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Markos Kounalakis Speaks on Hellenism, Democracy, and Today’s World

Author and journalist Markos Kounalakis, PhD is a Visiting Fellow at Hoover Institution of Stanford University in California. He is married to Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, who had served as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary.

The National Herald: Tell us about your family.

Markos Kounalakis: Crete has defined my outlook and my ambitions. Both my parents lived on Nazi-occupied Crete – my mother in Chania, my father in the mountains of Apokorona, from Vrysses. During that time, my mother was a school-aged girl who was taken by foot to a cave in the mountains where they watched the Battle of Crete and the Nazi paratroopers dotting the skies during their assault. My father joined the resistance and transported and distributed anti-Nazi literature printed on cigarette paper to villages and major towns. Both of their lives were shaped by this experience during their formative years. And it was this experience – and the appreciation of surviving it – that they passed along to me.

Their experience instilled in me a visceral understanding that what happens in other parts of the world can have an existential impact on you wherever you live. Their idyllic, if simple, life on Crete was disrupted and overturned by decisions and actors far away in Munich, Berlin, and Vienna. Growing up in California – my parents came to the United States as displaced persons with the World Council of Churches – we watched the network news nightly to see what was happening in the world and to be aware of actions, like the Vietnam War, that might disrupt our lives in America.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis & First Lady Mareva Grabowski.

TNH: How would you characterize yourself?

MK: Greek-Americans have long been distinguished in this country as an academically high-achieving ethnic group. When I was a kid, San Francisco Mayor George Christopher (a Greek-American) emphasized a strong education. He would tap my temple and say, “they can take many things from you – money, homes, possessions – but they can’t take away what’s in here!” He must have tapped that temple so many times that it hammered in that idea. So, I have had a long professional career that has been paralleled by a long period of academic training.

Aside from the educational focus, I’d say I’m a pretty easy-going but determined and ambitious guy who has developed a high signal-to-noise ratio of what gets into my head. My Cretan values of strength, honor, clarity, determination and Greek ‘filotimo’ drive my interactions and family life.

Markos, his sons: Antoneo, Evangelos, and his wife Eleni Kounalakis (left to right). Antoneo is a Sophomore at Stanford University; Evangelos is a Freshman at University of Southern California (USC). They are both fluent Mandarin Chinese speakers.

TNH: You stand out professionally. Any tips?

MK: Do not allow others to convince you that you are not worthy of pursuing seemingly unreachable goals. There are plenty of people who will try to dissuade you from doing difficult things. Instead, stretch. Fail. Try. Regroup. Try again – approach from a different angle. Go around. If the rules do not favor you, change the rules if you can. Try yet again. And be flexible because the thing you think you may want could evolve as you learn, change, grow, and experience new things. Allow yourself the reflective space and the emotional distance to take advantage of opportunities you never imagined existed. And, where appropriate, be professionally opportunistic.

TNH: Tell us about your latest book.

MK: ‘Freedom isn’t Free: The Price of World Order’ is a curated collection of some of my most recent foreign affairs McClatchy columns that appeared in 30 U.S. newspapers (Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, Kansas City Star, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, etc.) and syndicated worldwide by the Tribune News Service. What my publisher and I realized as we reviewed these columns was a theme that centered around freedom and democracy – and both the national and global threats to them. Unlike many foreign affairs writers, my columns were meant for readers who may be interested in what goes on in the world but who may not be paying a lot of attention or who are intimidated by the language of diplomacy and national security. I write so people can understand what is going on in the world internationally and in the world around them. My book is really accessible by both newspaper audiences and foreign policy practitioners. It’s a hard line to straddle, but I think I pull it off.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky with Markos & Eleni Kounalakis.

TNH: As a foreign affairs analyst, what is your evaluation of the current Ukraine crisis?

MK: The Ukraine crisis marks the end of the post-Cold War era. If a large-scale military invasion is initiated, there will be European blood that will spill, free people who will be silenced, and a sovereign nation that will further erode into a vassal state. Might will appear to make right. What follows any such action is uncharted territory, and it will be a period that will require committed democracies to unify both at home and abroad. There will likely need to be sacrifice from democratic societies. Global tensions will rise to an unprecedented and unfamiliar level for a new generation. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping are determined to undermine democratic power and alliances and promote authoritarian order in the world. Putin will do it by military force, leveraging energy security, coercive actions, cyber activity, and disruptive disinformation campaigns. Xi will rely primarily on economic and trade tools.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades.

TNH: How did you come into journalism and to being a foreign correspondent?

