As Turkey’s relations with the U.S. sour and sink to new lows, Greece-US relations have never been better. The outgoing SYRIZA cabinet was described as the most “American-friendly government,” but the incoming Kyriakos Mitsotakis premiership seems to be competing for that title.
Mitsotakis’ visit to the U.S. last week and his meeting with President Donald Trump was probably the most closely-watched visit of a Greek premier to the White House in Greece’s history.
Traditionally, Greece has been one of the countries with the least favorable views of the U.S., but that changed drastically in 2019. According to the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of the Greek public now has a positive view of the U.S.; that’s 18 percent more than what the 2018 data showed. The former Syriza-led government under Alexis Tsipras retained a pragmatic stance towards foreign policy: first came interests, and then ideology. That balance was harder to maintain for Syriza, as the party was supposed to be Communist because of its roots, and later it was branded as left-wing populist. In the end, looking at his tenure overall, Alexis Tsipras did become increasingly centrist, especially towards his last days as Prime Minister.
As a right-wing government, there was already more room for the Mitsotakis cabinet to maneuver — but increasing tensions with Turkey and the European Union’s ineptitude in ameliorating Greece’s anxieties may have contributed to record-high positive views of the U.S. in the country.
Nowadays in Greece, the possibility of an all-out war with Turkey is even more imminent: while the war in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean are not big issues on Turkey’s public agenda, much of the news and analyses in the Greek media are about these topics.
Therefore, a strong ally against Turkey seems to be useful in Greece’s case: since 2018, the U.S. and Greece have held “Strategic Dialogue” meetings due to the initiative of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. At the second of these meetings held on October 7, 2019, Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias and Pompeo framed this “strategic dialogue” as a focus on areas of regional cooperation, defense and security, law enforcement and counterterrorism, trade and investment, energy, and people-to-people ties. Regional cooperation refers to cooperation in the Balkans and Black Sea regions, but the eastern Mediterranean area is the buzzword. The highlight of the cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean is the framework of the 3+1 format (Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and the United States), which was launched in Jerusalem in March 2019. On the energy front, the EastMed gas pipeline, the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) and the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (IGB) are the projects on the table.
In case of defense and security, Greece’s military purchases from the U.S. and especially its involvement with the F-35 jet program are the critical aspects of the engagement. Following Mitsotakis’s visit to the U.S., the Defense Minister, Nikos Panagiotopoulos, declared that Greece plans to acquire 24 F-35 jets at a total cost of 3 billion dollars, including the infrastructure.
Moreover, Greece also plans to proceed with the upgrade of 82 F-16 jets. These steps will be taken to achieve “air superiority over Turkey” in the coming years. There are also plans to acquire more warships, and there will be negotiations with the Pentagon on that front.
Ankara announced that they had signed a deal demarcating new maritime boundaries between Libya and Turkey; these boundaries pass close by the Greek island of Crete, which Athens says infringes on Greece’s sovereignty. Turkey’s deal is with the U.N.-backed administration, one of the two feuding governments in Libya.
Mitsotakis’ clear goal was to garner Trump’s support vis-a-via Turkey’s recent deal and its eastern Mediterranean policy in general. Prior to his meeting with Trump, Mitsotakis said, “The agreement signed between Turkey and Libya infringes upon Greece’s sovereign rights and essentially causes great concern and instability in a region which is already highly problematic. So we’ll be very much looking to your support to make sure that these types of provocative agreements are not being put into place.”
While Trump did most likely speak positively about the Greek people and Greece in general, he steered clear of making a public statement denouncing Ankara’s recent moves. Trump exaggerated his praise to the point that he claimed that he knew everyone in the U.S. Greek diaspora. But after that came a crystal-clear question from a journalist about what he intends to do about his “good friend [Erdoğan’s]” provocative actions regarding Libya.
Trump replied by stating:
“When you’re talking about Libya, we’re discussing with President Erdoğan, we’re discussing [with] many other countries. I just spoke with the chancellor of Germany, with Angela [Merkel], and we talked about that subject specifically — Libya and what’s going on. We’ll be talking to Russia: they’re involved. A lot of countries are involved with respect to Libya. And it’s, right now, a mess.”
Things soured even more when Trump mentioned that European countries are not paying their dues to NATO, and that Greece is one of them.
But still, U.S.-Greece relations to be on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Or will military build-up make everything worse?
As I was writing this article, the popular Greek TV series Kokkino Potami (Red River) was airing.
The show concerns the Greeks of Pontos and the violence they faced at the end of the nineteenth century. The drama is based on a book by Chares Tsirkinides and mirrors his personal family stories. Topal Osman, a controversial historical figure from the Black Sea region, is also among the characters — a nationalist hero for some in Turkey, and a genocidal vassal in the eyes of many Greeks.
Delving deep into bitter histories in the popular psyche is common for both Greece and Turkey. This is in stark contrast to the mid-2000’s and early 2010’s, when TV series and movies featuring love stories between Greek and Turkish couples were en vogue. The resurfacing of old wounds in popular culture is a reflection of the current bitter political realities and animosity.