By Endy Zemenides
Currently on a visit to Greece, the schedule of US Senator Bob Menendez in Athens features the typical lineup of meetings with relevant officials, a series of “exclusive” interviews, and analyses of the legislation that he and Senator Marco Rubio just introduced. Yet the central focus of this trip should be whether Greece is ready for the role the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act envisions for it.
Watching the Greek press parse one provision or another in the legislation, it seems that much of Greece is missing the main point: For the first time since the Truman Doctrine, Greece may be gaining “linchpin” status in the United States. Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, understands this. In reaction to the Menendez/Rubio legislation, he noted that the “US has long considered Turkey [the] linchpin of its Eastern Mediterranean security architecture, along with Israel. This policy is changing, with Greece gradually replacing Turkey.”
There are those in Athens and in the Greek-American community who will argue that this is an obvious role for Greece and that this shift in US policy is long overdue. Such a role is actually not yet “obvious”; it is being debated among US policy makers and thought leaders. The outcome of that debate may well depend on whether Greece is ready for prime time.
There are multiple reasons to be discouraged. But the following deficiencies have been a matter of choice and not a matter of fate. These policy choices must be reconsidered if Greece is really going to assume “linchpin” status.
To begin with, a comprehensive narrative for Greece’s importance hasn’t been developed. Evidence of Greece’s importance – Souda Bay; defense spending that exceeds 2 percent of gross domestic product spending; membership in both the European Union and NATO; strategically located in both the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkan regions – is presented regularly, but in a disjointed fashion.
Given the longevity of the bilateral alliance and multiple connections between Greece and the United States (not the least of which is the Greek-American community), there is an alarming lack of familiarity between the US and Greece. There is not yet a “conventional wisdom” regarding Greece or what US policy toward Greece should be.
There is a school of thought – shared by several in Greece and in the diaspora – that such a conventional wisdom can be established merely via a better lobbying and public relations operation. While these tools can help Greece enhance its narrative, they cannot make up for the lack of a national strategy or substitute for a bad message. Today Turkey is spending as it never has before on lobbyists and is still facing unprecedented pressure from the administration, Congress, think tanks, state legislatures and the media.
Another prime example is Israel. Advocacy by the pro-Israel community certainly helps frame any policy discussion in Israel, but the underlying rationale for strong US support for Israel is something that wasn’t established primarily by lobbying. Responding to the assertion that the US-Israel relationship was one-sided in Israel’s favor at the 2019 AIPAC Policy Conference, retired Admiral James Stavridis dismissed this notion, declaring that beyond the values affinity, there were three areas of collaboration where the United States gained more from Israel: intelligence cooperation, missile defense and cyber warfare.
Let’s say that General Curtis Scaparrotti, the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe – a position that Stavridis held from 2009 to 2013 – is asked that question about Greece a few years from now. What will his three answers be? Even in the face of the current political divisiveness in Greece, this question must be answered soon. Investment in Greece should always be considered a value-added proposition, so Athens must develop absolute and relative advantages in certain areas.
Another chronically underdeveloped tool is the diplomatic service of Greece. The United States should not be a destination for civil servants, but for committed public servants. To have a consul general who became the first to welcome the prime minister of Greece to her host city in 2017 fail to note that as the highlight of her tenure (emphasizing the capital improvements to the consulate’s offices instead) is not putting the best foot forward. Having a political counselor serving in DC in 2015 downplay the significance of the Congressional Hellenic Israel Alliance caucus (the work of which laid the groundwork for this year’s legislation) is even worse. Interacting with the diaspora is certainly necessary, but by no means sufficient.
Fortunately, there are examples of exceptional diplomats during this upswing in bilateral relations – ambassadors like Haris Lalacos and Vassilis Kaskarelis, consul generals like Konstantinos Koutras in New York and Ioanna Efthymiadou in Chicago, political counselors like Alexis Mitsopoulos – who have set a high bar. If Greece wants to play the linchpin role, it should take great care as to who it sends to the United States.
As Greek leaders receive Senator Menendez, they should be making the most of the opportunity. They should be inquiring what he – one of the leading voices on US foreign policy – thinks Greece’s greatest value-add is. They should be asking him how other countries engage with the US Congress. Above all else, they should be demonstrating that the very Greece Congress is promoting as a linchpin of the US’s Eastern Mediterranean is committed to such a role across party lines. Anything less will be a missed opportunity and will be interpreted as Greece not being ready for prime time.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.