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Democracy’s Fueling Station
On December 29, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to Americans listening on radio: “If Great Britain goes down,” he warned, “the Axis powers will control the continents of Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the high seas. … It is no exaggeration to say that all of us, in all the Americas, would be living at the point of a gun.” The President urged his nation to prepare for war, “we must have more ships, more guns, more plans—more of everything. We must be the great arsenal of democracy.”
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe faces its highest stake crisis since World War II. In today’s nuclear world, President Biden hasn’t echoed FDR’s “arsenal of democracy” rhetoric – conscious of how escalating with Putin’s Russia could get out of control. But the US is working overtime to find a way to neutralize Russia’s greatest leverage over the West — its oil and gas. This is where Greece and Cyprus come in.
Significant hydrocarbon finds in the Eastern Mediterranean over a decade ago raised the prospect that Athens and Nicosia could export not only olive oil, but oil (mostly natural gas, but still some possibility of oil). These discoveries kicked off an unprecedented peacetime diplomatic flurry that resulted in partnerships, institutions and even American legislation — the Greece/Cyprus/Israel and Greece/Cyprus/Egypt trilateral mechanisms, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, The Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act — that no one would have dared dream of at the turn of the century.
The amount of natural gas, project timelines, methods of delivery have all been moving targets, but the Biden Administration started with Eastern Mediterranean gas very close to entering European markets.
Then, at the end of 2021, the State Department delivered a “non paper” withdrawing American diplomatic support for the highest profile energy infrastructure project under consideration, the East Med Pipeline. The “non paper” employed tortured logic — it unilaterally declared a lack of commercial feasibility despite incomplete and ongoing EU funded feasibility; it cited a policy of opposing fossil fuel infrastructure while explicitly supporting three other pieces of fossil fuel infrastructure (the Alexandroupolis Floating Storage and Regasification Unit; the Greece-Bulgaria Interconnector; the Greece-North Macedonia Interconnector).
This tortured logic was matched by the dizzying spin that followed the diplomatic controversy over the “non paper”. State Department officials seemed confused over whether this was a “non paper” or “talking points” or “the beginning of a conversation.” Amazingly, other officials still maintain that the problem in this case was a “leak” rather than an apparent reversal of policy that was in direct conflict with the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act and was reduced to writing without consulting allies and partners.
The greatest head scratcher here, however, was how someone thought it was a good idea to raise doubts over Eastern Mediterranean energy developments at precisely the time that they may be needed the most.
The EastMed Pipeline could still end up not being feasible, or the other Eastern Mediterranean pipelines and electricity Interconnectors could come online more quickly. But as the prospect of Russia using energy as a weapon against Europe, and the crisis driving up prices worldwide, the US should have made it clear that it had options to speed up Europe’s energy independence from Russia.
Greece and Cyprus still substantially rely on Russian gas. Greece’s northern neighbors — Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Serbia — are almost entirely reliant on Russia gas. The diplomatic benefit of bringing Eastern Mediterranean gas online and getting it to the Western Balkans through Greece is obvious. The Western Balkans have become an arena of intense competition for influence between Russia and the EU/US. Taking potential alternatives to Russian gas off the table — and to allow Ankara to promote the narrative that the State Department did this in part as a favor to Turkey — signals a lack of commitment to winning this Western Balkan competition.
Greece and Cyprus do not have the capabilities to be the “arsenals of democracy” in Southeast Europe or the Eastern Mediterranean, but they do have the potential to be democracy’s fueling station in the region. Climate policies will be advanced – we are talking about regions that still have to transition away from coal and, in the case of Greek islands, the use of petroleum for electricity. Most importantly, malign influences like Russia will suffer a loss of influence and leverage in several young democracies.
For the first time, three Western democracies — Greece, Cyprus, Israel — in the Eastern Mediterranean control substantial energy resources. The growing spirit of cooperation in energy diplomacy and development in the region has consistently been compared to the European Coal and Steel Community, which helped bolster European democracy after World War II. It is time for the US to support — diplomatically, technically, and financially — this energy cooperation. It may hold the key to democracy’s victory in Europe.