Taking a welcome break from his involvement in the Trump-Ukraine issue, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo completed his short Balkan swing on 6 October after signing an important agreement in Athens to update US-Greece defence arrangements and expand US military presence in the region.
Turkey’s recent provocative behavior in regard to energy exploration in Cyprus and the Aegean featured prominently in Pompeo’s Athens discussions. The visit was also significant in that it broke the standard pattern in recent years of senior US diplomats visiting both Athens and Ankara for “balance.” Unfortunately, news of President Donald Trump’s October 6 phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its likely impact on Syria’s Kurds broke just hours after Pompeo’s departure, almost completely cancelling out the goodwill the Athens visit produced.
Beyond blasting Turkey, only two phrases are needed to impress any Greek audience and these themes were clearly referenced by the American side, the mention of any form of “upgraded strategic role” for Greece, as well as the omnipresent expectation for increased American investment.
Mitsotakis focuses on Turkey
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told Pompeo on 5 October that Turkish moves south of the island in recent days were a “flagrant violation” of Cyprus’ sovereign rights. Arguing for the application of accepted norms of international relations in regard to Cyprus, Mitsotakis said: “I anticipate the positive contribution of the United States to lead to the creation finally of a more constructive and fruitful climate of cooperation in the region.”
Pompeo delivered a clear message to Ankara in a joint press conference with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, later on 5 October, “we have told the Turks that illegal drilling is unacceptable and we’ll continue to take diplomatic actions to make sure that we do, as we do always, ensure that lawful activity takes place.”
The Turks are known to be closely following every detail of Pompeo’s Athens visit, and he amplified on his previous remarks, noting, “we want to make sure that rules govern international exploration in the Mediterranean Sea’s energy resources and that no country can hold Europe hostage.”
Defence deal will significantly scale up US presence across Greece
Pompeo and FM Dendias signed the Protocol of Amendment to the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA), at that point not released to the Greek public. The MDCA itself dates from 1990. In total, the new protocol allows American military personnel to return to Greece in numbers not seen since the end of the cold war, although most of this increase will be done through temporary rotations.
Perhaps most important is the provision included in the new protocol that keeps the MDCA in force until one side formally requests termination. Currently, annual extensions are required, which are routinely handled through diplomatic channels. The US has been reluctant to invest in costly upgrades, specifically at the Souda Bay facility (i.e. major port and runway expansions) without the longer timeframe the new agreement provides. The new protocol resolves that issue; if any provision becomes controversial during the ratification procedure, this will be it.
The protocol also lays out the operational framework of the US presence at the northern Greek port of Alexandroupolis on the border with Turkey. This city is a highly strategic pipeline transit point and significantly closer than other US facilities to the vitally important Bosporus Strait, which separates Europe from the Asia Minor. Although the primary purpose of the new facilities will be logistical support for US forces deployed in the region, inclusion of this provision to the MDCA sends a clear message to both Ankara and Moscow.
The protocol also regulates the establishment of “high-technology installations” on Greek soil and within Greek bases and camps in and around mainland Greece. This refers to the long-term installation and expansion of US drone facilities that initially came to Greece while other operational bases were under repair, as well as a helicopter training facility at Stefanovikeio near the port city of Volos, in central Greece, which has been used by American forces on a rotating seasonal basis up to now.
For additional background https://www.neweurope.eu/article/white-house-and-athens-agree-on-new-defence-agreement/
Setting a precedent, Pompeo, himself a former army officer, visited the Greek Ministry of Defence and met with Defence Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos just before the MDCA protocol was signed at the Foreign Ministry.
Not to be forgotten, a small number of demonstrators were seen in central Athens October 5 protesting Pompeo’s visit and the new protocol. The police had to use force at least once to control the situation. The demonstrators were essentially the now-faded remnants of the Greek Left – a hardcore cadre of anti-American/anti-NATO Communists and Anarchists.
A new era in bilateral relations?
In Athens, Pompeo delivered a speech on Greece-US relations entitled “The United States and Greece: Showing the Way Forward.” Pompeo had some explaining to do, first and foremost to bring clarity to the debate over the claim by the former SYRIZA government of Alexi Tsipras that relations with Washington hit their high-water mark under his stewardship, something the US Embassy in Athens never repeated, but also never denied.
