Argument

Greece Accidentally Steered Into a Foreign-Policy Crisis

Turkey is redrawing its borders in the Aegean—and the Greek government is failing to do much about it.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis
Greece's opposition party New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis stands in a polling booth prior to casting his vote during general elections at a polling station in Athens on July 7. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

In late November last year, Greece was caught by surprise when Turkey announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Libyan government in Tripoli. The deal demarcated new maritime boundaries between the two countries—boundaries that now run very close to Crete, Greece’s biggest island. Turkey’s aim is to start drilling operations for natural gas in the area, in humiliating disregard of Greece’s territorial claims. The country’s traditional allies, in Washington and across Europe, have done essentially nothing to intervene.

The result has been one of the greatest diplomatic and political crises in recent Greek history, exposing the country’s international weakness. A promising path forward is available, however, to Greece’s conservative government led by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis—it just needs to follow the diplomatic examples set by the leftist party Syriza when it was in power in Athens from 2015 to 2019.

During a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump last month, Mitsotakis failed to get any commitment to take Greece’s side in the dispute with Turkey. In response, the opposition in Greece’s Parliament called the prime minister’s diplomatic foray an “unprecedented fiasco.” The problems were compounded by the conference on Libya organized by Germany in January, where Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met to discuss a possible cease-fire with the two warring Libyan sides, as well as a possible resolution to the conflict. Greece was not invited at all, despite the fact its interests are now directly involved in Libya. To add insult to injury, reports in the German tabloid Bild suggest the decisive factor may have been Turkey’s insistence that Greece not be involved in the negotiations.

It seems that Mitsotakis’s approach to diplomacy hasn’t done Greece any favors. Above all, the prime minister has been at pains to prove his reliability to his country’s more powerful allies. Speaking at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington before the recent meeting with Trump, Mitsotakis declared his support for the U.S. president’s decision to kill the Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani, even as other European countries were notably more cautious in assessing the repercussions of the strike. “We are allies with the U.S, so we stand by our allies through difficult times,” Mitsotakis said—even as the United States failed to intervene in Greece’s dispute with Turkey and Libya. Mitsotakis said he was at peace with Trump’s choices. “I understand that this particular decision was taking into consideration what is the U.S. national interest and we stand by this decision.”

The Greek government has also indulged in spasms of adventurism, which are too minor to figure in any plans the United States has for the region or to otherwise promote Greek interests on its own. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has suggested that Greece might soon send active personnel to Libya as part of the European Union’s Sofia mission, which enforces an arms embargo on the country’s warring sides (and their patrons), and an array of Patriot missiles to Saudi Arabia “to protect critical infrastructure,” presumably against attacks like the ones Iran is believed to have organized against the Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields last year. This marks a break with traditional Greek foreign policy, in which it seeks to remain neutral in active conflicts and maintain friendly relations with larger nearby countries like Iran and Russia.

These initiatives have predictably had no direct effect on the defense of Greece’s direct interests in the Aegean Sea. Turkey has escaped any international penalty for its unilateral diplomacy with Libya. Greece’s position seems likely to worsen in the near future as Turkey and Russia deepen their ties (despite the fact the Syrian conflict has placed them on opposite sides), with the latter reportedly considering recognizing the former’s statelet in Northern Cyprus and planning to open a military base there.

Supporters of the government in Greece have pointed a finger at Germany and Merkel, whom they accuse of fully capitulating to Turkey’s demands. They are right—up to a point. Germany’s indulgence of Turkey seems to be motivated by its own desire to limit its direct involvement in the Libya crisis—and its dependence on Erdogan to forestall future crises involving migrants from the Middle East. This has led many Greeks to claim Germany is abusing its hegemonic position in the EU to further its own interests, while disregarding its obligations to defend Europe’s existing borders.

But the government under Mitsotakis’s New Democracy party shares a considerable portion of the blame for the country’s marginalization in the Aegean. The prime minister’s diplomatic approach has accelerated, rather than impeded, this process.

Mitsotakis would have been better served if he spent his years in opposition trying to understand the Syriza-led government’s diplomatic strategy, rather than attacking it at every opportunity. Syriza didn’t hesitate to cause problems for its more powerful allies for the sake of earning their respect. When the EU planned a resolution to deepen sanctions against Russia in January 2015, the Syriza-led government demanded to know why Greece wasn’t consulted, implicitly threatening a veto. Many took it as a sign the Syriza administration was preparing to abandon Europe in favor of a deeper relationship with Russia.

But that was far from the point. In the end, Greece did sign on for the sanctions, the European commissioner thanked Greece for its positive contributions, and the Greek government had made its point: The country shouldn’t just be taken for granted. In the following years, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias successfully stewarded their country’s geopolitical power, actively participating in multiple diplomatic conferences.

Ultimately, there was nothing to be gained for Greece either in Mitsotakis’s unequivocal support for the U.S. decision to take out Iran’s Suleimani or Dendias’s announcements of ineffectual military participation in the Middle East. So what explains the decision-making? A clue is offered by Mitsotakis’s book on foreign policy, released in 2006 in Greece (a translation of his Harvard University dissertation). Its main thesis can be summed up in this passage: “the satisfaction of domestic obligations might require foreign-policy decisions that are not the most suitable from the point of view of a rational player, but which provide gains domestically”—or, to paraphrase, the country’s foreign policy should be carved with an eye on domestic politics.

But this is an approach that a small country like Greece simply cannot afford geopolitically. Perhaps Mitsotakis is now learning that lesson. His meeting in Athens with Turkey’s Libyan adversary Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a few days prior to the German conference, was a good first step. His trip to Paris that won over Macron to Greece’s side was also important. But overall, the government still seems dangerously out of its depth as it needlessly risks Greece’s interests. After attacking his predecessor government for so long, Mitsotakis should examine how it ensured Greece had a place at the table when its fate was being decided.

Yiannis Baboulias is an investigative journalist, the writer of a forthcoming book on Golden Dawn, and a co-founder of the Precarious Europe project.

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