NIKOS DENDIAS

Turkey’s opinion was not an issue for US

Greek FM tells Kathimerini the Americans wanted military presence in Alexandroupoli and naval station in Souda Bay as part of defense agreement

turkey-s-opinion-was-not-an-issue-for-us

The details and inner workings of the renewed Mutual Defense and Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) between Greece and the United States are revealed by Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias in his first interview following his return from Washington.

The references to sovereign rights, says Dendias, illustrate that the US and Greece share a common perception of reality. He reveals that use of the island of Skyros was included in the negotiations by the United States and notes that there is a very real chance that the US will seek to expand its presence to more islands in the coming years. 

Just last Thursday you signed the new MDCA between Greece and the United States. How does this new deal affect US-Greek relations?

This new deal upgrades our relations with the United States to a new level. An unprecedented level. There had been several phases in our relations with the US until the 90s, when the Mutual Defense and Cooperation Agreement was signed. These relations have not simply been expanded; they have been improved considerably, unprecedently so, and now they have also acquired a strategic nature. The Mitsotakis government invested in these efforts. It is not by chance that the two amendments to the deal were completed by this government. Nor is it a coincidence that two of the three rounds of strategic dialogue have taken place over the last two years. In fact, there would have been a further round of discussions had the pandemic not struck.

How does this multi-year extension serve Greek interests?

The five-year extension has positive political and military effects for Greece. Firstly, the United States, which is currently focusing on Asia and departing from Afghanistan and Iraq, is committing to station and deploy forces on Greek soil, for at least the next five years and probably for much longer. Their presence further shields our country from external threats. If any country is planning a desperate act, attacking us, they will have to seriously consider that American forces are stationed in Greece. May I remind you that one of the largest exercises by US forces in Europe this year took place in Thrace last May. May I also remind you that other European and Asian countries are willing to pay to ensure that US forces are stationed on their soil. Secondly, the five-year commitment creates an obligation not only for this US government, but the next one, regardless of its approach to foreign policy. So, it provides a stable framework both for the United States and for Greece. Thirdly, to make an investment and watch it pay dividends, any investor would require long-term potential. The initial five-year agreement will allow the US government to secure the necessary funds and approval from Congress to modernize its infrastructure in the specified locations, something that was obviously not feasible in an annual renewal scheme. These bases will also be used by the Hellenic Armed Forces so the investments that will take place will benefit, primarily, the Greek side. 

Why did the negotiation process take so unusually long in comparison to the past?

The negotiations, which were conducted on the Greek side with excellent cooperation by Defense Minster Nikos Panagiotopoulos, began in 2020 – that is with the previous US administration. As you know, the election of a new president and the assumption of duties by new personnel in crucial positions in the State Department and the Department of Defense takes time, resulting in a lengthy transitional period in which making decisions becomes harder. In this specific case, for purely domestic reasons in the United States, there was a delay in placing key people in the two departments that oversaw negotiations. Unavoidably there was a lack of flexibility that did not facilitate negotiations, despite the good will of both sides for a beneficial conclusion to negotiations within a short time frame. 

Why did the US ultimately hesitate in going forward with stationing troops in an insular region, like Skyros, despite early positive attitudes?

Nothing is agreed in negotiations unless everything is agreed. The US came to the negotiating table with an initial proposal that included new locations, including Skyros. Allow me to clarify that the Greek side did not bring forward a proposal for Skyros. However, it is not unprecedented in negotiations for a side to ask for something and then to withdraw it. But I will not be drawn into conspiracy theories of the “the Americans were afraid of Turkey’s reaction” kind. If the reaction of Turkey was so important, they would not have chosen Alexandropouli for a military base, only a few kilometers away from the Evros border, or have a naval base at Souda in Crete, an island in the very heart of the Eastern Mediterranean. The agreement allows for the choice of different locations in the future, so the current choice is not necessarily final. Besides, the letter by my American counterpart explicitly states that there is a possibility that US forces will use Greek islands for training or run operations on Greek islands. 

What are your conclusions on US-Greek relations based on your visit to Washington and your meetings there?

Let me take a step back. My basic conclusion from my meetings is that the main priority of American foreign policy today lies in the region of the Indo-Pacific and then the Middle East. In this sequence of interest, Europe is third. In this context, it is extremely positive for our national interests that the United States considers our country to be of special importance. It sees Greece as a country capable of playing a leading role in the Western Balkans region and the accession of its countries to the European Union. They also view us as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and the Gulf. The exceptional relations we have developed in the recent past with Israel and the most influential Arab countries was also a crucial factor. These are the reasons, of course, why the letter from the US secretary of state makes reference to the safeguarding of sovereignty and territorial integrity. There is specific mention, for the first time, of the need to respect our sovereign rights, based on the International Law of the Sea, which is recognized as a customary law that regulates all states. This is a huge success for our country. It proves that our two countries have a shared understanding of reality. 

Do you believe there has been a shift in Washington’s stance toward Ankara?

Congress, and particularly the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations chaired by Senator Bob Menendez, has taken a clear stance toward Turkey’s regression and its adoption of an anti-democratic and anti-Western trajectory, which is incompatible with what the majority of Turkish society wants. May I remind you of the Eastern Mediterranean Bill of 2019, as well as the bill on military and interparliamentary cooperation between Greece and the United States, that mostly concerns itself with Greece. The bill included important provisions, including, among others, the clear reinforcement of bilateral military cooperation, it opened the possibility of a Greek purchase of F-35s, and a reinforcement of the 3+1 partnership (Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the US). I also would like to focus on the particularly flattering words of my American counterpart, who referred to Greece as a “regional leader.” On the other hand, there are career staff in the administration who still have a more conservative approach, whose primarily goal is to “not lose Turkey” for the West, looking particularly to the post-Erdogan era. This approach is rather outdated. Turkey is purchasing cutting-edge armaments from outside of NATO, is constructing a non-Western nuclear reactor, and has reached a modus vivendi with non-Alliance forces in Syria and Libya. The Turkey of today in no way resembles the country it was two decades ago, and even more so the country that became part of NATO in 1952. This is something that must be realized by the Washington and NATO bureaucracy. We, and our allies, are of course trying to move things toward that direction. 

