Greece, Cyprus and Israel are the United States’ three most dependable allies in the Eastern Mediterranean and form the front line of defense for significant American interests, at a time when relations between Washington and Turkey are particularly tense, says American Hellenic Institute (AHI) president Nick Larigakis.
Larigakis is visiting Greece today along with the head of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) and the chiefs of several American-Jewish organizations as part of a tour of the three countries. The 18-member delegation of Greek- and Jewish-Americans will explore developments in the areas of economy, energy and security. The AHI chief spoke to Kathimerini ahead of his visit to explain the purpose of the mission and the current mood in Washington regarding Greece and Cyprus.
What is the purpose of this trip to Greece, Cyprus and Israel?
The United States and the Western alliance, generally, have immense interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, this region continues to be fraught with intense violence, instability and a general ill will toward Western interests and values. Therefore, in order to be able to project effectively its interests in the region, the US needs to have allies and partners in the region that share the same values and concerns; dependable allies that provide a front line for the advancement of democratic principles and that help to promote peace and stability in this important region. Greece, Israel and Cyprus are countries that fit this description.
As the three countries continue to strengthen their cooperation and develop their partnership, it is important for the countries’ diaspora organizations in the US to do what we can to help underscore how important we, too, believe this relationship is to US interests in the region.
How is the trilateral cooperation seen in Washington?
I strongly believe US policymakers view the trilateral cooperation very positively for the reasons I mentioned in the previous question. At a time when the US has strained relations with Turkey, a NATO country AHI has always characterized as a long-standing unfaithful and unreliable US ally, this trilateral relationship provides dependable geostrategic partners for the US in the region. Following our first two trips, the co-chairs of the Congressional Hellenic Israeli Alliance (CHIA) on Capitol Hill, and State Department officials, have been eager to be briefed about our findings. In fact, CHIA hosted a panel presentation on Capitol Hill where we were able to brief members of Congress and congressional staff.
What do you expect from your meetings with Greek officials?
We started this Leadership Mission four years ago and we have been well-received by all governments in power, from Prime Minister [Antonis] Samaras and New Democracy when we started in 2014, to Prime Minister [Alexis] Tsipras and SYRIZA in 2016. On this trip, we will also visit the Hellenic Naval Fleet headquarters on the island of Salamis and receive a defense policy briefing at the Ministry of Defense. I contend both New Democracy and SYRIZA have understood the significance of highlighting the importance of the trilateral cooperation by extending that cooperation to the diaspora American-based organizations.
How does the US view Greece?
AHI has long advocated for the US to have a “special relationship” with Greece, recognizing its strategic location in Southeastern Europe where the US has important political, economic and military interests. Greece is a pivotal ally for the advancement of US interests that include greater stability in Southeastern Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Likewise, the Republic of Cyprus is an important, Western-oriented nation for US interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, and it is a key partner on counterterrorism and security issues. The two countries are part of an important geopolitical region to the United States due to the significant energy, commercial and communications resources that transit the region. The discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean reinforces this position. Therefore, it is in the United States’ best interest that the region is politically, economically and socially stable and democratic principles flourish, including adherence to the rule of law.
How do you assess the Trump administration’s approach to Greece and Cyprus?
Since President [Donald] Trump took office almost a year ago, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has visited the White House and President of the Republic of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades has met with Vice President Mike Pence, also at the White House. Do these visits necessarily serve to underscore what the US policies toward Greece and Cyprus will be? Obviously not. Nonetheless, it is a good indicator that this administration views the relationship with these two countries as important to cultivate and to strengthen. And unlike the visit by Turkish President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to the White House, with which the administration has many outstanding issues, the US relationship with Greece and Cyprus appears to be strong. Most important, State Department officials who are responsible for this region are very involved and constantly reach out to leaders of Greek American organizations to brief them on current developments, or to be briefed. There is unprecedented access to the State Department, and this has been the case since the latter years of the Obama administration.
In Cyprus, the Trump administration has followed the policy of the Obama administration regarding the Republic of Cyprus’s legal right to explore for energy resources within its exclusive economic zone. The real test of this commitment will come when Turkey ratchets up its gunboat diplomacy in the region, challenging Cyprus’s sovereign right to conduct these explorations.
In Greece, by all accounts, and especially if you are to echo US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt – who by the way I believe is doing a terrific job – he has stated, “…that our bilateral relationship has always been strong but today it’s better than it’s been for many decades.” And from the “…White House where he [Prime Minister Tsipras] heard a clear message from President Trump, Vice President Pence and our Congressional leaders regarding our appreciation for the alliance with Greece and our commitment to continue doing all that we can to help Greece emerge successfully from the period of economic difficulty.”
Further, there are strong indications the Trump administration is looking to support Greece’s economic recovery. President Trump announced the appointment of Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to head a joint commission with Greek Economy Minister Dimitris Papadimitriou with the purpose to facilitate an investment relationship that helps to sustain Greece’s economic recovery.
Separate from the administration, it is important to note the US Congress has a vital role in the development and implementation of US foreign policy. As US citizens, we must communicate continually and advocate positions on issues involving US interests with Greece and Cyprus to members of Congress. A new Congress will be elected later this year and will take office in January 2019. Therefore, it is essential that we educate incoming members of Congress on these issues.
How does the Greek-American community approach the possibility of a solution to the issue over the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia?
It is very encouraging the current government in FYROM is not ultra-nationalistic and that it understands the time has come to resolve this issue, which unfortunately, previous FYROM governments have exasperated with their intransigent positions. However, as it relates to the Greek-American community position, there is not a clear barometer from which to gauge. Those who follow this issue do welcome the encouraging signs that it might be resolved soon. AHI’s position has always been to not interfere in the domestic policy agenda of either Greece or Cyprus, but to rather advocate a position to US policymakers that we believe serves to strengthen the relationship between the US and Greece. To this effect, AHI has advocated for a position that the United States should support a settlement to the FYROM name dispute that addresses Greece’s concerns. Greece has been a long-time, faithful ally and important geostrategic partner providing for peace and stability in the region. FYROM’s insistence to abuse Greek history and pursue irredentist and provocative actions, has had the potential to destabilize the Balkans, and therefore, be a detriment to US interests.
Is there cooperation between different parts of the Greek-American lobby?
As you know, there are only a handful of professional-based organizations in the United States who advocate on issues affecting US relations with Greece and Cyprus. All are underfunded and understaffed. However, all have a role to play in advancing the bilateral relationships with Greece and Cyprus. The USA is a tremendously large country, and not one organization can cover it, especially as a major component of effective lobbying is energizing the “grassroots” base of the community. The legendary former speaker of the House Tip O’Neill coined the famous phrase “All politics is local!” Therefore, it is important for us to speak with the same message, and have the same positions, regarding our policy objectives. From there, it must be communicated by as many voices as possible. By all indications, we subscribe to this formula when we engage with policymakers, and therefore, cooperation exists.