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AHIF Student Foreign Policy Trip Participants Describe their Personal Experiences

By on January 13, 2020

The American Hellenic Institute (AHI) released ten essays authored by participants of the 11th annual American Hellenic Institute Foundation College Student Foreign Policy Trip to Washington, DC, Greece and Cyprus. The students’ insightful essays describe their personal experiences from the trip to Greece and Cyprus held June 18 to July 5, 2019. During the 17-day program, the students were in Cyprus, June 22 to 27, and Athens, June 27 to July 5. Prior to departing for overseas, the students spent four days in Washington, DC, June 18 and 21. They received firsthand experience about the foreign policy issues affecting Greece and Cyprus, their relations with the U.S., and the interests of the U.S. in the region. “For the eleventh consecutive year, the trip provided us with a wonderful opportunity to lead an exceptional group of students to Cyprus and Greece,” AHI President Nick Larigakis said. “It was rewarding to see them gain firsthand experience about the foreign policy issues that concern U.S. relations with Greece and Cyprus. The AHI Foundation looks forward to offering this program annually as support for it has grown and student interest remains at significant levels since the program’s inception.”

Following are two representative essays:

The Romanticism of Heritage: What it Means to be Greek American in 2019

by Alexandra Choate

Alexandra Choate

Alexandra Choate

I don’t quite remember the first time I visited the motherland; being only seven, my memories of that first trip are colored by vague hues of Ionian blue and the electric orange of my first Fanta. I spent the summer learning curse words from new cousins and building kingdoms of sandcastles with borrowed pails. I was twelve the second time I traveled to Greece; the time after that, I was seventeen, then nineteen, and then twenty-one. Every trip to Greece was a summer-long dream, interrupted only by the start of another school year and preserved through the winter months in over-saturated photographs thumb-tacked above my headboard.

Quickly, and rather recently, I realized I had fallen into a common trap for Greeks raised abroad, romanticizing my heritage – thinking of Hellenism in the sole context of historic events, and reducing the image of Greece to my personal sentiments and vacations. For many first, second, and third generation Americans, “the motherland” is more of a concept than a place, something old and familiar to connect us to our roots. However, the countries in question have evolved since the time our parents and grandparents left them. Greece, in particular, has made unprecedented strides in militaristic and political development, reclaiming its influence in the Balkans as a mini-superpower.

With the American Hellenic Institute Foundation, I was part of a team of ten college students led by AHI President Nick Larigakis on dozens of meetings with state officials in the U.S., Greece, and the Republic of Cyprus. Some stand-out excursions included a briefing at the State Department in Washington, D.C., traveling to former battlegrounds in the United Nations Buffer Zone in Cyprus, and declassified meetings with the officers at Souda Bay Naval Base in Chania, Crete. Through these meetings, we got a firsthand look at the unmatched military power of Greece. The revelation of this power was as amazing as it was unbelievable. Greece – the country with a population of less than 11 million people and a GDP roughly equivalent of Tennessee – has the fifth largest F-16 fleet in the world. Even in the aftermath of one of the worst economic crises in modern history, Greece remains the second largest contributor to NATO defense spending as measured by percentage of GDP. Greece is home to the NATO Maritime Interdiction Operations Training Center and the NATO Missile Firing Installation, with the Hellenic Airforce employing some of the top-scoring, premier pilots in Europe.

Greece’s military power, however, is not a strong enough deterrent for hostile agents. The aggressive behavior demonstrated by Turkey includes illegal occupation of the Republic of Cyprus and near-daily airspace violations over Greece’s Aegean islands. Turkey’s activities over the centuries constitute war crimes, including cases of unlawful deportation, intentionally directing attacks against religious sites, and seizure of property. Herein lies the second revelation of the AHIF trip: The United States does not do enough to condemn Turkey’s offenses against consistent and unproblematic allies. The American Hellenic Institute Foundation links these two revelations, suggesting that it is in the United States’ best interest to re-anchor military allegiance to Greece, and finally condemn the centuries of hostility perpetrated by the Turkish state. As students on the Foundation’s trip, it is the duality of our identity that allows us to best spread this message. Identity seemed to be a recurring theme during our trip, bleeding into introspective discussions of what it means to be Greek American.

The interconnection of the two identities was different for every student, and we discussed at length the individual trials of our heritage. Personally, I feel we exist in the in-between: never quite Greek enough, never quite American enough. Try as we may, one of our identities faced constant question; the burden of proof would then fall upon us to demonstrate our Greekness. See? We’d say to our native-born Greek brothers and sisters, look at our Greek Festivals and our Greek Schools and beautiful Orthodox churches. We are Greek, just like you. Remarkably, the AHIF Student Trip divulged a third revelation: in cases of dual identities, it is not necessary to pick a side. The validity of a dual identity doesn’t stem from approval of either culture. Instead, it is the blend of heritage and birthright that empowers us. It is a subtle, but nonetheless radical shift in mindset. Without the fear of inadequacy, a dual identity becomes a superpower.

