By Nick Larigakis* – The long anticipated visit of Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to Washington to meet with President Barack Obama will become reality finally when the president welcomes the prime minister to the White House on August 8.
It’s not easy to secure an audience with the most powerful man in the world, especially for country the size of Greece. Greece has the geographic size of the state of Alabama, the population a little more than New York City (8.2 million, 2011 U.S. census), and the GDP of Tennessee (In 2012, $277 billion, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce; Greece: $282 billion, according to the CIA World Fact Book),
Despite its geographic size, Greece’s defensive capabilities and its important geostrategic location make her what I would characterize as a “mini superpower.” This is not a reach. Southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean combine to form an important geopolitical region for the United States due to the significant energy, commercial and communications resources that transit the region. The recent Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) agreement and the discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean reinforce this position. In addition, my numerous briefings with top Greek military officials and visitations to numerous military installations throughout Greece, including the crucial facilities at Souda Bay, Crete, have led me to this “mini superpower” characterization. For example, a quick glance at Greece’s military capability will reveal it has more than 280 military aircraft, 157 of which are American-made F-16s. And would you believe Greece has eight submarines in its large naval fleet? I had a chance to visit one of them in July, the Papanikolis. It is state of the art.
However these examples only scratch the surface of demonstrating why Greece is an extremely valuable ally for the projection of U.S. interests in the eastern Mediterranean. In fact, Greece’s value as an ally should warrant a “special relationship” with United States based upon Greece’s military contributions and strategic location in the region where the United States has important political, economic and military interests. President Obama needs to embrace Greece more by acknowledging the need for a “special relationship” when the president meets with Prime Minister Samaras on August 8.
The strong bilateral relationship between Greece and the United States was established at the very founding of both countries, and throughout the 20th century, Greece was one of a few countries that allied with the U.S. in every major international conflict. A NATO member since 1952, Greece is an immensely valuable, proven, and reliable strategic ally for the U.S. in the region especially because of key naval and air bases at Souda Bay, Crete. Greece is a pivotal ally for the advancement of U.S. interests that include greater stability in southeastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and adherence to the rule of law. Recent examples include Greece’s support for sanctions on Iran, rapprochement with Turkey, the NATO mission in Libya, and the significant strengthening of bilateral relations with Israel.
As mentioned, a key element for advancing U.S. strategic interests in the region depends heavily on the use of Souda Bay, located on Crete. To illustrate Souda Bay’s importance, during U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, tens of thousands of aircraft used over-flight access, including one two-year period where nearly 30,000 allied flights traversed Greek airspace.
In 2012, 118 Ships of the U.S. Navy and 102 NATO vessels visited Souda Bay, and 953 U.S. Air Force aircraft and 148 NATO aircraft landed on Crete.
In Afghanistan, Greece’s involvement included offering personnel for security and training purposes. Greece also contributed with donations of equipment, millions of Euros, and transportation services. Greek forces have participated, or are actively involved in, peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and aforementioned Afghanistan. It should also be noted that Thessaloniki was NATO’s main sea and airport of debarkation during crises in the former Yugoslavia.
Finally, Greece is a top contributor to the defense efforts of NATO, spending an estimated 2.2% of its GDP on defense in accordance with NATO standards despite its dire economic condition.
Greece is one of three NATO allies to meet this standard, which is exceptional given its current economic crisis.
Greece is also an active participant in peacekeeping and peace-building operations conducted by international organizations, including the UN, NATO, the EU, and OSCE.
Despite its current fiscal crisis, Greece is a stabilizing force for the region. Throughout the past decade, Greece has assisted the U.S. to bring political stability and economic development to this volatile region, having invested over $22 billion in the countries of the region, thereby creating over 200,000 new jobs and contributing over $750 million in development aid. Even with neighboring former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a country that has not demonstrated good neighborly relations with Greece, Greece was the biggest source of foreign investment in FYROM at 12.3 million Euros in 2012. Finally, the announcement that the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) project has been selected to transport natural gas from the Caspian region to European markets is a decision welcomed by the United States and is in the best interests of the United States. The pipeline will start its route in Greece.
While Greece is a stable and prosperous country, which is essential to the interests of the United States, it continues to suffer from a crippling recession. President Obama can assist further here by exploring substantive areas where the U.S. can help stimulate the Greek economy. While the Obama Administration was helpful by supporting the bail out package for Greece among its European partners, it has done nothing to explore what might be available to assist Greece directly from the U.S. I strongly contend that there are a number of U.S. government programs or means which the U.S. government can make available to Greece that can potentially help in this regard. Although I understand that a number of these programs would have to be initiated or embraced by the Greek government, President Obama should take the initiative to review some potential programs that he could consider discussing with Prime Minister Samaras. A few examples include:
- U.S.-Greece Tax Treaty. The current tax treaty between the U.S. and Greece was ratified in 1954 and has not been modified or amended since that time. We advocate analyzing the treaty to ascertain whether the treaty can be modernized to foster increased trade and investment between the U.S. and Greece.
- Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT). The U.S. and Greece do not have a BIT. A BIT would provide the mechanics of economic cooperation between the U.S. and Greece. A properly drafted BIT may encourage more direct investment from the U.S. in Greece.
- Bi-national Industrial Research and Development Agreement. The agreement would establish a foundation to provide match-making services and funding for commercial ventures between the U.S. and Greek high-tech or energy companies. This agreement is similar to a successful one between the U.S. and Israel that began in 1977.
- Export-Import Bank Financing. Companies in Greece are not considered for Export-Import Bank financing because Greece is a member of the European Union. Under present circumstances, provisions should be considered that would allow Greek companies to participate. This would benefit U.S. exporters and commercial ventures in Greece.
For all these reasons and more, the opportunity is ripe on August 8 for President Obama to openly thank Greece while at the same time suggest tangible actions of support that would go a long way toward helping Greece recover from its economic crisis. With its centuries-long enduring presence, its close cultural, political and economic ties to the Mediterranean countries, Western Europe, the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, Greece is an ideal strategic partner for the U.S. in this region. For more than a hundred years, Greece has been a proven and reliable ally. It’s time for the United States to acknowledge this accordingly.
*Nick Larigakis is president of the American Hellenic Institute