«Waiting for Palmer»

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Samuel Beckett’s minimalist play “Waiting for Godot” mobilises ritual, allegory and interplay of the tragic and the comic to raise deeper existential questions; Beckett’s great success and popularity over time was largely due to his work’s openness to interpretations.

It may seem a bit sinful, but the one tangible outcome of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ official visit to the U.S. and his much-commented meeting with President Trump and much of the American foreign affairs establishment – that is, the expected mission of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mathew Palmer in our region, to try and cool down Turkish-Greek tensions – really reminds one of “Waiting for…”.

It is open to many interpretations.

State Department sources were prompt to dash Greek media talk about a structured effort of the U.S. to mediate in such a way to the current Greek-Turkish spat. Not to forget, Palmer was recently named “special envoy for the Western Balkans”, with a mandate to help integrate the countries of the overall region “into Western institutions” (A small halt, here: Greece under its previous Government helped along with the Prespes Treaty; but now North Macedonia is at the brink of leaving that course with nationalist VMRO-DMNPE party heading in the looming parliamentary elections, while Greece’s own part-nationalist Nea Dimocratia Government is quite hesitant over the future of Prespes). Moreover, just like in the Beckett play, protracted time is of essence: Matt Palmer will travel to Turkey next month; he will be in Greece in early March (to join the Delphi Forum crowd). But in Greece-Turkey tense relations, a month is quite a long time; a week can be a game-changer.

More importantly, exact American intentions to mediate in the tense climate of the Eastern Mediterranean (into which the Aegean issues have not succeeded not to be sucked) are yet unclear. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was reported to be willing to join in person – later on – the efforts to normalize the situation: This, too was promptly shooed aside in Washington.

Mitsotakis has been hinting repeatedly that he (=Greece) would be willing to join in a judicial approach through the International Court of Justice/ICJ at the Hague. But Turkey is notoriously negative towards UNCLOS/the current Law of the Sea, even more so to the jurisdiction of a Court applying UNCLOS; Greece accepts it only insofar Continental Shelf /EEZ delimitation is concerned, but refuses jurisdiction over sovereignty issues (in the context of ITLOS, the Hamburg Tribunal of the Law of the Sea).

So, any American cool-down intervention has a long way to go – for fruit to be borne – provided, of course, a localized flare-up is avoided. In the event of such a flare-up or of an accident “with deadly and complex military systems operating at close distance”  in the Aegean (as US Ambassador Jeffrey Pyatt has repeatedly warned), no adequate US firefighter looks to be on call. “Who will pick up the phone in Washington as Richard Holbrooke did on January 31, 1996?”, such is the question in the “Waiting for Palmer” situation.

[Meanwhile, American Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Carl Risch is on his way to Nicosia and Athens, in the soft-power relations front of “legitimate travel facilitation”. It is evident that the US endeavor to maintain a positive pace in relations].