U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias in Washington March 13, just hours before Tillerson planned to depart for his week-long trip to Asia. The rushed diplomats’ meeting and Kotzias’ entire Washington visit, filled in with a few extra events at the usual Hellenic organizations and Greece-supporters in Congress, as well as a meeting with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, was announced only on Saturday March 11, leaving most observers to conclude there was an air of unusual urgency connected with finalizing the date for the senior diplomats’ encounter (or we can just blame the Washington schedulers for moving slowly).
With the ruling Syriza party’s poll numbers sinking sharply, positive Greek-US contacts of any kind remain something of a political lifeline for PM Tsipras, despite relatively little interest from a Washington deeply focused on President Trump’s other concerns. The American side is aware of how Greek PM Tsipras sought to use the image of American support at every instance in its 2015-2016 negotiations with Greece’s “Quartet” of creditors, and will be on the alert for such tactics. Fortunately, the Kotzias visit seems to be focused heavily on geopolitical concerns and away from financial issues.
Going in, few suspected that the Kotzias’ agenda would be topped off by anything other than Turkish behavior in the Aegean and related security and refugee issues, something Kotzias usually calls “Turkish nervousness.” As an individual who once occupied the Greece Desk at the State Department, let me assure you that few if any issues other than Aegean stability and recent developments in Greek and European relations with Turkey would be significant enough to land a hurried meeting on the same day the Secretary of State is departing on a major overseas trip. Minister Kotzias’ readout of the meeting to the Greek press described Secretary Tillerson as an attentive listener who spoke of Greece’s significance as an ally and regional power. The Greek side supplied its views of the Turkish situation and its desire to contribute to regional stability wherever possible, including through important regional energy projects, making Greece an energy hub, as well as rail transportation works. Kotsias indicated that many of the “hardy perennials” of Greek-American discussions were not addressed, such as military-to-military relations, Cyprus and the FYROM name issue.
The meeting with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is set for Tuesday, March 14th, a day when Washington is expected to be hit with a major blizzard. The full range of geopolitical issues of concern to Greece (Aegean, Cyprus, Syria, Russia, Balkans) is expected to be discussed, with the Greek side certain to make sure that a meeting that would go almost totally unnoticed in Washington will be top news back home, and perhaps across the Aegean as well.