The thorny Greek-Turkish relationship has been a steady fixture on the United States’ foreign policy agenda for some decades. Their strategic location and their crucial role in NATO’s southeastern flank justify the attention of the American diplomatic and defense establishment, from the National Security Council and the State Department to the Pentagon and the relevant committees in the Congress and Senate.
We Greeks believe that the Americans tend to favor Turkey. Washington attributes this to Turkey’s sheer size in area, population and economic output, and its proximity to Russia, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
Christos Zacharakis, one of Greece’s foremost diplomats and ambassador to Washington in the early 1990s, recently recounted a telling conversation with the late former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, in which the top US diplomat told him: “Please don’t make us choose between Turkey and Greece; we won’t do it. Try to work things out for yourselves and we’ll be there to keep the balance. But if you make us choose, nine times out of 10 we’ll choose Turkey, because this is in America’s best interest.” Zacharakis observed that it was a truth he ascertained again and again.
Three decades later, Turkey is still important, but a lot has changed. Greece, for starters, is no longer what it was: in the 1980s a country recovering from the dictatorship, in the 90s having problems even with Skopje, for years skeptical of Israel. Today it is not just a member of NATO and the European Union, but an influential player in the Balkans, with close bilateral ties to Israel and Egypt, having, along with Cyprus, forged with both of these countries two important tripartite partnerships that have the United States’ full support.
Cyprus in 2020 is also a far cry from the country that once sought a role in the fold of the Non-Aligned Movement. Today it is a full EU member and a close American ally, as evidenced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent visit to Nicosia. The EastMed Act recently voted through Congress and the even more recent partial lifting of the arms embargo on Cyprus are further evidence of this strengthening relationship.
Turkey, in the meantime, is heading in the opposite direction. This started in 2003, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan prevented American troops from reaching Iraq via Turkey making America’s execution of the Iraq war more difficult, and has continued with an increasingly intransigent attitude toward Greece and Cyprus, but also toward other US allies in the East Med, like Israel and Egypt, with the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system being the tip of the iceberg.
Nevertheless, the US does not want the only Muslim member of NATO to become another Pakistan or Iran. It is still counting on Turkey and wants it to remain close to the West. That said, the Washington-Athens-Ankara triangle is not what it was in Eagleburger’s time, 30 years ago.
Shortly before Pompeo’s visit to the region, the US still doesn’t view Greece and Turkey on an equal footing. However, Athens and Nicosia’s geopolitical maturity and their alliances in the East Med, combined with Ankara’s shift away from the West, have rendered America's geostrategic approach to Greece and Turkey more composite and less skewed to one side.