U.S. Ambassador to Greece David Pearce presented a lecture at Tufts on Oct. 10 about the history of diplomatic relations between the United States and Greece.
The event was sponsored by the Constantine G. Karamanlis Chair in Hellenic and European Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, which is currently held by Professor of European Politics Kostas Lavdas. Lavdas is also the director of the Centre for Political Research and Documentation at the University of Crete.
Lavdas introduced Pearce, noting his extensive background in the foreign service and his previous work in journalism. He added that it was Pearce’s undergraduate studies in classics that first got him interested in Greece.
“My basic thesis is that what happens in Greece matters — it matters a lot,” Pearce said.
He began his discussion of the two countries’ diplomatic history by first discussing the Greek War of Independence, which lasted from 1821 to 1832, and American interest in the struggle.
Pearce then explained that Greece and the United States fought on the same side during World War I, after which time Greece took in over one million refugees. During World War II, Greece lost approximately 60,000 to 70,000 Jews, according to Pearce.
“Unfortunately, after World War II, the trauma continued because there was a civil war between 46 and 49,” he explained.
The Greek Civil War sharpened the left-right political divide, which continues to this day, Pearce mentioned. Further, the continuous upheavals triggered waves of Greek immigration, notably to the United States. Approximately three million Americans trace their ancestry to Greece, he added.
“After World War II came the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and that’s when the U.S. devised the Marshall Plan,” Pearce continued.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the tourism industry in Greece began to take off, but in 1967 a group of right-wing military officers staged a coup which led to seven years of military dictatorship in Greece, according to Pearce. He said that his first trip to Greece was during this era, in 1971.
In 1974, Greece saw a number of developments, including the first crisis in Cyprus, the fall of the military government and the abolition of the Greek monarchy, according to Pearce.
“Another important effect of the fall of the dictatorship is that it unleashed a tide of leftist and anti-U.S. sentiment,” he said.
Pearce said such anti-American sentiment grew in Greece in the 1980s, but there is a different atmosphere now.
“I think our relations are in a very good place,” he said.
Because of disputes in Cyprus and in the Aegean Sea, Greece also had strained relations with Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s, Pearce said. Yet in 1999, after a significant earthquake, Greece and Turkey began to assist each other for relief, sparking a period of increased activity in business, art, education and more, he said.
Pearce also spoke about Greece’s history in the European Union (EU), noting that in 1981 it became the tenth member to join the European Economic Community, as the EU was called then. He highlighted the 2004 Olympics Games in Athens and the opening of the new Acropolis Museum in 2009 as sources of increased tourism and commercial expansion.
Despite the economic growth spurred by the Olympics, “the economic clouds were gathering,” Pearce said.
He explained that during the global economic recession, people initially thought Greece would be spared because unlike other countries, it did not have a subprime mortgage problem. Prime Minister George Papandreou signaled the extent of the crisis in Greece in 2010, when he announced that the Greek government deficit was far higher than had been previously understood.
“Thus began Greece’s wrenching financial crisis,” Pearce said, mentioning the significant contractions in the country’s economy, including its gross domestic product, personal consumption levels and investment levels.
During the crisis, Greeks felt frightened and angry, as the private sector began to shed jobs and lending froze, Pearce said. The homeless population grew in Athens for the first time since the 1940s.
“This year, finally, things are starting to look up,” he said.
However, Pearce added that the country now faces a number of long-term problems, citing, for instance, that a large number of young professionals from Greece have left. He underscored the need for reforms, jobs and the restoration of hope among the Greek populace.
“So Greece is in transition … but to what?” he asked the audience, suggesting that the next few years may provide an answer.
He concluded that the outcome of Greece’s development and current situation ultimately matters to the United States for the stability of Greece, the eastern Mediterranean region and the entire EU.
“Greece and everything that it stands for still captures the imagination of most Americans,” he said.