At first glance, it seems that Greek-Americans are in an enviable position during this Presidential election: a pro-Hellenic agenda has taken hold in both parties, both President Trump and Vice President Biden have a hand in the drastically improved bilateral relations between Greece and the U.S. and Cyprus and the US, and that these relationships may improve regardless of who is sworn in on January 20, 2021.
Such a claim, however, does not stand up to closer scrutiny. There is little evidence of philhellenism on the part of President Trump, of his direct – or even indirect – involvement in pro-Hellenic policy shifts, or that he has any fluency in the policies that affect Greece and Cyprus. Moreover, his personal affinity for Turkey’s Erdogan and habit of giving Turkey a pass every time it crosses a red line raise serious concerns.
As we approach Greece’s bicentennial, it seems that Erdogan is hell bent on forcing a decisive confrontation – either diplomatic or military – with Greece. In this context, it matters who is in the White House. And it is worth remembering that 200 years ago, the U.S. was not much help.
As Greek Revolutionaries rose up to fight for their independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821, they petitioned the United States to join in their struggle. President Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, presented the following response to the U.S. Congress, outlining why America would remain neutral:
Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
It is not hard to imagine the Trump Administration to issue such a polite brush off if Greco-Turkish tensions boil over. In fact, we are witnessing something similar with weak Trump Administration responses to the Azerbaijani/Turkish attacks against Armenia and Artsakh.
The pushback to this analysis is predictable, and is not entirely genuine:
- But aren’t Athens and Washington both proclaiming “best relations ever”? Of course they are. Every leader wants to be responsible for something that is the “best ever”. But if pressed – which they never are – on how this present bilateral relationship matches the Truman years, the claim could not stand.
Nevertheless, for most of us, these are the best bilateral relationships we have lived through. Yet to attribute them entirely – or even primarily – to the Trump Administration is laughable. The upswing clearly started during the end of the Obama Presidency. It was VP Biden and Secretary Lew that intervened to pressure the EU to keep Greece from crashing out of the euro. It was VP Biden that declared the “strategic partnership” with the Republic of Cyprus. It was the Obama Administration that sent Geoffrey Pyatt to Greece.
Fortunately, the Trump Administration decided to build on these achievements rather than reverse them. Yet clearly the improving relationship was not the brainchild of the Trump Administration.
- But Secretary Pompeo put Cyprus in the IMET Program, partially lifted the arms embargo on Cyprus, and announced the expansion of Souda Bay.
He did and should be congratulated for enforcing US law. The first two items were required by the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act (authored by Senators Menendez and Rubio; Representatives Bilirakis, Cicilline and Deutch). The second item was also provided for in the National Defense Authorization Act. Let us also not forget that the Trump Administration raided additional funds designated for Souda Bay for the “wall” with Mexico.
- Trump was the only President to hold Erdogan accountable, sanctioning him in the case of Pastor Brunson.
Indeed, and that early action – along with moves by then Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell and the Administration’s open commitment to the religious freedom of Christians worldwide – raised the expectations that this Administration might finally get Turkey right.
As time has passed, the Brunson case seems to have been narrowly targeted at the President’s Evangelical base. There have been no consequences for Turkey’s conversion of Hagia Sophia, its meddling in the election of the Armenian Patriarch, its general backsliding on religious freedom. Beyond the lack of consequences, there has not even been a statement or a tweet (!) from the President.
Far from being encouraged by the Trump record on Greece, we should be suspect of his record when it comes to Turkey. The fact that he and his Attorney General have apparently taken an active role to obstruct justice being served on Turkey’s Halk Bank for violating sanctions on Iran and that he would be willing to let Secretary of Defense Mattis resign over giving Erdogan free reign (and the ability to slaughter the Kurds) in Syria should at a minimum raise concerns over what he would do if push came to shove in the Aegean or in Cyprus. Let’s not forget that for someone who employs Twitter without discretion and is not restrained by diplomatic rhetoric, his silence on Hagia Sophia, on the Oruc Reis, on Varosha, could very well be interpreted in Ankara as consent.
When thinking of the escalating crises in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean, let’s remember that true friends stand with you in tough times. That is what is most encouraging about Joe Biden’s record on Hellenic issues and the US-Greece-Cyprus partnership. When Turkey was threatening to send its navy to stop Noble Energy’s exploration in Cyprus’ EEZ, Biden and his team were part of successful Obama Administration efforts to make Ankara back down. Joe Biden was a big part of keeping the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate front and center during the Obama years. That attention achieved at least some success with regards to gaining Turkish citizenship for Greek Orthodox hierarchs, making Patriarchal succession less of an existential threat to the Church. And, as discussed above, it was Joe Biden’s personal involvement that kickstarted this age of improved US-Greece-Cyprus relations.
If Joe Biden walks into the Oval Office as President on January 20, it will be the first time a new President would both be fluent and have a positive track record on Hellenic issues. He will be surrounded by a team of advisors – Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Mike Carpenter at the least – who share that familiarity with policy and also have a positive track record. A President Biden would already have a working relationship with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, President Anastasiades, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Greece’s opposition leader Alexis Tsipras. And his relationship with the Greek American community is as deep as it is long. Finally, one cannot dismiss the antipathy that has developed between Biden and Erdogan, the mirror image of the relationship Turkey’s authoritarian leader has with President Trump.
The choice is clear enough, but if a Biden Presidency is combined with Senator Bob Menendez once again becoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the prospects for “best ever relations” and a radical rethink of US-Turkey relations become more real than ever. Perhaps the Greek public sees it more clearly than a Greek American community that is as bitterly divided as the general American public, and that is why polls in Greece register a preference of 83% for a Biden victory.
Endy Zemenides, Executive Director, Hellenic American Leadership Council