Greece Is Getting Good at Geopolitics
How souring ties between Ankara and Washington benefit Athens.
Greece has long been one of Europe’s least favorably disposed countries toward the United States. Last year, a Pew Research Center survey found that a whopping 59 percent of the public held unfavorable views of the United States. And it’s not just the Trump effect. In 2014, with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House, only one-third of Greeks believed American leadership to be a good thing, while 52 percent cheered for Russia.
But Greece also happens to be one of the United States’ closest friends in the EU right now. Geoffrey Pyatt, Washington’s ambassador to Athens, recently praised the country as “a pillar of stability in a difficult region.” In his words, cooperation between the two nations, from imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to defense contracts, is moving at “top speed.”
In part, that momentum has to do with the outcome of the Greek general elections at the beginning of the month, in which the center-right New Democracy headed by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, a technocrat and former financier educated at Harvard and Stanford, handily defeated the ruling populist left-wing Syriza, which counts among its lodestars Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and which threatened in early 2015 to wreak havoc in the EU by opposing a bailout and mulling “Grexit” from the eurozone. Many in the Western media expect that Mitsotakis will soon seek to deepen ties with the EU, NATO, and the United States.
Yet Greece’s turn back toward the United States has deeper roots than a simple change of governments in Athens. It is a product of shifting geopolitics, and Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, deserves a fair amount of the credit.
Over the past decade, Greece has watched as next-door Turkey, its principal rival, became both stronger and more alienated from its Western partners. Ankara’s frustrated bid to join the EU derailed its rapprochement with Greece, which had picked up pace in the 2000s, during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reformist and pro-European era. Now, the maritime disputes that have poisoned relations between Greece and Turkey for more than a generation are back with vengeance.
Dogfights between military jets from the two countries are a daily reality. Turkey lays claim to hydrocarbon deposits off the coast of Cyprus and in the vicinity of the Greek island of Kastelorizo. In response, Greece successfully urged the EU to impose sanctions on Turkey in response to what it considers “illegal drilling.”
To balance against Turkey, Greece has looked to the United States. In October 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Tsipras at the White House. The president congratulated Greece for meeting the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, a pet subject of his, and gave thumbs-up to a deal worth nearly $1 billion to upgrade 84 of the Greek air force’s 154 F-16s. It was quite a spectacle: a left-wing firebrand who had cut his teeth in street protests against NATO and U.S. bases in Greece pushing for a major defense contract with Lockheed Martin.
The F-16 overhaul, which started in 2018, has been followed by a similar refurbishment of the Greek navy and, possibly, the purchase of Seahawk helicopters from the United States. Greece has furthermore started importing U.S. LNG, music to the ears of the Trump administration. Having been labeled the Kremlin’s “Trojan horse” in his early days in power, Tsipras became a model partner for the United States.
Although the United States has traditionally played the arbiter and peacemaker between its two allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greece and Turkey, it has strategic reasons to tilt toward Athens, too. Erdogan’s increasingly close ties with Russia have irked many in Washington, although more so on Capitol Hill and the Defense Department than in the White House. The delivery to Turkey of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missiles is nearly certain to unleash sanctions against Ankara, which has been, in addition, ejected from the multination consortium developing the F-35 fighter.
By contrast, as Greece has stepped up its advocacy for NATO and the EU, it has downgraded its historically friendly relations with Russia, a fellow Orthodox Christian-majority country that once aided Greece in its struggle for liberation from Ottoman rule. And in resolving the decades-long dispute over Macedonia’s name last year, Tsipras paved the way for NATO’s enlargement into the Balkans. The rebranded North Macedonia is now on the cusp of formally joining the Atlantic alliance.
Meanwhile, over the past decade, Greece has forged exceptionally warm ties with Israel. Three-way cooperation with Israel and Cyprus is in bloom, from defense to oil and gas to maritime security and search and rescue. Last December, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even attended a summit in Beersheba, Israel, that brought together Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Tsipras, and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades. In late 2018, Tsipras and Anastasiadis also held a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Crete. The tripartite scheme, focused largely on energy cooperation, goes back to 2014. The United States, too, is throwing its weight behind the budding alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Mitsotakis’s foreign policy will likely be more of the same. The incoming prime minister will follow through with Tsipras’s rapprochement with the United States and its allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel and Egypt, a matter of cross-party consensus in Athens. But just like his predecessor, Mitsotakis will keep channels to communication to the Turks open in order to manage tensions and deal with issues of common interest such as refugees, trade, and energy infrastructure. In February, Erdogan rolled out the red carpet for Tsipras in Istanbul, raising hopes for a thaw that, sadly, proved premature.
Greek society, for all its outward bias against the United States, will continue at least tacitly supporting strengthened ties with the Trump administration. Greece’s troubled history has taught locals a lesson or two about realpolitik.
Dimitar Bechev is Research Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Senior Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is the author of Rival Power: Russia in Southeast Europe (Yale University Press, 2017).