American and Greek perceptions compared

I am very fortunate. I’ve spent eight years in Greece, out of my 22 years as a diplomat. Time and again during these years, I’ve seen newly arrived Americans stunned at the accusations about American interference in Greece’s affairs or US discrimination against Greece. Having spent time here, I know where the Greek accusations come from and, as an American, I know why my compatriots are shocked. As I leave Greece for my next assignment, I thought I might try to explain the US perspective on some of the more important points of contention between our two peoples. Greek perception: The US intervened in Greece’s structure post-WWII. American perception: The US helped Greece get back on its feet. Greece was in dire straits after WWII. The US provided about $5 billion* to Greece immediately after the war for the most critical needs, but this was not enough to stabilize the country, especially with the ongoing guerrilla warfare. When Britain signaled in 1947 its inability to continue to support Greece, the Greek government asked the US for assistance and President Truman asked Congress for $2.5 billion for Greece (and $830 million for Turkey). The Truman Doctrine money was used for public health, public works, and essential military supplies. Secretary of State George Marshall then announced an American-European plan, which was endorsed by all 16 Western European countries. The Soviet Union and its satellites rejected the invitation to join the Plan. The Organization for European Economic Cooperation (a precursor of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union) was born. By 1952, Greece had received $10 billion for mutually agreed-upon projects approved by the OEEC. The work in Greece spanned agriculture, housing, public health, public works, communications, vocational schools, military assistance, and more. With the military assistance requested and provided through the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan, the Greek army cleared rebel centers from the mountainous Greek interior. After the Marshall Plan and until 1962, the US gave a further $4 billion in 2006 dollars in aid. From the American point of view, American taxpayers helped to feed and house Greeks, build medical facilities, resurrect the agricultural sector, reconstruct houses, roads, bridges, airports, ports, and railways, and save the shipping and other industries. Most importantly, this was done at the request of, in coordination with, and under the eye of the government of Greece and other Europeans. While Greeks today may focus on the combatants who died in the civil war and those displaced from their homes by the fighting, Americans are more likely to focus on the fact that, because of American help, Greece did not share the fate of Bulgaria or Albania. In Eastern Europe, people are still angry at their governments for not accepting American aid. Elsewhere in Western Europe, there are monuments to American assistance. The reaction in Greece puzzles Americans. (For more information on the Marshall Plan in Greece, log on to Greek perception: The US had a hand in the April 1967 coup. American perception: This is false. It’s impossible to rule out that some US official(s) knew about the possibility of a junta, but there is absolutely no indication that there was US involvement. Senior officials have repeatedly said they were taken by surprise. There were rumors about a military junta from 1964 on, but Greek officials heard these too. When the coup happened in 1967, the embassy did not even know if the colonels were on the right or on the left. Greek perception: The US supported the junta while in power. American perception: The junta was the government of Greece at that time. King Constantine recognized the junta as the legitimate government in April on day one. The US maintained relations with the junta, as did the Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc, and most countries in Western Europe. Only a handful of countries refused to recognize the regime. While some European countries took care not to endanger their trade relations with Greece by criticizing the junta, the US Congress was calling for a restoration of a parliamentary government and imposed an embargo on heavy arms until 1970. The Eastern bloc countries, in contrast, maintained diplomatic relations and signed commercial treaties with the colonels. Rather than being treated as a pariah, the junta retained relations with all major powers, remained in NATO, and established Greece’s formal relations with Albania and diplomatic relations with China. Greece remained in the Council of Europe until 1969, when it withdrew over human rights violations. Many elements of Greek society worked with the junta, either reluctantly or with enthusiasm. Vice President Spiro Agnew was the highest-ranking foreign official to pay an official visit to Greece during the time of the junta. From the US point of view, Agnew’s words about the junta were much less warm than what the Greek prime minister said about martial law in Poland on the first trip by a Western leader to General Jaruzelski during martial law. Greek perception: The US allowed Turkey to invade Cyprus. American perception: The junta provoked the invasion of Cyprus. The Greek colonels organized a coup against Archbishop Makarios, the constitutional leader of Cyprus, toppling his government and violating the terms of the 1959 Zurich Agreement that had assigned Britain, Greece, and Turkey as the guarantors of Cyprus’s independence and internal security. Makarios spoke forcefully against this coup before the UNGA a few days later. The Turks took this as an invitation to invade. During the summer of 1974, Americans had other things on their minds. The Watergate hearings started on May 9, and President Nixon resigned on August 8. There was no chance of the US taking any major foreign policy or military initiative that summer. And in this case, the US had told both Athens and Nicosia in 1970 that it would not intervene in this dispute. Greek perception: The US unilaterally recognized FYROM by its constitutional name. American perception: We held off until it was no longer possible. Over 90 countries recognized FYROM as the Republic of Macedonia before the US did. Today, more than 100 have done so. The US recognition is only for bilateral purposes and should have no bearing on any other country or organization. We are fully aware of