I couldn’t help but sit back and smile, as I participated in President Joe Biden’s Zoom event to celebrate Greek Independence Day on the evening of March 25th. It was a gathering of political, cultural, religious and business leaders of the Greek American community, led by the president of the United States and hosted by his own press secretary, Jen Psaki.
Psaki spoke with endearment about her own Greek immigrant great-grandfather who emigrated in the early 1900s as a poor man from a village in rural Greece and would eventually graduate from Georgetown Medical School.
When it was Biden’s turn to talk, there were no fancy formalities or introductions. It was like an old friend, walking into a room filled with people he’s known for many years and immediately starting friendly banter. All that was missing were the ouzo shots and hugs– in a pandemic year and in a virtual setting, replaced with a lot of virtual hugs.
Joe Biden “walked” into that virtual Zoom “room” to see names and faces of people he’s known, worked with and respected for years. He saw people he was familiar enough with to shout them out by their first names.
“Mike, come and see me,” he said to Mike Manatos, whose family has known the Bidens for decades and whose father, Andrew, worked closely with the then young Senator Biden (who was first elected in 1973) when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974.
In fact, one of Biden’s early votes as a senator was in favor of the U.S. arms embargo against Turkey,
which passed the U.S. Congress in the fall of 1974 after Turkey launched its invasion of the island nation.
In addition to his involvement with the elder Manatos, Biden credited his involvement and support for Greek American issues to his friendship with the late Sen. Paul Sarbanes, with whom he served for decades in various capacities in the Senate. It was a touching moment when he saw the junior Sarbanes, Congressman John Sarbanes, on the screen and began sharing his respect and love for his late father.
Of course, there is the Biden-Karloutsos family friendship, which was also on full display– especially when the president smiled as he saw Fr. Alex Karloutsos on the screen and even said that he had phoned him earlier in the day to personally wish him a Happy Greek Independence Day.
These personal friendships the president has with dedicated “delegates” and representatives of Greek America can only serve our community in a positive way– but the president’s deep respect for other individuals and institutions of our community are the glue that brings everything together.
Biden spoke lovingly, like he would of his own father, about his close friendship with Archbishop Demetrios, the predecessor to the current Archbishop of America, Elpidophoros, and looked obviously moved when pausing for a moment to share his own personal experiences of meeting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
He called Bartholomew one of the two most Christ-like people he’s ever met and extended an invitation to him to visit the White House when he comes to the United States later in the year.
The stateside landscape seems perfect for even better relations between Greece and the United States and this will be fortified and further emboldened with numerous developments happening across the ocean, in Greece.
I can safely say, having followed Greek-U.S. relations for the better part of the last three decades, that the current U.S. Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt has been America’s strongest champion in Greece– perhaps ever. While there have been great ambassadors before him– Nicholas Burns comes to mind as one– who have sought to build America’s image and fortify and expand the bridges between the two countries, Pyatt’s tireless efforts– and great successes– stand out.
Whether its supporting Greek startups and helping them travel to various fairs and events in the United States, or championing humanitarian relief efforts during the refugee crisis, or being a strong advocate for advancing the U.S. military presence in Souda Bay and Alexandroupolis– Pyatt’s leadership in Athens can be credited with bringing about “the very best Greece’s relations with the United States have been, ever,” according to remarks by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Pyatt was the shepherd of the updating of the U.S.-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement which was updated in January 2020 for another five years (instead of one year as it used to be). The significance here is not the ships that will be calling at the military port, but the increase in commerce and support which the U.S. presence will provide at naval bases throughout Greece.
The United States is also helping Greece become a regional leader in energy and coupled with the investments happening at Alexandroupolis by the U.S. military, the port is becoming a de facto hub for immense activity– separate from the military. Such commercial activity attracts more investment, creates jobs for local Greeks and helps to grow prosperity in the region.
Another important link here is the current leadership of the American Hellenic Chamber of Commerce in Athens, led by President Nikolaos Bakatselos and Executive Director Elias Spirtounias. The chamber has grown to become an important “business link” between Greece and the United States. The AmCham advocates for and supports U.S. investment in Greece and is a driving force in helping to create an investor-friendly environment in Greece that we haven’t seen in decades.
Numerous examples of U.S.-Greece commercial relations come to mind, including the new Connecticut-led Mohegan Sun Casino project at Hellenikon and numerous hospitality-related investments by U.S. companies that seek to make their share of profits from the Greek sea, sand and sun, while helping the Greek tourist industry expand to new and more lucrative markets.
Opportunities also abound in the area of cultural and educational ties that forge bonds between the two peoples.
This past year brought about an unprecedented change in leadership at an institution that was once a critical connection between the two countries beginning in the turbulent 1950s and 1960s when communism and anti-Americanism was rampant in Greece.
The Hellenic American Union, which was founded by pro-American Greek cultural, political and business elites who saw Greece’s role rooted in the West, built an institution that would serve a critical role in strengthening America’s perception amongst the people of Greece.
Unfortunately, for the past two decades, the Hellenic American Union had been banned from official relations with the United States Embassy and was largely ostracized by the American community in Athens, thanks in large part to various actions of its leadership that enraged U.S. officials and led to a severing of relations.
After this long period of frigid relations, the Union ousted its previous leadership and now has a new leader, Leonidas Koskos, who helped push for this change in an effort to re-establish the Union at its former position of prominence amongst U.S. institutions in Athens. But Koskos has another important goal– one that is being championed by his Chief Executive Officer, Ms. Vicky Branika, which is to make the Union and its resources and mission accessible to more people, including the vast diaspora populations of Greeks in the United States.
Koskos was also instrumental in founding and successfully received accreditation for the Union’s offshoot institution, Hellenic American University, which is one of a few degree-granting institutions in Greece which are fully recognized in the United States. Leonidas Tzonis, the university’s executive vice president has led efforts to increase the number of incoming American students to study in Greece, forging ties with dozens of U.S. universities that– prior to the COVID-19 pandemic– were sending upwards of 500 students a year to the Hellenic American University in Athens for study abroad programs.
All of these factors– thanks to the efforts of people like Pyatt, Bakatselos, Spirtounias, Koskos, Branika, Tzonis and so many more in Greece, have aligned together with the ardent philhellenism of Joe Biden and his administration to create the perfect opportunity to not only rid Greece of a festering anti-Americanism that has lingered in the country for decades, but also to bring about a new, prosperous and exciting era for all of us who consider ourselves to be children of these two nations and work day in and day out to promote these collaborations.
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