Is Trump’s America a Real Friend of Greece?

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump welcome the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Mrs. Emine Erdogan Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, at the South Portico of the White House. Credit: Andrea Hanks / White House Photo

The close relationship between President Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan has alarmed many Greeks at home and in the US, at a time when Ankara is intensifying its aggression towards Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.

Since the crisis of the summer of 2020, the US foreign policy establishment led by Mike Pompeo sought to east tensions and avert a Greek-Turkish war over natural resources.

The US Secretary of State is seen, on both sides of the Atlantic, as a good friend of Greece who has previously said the United States is “deeply concerned” about Turkish actions in the eastern Mediterranean.

After Pompeo’s visit to Greece on September 28, the two sides “reaffirmed their excellent bilateral relations and mutual desire to further deepen cooperation in a series of areas, from defense and security to investment and energy and to education and culture.”

Just words?

But, despite diplomatic niceties, in reality, the US has not followed words with action. There has not been a clear condemnation of Turkey’s revisionist policies in the eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean or Cyprus.

Turkey continues to challenge Greek sovereignty and dreams of a “Blue Homeland” that includes the eastern Aegean islands. The recent decision by the US State Department to lift the decades-old embargo on non-lethal weapons to Cyprus is a token gesture with little practical help for the island nation that remains under Turkish occupation.

The Trump administration has failed to impose sanctions on Turkey after it acquired a Russian anti-missile system capable of shooting down NATO planes. It’s response to Erdogan turning Hagia Sophia to a mosque was timid.

Many Greeks are understandably uneasy about the the future direction of US policy under Trump.

America First

Many things have changed since the election of Trump in 2016. The “America First” agenda had led the US to almost abdicate its position as the world’s most globally engaged power.

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy in his recent book “The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World”, says America is retreating from its traditional leadership role, and in its place have come five ambitious powers, former empires eager to assert their primacy and influence.

Lévy shows how these five―Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Sunni radical Islamism―are taking steps to undermine the liberal values that have been a hallmark of Western civilization.

“America First” has led to tense relations with the European Union, which Trump referred to as a trading “foe” during the 2016 election campaign. He further alienated America’s European allies when he repeatedly came out in support of Brexit – the disruptive British exit from the EU – and encouraged other EU countries to follow Britain’s lead.

In 2018 he told advisers on several occasions that he was considering withdrawing the US from NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization founded in 1949 to militarily protect European and US interests.

These are huge divergences from the past. All Republican and Democratic presidents since World War II have expressed strong – and crucial – support for a united Europe and for NATO.

Trump’s friend 

It is within this context that many Greeks are alarmed. President Trump is on record signing the praises for Greece while entertaining Greek leaders or the Greek American leadership at the White House.

But is he a friend of Greece? Or maybe his admiration for Erdogan cancels out any initiative the US State Department may want to make to check Turkey’s aggression?

In August, Trump was on record as saying that world leaders have sought his help with Erdogan, saying that Turkey’s strongman would only listen to him.

“I don’t like saying this publicly, but it happens to be true. I get along with him and he listens,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News.

If Trump ever pressed Erdogan to change track on Greece and Cyprus, there is little evidence that the Turkish leader listened.

Frequency of calls

Earlier in June 2020, CNN revealed that Erdogan calls the US President as much as twice a day and was “put through directly” to the US President.

“The frequency of the calls with Erdogan – in which the Turkish President continually pressed Trump for policy concessions and other favors – was especially worrisome to McMaster, Bolton and Kelly, the more so because of the ease with which Erdogan bypassed normal National Security Council protocols and procedures to reach the president,” CNN said, citing two sources, and referring to former national security advisers H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, and then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

Trump-Erdogan relationship on the spotlight

The “shady” relationship between Trump and Erdogan has also entered the political discourse in Washington.

Sen. Bob Menendez, The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee requested documents from the director of national intelligence recently detailing what he called President Trump‘s “close ties” to the Turkish leader.

Menendez said in his letter that the documents were necessary to examine examples of Trump’s business with the Turkish president since taking office, including his refusal to enforce congressionally mandated sanctions on Turkey as well as his decision to pull U.S. forces out of an area of northern Syria that has since been occupied by Turkish-backed forces.

“In each of these examples, President Trump’s positions or silence appears to have been swayed by his relationship with President Erdogan, or his own personal interests in Turkey, rather focused on promoting U.S. national security interests,” Menendez said.

Menendez pointed to audio recordings of interviews between Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward and Trump, recently released by Woodward, including references Trump made to the Turkish leader.

“I get along very well with Erdogan, even though you’re not supposed to because everyone says, ‘What a horrible guy.’ But, you know, for me it works out good,” Trump said to Woodward.

Historical ties

Greece and the United States have enjoyed almost 200 years of close ties, ever since Washington appointed its first Consul to Greece in 1837, following Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire, and established diplomatic relations with Greece in 1868.

President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump pose for a photo with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his wife Mrs. Mareva Grabowski-Mitsotakis Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, at the South Portico of the White House. Credit: Andrea Hanks / White House Photo

Throughout these years, the relationship experienced some turbulent times, especially during the reign of the Greek military junta (1967-1974), when many Greeks blamed the US for implicitly supporting the colonels.

But, the reality is that Greece and the United States have long-standing historical, political, and cultural ties based on a common western heritage, shared democratic values, and participation as Allies during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War and the War on Terror.

After World War II, the United States contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild Greece’s buildings, agriculture, and industry as part of the Marshall Plan.

Today, an estimated three million Americans resident in the United States claim Greek descent. This large, well-organized community cultivates close political and cultural ties with Greece.

Beacon of freedom in decline?

As a leader in the region and longstanding NATO Ally, Greece has been an important partner to the United States in promoting regional security, stability, and economic development, creating a pathway for EU enlargement for the western Balkans, and supporting the diversification of Europe’s energy supplies.

For Greece and the rest of the Western World, the United States was seen as the hope of the world, a beacon of freedom and the defender of liberal democracy.

Nations and peoples on all continents looked to America to stand up for the values that created the Western world and to oppose autocracy and repression. Even when America did not live up to its ideals, it still recognized their importance, at home and abroad.

Many people in the Western world, including the Greeks, are wondering if the close relationship between the US under Trump and Turkey will undermine transatlantic relations which are the cornerstone of western liberal democracy.