The next phase

The next phase

“Greece is back.” These three words were uttered again and again during Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ visit to Washington, DC last week. Some dismiss the remark as an empty slogan, but they are mistaken.

Naturally, the comeback rhetoric is meant to describe the improvement in Greece’s economic performance and its readiness for foreign investment. But we should not limit the definition of “Greece is back” to recovery from the worst peacetime economic crisis since the Great Depression; Greece has made an equally impressive and far more unexpected comeback in American strategic thinking.

This particular comeback has given Greece a more central role in American strategic thinking than in any period since the Truman Doctrine. And just as that era was symbolized by President Harry S. Truman appearing before Congress in March 1947 to announce American government support for Greece as a matter of US national security, last week’s trip provided its own iconic image that may ultimately prove equally significant in Greek diplomatic history.

During an unusually long and particularly successful meeting with 12 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, flanked by Senator Marco Rubio and the chairman of the committee, Senator Jim Risch, presented Prime Minister Mitsotakis with a framed copy of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act (the EastMed Act) signed by President Donald Trump.

American politics is replete with symbolism, and no other symbol could carry greater significance for US-Greece bilateral relations. For the first time, the US has codified a policy toward the Eastern Mediterranean as a distinct region. And just as Prime Minister Mitsotakis was at the center of the photo with the senators, Greece is central to this new Eastern Mediterranean policy.

This comeback was enabled by unexpected developments and extraordinary efforts. The Tsipras government significantly exceeded expectations in Washington and was able to establish Greece as a reliably pro-American state (no matter which party was in control) and thus a “pillar of stability.” If there is a Hall of Fame for diplomats, Ambassadors Haris Lalacos and Geoffrey Pyatt deserve to be there for how far their embassies have pushed the bilateral relationship – and not merely at a government-to-government level.

Finally, the legislative efforts of Senator Menendez and the foresight of Representatives Gus Bilirakis and Ted Deutch to form the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance caucus (at a time when Turkey still enjoyed “golden child” status in the US) and advance the concept of a new Eastern Mediterranean strategy has been critical.

We enter the new decade with a new conventional wisdom on Greece. Instead of a country where US-Greece ties were hostage to political winds, the bilateral relationship is an atypical matter of multipartisan political consensus. Instead of an economy which corporate America avoided and left to the hands of vulture capitalists and those willing to play along with corrupt practices, companies like Exxon, Tesla and Pfizer are leading a new era of private American economic engagement in Greece, one significant enough to lead to the conclusion that “America is back.” Finally, instead of a country that counted its close friends in Congress and think tanks on two hands, Greece is a trendy topic to work on.

This was the backdrop for Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ visit. But this week, we saw the US adopt a new, even more expansive narrative: “Greece is ready.” The US has come to terms with the fact that it can no longer “go it alone” and needs reliable partners. It has also finally realized that Turkey is both unwilling and unable to be such a partner in the Eastern Mediterranean. Attention on this front has shifted to Greece.

The reception for Greece was remarkable. An overcapacity town hall at the Atlantic Council. A full bilateral meeting at the White House. A visit with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee AND House leadership. A notably warm and exquisite reception at the State Department at which Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary Mike Pompeo spent a significant amount of time, and at which Secretary Pompeo spoke on the record with Greek journalists and community leaders about tensions with Turkey in and around Libya.

Investor meetings which immediately resulted in a major American energy company declaring that it is opening an office in Athens.
Greece has graduated from the ranks of those who engage in mere photo diplomacy and hang on words uttered in a single press conference. From Washington’s point of view, the Tsipras government cleared the hurdle of “pillar of stability.” The Mitsotakis government is going to be charged with kicking off the next phase of the US-Greece relationship, one where Athens can play the role of America’s leading partner in the region. This week was a promising start to that phase.

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

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