How do the guarantees of Antony Blinken’s letter compare to those of the Franco-Greek defense agreement ratified by Parliament a few days ago?

The Americans have an expression for a situation like this – you don’t compare apples and oranges. In both cases we have two very important diplomatic and defensive “tools.” Of course, the letter from US Secretary of State Blinken is a unilateral political commitment, while the Franco-Greek agreement is a legally binding text. But the text included in the letter of the secretary of state’s letter also exists in the text of the revised MDCA, which is also a legally binding text. We must consider all parameters. The US has not entered into a bilateral mutual defense agreement with any European country. The only such deals it has entered are the ones with Japan and Korea, both in the early 50s. May I add that the American obligation to Greece can substantially be considered more binding than the equivalent US commitment to Australia from the same time period. The only similar commitment by the US in Europe is NATO’s Article 5, signed in the distant year of 1949. Nevertheless, even this commitment is not automated, as in the case of Article 42.7 of the Treaty of the European Union. France has only signed an equivalent condition with one European country – Germany in 2019. In a way, even if they do so differently, the two agreements are complementary in establishing the security and stability of our country, and the wider region. Of course, both deals are not aimed at anyone in particular, especially Turkey, unless Turkey views itself as being threatened. 

How does Athens view Ankara’s attempts to normalize its relations with Egypt, Israel and the UAE?

Turkey, with its expansionist, neo-Ottoman and Islam-centric policy, has managed to alienate all countries in its immediate neighborhood. This is truly a feat that must be taught in courses – how a country can destroy relations it had been building for decades in a short period of time. Despite its belated maneuvers, the message we have received from all directions remains clear. As long as Turkey does not alter its behavior – that is if it does not stop being the troublemaker of the Mediterranean who makes threats of war, occupies illegal territories, sends troops and mercenaries to other countries in the region, and is a haven and ally to extreme Islamic movements and organizations, like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas – the scope of improving relations with the aforementioned country is limited. But let me add something important. Greece does not want to surround or isolate Turkey from any regional vehicles of cooperation. Greece considers that participation in these vehicles would benefit Turkish society and we would welcome this prospect, if of course Turkey complies with the terms and conditions of participation. We have repeatedly stated that if Turkey respects international law, stops threatening war, and ceases violating basic tenets of the UN Charter, then we would welcome cooperation, both bilaterally and in a regional framework. 

Over the next few days, you will be conducting a flurry of visits. Recently, Greece has been making approaches toward Libya and the general North Africa-Middle East region. What can we expect from this?

There is a dense schedule of meetings. [On October 18] I will participate in the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Luxembourg. As part of the council, and the result of a Greek initiative, there are meetings scheduled with the Libyan foreign minister, who I met in Athens a few weeks ago. On Wednesday I will go to Oman, one of the few countries in the region that I have not yet visited and which plays an important regional role, even if it stays out of the spotlight. On Thursday I will be in Tripoli, invited by my counterpart Ms [Najla] El-Mangoush to be part of the international conference on Libya. May I use this occasion to remind you, that as part of the UN General Assembly, Greece participated in the Ministerial Conference on Libya organized by the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Italy. And there is more to come. Allow me to point out what we expect, and what we hope to avert, with these initiatives. Firstly, we hope to build excellent relations with countries in the region, solve outstanding issues, including the final withdrawal and nullification of the illegal and void “Turkey-Libyan Memorandum,” as well as strengthen – particularly economic – bonds, including in the investment sphere. At the same time, we hope to safeguard stability for all the countries in the region and to deter extreme Islamic movements from seizing power who, apart from their anachronistic ideology, threaten with their acts the stability, and potentially the very existence, of the states they operate in. You can imagine what would happen if a country close to the European coastline were to be classified as a “failed state,” an “Afghanistan in the Mediterranean.”

Recently, your speech in Parliament and the subsequent expulsion of Konstantinos Bogdanos from the New Democracy parliamentary group fueled several rumors. Some describe you as a future dauphine. Are you interested in the ND leadership?

I face these rumors with a condescending smile every time as they emanate from a certain direction and they do so for obvious reasons, even to the politically ignorant. As for the Bogdanos affair, you know very well what had transpired earlier with the other incident and the warning that had been leveled by the government, with no involvement on my part. I believe that if any other minister of the government was there, they would have said exactly what I did in Parliament. I just happened to be there representing the government. I spoke on behalf of the government. As for your question, there is no question of leadership in New Democracy, nor will there be. Anyone who suggests otherwise is simply “provoking,” to use a popular expression of the Left. The Mitsotakis government is applying a reform program that enjoys the support of the Greek people. There is also obviously no divergence when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Everything achieved – the successive agreements with other countries, the resulting shielding of our national interests, the widening of our alliances, our active participation in international developments – is the success of the Mitsotakis government and the mission entrusted to me by the prime minister. If there exists anywhere the expectation of a leadership crisis in New Democracy, I am sorry, but it is “wishful thinking” that will not come to fruition. What I am personally interested in is serving to the best of my abilities my current duties as foreign minister. 

There are also rumors resurfacing on whether you have always been in full coordination with the prime minister – for example with your statements in Ankara last April. Is there anything to these rumors?

That matter was resolved as soon as it emerged. It goes without saying that every time I represent our country, as in the specific case of the visit to Ankara, I am in full coordination with the prime minister.