In Tsunis We Trust?
Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Yesterday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed the extension of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA). This agreement, which has been in place since 1990, allows U.S. forces to train and operate in Greece. The United States will continue to maintain its military bases in Greece and bolster the U. S. Navy’s presence in Souda Bay, Crete. More importantly, the agreement no longer needs to be renewed every year, but rather every five years.
According to Secretary Blinken, the MDCA “is the bedrock of our defense cooperation” and would allow NATO allies to advance security in the Eastern Mediterranean region and beyond. Blinken emphasized that the current agreement would make it “consistent with other bilateral defense cooperation agreements between NATO allies and durable enough to allow for Greece and the United States to advance security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.” The MDCA comes on the heels of a very successful armaments negotiation with France. These two agreements place Greece in a much stronger position to resist aggression by neighboring Turkey.
However, in the midst of these positive developments, a diplomatic firestorm is brewing over the nomination of Greek-American George Tsunis to become U.S. Ambassador to Greece. While he would not be the first Greek-American to hold this position (Michael Sotirhos held this position from 1989-93), the fact that Tsunis did so poorly in his Senate confirmation hearings in 2014 to be U.S. Ambassador to Norway makes him a particularly controversial selection. Typically, career Foreign Service officers serve as ambassadors to Greece and this post has been considered very prestigious for foreign affairs officials. Tsunis would be the first non-career appointee to serve as ambassador to Greece in nearly 30 years.
While Tsunis has been ridiculed on t.v. and criticized by career diplomats – and even members of the Greek community – Biden’s selection of Tsunis represents more than just a “pay to play” opportunity for a very generous political donor. Chas Freeman, a retired career diplomat, criticized Biden’s selection of Tsunis because “Our embassy in Athens should not be treated as a sinecure to be purchased in return for campaign contributions or as a training ground for novice diplomats, still less incompetent amateurs.” Yet, if seen more broadly, the selection of Tsunis reflects a change in Greece’s strategic importance for the United States. During the Cold War, Greece was considered of critical importance due its geographical location vis-à-vis the Middle East and the communist Eastern Bloc. Since the fall of communism in Europe and Greece’s entry to the Eurozone, the United States has shifted its strategic interests. The political landscape has changed, and so too have American foreign interests and concerns which impacts Greece.
In this regard, Washington is sending signals that Greece is no longer considered a “hot spot” in world affairs. Greece, like many other European countries, can afford to have non-career diplomats in positions of authority. For Turkey, the announcement of Tsunis can be seen as another disappointment in U.S.-Turkish relations. While Turkish officials have not publicly commented on the nomination of Tsunis, there is no doubt that Tsunis will not be considered a welcomed choice by Turkish President Erdogan. All eyes will be on Tsunis in the coming weeks and it remains to be seen whether Tsunis can weather the political storm clouds that are gathering over his nomination.