Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, will meet Donald Trump on Tuesday in an official visit to Washington that has caught many by surprise.
The meeting comes amid growing US tensions with Greece’s Nato rival Turkey.
“This is an important meeting for both countries,” said Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs under George W Bush. “Relations are better now than they were in decades past when strident anti-Americanism dominated Greek politics.”
Tsipras is an unlikely visitor to the Oval Office. The leftist leader, a once-militant Marxist, was openly hostile to Trump’s run for the US presidency, saying publicly: “I hope this bad thing doesn’t befall us.”
Meanwhile, Trump has said little about Greece, preferring instead to heap praise on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president. But rapidly deteriorating relations with Ankara have prompted Washington to reappraise ties.
“Considering all the problems with Turkey, Greece is a relatively stable ally in south-eastern Europe,” said Burns.
The irony has not been lost on diplomats that while Tsipras and his leftist comrades did much to keep anti-Americanism alive while in opposition, Athens has gone out of its way to support the western alliance since his two-party government assumed power in January 2015.
Defence minister Panos Kammenos, who heads the small right-wing Independent Greeks party, the coalition’s junior partner, is unabashedly pro-American and pro-Trump.
“After the [Yanis] Varoufakis histrionics the government learnt the importance of soft power, how to win friends and influence people in a quiet way,” said Syriza MP Costas Douzinas, referring to the former finance minister who represented Greece during Syriza’s first six months in office.
Douzinas said that Greece was pursuing a multi-faceted foreign policy that included forging strong ties not only with the US and Israel but the Palestinian authorities, Egypt, Russia, China and Iran.
“At a point when Turkey is becoming unpredictable and even irrational at times, Greece shows the importance of commitment to values and friends,” said Douzinas, who chairs the Greek parliament’s standing committee on national defence and foreign relations.
Burns, who served as US ambassador to Greece between 1997 and 2001, said Tsipras would need to be able to assure Washington that he was not beholden to Russia and China on key global issues. Beijing has invested heavily in the country since the crisis began.
Athens has won favour in the Trump administration for allocating around 2.38% of gross domestic product to defence – the second highest rate in Nato after the US – despite the debt-stricken nation’s prolonged financial crisis and fragile economic state.
Tsipras is expected during his encounter with Trump to emphasise Greece’s geopolitical role by focusing on Souda, the strategic deepwater naval base in Crete that is the centre of operations for the US sixth fleet in the eastern Mediterranean.
Although US officials insist that Souda cannot replace Incirlik, the air base in Turkey that is also central to American operations in the Middle East, the facility has become ever more important for allied forces involved in Syria and anti-Isis airborne campaigns in the region.
It is also hoped the White House talks will play a decisive role in kickstarting the Greek economy by helping to complete Greece’s third and final bailout review with creditors that have kept bankruptcy at bay.
With the recession-hit country showing the first signs of recovery, Tsipras’s goal is to exit the latest €86bn rescue bailout programme by August next year when it officially expires.
But much depends on the attitude of the International Monetary Fund and the stance of the Trump administration over whether Athens’ €300bn debt mountain should be written off.
As the largest shareholder in the IMF, the US has effective veto power over many of the Washington organisation’s decisions.
“A central question for the US is whether to urge long-term debt relief for Greece by its European and international creditors,” said Burns, who teaches diplomacy and international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “It is difficult to see Greece climbing back to prosperity and growth without it.”
Aides said Tsipras will appeal to Trump to urge the IMF to show more flexibility towards the nation which has been forced to endure years of gruelling austerity, budget cuts and tax hikes in exchange for bailout funds.
“If they can get Trump to say debt relief in public it will be a huge coup,” said Alec Mally, a former senior US diplomat who had handled Greek affairs at the US State Department. “Up to now the Trump administration has been content to leave the debt relief issue totally in the hands of Greece’s European creditors and the IMF.”