August 2015. Greece was in a precarious position – capital controls had been introduced, Varoufakis had resigned as Finance Minister (after his game theory tactics only stiffened the spines of the European creditors), and the future of Greece in the eurozone was still very much in doubt. Against this backdrop, the Obama Administration called an unprecedented meeting in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. The community organizations the Administration had consistently dealt with (HALC, the Coordinated Effort of Hellenes, AHEPA, AHI, the Hellenic Initiative, the Archdiocese) and other major Greek-American luminaries (Governor Michael Dukakis, former California Treasurer Phil Angelides, former US Ambassador to Hungary Eleni Kounalakis) were all in attendance. From the United States government, Senators, Representatives, high ranking officials from the National Economic Council, the Council of Economic Advisors and the National Security Council met with the community. As if the meeting itself and the high ranking officials didn’t highlight the importance of this issue to the Administration, the meeting was kicked off by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Vice President Biden participated in most of the meeting.Just over one year later, President Obama made Greece his last visit overseas. One year after that visit, President Trump hosted Prime Minister Tsipras for a state visit.
These highly visible meetings and trips are part of a growing body of evidence that the bilateral U.S.-Greek relationship holds greater potential than any time in the past three decades and perhaps more promising than since the Truman Doctrine era. There were criticisms of all of the above efforts as mere “photo op” diplomacy. Those criticisms are ill-informed at best, political cheap shots at worst. Meetings like the August 2015 gathering, Presidential trips overseas and state visits are not organized on a whim or to fill empty calendar space. These were instances where the entire machinery of the U.S. government was mobilized to focus (at least in part) on Greece. That this happened three times in two years is significant.
This greater emphasis on Greece was sparked by the euro crisis. Although it was the Europeans who had the most at stake both economically and politically, it was the Americans who watched in horror at all of the missteps in how Europe treated the Greek crisis. Several Administration officials expressed a fear to us that the Europeans might be oblivious to the “geopolitical catastrophe” of letting Greece default in a catastrophic manner. In a manner reminiscent of the Imia crisis of the 1990’s, while Europe dithered, America mobilized. This time, the role of Richard Holbrooke was played by Treasury Secretary Jake Lew. Because Lew’s immediate previous assignment was White House Chief of Staff, his recommendations carried special weight with the Oval Office. The frequency of communications between President Obama or Vice President Biden and Chancellor Merkel should be noted, because it was only intervention at the leader level that averted the worst possible outcome in Greece.
Again, like the Imia crisis, an optimal outcome was not achieved for Greece (and again like the Imia crisis, much of that can be attributed to a lack of strategy on Athens’ part). This time, it seems that the basis for a renewed friendship were laid. There were three particularly noteworthy developments at the end of the Obama Administration:
(1) The appointment of Geoffrey Pyatt as U.S. Ambassador to Athens. Coming straight off service in another priority country for the United States (Ukraine), Pyatt brought the experience of dealing with geopolitical crisis, the IMF, and energy diplomacy. He is highly regarded within the State Department, among foreign policy veterans, and well liked in the United States Congress. Pyatt can recruit as many stakeholders from the American policy making establishment as any U.S. Ambassador that ever served in Athens.
(2) The appointment of Haris Lalacos as Greece’s Ambassador to the United States. Ambassador Lalacos had not only served in the United States before, but also served in Turkey and Skopje. He clearly has the confidence of Foreign Minister Kotzias. Most importantly, he has expanded the scope of his mission beyond the Acela corridor. The success of Prime Minister Tsipras’ Chicago trip – which has resulted in American companies committing to the Thessaloniki International Fair, Members of Congress committing to assist Greece with the F-16 modernization program, and potential Congressional delegations to Greece – came about because Ambassador Lalacos laid the groundwork with a trip to Chicago in May.
(3) President Obama’s trip to Greece in November 2016. As mentioned above, the carry over effect of the Executive branch mobilizing for a Presidential trip certainly helped Greece remain a priority in the Trump Administration and helped lead to the Tsipras state visit.
The bilateral relationship is now pointed in the right direction, but we are really just at the beginning of this renewed relationship. There are two significant milestones that could make the relationship really take off, milestones in which the community can contribute significantly. The first is the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF). The U.S. is the honored country, and Secretary of Commerce Ross will be taking a corporate American delegation. We should be recruiting companies and investors to attend as this will be a golden opportunity to convince investors that “Greece is back” (or on the road there) and to present enticing business prospects. The second is energy exploration in Greece. This is an item where national issues (the Aegean and Greece’s EEZ) coincide with Greece’s economic comeback. We’ve witnessed how the involvement of American energy companies improved Cyprus’ geopolitical prospects, and the same can happen in Greece. We should be presenting all of Greece’s energy potential and especially emphasize how Greece is positioned to play a prime role in decreasing Europe’s reliance on Russian gas.
2018 will be a key year in the bilateral relations. If the positive trend continues, we may even remember the last three years as the beginning of an era that is viewed even more positively than the Truman years.
**** Endy Zemenides, Executive Director
Hellenic American Leadership Council