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“If Western diplomacy has a role to play it will have to be discreet and carefully considered, always bearing in mind that the governing rule of diplomats, like that of doctors, must be ‘first, do no harm.’”

by Monteagle Stearns*

HE TITLE GIVEN TO MY TALK is dramatic but a little misleading. The last confrontation between Greeks and Turks that could be said to have been a clash of civilizations took place in 1453 when the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople, fell to the Ottomans.

Since the achievement of modern Greek independence in 1828, what we have seen can be more accurately described as clashes of ethnic neighborhoods, not civilizations.

Nevertheless, whatever term is used, the long history of Greek/Turkish relations has been more characterized by conflict than conciliation. This has been true up to the present day. Greece and Turkey are the only NATO allies, for example, whose national days celebrate victories over each other. During the Cold War their unwillingness to cooperate on security matters was a serious inconvenience to the alliance. Greece and Turkey constituted the southeastern flank of NATO, guarding the Soviet Union’s access to the Mediterranean through the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. NATO commanders based in Naples, who were responsible for defense of that flank, spent more time preventing conflict between Greece and Turkey than conflict with the Soviets.

Greek-Turkish clashes had to be averted during the Cold War, it was believed, because the Soviet Union might exploit them to the military disadvantage of the western alliance. Now, more than a decade after the end of the Cold War, how important are Greece and Turkey to the United States and its western European allies? Do we need to care that the Republic of Cyprus is still divided into Greek- and Turkish-populated zones, with 35,000 Turkish troops in occupation of the northern third of the island? Does it matter that Aegean air- and sea-space are still in dispute between them and that four years ago the two countries almost went to war over a rocky Aegean islet, inhabited only by goats, over which both claimed sovereignty? In short, if Greece and Turkey are still quarrelsome neighbors, how important is the neighborhood now that the Cold War is over?

As the real estate brokers like to say: “Location, location, location!” Since at least the era of the Trojan War in 1200 BC, which scholars now believe was fought not over the beautiful Helen, but to dominate trade routes from the Crimea, the lands today occupied by Greeks and Turks have been a strategic crossroads essential to the interests of the Great Powers. The present day is no exception. Let’s look at the role Greece and Turkey have played and are playing in relation to the most significant foreign policy initiatives of the United States and NATO in the post-Cold War world.

The most hazardous and costly western military and diplomatic initiatives in the past four years have been in the Balkans, supported by sea and air power operating in and above the waters off Greece and Turkey. Supply lines to Kosovo run through the Greek port of Thessaloniki. Greece and Turkey have both supplied military units to the peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and Bosnia. Greece in addition has used its historic ties to the Serbs to act as an intermediary for the United States and NATO in dealings with the Serb leadership. The ambitious programs of peacekeeping and reconstruction in the Balkans to which we have committed ourselves have just begun. Continued Greek and Turkish participation is essential to their successful completion — however long that may take.

Ten years ago, conduct of the Gulf War depended significantly on sea and air lines of communication through the eastern Mediterranean, including important bunkering facilities at Souda Bay in the Greek island of Crete and air bases in southeastern Turkey from which more strike sorties were flown against Iraq than from United States aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. Policing Iraqi airspace and air strikes against Iraqi missile sites continue from Turkish bases.

Greece and Turkey are also NATO’s eyes and ears in the eastern Mediterranean. Electronic surveillance facilities in both countries enable the alliance to monitor military movements in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Caucasian republics of the former Soviet Union. The British sovereign base areas in Cyprus support the Sinai Truce Observation force and United Nations peacekeeping in Cyprus itself. UN forces have been in Cyprus since 1964, making this peacekeeping operation one of the longest lasting and costliest in the history of the organization.

Clearly the eastern Mediterranean is an area that the United States and NATO consider vital to western interests. Just as clearly Greece and Turkey are vital to the protection of those interests. Judging by the amount of military and diplomatic effort we devote to the problems of the region, and the resources we continue to expend there, the eastern Mediterranean ranks near the top of the American foreign policy agenda. Our main objectives in the region or adjacent to it are easily summarized:

  • Secure access to Middle Eastern oil and the reserves of the Caspian;
  • unimpeded rights of navigation for both the Sixth Fleet and commercial shipping;
  • implementation of the Dayton accords in Bosnia;
  • support of the peacekeeping and reconstruction effort in Kosovo and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia;
  • containment of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and elimination of his capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction; and,
  • promoting and sustaining the Arab-Israel peace process.

In addition to the foregoing, the United States and Western Europe share an interest in containing Islamic fundamentalism. The battle between fundamentalists and secularists that most directly affects western interests is taking place in the lands bordering the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean.

Our ability to achieve all of these United States and Western European objectives is adversely affected by Greek-Turkish animosity; there is no United States interest in the region that would not be damaged, perhaps irreparably, by armed conflict between Greece and Turkey.

What can the United States and Europe do to help?

Granting their importance to the West in the post-Cold War world, what can the United States and Europe do to help Greece and Turkey resolve their differences? These exist off the regular beat of the global cop and, as for the global posse, Greece and Turkey are members of it in the Balkans. If Western diplomacy has a role to play it will have to be discreet and carefully considered, always bearing in mind that the governing rule of diplomats, like that of doctors, must be “first, do no harm.” In this connection we should also bear in mind the sudden improvement in Greek/Turkish relations that occurred quite unexpectedly last fall. When Turkey suffered a devastating earthquake in September, Greece was the first country to offer assistance. Shortly after, when Greece suffered a similar disaster, Turkey reciprocated. This “seismic detente,” which continues rather precariously today on the political level, took place without outside intervention and with strong popular support in both countries.

Maintaining the momentum of this favorable trend should be a concern of both the United States and the European Union (EU). Difficult problems lie ahead for Greece and Turkey. They have not yet addressed their differences over Aegean air and sea space and the Aegean shelf. Even harder will be the negotiation of a settlement in Cyprus that reunites the island, removes Turkish troops from the north, and allows the Republic to enter the European Union as a full member.

Greece and Turkey will need help from their allies in both these areas. The European Union must continue to keep the door open to the Turks for eventual membership. It will be a long process but it is one that Greece now fully supports. The prospect of eventual EU membership is probably the best incentive for Turkey to remain flexible in its dealings with Greece. The United States must show that it appreciates the courage and imagination the present Greek government is demonstrating in its attitude toward Turkey. The best way to do so is to assure Greece, the smaller power, that we will not allow it to be muscled into unfavorable settlements by the militarily more powerful Turkey.

Not all the world’s problems require the attention of a global posse or global policemen. The interrelated and potentially explosive problems of Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus show that there is still a time and place for quiet diplomacy.  

*The author, a retired U. S. career diplomat with thirty-two years of experience, served abroad at seven posts, including Turkey, and as ambassador to the Ivory Coast (1976-79) and to Greece (l981-85). This paper was presented at the Warburg Conference in January 2000. Ambassador Stearns has published Entangled Allies: U. S. Policy Toward Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus (1992) and Talking to Strangers: Improving American Diplomacy at Home and Abroad (1996). ~ Ed.


American Diplomacy                Vol. V, No. 3                Summer 2000
Copyright © 2000 American Diplomacy Publishers, Durham NC
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