Mitsotakis Visit: Good News Bad News?

Αssociated Press

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis waves goodbye to a crowd during the Glendi celebration which is part of the annual Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis came to the United States this week with two objectives: (1) Convincing Americans that Greece is, as he put it, “Open for Business” after the crisis, and (2) lining up American support against Turkish threats. He made great progress on the first. He made no headway on the second with the only man who counts: President Trump.

The Good News: Mr. Mitsotakis came armed with real accomplishments and a pitch to lure Americans (especially Diaspora Greeks) to do business in Greece. His January 7 presentation at the Atlantic Council, a prestigious Washington, DC based think tank, impressed favorably. He came across as sober, well prepared, and focused on fixing the problems that have plagued Greece for so long. He did not minimize the problems – unlike previous Greek official visitors – and laid out persuasively what he has done and plans to do. He emphasized the facts that Greece’s old reflexive anti-Americanism has disappeared, that Greece’s brief adventure with populist government is over, and that the Greek public accepts and even supports reforms, in contrast to the rest of Europe. He also touted a little-known fact, namely, that young Greek entrepreneurs have established some impressive tech start-ups. He knew his facts and he delivered – without drama – what he knew impresses businessmen the most.

He did sound a bit disappointed in the tepid American business reaction so far, which he described as, “punching far below their (American) weight.” So far, the only significant American interest has come in the form of two companies looking to invest in a casino in the long-delayed Hellenikon Project. Mitsotakis gently contrasted this with the large Chinese investments in logistics and other sectors of the Greek economy.

Mitsotakis then turned to geopolitical matters, expressing his belief that the United States now appreciates the key strategic role of Greece. U.S. and Greek strategic ties have never been better and he wants to get even closer. He announced that Greece hopes to join the F35 advanced fighter program once it completes the upgrade of the current fighter inventory. Mitsotakis then turned to the troubling relationship with Turkey. Greece seeks a good relationship with Turkey and its closer integration into NATO and the EU. Unfortunately, Ankara has weakened those ties with its procurement of Russian S400 missiles and its even more dangerous attempts to encroach on Greece’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Ankara’s recent agreement with Libya demarcating economic zones violates Greece’s rights and international law. He also noted that this action threatens the construction of a pipeline to transport Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe, thus lessening its dependence on Russian gas. Greece regards the Turkish-Libyan agreement null and void under international law. Athens has offered to take the dispute with Turkey to the International Court of Justice for an amicable settlement but Ankara so far has refused. Greece wants a fair and legal settlement but will – in the strongest tones of the PM’s presentation – not accept any infringement of its EEZ.

The Bad News: Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ meeting with President Trump later the same day did not go so well. During the photo op before the bilateral meeting, a reporter asked Trump if he would speak to Turkish President Erdogan about Turkey’s provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean. Trump veered off into a rambling (read the transcripts) monologue about France, Angela Merkel, and all the complicated issues concerning Libya. Mitsotakis tried to bring the conversation back to the Turkish violation of international law and his hopes for American support. Trump responded “Yeah” and took another detour into why Germany, France, and Greece were not paying their fair share of defense costs. He somehow tied that into a convoluted sentence implying corruption was a problem for Greece. (He apparently had not gotten the memo that Greece is one of the few NATO countries whose defense budget has never fallen below two percent of GDP, even during the worst of the financial crisis.) Asked about allowing Greece into the F35 program Trump changed the subject to Greece’s recent signature of a $300 million agreement to upgrade Greek fighter planes followed by a bizarre excursion into “there are three million Greeks in the U.S. and I know them all.”

When the bilateral meeting ended the two leaders did not hold the customary joint press conference. This usually happens when the meeting did not go as well as the visiting VIP had hoped. A press conference would have revealed the gap between Mitsotakis’ request for American support and Trump’s indifference (or worse).

At a State Department reception later, Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence repeated all the normal platitudes about Greece. Pompeo went so far as to state that the U.S. and Greece would establish a “hotline” to discuss their concerns about Turkey. The White House promptly undermined Pompeo with an unexpected statement that effectively left Greece twisting in the wind. “President Trump has an excellent relationship with President Erdogan, as well as with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, and so we prefer to focus on the things that we have in common and pursuing the common interests we have in security in the Eastern Mediterranean region, rather than to look at where there might be provocation.”

In other words, if Greece is looking for outside intervention to prevent a confrontation with Turkey, don’t come knocking at Trump’s door!