on Greece will balance on this thin line. The realities of bureaucracy mean that we should not expect miracles. On the personal level, however, there is a positive background that Athens and Nicosia ought to make use of.


Friction with President Erdogan

While Donald Trump never missed a chance to say Recep Tayyip Erdogan was his friend, even in the presence of the Greek prime minister in the Oval Office, Joe Biden, in an interview with The New York Times last January, had openly called the Turkish president an "autocrat" and had maintained that the United States should support the Turkish opposition to help defeat him.

"What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership," Biden had told The Times' top editors then. "He has to pay a price," he said, adding that Washington should "embolden" the leaders of the Turkish opposition "to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process." 

Biden's statements had prompted an angry if belated response by Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin, who tweeted on August 16: "The analysis of Turkey by @JoeBiden is based on pure ignorance, arrogance and hypocrisy. The days of ordering Turkey around are over. But if you still think you can try, be our guest. You will pay the price."

The US president-elect had also criticized Turkish provocations in the Aegean and the wider region. "Unlike President Trump, Joe will call out Turkish behavior that is in violation of international law or that contravenes its commitments as a NATO ally, such as Turkish violations of Greek airspace," said a statement released by his campaign office last month on his vision for US-Greek relations.

Another thorn in Biden's relationship with Ankara is his stated interest in the Kurds, who he considers as having helped the US in the fight against the Islamic State. He thought that Donald Trump's unexpected decision to withdraw from Syria was a major strategic blunder that left the Kurds exposed to Turkish aggression.

In tune with State Department and Pentagon bureaucracy, but also with the bipartisan consensus in the House and the Senate, Biden will adopt a hard line on the issue of Turkey's acquisition and testing of the Russian-made S-400 air-defense system and it is likely that sanctions will be imposed.

Finally, the US president-elect will not intervene, as Trump allegedly has, to ensure lenient treatment for Erdogan associates involved in the case of Turkey's Halkbank – the case is being tried in New York – for circumventing sanctions against Iran.

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