By Endy Zemenides
Special to the Greek News
This is not the first time a Greek Prime Minister has visited the White House. This is not the first time a Greek Prime Minister has visited the U.S. and stopped in multiple cities. Yet this time feels different. For the first time in a long time, it feels as if Greek Prime Minister may realize tangible gains as a result of an official trip to the United States.
To be honest, this is a bit of a surprise; the Tsipras government did not have the smoothest of starts in terms of approaching American and Greek American audiences. There was the famous Varoufakis “visit” to the White House, where he stood in the rope line at the annual Greek Independence Day celebration, spoke to President Obama with actor John Stamos at their side and then issued a press release claiming to have had a meeting with Obama. On the same trip, in a dinner that included three members of Congress (Titus, Sarbanes, Bilirakis), the former Treasurers of California and Illinois (Phil Angelides and Alexi Giannoulias), and a giant in American finance (Jim Chanos), Varoufakis spoke for 45 minutes before taking a question and then never followed up on any of the offers of assistance. Prior to a meeting at the White House between the Administration – a meeting at which both the Vice President of the United States and the President’s Chief of Staff participated – the government neglected to brief the community leaders before they headed into the meeting. Two months later, despite the presence of multiple ministers in New York for the UN General Assembly, the Tsipras government failed to send a single representative to the “Stand with Greece” summit convened by the Hellenic Caucus in the United States Congress.
The initial approach to the US for the Tsipras government was one where attendance at high profile events – like the Hellenic Initiative gala or the Clinton Global Initiative – was prioritized by not accompanied by a strategy to accomplish something tangible. The diaspora was treated as a constituency that could be mollified by sending the Evzones to parades or by promising it the right to vote in Greece or by trying to recreate the discredited SAE.
The agenda for Prime Minister Tsipras trip to Chicago and Washington, D.C. is full of promise. The Chicago leg in particular allows for a new modus operandi to be set in both relations with the Greek diaspora and American society in general. This part of the trip still features a single “traditional” diaspora event, but it is certainly not the main event. The Prime Minister and his delegation will have working sessions both with existing investors (John Calamos and John Koudounis) and with companies (like Cinespace Studios) ready to contribute to rebuilding Greece and looking for the government to give them the confidence to make a substantial investment. They will meet with giants in corporate Chicago – United Airlines, Richard Driehaus, Cushman Wakefield, Baker McKenzie – and will have the chance to make the case that these companies and investors should take a fresh look at Greece. The Prime Minister will have a working visit with Senator Dick Durbin and a working dinner with a bi-partisan group of U.S. Representatives from Illinois. He will finish his trip by meeting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Governor Bruce Rauner and delivering a major address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
That every one of the above meetings was either set up directly by the Diaspora in Chicago or through the strength of the Diaspora’s relationships should at least suggest that the diaspora can be asked to do more. Let’s establish a better ratio of community events to American civic/business/political events that are arranged for Greek leaders when they visit the U.S. Let’s go beyond hunting for investment opportunities for Greek Americans and open whatever doors we can to all of corporate America. Let’s make sure it is Greece and not just Greek Americans that have strong relationships with American elected officials.
Establishing these new standards will be far more important than any one picture, any one positive statement at the White House, any one meeting that the Prime Minister will have on this trip. He has a chance to build real relationships – not only for his government, but for Greece as well. These relationships can lead to more investments in Greece and stronger political alliances for Greece. Let’s hope the Prime Minister and his team realize the opportunity and seize it.
*** Endy Zemenides, Executive Director, Hellenic American Leadership Council