Meeting diplomat Alexander Philon for the first time, one is immediately struck by the fact that his career suits his personality down to a tee. He has an innate politeness and is softly spoken, never flaunting his knowledge, always giving his conversation partner the notion that they are important and worthwhile. His visage speaks to his cosmopolitan nature that can always find avenues of communication, not just due to his knowledge of languages, but because of his deep inner strength and wide spiritual horizon.
Even in the days when no one had heard the expression diplomatic soft power, he had been putting it to good use. Not one to remain holed up at the embassy, he liked to venture out to meet people ranging from high-ranking officials and businessmen to day laborers. “This is the only way to fully capture the essence of a country. When you have mapped out its society. Only then can you know where you stand and what you must do to integrally defend your own country’s interests,” were his first words to me.
Philon served as Greek ambassador in some of the most critical postings – among them Ankara and Washington, DC – and met and socialized with great leaders. At the same time, as he himself insists, he was blessed with marrying a special woman, Eleni Potamianou, a loyal and supportive traveling companion interested in culture and the arts. Together they got to know each place in depth. All of this makes up a full life that began with an adventure. Still an infant, Philon had crossed the Atlantic with a neutral Swedish ship just as World War II was breaking out in the old continent. His father, also a diplomat, had been assigned to Washington, and Philon spent his early childhood in America.
“We were very lucky as a family because we were safe at a time when Greece and Europe suffered. I have incredible memories from that time. I remember first discovering comic books, which I love to this day, and I remember my parents urging me to pick up an odd job like other children my age, even though we were only 6. I had a paper route. It was magical experience growing up back then in the United States. English was my mother tongue, and then French, because my mother was an Epirote born and raised in Marseille, and finally the Greek we spoke at home. In this way, from an early age, I had been exposed to three different cultures, something that was very helpful in my later career as a diplomat.”
The next time he found himself in America was 1966. He would serve in the Greek permanent delegation to the United Nations as a secretary. However, when he arrived in Washington and went to the embassy, the city was wracked by racial unrest. “Our ambassador at the time was an extraordinary man, Michael Dountas. ‘We will not stay in here, we must go see what is happening,’ he said to me. Despite the danger we faced, he drove us in his Volvo to the city center, just by the White House. The rioting had just died down because the people had begun looting. They were smashing windows and grabbing anything in the stores. I gradually began to realize that the US were a multifaceted country, with many unsung sides I had to discover. They had a system back then where you were given a brand-new car to drive for free to another city with all expenses covered. I started my journey in New York and drove to Arizona. While crossing this huge country, I kept on stopping and talking to people who lived in places I would never have visited otherwise, asking them about their lives and ideas. Most of these people did not even have passports.”
“The election of Trump did not surprise me I daresay,” he continues. “I understood that he was a politician with tremendous insight and a gift of speaking to his electorate. It was a mistake that so many people underestimated him before the election. I also think that over the coming years much will be decided in the United States by the minorities of today that will have grown and acquired significant population bases. It is a dynamically shifting society.” I asked him if the same inquisitiveness he possessed as a young man, to fully understand and know a country, was shared by his successors today. “Of course, the great benefit of this new generation of diplomats is that they have tools we could not even dream of. They grew up in an era of globalization, with access to information available on the internet and on their phones, and experiences that make them more acquainted with other cultures. Now, with a touch of a button, they are aware of what is taking place on the other side of the world. We had to touch down somewhere and discover everything for ourselves.”
I wondered what the greatest virtue for a diplomat would be today, when technology has fundamentally changed how information can be collected and transferred. “Why, a desire to do the work itself. To be curious, passionate. Diplomats are in their own way public sector employees, but we are not like the rest. You serve your country in a different way; it is not a career for people who are bored or unmotivated.”
Make ourselves heard
In Washington he served as deputy ambassador from 1984 to 1989 and as ambassador from 1998 to 2002. He had also served in Ankara from 1993 to 1995 and New Delhi. “In my first appointment to the US we had to deal with the fallout from the TWA plane bombing. Thankfully, the experienced George Papoulias was in charge, and we managed to overcome this crisis. My second appointment was much quieter. However, I would say we are currently experiencing the best period of relations with the United States; it seems that trust has been established and I believe the recent defense agreement between the two countries is a step in the right direction.”
“As for Turkey, I think many Greeks believe that if Erdogan leaves things will get better almost immediately,” he continues. “This is not so. The situation is far more complex. The important thing is to reinforce our country both militarily and diplomatically, to make sure our economy is rebuilt. You know, there is no soft power without hard power. The former by itself is not enough. We must reinforce many sectors to be able to have an impact and to make ourselves heard.”
I asked if the Turks, who have a long diplomatic tradition, retain their charisma to this day. “If you speak with retired Turkish diplomats, they will tell you that the new generation is nothing like their predecessors. Maybe because back in the day the diplomatic cadres were filled with young men from the cosmopolitan, polyglot elite. Today, they are more often from military families. But the Turks spend significantly more money than we do on a variety of projects to project a better image of Turkey abroad, they have a larger service. For example, in Washington they renovated the embassy building. It projects power. We have not done anything of the sort. There is much at stake within symbolism.”
“However, I am proud of our diplomacy, we have successes the Turks could not dream of, like the accession of Cyprus to the European Union,” he states. “We have a diplomatic tradition too. We have sharp, capable, patriotic individuals. My fear is that we often do not utilize them in the right way. We have a deficit because the leadership is often incapable of fully mobilizing its diplomatic mechanisms for the good of the country. Usually, every head is surrounded by a small group of people. This is my general impression and not specifically about minister X or minister Y, but the perennial mind-set of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We need to become team players.”
“I had read that [George H.W.] Bush’s son would be running for president. At the time he was the governor of Texas. I was going to meet with him, and I knew that these official meetings tend to be very short and not a lot is said. I also knew he had no idea about foreign policy. I had heard however he was an avid baseball fan, something I knew nothing about. I went to a Greek American in Baltimore who owned a team and asked him to teach me everything. When the time came to meet [George W.] Bush, I was fully up to speed. Entering his office, I saw lots of caps and uniforms. I started talking about baseball and we bonded. He liked me and I stayed in his office for two hours and I was able to tell him a few things about Greece. When he was sworn in as president, I was one of the few ambassadors he already knew. All my colleagues were wondering how he knew me, a representative of a small country.”