MK: My first job was at the Swedish Broadcasting Company when I was studying at the International Graduate School at the University of Stockholm. Why was I studying there? Because it was free. My parents were both working class; my dad was a truck driver, and my mom worked at a Bank of America branch. I had modest student loans to pay for my undergraduate degree at U.C. Berkeley ($212.50 per quarter) and drove Humphrey Go-Bart buses to earn tuition and rent money. While at graduate school, I learned about the English-language shortwave programming at Radio Sweden International and that they needed newscasters. I tried out, and that’s how it started. It took off from there because I saw that I could then work in any country without a work permit simply by being a journalist. I went on to work in the German media, then jumped to Newsweek magazine in Rome, Vienna, Czechoslovakia, and then the USSR. I left Newsweek to become the NBC-Mutual News Moscow correspondent. There was lots of radio and some TV mixed into this era, a degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, a few books, and more than a little freelancing, including a stint working in Silicon Valley with Apple Computer and Silicon Graphics. I ended up with a Doctorate in international relations.

TNH: You later became a publisher and columnist. How challenging is that?

MK: Research, reporting, and writing are the key skills for journalists and columnists. Publishing requires business skills – especially in an industry that is dissolving, like publishing. I had enough experience in Fortune 500 companies and enough resources to know what needed to be done to transition the Washington Monthly magazine into a non-profit organization. None of this would have mattered if the Washington Monthly was not a valued brand with storied success and, most importantly, a Greek-American partner, editor Paul Glastris. He and I met when he was still a Bill Clinton speechwriter at the White House, and we connected personally. Paul is still at the helm of America’s most serious political and policy journal.

Athens Mayor Kosta Bakoyannis & Markos Kounalakis in Glasgow, Scotland for COP 26 Climate conference.

TNH: You are California’s first ‘Second Gentleman’. What weight does that carry?

MK: Being first means you get to define the role. Since there are no predecessors and the role of First or Second Lady is difficult to replicate for guys, I am given a bit more free reign. It’s also an interesting question because my wife, Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, is a new politician. This is her first elected office. So we’re both trying to figure out how to perform our roles, engage in sincere and meaningful public service, and execute the roles and responsibilities of the office. I think she’s doing the best job of any California Lt. Governor in at least a generation. But I’m a little biased. She runs for re-election this year, and I encourage your readers to visit her website at www.EleniForCA.com to learn about her and support her if they like what they see.

TNH: Democracy and freedom. Can you elaborate on those?

MK: I think Greeks and Greek-Americans are somehow – perhaps inexplicably – endowed with the inheritance of Classical Greece’s political gift to the world: democracy. We seem to engage more in politics and avoid being what the Greek’s derisively call an ‘ἰδιώτης’ – a private person, one not involved in public affairs, an ‘idiot’. Whether it’s Bill Antholis at UVA’s Miller Center or Paul Glastris at Washington Monthly or the myriad of Greek-American politicians throughout the country in both parties, there is this sense of democratic responsibility and the visceral need to defend its tenets. Maybe I’m being a bit too ethnically proud here. Still, I think that the conditions and place that brought about democracy’s birth and invention resonate differently for people who have diners named ‘Acropolis’ or who speak a form of the language that defined democracy’s promise and limits. As far as ‘freedom’ is concerned, my grandfather, Markos, was not born in Greece – he was born under the Ottoman rule on Crete. He used to say, “better an hour of freedom than 40 years of slavery and imprisonment.” I think that’s enough of an elaboration.

TNH: Our world is in turmoil in many respects. What can lead to a better world? 

MK: Democracy is the answer. Democratic nations do not go to war with each other. Autocratic and Totalitarian leaders seek to keep their jobs, which often leads them to invent enemies. They convince their populations that these enemies must be vanquished. They resort to nationalist rhetoric and impose severe limitations on speech, movement, and the human spirit.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken with the Eleni & Markos Kounalakis.

TNH: What can lead to a better world?

MK: Democracy that spreads across the globe.

TNH: Is the United States like the phoenix? Will it be reborn?

MK: For nearly the last decade, I have been a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where I worked with Secretary of State George P. Shultz. I continue to work with people like General James Mattis and others on national security issues, economic questions, educational policies, and the increasingly challenging relationships with China and Russia. Growth and prosperity are usually predicated on prolonged periods of peace. Wartime usually demands sacrifice – economic and otherwise. My parents faced these challenges during the war on Crete. Many of us in the United States have been spared any direct privation or serious sacrifice because of global conflict. Out economic future relies almost entirely on questions of war and peace. America will always renew and regenerate its strength.



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