To me, being a Greek American in 2019 means a responsibility to pay attention: to the current political climate in and around Greece, to U.S. treatment of European allies, and to the actions of our own representatives in Congress. We live in a country with enormous international influence. We have the power to vote in a country with enormous international influence. With the interests of our two homelands aligned, Greek Americans should make a unified, conscious effort to strengthen the relationship between Greece and the United States.

Alexandra Choate is pursuing a bachelor’s degree from Queens University of Charlotte in Political Science. She is on track to graduate with the Class of 2020. Alexandra participated in the 11th annual AHIF Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.

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Shifting Perceptions: Redefining the Image of Greece and Cyprus

By Vasili Ioannidis

Vasili Ioannidis

Vasili Ioannidis

In the fall of 2017, I entered a crowded Introduction to World Politics lecture as a freshman at the University of Michigan. Throughout the semester, I learned the mechanisms and rules in which the sphere of world politics operates, from security policy to economic development. However, through the broad introduction to such a complex and nuanced subject, one recurring theme, which my professor stressed, was that perceptions matter and that they are hard to change. These perceptions are critical because of the uncertainties political actors face globally. Actors may not have a complete understanding of reality, nor know how others may react to a situation. Therefore, perceptions must guide them when making decisions, as they provide a set of possibilities for how others may or should respond.

Two years later, in the summer of 2019, I was able to take the theories I learned in that freshman lecture and witness firsthand how important perceptions are in the sphere of foreign relations. Through the American Hellenic Institute Foundation College Student Foreign Policy Trip to Greece and Cyprus, I found myself face-to-face with top diplomats responsible for shaping foreign policy and projecting the images of their respective countries to the rest of the world.

Through meeting Cypriot officials, their message was clear: The Republic of Cyprus is not defined by only the Cyprus Problem (the illegal military occupation by Turkey of the northern part of the island). It has moved away from this monothematic foreign policy, despite the Cyprus Problem continuing to be the alpha and omega. Instead, Cyprus has turned to trilateral negotiations which many officials praise to be the most exciting aspect of Cypriot foreign policy today. Taking advantage of its geostrategic positioning in the Eastern Mediterranean and new energy discoveries, Cyprus has taken the role as a bridge to the Middle East and has created synergies with its neighbors. These partnerships which involve Greece, also include Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, among others. The overall goal is to connect the region in a partnership to discuss local and global issues that are in the interests of the region.

As a result of employing these multilateral mechanisms in its foreign policy, Cyprus has signaled to the world that it is a producer of stability in a volatile region. In its practice of good diplomacy, Cyprus has successfully changed its perception to the global community that it is a stable, Western-oriented democracy, despite the Cyprus Problem.

This same undertaking has also occurred in Greece. Not too long ago, Greece was being labelled the “black sheep of Europe,” and was in the midst of a crippling financial crisis. Today, Greece is in the process of turning the page and returning to normality after a decade of crisis. Not only has Greece remained a stable Western-oriented democracy through all of its hardships, but it also has expanded multilateral initiatives in a region of instability.

Along with engaging with Cyprus and Israel to develop trilateral relations in the region based on mutual interest, Greece has also reasserted its role as the pillar of stability in the Balkans. It has been one of the very few countries to attempt to resolve regional issues, and has taken the initiative to promote regional cooperation. Despite the historical instability of the Balkan region, Greece has played a key role in promoting stability and security through its multidimensional foreign policy. In doing so, Greece has been able to shed its perception as a crisis-prone nation, and redefine itself as a credible ally who is committed to Western ideals.

These new roles of Greece and Cyprus have not gone unnoticed by the United States. As a result, the United States has increased the importance of its relationships with the two countries. Meeting various officials from the three respective nations, everyone we had the opportunity to speak with repeated the idea that this is an exciting time in U.S.-Cyprus and U.S.-Greece relations. Greece and Cyprus have consistently signaled their commitment to the United States and its interests through continuously practicing good diplomacy, respecting international law, and promoting Western values on the fringes of the East. Unfortunately, there are many in the Eastern Mediterranean who still do not believe the United States will come to the aid of Greece and Cyprus if another crisis was to occur. Greece and Cyprus have used multilateral diplomacy to create a credible perception for themselves. It is now time for the United States to do the same and bolster its support for its true allies in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Vasili Ioannidis is a junior at the University of Michigan. He is majoring in Economics with minors in Modern Greek Language and Culture, and Business. Vasili participated in the 11th annual AHIF Foreign Policy College Student Trip to Greece and Cyprus sponsored by the American Hellenic Institute Foundation.

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