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Geography Never Changes

By Col. Stephen Ross Norton1

Special to the Western Policy Center2 August 1998

The noted geopolitician and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Robert Strausz-Hupé, said in 1982 during a discussion about the Cyprus problem that "governments may come and governments may go, but geography never changes."

That year, Chief of the Turkish General Staff Kenan Evren was governing Turkey while, in Greece, there was a democratic government headed by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. However, Greece’s recent experience with a military government, beginning in 1967, had only ended in 1974. Since 1967, it has seemed that when one of the two countries has had a stable, respected, popular government which could afford politically to engage the other over their differences, it would be met by a weak coalition government on the other side and all initiatives were doomed to failure.

In 1982, some U.S. diplomats were becoming mired in analysis that predicated having strong governments in Athens and Ankara at the same time, such as the highly acclaimed administrations led by Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and Turkish President Kemal Ataturk earlier this century, as a prerequisite to improving Greek-Turkish relations.

There was one immediate lesson in Ambassador Strausz-Hupé’s comments contrasting the tenuous state of governments with the constancy of geography: Change your thinking and look at the geographical imperatives, not just the political ones. Using the ambassador’s premise helps to keep analysis of eastern Mediterranean issues focused on realities. Of primary importance is the notion that no country can choose its neighbors. There are historical, religious, political, and economic differences between Greece and Turkey. There have been wars between them, and many bilateral issues remain unresolved. It is doubtful that these countries would choose to be neighbors if choices could be given in such matters.

It is actually the reality of the politico-military history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that has created the existing boundaries of both countries. Geography makes these countries neighbors, and it strongly influences and defines their vital interests. It also affects the timing they follow in implementing their policies. The view of time held by both countries, or their urgency to act, will normally be quite different from the view of NATO, the WEU, the U.N., or other institutions, and Washington.

Greece and Turkey share common land and sea borders and they both have extensive coastlines along the Aegean Sea. And, indeed, some of their most vexing differences involve geography, such as the delineation of the Aegean seabed. It seems that one lesson Ambassador Strausz-Hupé wanted to convey was that the geographic imperatives of both countries can moderate actions as well as provoke them. These imperatives are long-term and can transcend governments. They are also interconnected, so that if one imperative is altered it will probably affect others.

When considering the interaction between geographic and political imperatives in Greek-Turkish relations, there are five practical lessons to be learned that have remained constant over time.

First, progress in Greek-Turkish relations should be possible even when Athens and Ankara have weak coalition governments. It is true that strong governments in both countries are required to make major improvements in their relationship. Nevertheless, some limited but important steps can be taken even when this is not the case. Regardless of the relative strength of each government, the militaries of Greece and Turkey will continue to conduct exercises in the Aegean, pursue their national objectives, and protect their interests. This factor leads to a regular cycle of increased tensions and serious incidents, some of which involve loss of life and military equipment. Even weak governments want to keep such occurrences to a minimum.

Second, it is better to move slowly on Aegean disputes. Perceptions need to be changed gradually, trust and confidence must be built, and bureaucracies and populations need to be prepared for change. Also, if a country "loses" on an Aegean issue, it is almost impossible to regain the status quo. These are not issues for interested parties to experiment with, and it is counterproductive to pressure either country into taking too many risks without having a good expectation of the outcome.

Third, do not underestimate the importance of geography. The Imia crisis of 1996 brought both countries to the brink of war. Turkey’s current "gray areas" policy, which raises sovereignty questions concerning selected Aegean islands and islets, can also lead to a serious confrontation if it is not pursued in a cooperative and mutually agreed manner with the Greek government. In this regard, the Greek view of referring legitimate disagreements about sovereignty to the International Court of Justice is a logical and reasonable approach that deserves the support of the international community.

Fourth, never view specific Greek-Turkish differences in isolation. There is a delicate interconnection among them, even if they do not seem related. For example, Greece’s claim to a national air space of ten nautical miles may appear to have nothing in common with Turkey’s pursuit of a "fair" share of the Aegean seabed. Yet no Greek government would consider changing its claim until there is a mutually agreed settlement on the delineation of the seabed. To do otherwise would be viewed as a sign of weakness and could thus adversely affect its negotiating position on the issue, or on any other bilateral issue.

Fifth, Greece and Turkey do not view their differences in the same way. What is important to one may not be to the other. For example, for Greece, Cyprus is a priority item that adversely affects a broad range of bilateral issues. For Turkey, however, Cyprus is a problem that is secondary to its access to the Aegean seabed. This means that at least two issues, one that is important to Athens and one that is important to Ankara, will have to be discussed simultaneously or there will have to be an agreement on the order in which they are discussed.

The U.S. is viewed by both Greeks and Turks as their best possible mediator and as the one catalyst that could persuade them to hold meaningful bilateral talks. Part of the challenge is to understand how best to do this. The geographic imperative expressed by Ambassador Strausz-Hupé may provide an important starting point for a successful course of action.

1 A member of the U.S. Army's Foreign Area Officer Program, Col. Norton served as the Assistant Army Attaché in Ankara from 1980 to 1983, the Defense and Army Attaché in Nicosia from 1987 to 1991, and the Defense and Army Attachéin Athens from September 1996 to June 1998.

2 The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. The Center analyzes current U.S. foreign policy toward southeastern Europe and develops policy recommendations for the region. It cooperates with other nongovernmental organizations, leading educational and foreign policy institutions, and the media in providing forums for the analysis of issues concerning the region. For more information, please call (202) 530-1425.