The essence of diplomacy is in economic promotion

The reaction by some of the Greek press to US Ambassador Charles Ries’s visit to Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis in order to promote the sale of F-16 fighter jets is rather hypocritical. This is because those expressing indignation at the event pretend not to know what the role of big power ambassadors in developed countries is. These diplomat gentlemen are really no less than skilled promoters of the economic interests of their countries, in particular their big companies. If you scratch the luster of a diplomat, you will discover the true color of a salesman. Ambassador Ries, like all his predecessors – at least since Michael Sotirhos in 1989 – have as a primary objective to persuade Greek officials to buy military or civil aircraft, just as the French ambassador puts pressure on the same officials to buy Airbus planes, or the German ambassador used to promote the interests of Siemens. The era of high diplomacy has long passed and the issues related to NATO or the Middle East are resolved by direct negotiations, consultations in Washington, or by the visits of the secretary of state who carries out the instructions of the White House. Ambassadors are in effect commercial attaches and only Greek ambassadors have not understood this evolution of economic diplomacy. Most of them adamantly refuse to help Greek businesspeople investing abroad. Ambassador Ries, who spoke at the Panhellenic Exporters’ Association conference last week, said some very interesting things that we must not ignore just because he happens to be the salesman of his country’s products. First, he said that Greek food products rank third in the preferences of US consumers after France’s and Italy’s. In value, however, they are only a fraction of those competitors’ exports, which are sold through the large American distribution networks, whereas we Greeks are trying to penetrate an organized market through retail outlets. The Hellenic External Trade Board (HEPO) should heed these observations. Second, Ries observed that Greece’s Balkan neighbors are becoming more and more competitive and increasingly attracting larger amounts of investment than Greece. For this country, therefore, he continued, to be able to bolster its presence in the region, it needs to continue economic reforms for at least another five years, particularly in labor legislation, taxation and energy market deregulation. He also expressed concern about transparency, noting that «Greece’s reputation in this regard is not the best.» Obviously, Ries did not say what people would have liked to hear and some senior officials were certainly displeased. But if we do not face up to the realities, we will pay dearly. For how long, for instance, are we going to be a leading economic power in the Balkans when Romania and Bulgaria, which are shaping up for EU membership from 2007, are growing at rates of 5-6 percent, against our 3.5 percent. According to the National Bank of Greece’s latest economic bulletin, foreign direct investment inflows in Greece’s five northern neighbors is expected to top $10.5 million in 2005. It is doubtful whether the respective figure for Greece will exceed $500,000. The contrast is reminiscent of Aesop’s fable of the race between the tortoise and the hare. It was not the hare that won.