Hitting bigger than its political weight, Greece - attaching itself at the hip to the United States and mulling an expanded American military presence in the country - has found itself taking an increasingly, if unlikely, bigger role in international politics in the region.
With the Chinese company COSCO, which runs the port of Piraeus, seeking a 600-million euro ($671.92 million) renovation, Israel looking for closer energy ties, and its key geographical position between the European Union and Middle East, Greece is positioned to have more influence.
The US was gleeful that Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras gave away the name of the ancient Greek province of Macedonia to a newly-renamed North Macedonia and lifted a veto keeping Greece’s neighbor out of NATO, eager to have another country in the defense alliance as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
With US relations with Turkey deteriorating as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists on buying a Russian S-400 missile defense system that could undermine NATO - to which Greece and Turkey both belong - Washington’s interest is sliding more toward Athens. Before he took his tiny, pro-austerity, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) party out of a coalition as a junior partner with SYRIZA, then-defense minister Panos Kammenos pushed for a stronger US military presence in Greece.
After Greece allowed the US to use military drones in the country and conducted joint military exercises, he said that, “It’s very important for Greece that the United States deploy military assets in Greece on a more permanent base.”
He quit the coalition in opposition to the Macedonia name giveaway but the formerly anti-American, anti-NATO Tsipras has intensified ties with the US and the defense alliance, antithetical to his party’s alleged principles.
In a look at Greece’s growing role in geopolitics, Victor Davis Hanson, a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, wrote in The National Review about Greece’s complicated relationship with the European Union, with Tsipras - facing a likely re-election defeat in July 7 snap elections to New Democracy - now demanding World War II reparations from Germany, a popular issue with Greeks.
With the Aug. 20, 2018 end of three international bailouts of 326 billion euros ($365.36 billion) - most of it put up by Germany - Tsipras has tried to back away from austerity measures he imposed after swearing he wouldn’t and is talking tougher. With Turkey pushing energy drilling in Cypriot waters and mulling doing the same in Greek waters, Tsipras now finds himself at the nucleus of growing tension in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, with the US coming down on the side of Cyprus and leaning toward Greece.
“Yet Greece appreciates that more European Union money goes into the country than goes out, even if many Greeks resent bitterly high-handed German dictates — and being manipulated as the frontline transit center for hundreds of thousands of migrants swarming into Europe from Africa and the Middle East,” wrote Hanson.
Now, he said, Greece is finding it has many semi-permanent interests even if they are semi-permanent friends looking out for their own permanent interests.
“Relatively small and vulnerable but strategically located Greece lives in a tough neighborhood with historic enemies such as Turkey and radical Islamic groups. As a window on the Mediterranean and three continents, Greece sits at the intersection of great-power rivalries between Europe, America, China and Russia,” noted Hanson.
Greece has complained for decades that the US backed Turkey more and took Greece, a member of NATO and the European Union, “as either an insignificant subordinate or a whiny nuisance — despite its key location and its iconic status as the birthplace of Western civilization,” he added.
Now, he said, that’s changed, often to Greek advantage.
“Greece has gone from its traditionally defiant (if not insecure) role as an outlier to that of a crafty insider,” he added, with the US increasingly wary of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly bellicose moves.
“The rise of a neo-Ottoman Turkey, with a population seven times that of Greece, a territory six times as large and renewed territorial ambitions in the Greek Aegean, has made Greece turn to the U.S. military for protection,” he added, joining Athens with Washington.
Noting the closer links to Israel - at the expense of abandoning the Palestinian cause he championed before Tsipras reneged on that too - Hanson said an underwater gas pipeline tying the countries together, with Israel and Cyprus, boosted Greece’s international role.
“Greece is, of course, walking a tightrope. By balancing between rivals and finding new friendly interests, Greece magnifies its own importance. As it does, it also becomes an even greater focal point of big-power rivalries and global commercial jostling,” he said.