Since the beginning of the euro crisis, Athens has longingly looked to the United States – hoping to counterbalance harsh European partners, be acknowledged as a key part of the Western security alliance, and draw the interest of American investors and multinationals.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s current visit to the US may be the Greek government’s first opportunity to realize most of these goals. American political and thought leaders are turning against Turkey. There is growing realization in the US that the potential negatives of the Tsipras government (pro-Russian, anti-NATO, anti-Israel, etc) that American analysts had initially focused on have not panned out as feared; instead, American leaders have been pleasantly surprised by many of the government’s moves (Defense Minister Panos Kammenos’s pro-American stance and relationship with the Pentagon, the government’s deepening of ties with Israel). Finally, some momentum could be generated off of the first massive Greek-American investment in Greece (the Calamos purchase of Ethniki Insurance).
The context exists for a very successful visit. There are still many obstacles: The Tsipras government, like its predecessors, has invested little in Congressional relations, even less in making Greece’s case among America’s thought leadership (whether in media, academia, or think tanks). Athens’s failure to utilize the diaspora is yet another obstacle.
There are several tangible goals that can be accomplished on this trip. None is a silver bullet that will solve all of Greece’s problems, but all will help the country and will make sure this trip is just not another instance of photo diplomacy.
In his meetings with the Trump administration, the prime minister can make the following requests, none of which will cost the US anything – but they could change the narrative about Greece:
1. Ask for an official Commerce delegation led by Secretary Wilbur Ross. Nothing could go further to create some buzz in corporate America about Greece being a target for investment.
2. Speed up the relationship on the energy front. This administration is close to energy companies, and Greece should find a way to make these companies allies. With American companies considering natural gas exploration in Greece and participating in the privatization of Greek energy assets, the time is ripe to deepen the bilateral relationship via energy diplomacy. This could help Greece both economically and geopolitically, since Athens could point out that Turkey’s saber rattling in the Mediterranean and the Aegean prevents the development of these energy resources.
3. Ask for more technical assistance and equipment to assist Greece with the refugee crisis. Emphasize that Greece represents the easternmost borders of the West and that it just doesn’t have enough to patrol one of the world’s largest shore lines. Night vision goggles with greater range than Greece has, decommissioned US Coast Guard vessels, detectors and more are sitting in storage and could be just given to Greece.
The prime minister can head into Washington, DC with the wind at his back if he capitalizes on his promising meetings in Chicago. He will have the opportunity to not only start rebuilding investor confidence in Greece through meetings with Greek-American and non-Greek corporate leaders, but he will have the chance to attract a major film studio (CineSpace) to set up operations in Greece. Through working meetings with both Senator Dick Durbin and a separate one with a bipartisan delegation of US Representatives, Prime Minister Tsipras can lay the groundwork for better relations with Congress. Finally, by delivering an address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs – which is headed by the former US ambassador to NATO and has focused quite a bit on Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean – the prime minister is building institutional ties that keep Greece consistently visible before American thought leaders.
Several official trips of the past were rightly criticized as “photo-op” diplomacy without results. This trip has the chance to be much more. Let’s hope the opportunity is realized.
* Endy Zemenides is the executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.