Greek-US Ties and the East Med
In meeting with President Trump last month in Washington, Prime Minister Mitsotakis remarked how the U.S.-Greece relationship “is the best it ever was. But it can become even better.”
Diplomatic niceties aside, this reflects real accomplishments by leaders from both countries, and from across the political spectrum, to promote deeper bilateral cooperation in recent years. But his words also point to the very high ceiling for an even stronger partnership, especially on defense and security.
We serve on policy project at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) which just released a new report recommending ways for the United States and Greece to deepen that partnership.
Americans and Greeks alike may be somewhat surprised to hear such talk of warm ties. Greece was the birthplace of our country’s commitment to defend the free world in the 1940s, but relations were cool at best for much of the Cold War, and afterward the United States largely stopped paying attention to the region. Until very recently, whenever American policymakers and the public looked to the Eastern Mediterranean, they viewed Turkey – not Greece – as the primary pillar of stability and U.S. influence.
Now all that is changing along with the region’s geopolitics. The United States is showing renewed interest in the Eastern Mediterranean amid significant energy discoveries, and the possibility of discovering lots more. But Turkey’s interference here challenges U.S. and E.U. goals to promote economic growth and reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies. This threat from Turkey will grow as American companies become more involved in energy exploration around Crete and Cyprus.
Ankara’s illegal intimidation tactics point to the larger problem of Turkey’s rising hostility to NATO and the West under President Erdoğan. Its aggression toward U.S. partners in Syria, purchases of advanced Russian air defenses and threats to evict U.S. forces from Incirlik airbase are convincing Washington that Ankara cannot be trusted to shore up NATO’s southeastern flank – even as the United States leaves the door open for more accommodating Turkish leaders in the future.
America is also concerned by the return of great power competition in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Russian and Iranian inroads in Syria and China’s Belt and Road initiative throughout the region.
In our recent trips to the country, Greek leaders underscored their willingness to play a larger role in addressing these evolving challenges and opportunities. Indeed, we see Greece as the logical focal point for projecting U.S. power and promoting regional stability and development.
Greece’s aspiration to become a diplomatic and economic hub linking Europe with Israel, Cyprus and Egypt aligns with America’s desire for allies to assume greater responsibilities. Further reflecting U.S. expectations, Athens devotes more of its economic power to defense than any NATO member except the United States. Given Turkey’s strategic direction under Erdoğan, Greece is also making a strong case to become the alliance’s new southeastern bulwark.
Even so, there certainly is room for more mutually-beneficial cooperation between our two countries. Greater defense assistance from Washington can help Athens address several shortfalls when it comes to defending itself and American interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. This assistance, if spent on upgraded U.S. weaponry, could enable Greece to upgrade its F-16 fleet, procure drones and missile defense ships and strengthen coastal defense and patrol capabilities.
The United States should also explore options to bolster its own military footprint in Greece. American naval forces have been present at Souda Bay for decades, but the base is currently at capacity, meaning it must be expanded to accommodate increased U.S. port visits and other activities – including potentially forward-deploying U.S. Navy ships. Along with more joint exercising and possible co-production in Greek shipyards, these moves would also make it easier to integrate Greek naval forces into U.S. carrier groups in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Washington also should consider a new presence at the evolving hub of Alexandroupoli, to help ensure energy security for Europe and strengthen NATO deterrence in the Eastern Balkans. Among additional options, the U.S. Air Force could increase its deployments, training and operations for aerial refueling tankers and drones at Larissa, and the U.S. Army could enhance its own training operations inside Greece.
Separately, the United States and Greece could work together on relocating U.S. military assets currently deployed in Turkey, if that becomes necessary. This would generate leverage to potentially change Ankara’s behavior and would ensure reliable access for these forces.
America and Greece certainly have come a long way in a short time. The increasingly high stakes and uncertainty surrounding the future of the Eastern Mediterranean provides a compelling opportunity to deepen the partnership much further.
Lt Gen Thomas Trask, USAF (ret.), former Vice Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, serves on the Eastern Mediterranean Policy Project at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), where Jonathan Ruhe is Director of Foreign Policy.
Originally published in ekathimerini
This op-ed was made possible by the generous support of the Gettler Family Foundation and a portion of the research was conducted on the Benjamin Gettler International Policy Trip.