Be Like Mike

Be Like Mike

The fourth round of the US-Greece Strategic Dialogue in Athens this week was by all accounts another positive step towards a deepening strategic relationship. Thanks to successive governments in both Greece and the United States, the work of consecutive Greek and US ambassadors as well as the attention and legislative direction given to this alliance by the US Congress, the relationship between Athens and Washington is far ahead of what anyone would have predicted when Antony Blinken departed the State Department at the end of the Obama administration.

But the proper point of reference for this relationship shouldn’t be President Obama’s trip to Greece in 2016, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip in 2020. While watching Secretary Blinken depart Athens, it was impossible not to think of the song from the commercial “Be Like Mike,” featuring Michael Jordan.

Before all the howling begins over the progress I am ignoring, let me be clear: The Biden administration has continued to build this strategic relationship and kept it going in the right direction. But Secretary Pompeo gave Secretary Blinken a running start, and there is no question that Secretary Blinken has failed to make the most of it.

To understand what Greece should reasonably expect from the US, let’s recall what assets Secretary Blinken inherited when he returned to Foggy Bottom: a) a new direction for US policy in the Eastern Mediterranean kicked off by former assistant secretary of state Wess Mitchell; b) the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act of 2019; c) the “3+1” (Greece-Cyprus-Israel plus the United States) process; d) unprecedented levels of Congressional interest in the region and in the US-Greece relationship in particular.

Most importantly, he inherited a partner in the Mitsotakis government that had led Greece’s transition from a “pillar of stability” to a leadership role in the region. Need a reliable partner for energy diplomacy? From gas interconnectors in the Balkans and LNG and floating regasification facilities, to natural gas exploration, to the development of renewable energy sources, Greece is more than a source of stability – it is an indispensable partner. The same can be said for the efforts to put the “West” in the Western Balkans. The Mitsotakis government has stepped up as a bulwark against Russian and Chinese influence in Southeast Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean, has accelerated regional integration and cooperation, and has helped the West develop significant new security assets and power projection capabilities in the region. Even when confronting the unprecedented level of belligerence from Turkey, the Mitsotakis government has opted for the “speak softly and carry a big stick” mantra of Teddy Roosevelt rather than histrionic reactions the past may have led one to expect.

Of all the inherited opportunities missed by the Blinken State Department, one stands out.

In Pompeo’s book “Never Give An Inch,” the former secretary of state celebrated a major diplomatic initiative: “For the first time ever, in 2019, a US secretary of state showed up to the Israel-Greece-Cyprus trilateral meeting to discuss energy exploration in the region.” Even making allowances for Covid, elections in the US, Israel and Cyprus, and the war in Ukraine, the excuses for the failure to hold a ministerial-level 3+1 during the Biden
Administration are frankly lame.

There is a consistent refrain from the State Department that more work has to be done at a lower level before getting getting Secretary Blinken together with the ministers. But there is scant evidence that substantial progress is being made on that front. And with the amount of turnover at that lower level – the administration is on its second director of Southern European affairs, its third Eastern Mediterranean coordinator, and is anticipating changes at the deputy assistant secretary and desk officer level – common sense dictates that the department needs direction from the top on the 3+1 instead of having the secretary wait for an ever-changing cast of characters to catch up before engaging directly. The Greece-Cyprus-Israel trilateral kicked off historic levels of cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. The failure to pick up where Pompeo left off – or even to seriously signal the administration’s commitment to the 3+1 – is diplomatic malpractice.

Two years into his tenure as secretary of state, Antony Blinken is familiar enough with all the players in the region, has his own ambassadors in place in Athens, Nicosia and Jerusalem, and has a chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Bob Menendez) who has given him legislative tools and political cover for pursuing greater US participation in the 3+1. Now is the time for a course correction by the secretary before we all start saying the quiet part out loud: We miss Mike Pompeo.

Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.