Clearly American attitudes have changed after the reform-minded, pro-business Mitsotakis government was elected in July. Pompeo’s media blitz included a press release from the State Department noting that “bilateral relations are at a historic high point,” an important signal of support to Mitsotakis and an acknowledgement of the Americans’ support for the Greek population’s decision to reject the leftist populism of Tsipras and SYRIZA.
While most of Pompeo’s speech focused on the advantages of private sector-led economic development for Greece and the region, he also issued a warning to the Greeks about the unscrupulous tactics China has used when investing in strategic infrastructure and telecommunications projects abroad, as well as Russia’s malign influence in the region, and Iran’s continuing support for terrorism.
Eastern Mediterranean focus – key new evolution
Beyond the expanded bilateral defense relationship, the new element in the US-Greece relationship is Washington’s expanded focus on developments in the Eastern Mediterranean area and its decision to engage more energetically in regional partnerships that Greece is a key member of. Bipartisan interest and support in the US Congress is also a major factor. The US decided, in 2018, to begin participating in various regional meetings as a “Plus One,” and is especially prominent in Greece-Cyprus-Israel meetings which focus mostly on energy development and political-military cooperation. A similar Greece-Cyprus-Egypt group is also moving forward energetically.
In the days before Pompeo arrived, Athens was shaken by news of the Trump administration’s decision to impose tariffs on a wide range of EU exports in response to the WTO’s ruling that the EU had provided illegal state aid to Airbus. Greek exports to the US would be impacted, with the exception of Greek olives and olive oil. Accordingly, the optimism in the trade and investment segment of the bilateral “Strategic Dialogue” has been tempered as trade flows will likely decrease in response to the US tariffs. On investments, practically every Greek analyst has taken a “wait and see” attitude toward the latest positive American pronouncements, but there is a sense that the combination of the new bilateral defence arrangements, ongoing Greek privatization projects as well as Greek energy exploration permits issued to US energy firms will yield more US investment and economic engagement than seen previously.
What is this “Strategic Dialogue” all about?
A strategic dialogue is basically a day-long meeting comprised of multiple high-level working groups in separate sectors of the relationship such as military affairs, regional political consultations, commercial/investment developments and cultural/educational issues. This year, in addition to Pompeo’s symbolic blessing (he departed Athens just before the first meeting), Washington sent an impressive delegation to this session, mostly at the Assistant Secretary level.
The first meeting of the US-Greece Strategic Dialogue was held in Washington in early December 2018; hardly anybody in Washington noticed as Greece sent the then-alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs – SYRIZA’s Giorgos Katrougalos, who later became a full minister. Media coverage in Greek pro-government outlets was high, focusing on the idea that relations had reached their historical zenith.
Of course, then, as now, there was no attempt made to inform the Greek audience that the US also has such “strategic dialogues” with a range of interlocutors such as Pakistan, India, China, Qatar as well as allies like Italy.
New dynamics are in play now, but in 2018 a number of local analysts interpreted the launch of the bilateral Strategic Dialogue as some kind of reward/acknowledgement to the former Tsipras government for signing the Prespes Accord with Skopje in June 2018 and also for designating the US as the “Honored Country” in that year’s Thessaloniki International Fair, bringing the US forward in the normal annual rotation for this distinction among Greece’s major commercial partners. Unfortunately, any payoff to US companies from the effort spent in staging the Thessaloniki Fair while SYRIZA was in power has been largely negated by the 2019 Greek election results.
Which ally is next?
News of President Trump’s October 6 phone call with Turkish President Erdogan and its likely impact on Syria’s Kurds broke just hours after Pompeo’s departure, effectively cancelling out the goodwill the Athens visit produced and leaving many of America’s allies to wonder which allied relationship Trump might decide to sacrifice next. Greece has long hosted a significant number of Kurdish refugees, and anti-Turkish demonstrations are frequent. A number of Greek commentators also noted that the bilateral Strategic Dialogue was intended to coordinate regional policy, and that kind of coordination was lacking in this case.