A revived role for the US in Northern Greece requires dynamic action and focus

EPA-EFE/FOTIS FILARGYROPOULOS

The remains of a classical statue found in Dion, west of Thessaloniki, in Northern Greece.

Washington lays it on, but bold declarations cannot conceal a faded US presence

 


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As a former US diplomat who served as Consul General in Thessaloniki, it’s impossible not to become a lifelong booster of the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF).

This writer for one is impressed with the massive amount of energy the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce and the US Embassy in Athens have poured into the TIF2018 project over the last year.  Some have even labelled the TIF 2018 as “The year of the US in Greece” which implies quite a bit more than just “Honored Country” status at this year’s Thessaloniki International Fair.  Without question, the US Pavilion this year has been filled to the brim, with no space available for late-comers, and this is especially significant as there has not been enough commercial interest over most of the last decade to organize and sustain any kind of organized American pavilion.

It is truly wonderful to see our country return to Northern Greece in force.  One only hopes the business community in Northern Greece is prepared to work with those American firms who will have discovered new partnering and investment opportunities in their region and across Southeastern Europe through TIF2018.

Our Greek friends, as well as some curious Americans, are asking a thoughtful question — What about “the day after”? What will be left after the amazing US Pavilion is taken down at the end of September? What legacy will remain in terms of new investments or new regional projects?  There is no good answer to that question, unfortunately.  We had understood the regional perspective was to be a key enduring component of the US presence at TIF2018, but so far little has emerged.

But look at the facts… Try as we might, one simply can’t make a convincing case that the US commitment to Northern Greece is on the increase.  In fact, the primary complaint that I and other American officials  have heard for many years from our friends in senior political and business positions in Thessaloniki is that we are slowly allowing ourselves to melt away, one function or staff position at a time and quietly vacating the field while others like Russia, Turkey, and China are seen to be increasing their overall presence.

This is happening despite the increased strategic significance of the region in terms of energy corridors, refugee movements and the Middle East situation.  The necessary resources simply aren’t being allocated to the American Consulate General in Thessaloniki, currently totally downsized to a bare-bones single-officer diplomatic post with the officer-in-charge now at the Lt. Colonel level, very different from the post’s status in the Cold War years and the 1990s when it served as a critical monitoring point for developments across the wider Balkan region, Thessaloniki’s natural hinterland.

Once upon a time, “expansion” was the keyword

In fact, there was a time when our presence in Northern Greece had been steadily increasing, just after Bill Clinton’s 1999 trip to Greece which put a heavy focus on US-Greece commercial, economic, and political cooperation in supporting and accelerating Balkan economic development and democratization.  This period of a strong partnership was perhaps the true high-water mark of our bilateral relationship with Greece.  In fact, to advance US-Greece cooperation in the Balkan region, the Clinton Administration’s Department of Commerce even stationed on a trial basis a regular commercial attaché at the Consulate General in Thessaloniki, tasked with boosting US trade and investment throughout the region.

I recall seeing a memorandum written in the 2001-2002 period informing Washington there actually wasn’t enough office space in the Consulate’s newly-built offices (we moved to a new facility in 1999) for the number of new American staff who might be assigned to the north.

Expanding the US presence in Northern Greece had been a priority until the focus on security for the 2004 Olympics, mostly held in Athens, morphed into a steady shift of resources away from wider regional ambitions.  Times change and priorities shift, but what we need now is to move definitively in the direction of correcting the approach taken to Northern Greece just before the Olympics – one of reducing resources allocated to Thessaloniki — which has continued despite developments in recent years.

Worse still, over the years various teams of inspectors from Washington have recommended further downsizing and even closing the beleaguered Consulate General.  Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton firmly rejected the recommendation to close Thessaloniki that landed on her desk in 2012, but key local staff were released, and others transferred to new jobs in Athens.  Consular services are no longer provided except when the Embassy in Athens sends teams up to provide them.

So, let’s get serious about focusing on US interests. How can one diplomat, no matter how skilled, monitor developments in Northern Greece, support an energetic ambassador’s broad agenda of engagement, while also minding key energy facilities and pipelines which are increasingly critical to European energy security, if Washington won’t match resources to evolving strategic priorities? Other countries are paying attention and allocating resources to the area, and it seems at times that’s more than we are doing.  It’s time to make a careful evaluation of the key role Northern Greece plays in our overall European strategy and act accordingly.

 

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