New York.- Analysis by Apostolos Zoupaniotis
There has been much speculation over the reason for President Obama’s trip to Greece on November 15. Some have called it a “parting gift” to Athens as it continues its battle with Berlin over how to make Greece’s debt sustainable. Others believe that this trip has something to do with the Cyprus negotiations or with Turkey’s role in the region. And there are those who dismiss the significance of the visit by pointing out that when the President arrives, there will be a President-elect in the U.S. and such a farewell tour doesn’t help Greece.
It is unlikely that this trip in and of itself will produce a single accomplishment that will be considered world changing in the Hellenic world, but it is monumental nonetheless. That a President of the United States – outgoing or not – is visiting Greece for the first time in 17 years is noteworthy. That it is occurring purely in a bilateral context – President Obama is coming specifically to visit Greece, not to attend some other international or regional meeting in Greece – cannot be ignored either.
A visit by an American President is no mere photo op, no matter what experts may declare on Facebook. When the President of the United States undertakes an official visit, their Administration is mobilized at several levels. Advanced teams will be in Athens working with counterparts in the Greek government for the next two weeks. The U.S. Embassy in Athens and the Greek Embassy in Washington will be on overdrive making sure their governments have the best possible information. Multiple departments – including the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security – begin preparing briefing materials on how they interact with their Greek counterparts, and how such cooperation could be improved and/or broadened. The President will be accompanied by officials from multiple departments and agencies, and they will certainly come back from Greece with ideas for new initiatives. All of this makes the visit in and of itself the most significant milestone in Greco-American relations in a long time. Government to government contacts will reach a two decade high point. And almost every other Presidential visit has demonstrated that such mobilization of resources and contacts has a lasting effect.
But that is not the only reason the Hellenic world should be looking forward to this visit. President Theodore Roosevelt once referred to the White House as a “bully pulpit”, by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda. President Obama is bringing that bully pulpit to Greece. That he will be able to stand in the birthplace of democracy and talk about the resilience of Greek democracy, of the sacrifices that the Greek people have made to get out of an economic crisis, of the humanity that Greece has shown to refugees despite that economic crisis, and of the vital role Greece plays geostrategically is something we all should be looking forward to. After 5 years of the worst possible press, to have a President of the United States casting positive light on Greece is worth millions of dollars in and of itself.
The deeper question we should be asking is whether this trip signals the beginning of a new era in bilateral relations. For over a decade, Greece has placed less emphasis on relations with Washington and more with Europe, and the U.S. has been more concerned with relations with Turkey, or the stability of FYROM than with what was going on in Greece. Circumstances – including the unreliability of Turkey, the crises in Greece, energy in the Eastern Mediterranean, Western relations with Russia, and the authoritarian turn of FYROM –are making the U.S. reconsider this policy orientation.
It is said that policy changes slowly in Washington, and this may signal the start of a new policy. We already were given a strong hint when President Obama sent Geoffrey Pyatt – an Ambassador who is considered a superstar and who has strong relationships on both sides of the aisle because of his service in Ukraine – to represent the U.S. in Athens. So, let’s pay close attention to what President Obama says and does when in Athens, but even closer attention at what comes afterwards.