Why Greece Can Be a Powerful Ally

Its popular, pragmatic prime minister offers welcome political stability and ideals that align with promoting democracy.

This summer, Americans are flocking to Greece. President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken should take the hint and consider making a trip of their own. It would be as good for America as it would be for Greece. Two centuries after Greece declared its independence from Ottoman rule—inspired by the American revolution—the United States could not find a better partner in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic and renewing democracy across the globe. 

The surge of American tourists has its roots in successful policies that both countries have pursued, proving government can actually get things done—a key element in beating back the wave of populism that has washed over Western and global politics. America’s fast and effective rollout of COVID vaccines propelled it ahead of Europe, both in the number and pace of vaccinations. The Greek government saw this coming, and targeted the lucrative U.S. market. Greece established the safest protocols possible for tourism—including requiring proof of vaccination for all foreign tourists, and mandatory masks inside hotels and restaurants. “We branded Greece as a safe destination and we said we would open on 14 May,” Greek Tourism Minister Haris Theoharis told the Observer recently. “We didn’t change dates. It was unequivocal. The message was clear.”

Greece convinced the airlines to add direct flights from major hub cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Washington to accommodate the rush. And it is paying off. While Europe still lags in tourists to Greece in the early season, the Americans are helping make up the difference. “Without the Americans, we would be very far behind,” Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis told one of us last week. “With them, we are optimistic about the summer.”

The surge of tourism is more than a metaphor. Tourism counts for about one-fifth of Greek GDP, and less than a quarter of the normal visitors showed up last summer: only 7 million tourists, down from 2019’s 33 million. The fall-off of about 14 billion euros was the biggest driver of Greece’s 8.2 percent recession in 2020. The hope for 2021 is to get back to half of the 2019 levels.

So the surge of American tourists is actually the basis for deepened ties. The U.S. has hard national security interests in seizing the moment with a rising and sustainable star in Europe and the increasingly vital Eastern Mediterranean region. Indeed, in the last four decades, Greece has never had a stronger, more stable, more competent government.

At a moment when Biden is seeking to both stamp out the pandemic and revive faith in democracy around the world, the U.S. could not ask for a better ally. 

The Greek government is led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Mitsotakis heads the right-of-center New Democracy Party and styles himself as a post-populist democrat. He replaced Alexis Tsipras, the populist leader of SYRIZA, a self-described radical leftist party. Mitsotakis is, by comparison, both pro-trade and pro-market economy, but with an understanding that government investment and social protections are vital to the success of late capitalist economies. He is actually progressive on many social issues.

Mitsotakis displayed his pragmatic, non-ideological stripes as he led the fight against the pandemic. Acting early in the crisis, he followed public health experts’ advice and established strict lockdowns, followed by well-observed masking, extensive testing, and other restrictions. The resulting death rate in Greece has been about 1.1 per 1,000 people—compared to 1.8 per 1000 in the U.S., and at about the same level as Germany.

The prime minister took a back seat, did not politicize the issue, and put the public health professionals front and center. He set a tone that encouraged both members of his own party and opposition leaders to focus on the common good.

Two years after taking office, Mitsotakis is now more popular than when he was elected. If the economy takes off the way he and other Greeks believe it will—especially if tourism returns—he will be in a strong position to win re-election in the coming years, providing Greece with some welcome political stability after the traumas of the sovereign debt crisis. That means that the U.S. can find itself with a valuable partner for the foreseeable future. 

Mitsotakis knows the U.S. well: He has a Harvard undergraduate degree and an MBA, as well as a degree from Stanford in international affairs, all of which he received before going on to work for McKinsey and Chase. He bears the best of American values, with a focus on hard work, integrity and transparency. 

Biden and Blinken should consider a non-stop flight of their own to Greece—or at least welcoming Mitsotakis with full honors when he visits the U.S. during Greece’s bicentennial year. The U.S. needs friends in the region to preserve and advance its geopolitical interests. In the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey has become an even more unstable and unreliable partner than it has been over the past two turbulent decades of relations with America. Authoritarian President Tayyip Erdogan has tolerated and even fomented growing Islamic extremism, and he has developed increasingly hostile relations with Israel, Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, while deepening ties with Russia. Yet his grip on power may be weakening—as a wilting economy leads to declining popularity for him and his party just as elections approach.

At a moment when the U.S. is looking both to restore faith in the ability of governments to address COVID and to strengthen democracy, Mitsotakis’ Greece may be the right place to start.

Greece has become a key crossroads linking the Middle East to Central Europe, a fact that has drawn the attention of both Russia and China.

In response to the shifting geopolitical alignments in the broader region, Greece has formed a working alliance with Israel and Cyprus, one focused on a range of issues, from natural gas exploration to tourism to technology. The U.S. naval base on Crete, at Souda Bay, is one of our largest installations in the Mediterranean, and is critical to protecting U.S. interests from the Suez Canal to the Dardanelle Straits and there is scope for increasing and deepening U.S-Greek defense ties.

Greece also sets an example for responsible conservatism. To Greece’s north, in Central Europe, right-of-center leaders have taken the lesson of authoritarian populism to heart. Nationalist leaders in Hungary and Poland have led the way, encouraging the rise of far right, authoritarian, anti-democratic parties across Europe.

Other autocrats beckon Greece. Oil-rich Russians not only visit on vacations, but also invest in real estate and shipping. Russians are the third-largest foreign investors in Greek real estate. Likewise, almost a decade ago, China took advantage of Greece’s economic weakness and invested in the Port of Piraeus when the EU and the United States claimed to be too cash strapped to do so.

The Mitsotakis government has worked hard to push back against authoritarians, and to ally itself with the U.S. Despite President Donald Trump’s own odd affection for Turkey’s Erdogan, Mitsotakis and Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias established strong relations with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They are looking for a sign that the Biden administration will pick up the baton, and carry it forward, faster.

They have reason to be hopeful. Biden knows Greece well from his years as vice president and, before that, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Already Blinken and Dendias met in March during the NATO ministerial, to begin the relationship. Still, Turkey’s reckless actions in the region with regard to oil exploration, the conflicts in Libya and Syria, and immigration flows have been unsettling, and the Greeks are looking for a sign of U.S. commitment.

Two hundred years ago, when Greece declared its independence, a leading Greek intellectual, Adamantios Koraes, wrote to former President Thomas Jefferson, seeking support of their revolution. Jefferson expressed moral support: “No people sympathize more feelingly than ours with the sufferings of your countrymen, none offer more sincere and ardent prayers to heaven for their success.” The American people rallied, raising money for the Greek cause. And yet, ultimately, Jefferson and his protégé, James Monroe, eschewed any explicit political commitments. It took until the Cold War and the Truman Doctrine for the U.S. to become a fully invested ally. Biden and Blinken would be well-served to show both sympathy and renewed commitment, to help further solidify a modicum of stability in a turbulent but vital part of the world. 

William Antholis is director and CEO of UVA’s Miller Center, and served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration. Eric Edelman was U.S. ambassador to Turkey and is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a non-resident senior fellow at UVA’s Miller Center.