John Kerry finally visits Athens. What to Expect

After one postponement last month due to the Syria crisis, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finally arrives for a short visit in Athens on Friday December 4, ending a whirlwind week in Europe. This stop is the final one of this week’s Europe program, following Kerry’s attendance at the Paris COP 21 Climate Meeting, a NATO meeting December 1, as well as a Cyprus stop and a Balkan jaunt including Belgrade and Pristina. But the Greeks should feel honored that Secretary Kerry hasn’t allowed this important visit to slide further down the road, or rather that the U.S. recognizes Greece’s strategic position in these dark days for Europe.

Its Geopolitics Stupid….the List is Long

No one can argue that Greece should not be actively engaged in the current long list of regional crises swirling on Greece’s borders. Some however fantasize that Greece can use its important strategic position to secure better bailout package terms from Europe. Some in Washington have even tried to make that case, arguing for a more energetic American engagement with a Syriza-run Greece then we have seen to-date. Secretary Kerry will not allow Washington to be drawn into that broader debate, but will certainly deal with Athens under pressure on several fronts as a supportive ally.

What can Mr. Kerry say or do about the refugee crisis? Clearly Washington’s work has much more to do with the sources of the refugee flows and the Turkish transit platform, not the details of the Greek border enforcement mess. Washington’s last engagement, not very positive with Greece, was in an attempt to prevent Greece-based smugglers/companies from illegally supplying UN sanction-bound Serbia in the 1990’s. So clearly current Greek border control concerns are not a subject of endearment in Washington, but there is a desire to support constructive solutions where it is possible to save lives.

Secretary Kerry’s visit is timely as it allows both sides to do some careful stock-taking, even if brief. While it seems the ball is in Brussels’ court right now in terms of controlling the refugee flow into Greece through Turkey, Washington has an important supporting role. The linkage however of the refugee transit issue to Aegean sovereignty for Greece is a minefield for any American interlocutor, and only the urgent humanitarian crisis on the Greek islands justifies any U.S. engagement. We see a similar mess on the Greece-FYROM border right now. As a former State Department Greek Desk Officer I strongly suspect Secretary Kerry will try to persuade Athens that the crisis provides an opportunity to make another push to resolve the dreaded FYROM “name issue” soon, if only to bolster regional stability during the refugee crisis. On top of this, hope for progress on Cyprus in the near term means that Washington is counting on Athens not to introduce new impediments to any emerging solution there.

Syria, Russia vs. Turkey and Russia vs. Ukraine all provide Secretary Kerry with a long list of regional items to discuss/consult with Athens on. We will have to see the program to get a sense of how long these discussions will last. But the good news is that Greece’s economic incentive to appease Moscow, seen earlier this year in the first Tsipras administration, seems to have largely evaporated. Removal of that thorn, at least partially, is certainly good news for Greek-American relations.

These days the subject of terrorism has broad European ramifications. Greece’s unfortunate role as a terrorist transit point from the Middle East is certain to come up. It is not clear whether Washington will be able to offer anything more than moral support; hopefully the current Greece-in-Schengen debate will not come up as a major focus as Washington has no voice in what Europe eventually decides.

Energy Issues to Dominate the Economic Discussions

Washington is most interested in ensuring Europe maintains free access to multiple energy sources, accordingly anything to do with the Southern Corridor for Azerbaijan’s gas supplies, as well as future supplies from points further south, remains top priority. So when it comes to economics, the Obama Administration really focuses on Europe’s energy supplies – something it actually can fix — not Greek debt dynamics. In fact, Secretary Kerry is not the primary American interlocutor for Greece on any key economic issues other than energy. Any honest discussions and public remarks on energy matters need to accept that Greece is an important transit spur but Turkey is the true energy junction/lynchpin for the European region. That’s hard to swallow for the Greek side, but one can’t deny that Turkey is clearly the most important factor in the regional energy puzzle. Washington understands this, but will not highlight that in any way that deflates Athens’ expectations, since there is still plenty of work to be done in Greece. During this visit we will likely hear of U.S. companies’ interest in investing in various facilities along the Southern Corridor (TAP) as construction work on Greek territory begins. Any new investment would be a welcome trend; as we recall Greek PM Tsipras spent time in New York last September desperately seeking investors and finding none.

The U.S. Role in the Greek Crisis – Don’t Expect Big Changes

Despite what some Greeks love to imagine, the U.S. role in resolving the Greek financial crisis isn’t changing any time soon. As a person who used to write briefing memoranda for the U.S. Secretary of State of the day, this writer is aware how of little the U.S. can actually do on issues like Greek structural reform or debt sustainability. The Greeks simply aren’t willing to accept that the economic crisis is a global issue only when negotiations with the creditors are open but a largely a European one as soon as it comes to implementing the nuts-and-bolts elements of a deal. Most of the time the supporting U.S. role is simply exercised via votes (or backroom maneuvering) at the IMF. There are no unilateral U.S. financial resources at stake in the Greek bailout program, only the U.S. contribution to the IMF, and a positive position on the IMF lending still more to a slowly-reforming Athens sometimes provokes unwanted Congressional scrutiny. Until Greece truly embraces structural reform and especially acknowledges the work it must do to attract investments, the Obama Administration has precious little to work with. So other than a bit of friendly cheerleading when times are tough, all the U.S. can do is to fairly evaluate Greece’s reform progress when asked. Accordingly, Secretary Kerry has another chance to get the Greek side’s current perspective during this visit.

Finally, one hopes that Secretary Kerry is not drawn into Greece’s domestic political squabbling over whether the next stage of pension reforms are supported by the opposition and under what conditions. The foreign policy challenges he faces are enough to fill his plate.


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