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AMERICA’S RETRENCHMENT AND GREECE’S OPPORTUNITY
The end of the era of “forever wars” has launched a new era in American foreign policy, a “post-post-Cold War” phase. This new phase will largely be defined by competition between the U.S. and China – an issue and rivalry over which there is rare bi-partisan consensus. But there are many subplots to this greater drama: in how many places – and will the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean be among those place – will the U.S. assertively counter Chinese influence? Will Russia ultimately swing against China, returning the favor for Mao’s rapprochement with Nixon to the detriment of the USSR? Will the EU develop a defense identity, or will regional and subregional alliances emerge?
The answers to all these questions will have tremendous bearing on Greece and Cyprus. Both presently find themselves situated on deadly geopolitical, civilizational, and geographic fault lines. At the same time, the U.S. is starting to pull back from its historic role as the ultimate insurance policy against catastrophes along these fault lines.
There are many reasons for this pullback, but ultimately it is a matter of the American people being tired of the tremendous cost – in both blood and treasure –that they have paid to maintain this role. Much of that cost was incurred when the U.S. abandoned its role as a status quo power and embarked on a bit of a post-Cold War “crusade” to remake the world in its image. In Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy ties the downfall of the Holy Roman/Habsburg Empire, despite its overwhelming military advantages and available resources, to the spiraling costs of war left the Habsburgs too weak economically to maintain its empire. One of Kennedy’s observations seems eerily similar to the arguments made in favor of American retrenchment: “the Habsburgs simply had too much to do, too many enemies to fight, too many fronts to defend.”
There are many in Greece, in Cyprus, in the Greek-American community that approach the bilateral relationships between Athens-Washington, Nicosia-Washington and broader Hellenic issues as if the U.S. is both able and willing to play its traditional role of the superpower of the Cold War or the hyperpower of the early post-Cold War world. The U.S will not become isolationist, and will remain the strongest and most able partner, but it would not be wise to bet on it assuming such responsibilities again.
In many ways, Athens and Nicosia are adjusting accordingly. They are playing central roles in constructing a regional infrastructure in the Eastern Mediterranean which can simultaneously keep the U.S. engaged in the region and fill voids when the U.S. chooses to not lead or be absent. Defense agreements like the one Greece struck with France will also accomplish multiple goals. This agreement strengthened Greece militarily, its sent clear signals to disruptors – chiefly Turkey – in the region, and it was a welcome development for the Biden Administration. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan signaled a change from a long-standing opposition by the U.S. to independent European defense capabilities and arrangements, declaring that the U.S. is open to new ideas when it comes to European security, but do not want the ideas to be theoretical; the Biden Administration wants their European partners to develop real military capabilities, real military tools. The U.S. is in greater need of reliable and stable allies than ever, and Greece is stepping up to the plate.
A few other adjustments that Greece and Cyprus should make while the U.S. is redefining itself:
- Come to terms with the fact that there will be no new Marshall Plan. While some may be looking for a direct competitor to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, that is neither how the U.S. economy nor the U.S. government operate. But U.S. capital markets dwarf China’s program, and Athens and Nicosia must find ways to unlock that potential. A clear commitment by US International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), which can incentivize these private investments, is a must. The Biden Administration finally has a nominee to head the DFC; Athens and Nicosia must quickly establish ties with him, and the Greek American community must mobilize its friends in the Senate to press him on a commitment to the region.
- Don’t look for security guarantees, but for assistance in developing capabilities. The recently executed Mutual Defense and Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) between the US and Greece is instructive. Because of the extended time frame, Congress finally has the incentive to commit impactful resources into establishing a permanent, forward U.S. military presence in and around Greece. Joint exercises, military to military contacts and relationships, intelligence sharing will all advance accordingly. This progress also makes it more likely that Greece will find itself as part of the co-production of new American weapons systems. Together with the Foreign Military Finance, International Military Education and Training Program, and excess defense articles provisions of the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act and the pending US-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act, the U.S. is helping stand up a more capable and reliable Greece, rather than turning Athens into a mere protectorate.
Over the last five years, Greece has proven itself. It has gone from a “pillar of stability” to a “pillar of dynamism” – rebounding from multiple economic crises, demonstrating diplomatic deftness in managing the Balkans and building an emerging order in the Eastern Mediterranean. Now it is time for the U.S. to utilize the available tools and resources to prove itself a stable partner in the region.