how emotional and sensitive this issue is in both countries. That we waited over 10 years before recognizing Macedonia by its constitutional name is a clear indication of our respect for Greece and the value we place on our relationship with Greece. The US recognized Macedonia in November 2004 because of the domestic referendum that month, the failure of which could have resulted in domestic or regional instability. It’s in the interests of the US and particularly of Greece to try and maintain stability in the region. The US will respect whatever solution comes out of the UN-mediated process, which we support but do not control. Greek perception: The US regularly sides with Turkey in NATO and in general. American perception: We do not play favorites. Ironically, the Turks believe that the US regularly sides with Greece. In a poll conducted in Turkey in May 2007, 63.6 percent of Turks said that the US would support Greece in case of a problem between Greece and Turkey and just 23.1 percent said that the US would support Turkey. Greek perception: The US is anti-Serb. American perception: We bend over backward to help the Serbs. The US does not make alliances based on ethnicity. We have supported democratic forces in Serbia, Albania and Bosnia and we have opposed dictators and ethnic cleansing whether Serbian, Albanian, Croatian, or any other ethnic group. The US allied itself with Serbian democrats at a time when all Greek parties supported the anti-democratic Milosevic regime. Since the end of the Milosevic regime in 2000, the US has given over half a billion dollars to Serbia for military training, municipal development, macroeconomic stabilization, agricultural assistance, judicial training programs, and more. The US is the single largest foreign investor in Serbia. The whole current discussion about the future of Kosovo is about building a modern democracy in which the majority is obligated to protect the Serbs and other ethnic minorities. The Ahtisaari Plan, which the Quintet (the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy) supports, is all about these protections. Greek perception: The US acts unilaterally. American perception: The US places a high priority on working with other countries and within multilateral organizations. All countries, Greece as well as the US, act unilaterally when it is in their interest to do so. However, the US believes in cooperation, partnership, and the legitimacy and efficacy of multilateral institutions. We believe strongly that the most important successes are achieved when the US and Western Europe work in concert. The US is part of a six-member contact group trying to resolve the final status of Kosovo, a six-member group dealing with North Korea, the EU-3 trying to end the Iranian weapons program, a quartet on the Middle East, and a group trying to stop the bloodshed in Darfur. Most of these discussions involve the United Nations, of which the US is the largest dues-payer but with the same voting power as any other UNSC member. Besides the main UN body, we work with UN subsidiaries (UNEP and UNHCR) and special agencies (WHO, WIPO, FAO, and ICAO, for example.) The US works with the IMF, European and other regional development banks, regional organizations such as NATO and the OECD, and a wide variety of independent organizations, such as the World Heritage Fund, Interpol, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. We not only work in, with, and through these organizations, but in many cases we are the largest funder. Greek perception: The US discriminates against Greece with visas. American perception: Look at the history of this. All visitors to the US (except Mexicans, Canadians, and citizens of Bermuda, for whom there were other requirements) used to need visas. In 1987, the US successfully tested visa-free travel from a few countries. By 1998, the countries had grown to more than 20, including 13 of the 15 countries then in the EU. In 1998, Greece was invited to join on the condition that it fulfill certain criteria. What Greece was unable to do by the 1999 deadline was to centralize its passport issuance system and enhance controls so that there would be a record of stolen blank passports. Greek passports were used by Iraqis sneaking over the Mexican border into the US and by criminals who were trafficking Eastern European women into Western Europe. Greece has tightened its controls, centralized the issuance process and introduced new passports that meet all ICAO requirements, help Greece’s border security, and look good to us too. There is no reason to keep Greece out of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) based on the criteria of 1999. But we’re not in 1999. No countries have been admitted to the VWP since the 9/11 attacks. There is no consensus in Congress on criteria for new countries, much less on whether VWP will shrink, expand, or even continue to exist. Discussions are going on between Greek and US officials, between EU and US officials, and between US and US officials. Greece is at the head of the queue, but there is no telling when the queue will move. An American’s conclusion What Americans see in Greece is a policy – deliberate or unconscious – on the part of many politicians and the media to consistently paint every US action (and every US inaction) as part of an imperialist conspiracy, scrupulously avoiding giving credit to the US for any positive results. We expect and welcome criticism from friends and allies. Being critical of US policies does not constitute anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism is the inability to discuss or analyze US policies in a fair and balanced way. Greeks have a long and respected tradition of intellectual debate, but debate is meaningless if it is based on political rhetoric and half-truths. When I wake up next week in Washington, I will miss my defteri patrida (second home). I will return regularly for vacations and for discussions long into the night with my Greek friends about how there can be so much misunderstanding between two countries that have so much in common. I hope these discussions take place in a taverna among many people, and that ta gegonota (the facts) don’t get lost among the gigantes (beans). Farewell. (* Note that all dollar figures have been converted to today’s value.) Elizabeth Corwin is a former counselor for press at the American Embassy in Athens.

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