Athens is naturally concerned about Turkey’s military operations in Syria and its mounting violations of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, among other things, and is debating how best to manage the situation so as to avoid any unpleasant developments.
Planning is effectively centered on the role of the strongest player in the regional strategic puzzle, which, so far at least, is the United States. It is also clear that for as long as Donald Trump is in power, the most effective channel of communication with the superpower is directly through him. Relationships between leaders have always been important and have even been instrumental in shaping bilateral ties in the past. Nevertheless, they never replaced, ignored or defied diplomatic efforts.
This is no longer the case in the US right now. Unfortunately, the advice from crucial departments like those of foreign affairs and defense have been sidelined both at the level of their leadership and their officials. The State Department and its diplomats, America’s traditional channels to other countries, have been hit hardest by the president’s attitude.
Greece and America have strong and able ambassadors in each other’s capitals who – like many other officials – are working toward deepening the relationship at the institutional level. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Athens and the successful continuation of the Strategic Dialogue between the two countries confirms that Greek-American cooperation is becoming stronger, regardless of the behavior of third countries. However, it is clear that neither Pompeo (who may soon step down to run for the Senate) nor the new national security adviser or defense secretary – all rendered easily expendable in this administration – can offer any guarantees that a certain policy will indeed be implemented.
Trump decides and commands – often undermining decades-long policies and occasionally harming US credibility, as is the case with Turkey’s invasion of Syria and the sudden abandonment of the Kurds.
Congress does have its own levers and often pursues its own initiatives. Athens, like Nicosia, has built effective contacts over the past few years with powerful senators and House members, investing in the relationship with America’s legislative bodies which is useful and must be maintained. Nevertheless, everything depends on the Oval Office. Despite a system of checks and balances, Trump decides.
Given that reality, Athens has reason to focus on the relationship with the US president and needs to make every possible effort to ensure a meeting – a substantive one, at the White House – between Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Trump as soon as possible. There, the two leaders, in their one-on-one meeting and that with their respective advisers, will be able to discuss Greek concerns and common interests.
High on the agenda of such a meeting should be the benefits to the US of its further commercial penetration of the Greek and, by extension, the Balkan markets, along with the geostrategic dimension and the leading role Athens plays in the Balkans and in the East Med enhanced by its trilateral partnership with Israel and Cyprus.
Under the present circumstances, the most effective way to work on the bilateral relationship with the US is through a personal relationship with its leader.