In his recent address to the Joint Session of the U.S. Congress Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, reaffirmed the strong relations between the two nations whilst highlighting a few ‘firsts’ that Greece is known for, such as inventing democracy and not so known for, such as advocating equal rights for women.
“For it was a Greek, and a Greek man at that, who first advocated equal rights for women. In “The Republic” Plato proposed that women should share all levels of power and take on all challenges, including military service.
“Any state that does not employ the talents of its women, Plato made clear, is wasting half of its resources. And as the son, husband, sibling and father of strong, creative women, I couldn’t agree more.” said the Greek Prime Minister in his address.
More controversially, for the British Museum perhaps, was the Greek Prime Minister’s characterisation of Lord Elgin’s relationship with the Parthenon Sculptures:
“Like all Greeks, every time I come to Washington I feel as if I’m coming home, because everything I see around me, the architecture, the art, the ideas carved into marble throughout the city, is so familiar.
The Full Speech follows:
Madam Vice President,
Honorable Members of the United States Congress,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is no greater honor for the elected leader of the people who created democracy than to address the elected representatives of the people who founded their country on the Greek model and have promoted and defended democratic values ever since.
I am conscious as I stand before you today of the deep ties that bind our two nations together.
They are a reason for celebration and thanks but they are also a reminder, I believe, of our shared values and beliefs at a time when these are once again being tested. Our shared belief in freedom over tyranny, in democracy over authoritarianism, in the fundamental importance of respect for the rule of law over war and anarchy.
It is an added honor, and a great pleasure, for me to address a joint session of the US Congress under female leadership, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and, of course, Vice President Kamala Harris.
For it was a Greek, and a Greek man at that, who first advocated equal rights for women. In “The Republic” Plato proposed that women should share all levels of power and take on all challenges, including military service.
Any state that does not employ the talents of its women, Plato made clear, is wasting half of its resources. And as the son, husband, sibling and father of strong, creative women, I couldn’t agree more.
Like all Greeks, every time I come to Washington I feel as if I’m coming home, because everything I see around me, the architecture, the art, the ideas carved into marble throughout the city, is so familiar.
Walking into the Lincoln Memorial is like walking into the Parthenon when it was still intact, before Lord Elgin’s art collecting hobby defaced it, because it was modeled on the earlier monument. Driving by the Supreme Court and seeing above the entrance its motto and mission, “Equal Justice Under Law,” we remember that it is a concept that our Greek ancestors first conceived and articulated in a single word, “Isonomia.”
Of course, it was not only Washington’s buildings and culture that were immeasurably influenced by Greece but also the city’s main business, democratic politics, were founded in Athens as well. In fact, to be brutally frank, we all owe our jobs to our noble ancestors.
But I come here not to seek appreciation from you or praise for them.
I come before you to celebrate a miracle that all free peoples cherish but that binds Greeks and Americans in a unique way. That miracle, the Greek idea that would forever change the world, is that society functions best if all of its citizens are equal and have the right to share in running their state. In a word, democracy.
It is hard for us today to realize how radical the idea of individual freedom was 25 centuries ago when a small community of Greeks dared to entrust equal political and legal rights to all its citizens. Women and slaves were excluded, but it was still such an extraordinary departure from what had gone before that it remains the most profound leap of faith in human history.
No society before the Greeks dared to believe that order and freedom were compatible. All societies before them were a succession of tyrannies that relied on a strong ruler, a king, a pharaoh, an emperor, to keep them functioning.
The lesson was not lost on the founders of the United States who shaped the American Constitution on the Athenian model but they were wise enough to insert checks and balances to avoid the excesses that eventually undermined Athenian democracy.
The birth of democracy in ancient Athens brought about an explosion of the creative spirit in Greece that produced the architecture, the art, the drama and the philosophy that have shaped western civilization ever since.
The establishment of democracy in the United States has brought about the greatest expansion of human freedom and human progress the world has ever known.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Last year Greece celebrated 200 years since the beginning of our war of independence. And in a very strange but interesting twist of historical fate, it was the Greek people who were inspired by the foundation of American democracy when they rose against their oppressor to fight for their own freedom.
What Americans had shown us by their example was that liberty can be fought for and, even when against the odds, won. We understood the founding of your republic to be a watershed in the history of the world, a model for the oppressed nations of Europe, a hope for our own future.
Right from the start, therefore, our forefathers looked across the Atlantic for support. From the distant Peloponnese, the leaders of the Greek revolution sent an appeal in the spring of 1821 to the American people, their ‘friends, fellow-citizens and brethren’.
They spoke of the ‘natural sympathy’ the Greeks felt for Americans, the thirst for freedom that they had both derived from the ancients. ‘In imitating you,’ they wrote, ‘we imitate our own ancestors. We shall show ourselves worthy of them in proportion as we resemble you.’
The founding fathers of your Republic were moved and impressed. ‘Light and liberty are in steady advance,’ wrote Thomas Jefferson on learning of the news from Greece. ‘The flames kindled on 4th July 1776 have spread over too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism.’
Exactly 200 years ago, in 1822, revolutionary Greeks assembled at Epidavros, debated and drew up our first Constitution. And with this document they introduced into the newly liberated Greek lands the new language of rights. Above all of the right of a nation to throw off the shackles of tyranny in order to live under the rule of law. In the words of our Declaration of Independence:
Have we something lesser than other nations, that we remain deprived of these rights, or are we of a nature lower or less civilized, that we should view ourselves as unworthy to enjoy them and instead be condemned to an eternal slavery, subjected, like automata or beasts of burden, to the absurd caprices of a cruel tyrant.
These are rights which within Greece we have never ceased to defend by arms when times and circumstances have permitted.”
A shocking reality: Replace the word Greece with Ukraine and the similarities to today’s turbulent world are harrowing.
Two years later, in a little town in Western Greece called Mesolonghi, these words were published alongside a translation of the American Constitution. That book, one of the first ever printed on Greek soil, stands testimony to the immense value we Greeks attached from the start to our own future as a liberal and constitutional polity.
That this little book appeared at the height of the war was remarkable. That it was printed in Mesolonghi was simply incredible. Like Mariupol today, Mesolonghi’s outnumbered and emaciated defenders would repeatedly repel wave upon wave of enemy attacks before their final desperate sortie, an act of extraordinary daring. But one that would ultimately cost hundreds of lives, many of whom were women and children.
When we see the same suffering among the outnumbered defenders of Mariupol, a city with a Greek name and deep Greek roots, we are reminded of Mesolonghi and the costs of our own struggle.
Even today we have not forgotten the American volunteers who sailed to fight alongside us. Some of them gave their lives for our freedom. Their names are honored and their graves are still cared for.
Nor have we forgotten others of your countrymen who mounted one of the first public humanitarian efforts in history by sending Greece aid and assistance. Remarkable figures like Samuel Gridley Howe cared for women and children who had been left homeless and destitute, and established hospitals, schools and orphanages that supported us in the difficult years that followed.
The first school for girls in Greece was founded in Athens in 1831, by an American pastor, John Hill. The Hill Memorial School still continues to teach Greek children today in the historic center of Athens.
This long arc of American philanthropy continued through the nineteenth century, spreading across the Near and Middle East. And in times of dire need in the following decades, most notably a century ago, when hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed into Greece from Asia Minor in the catastrophic aftermath of the First World War, American institutions were there to bring aid and relief.
And, of course it was the Marshal plan that helped my country rebuild its infrastructure after the devastating Second World War and the civil war that ensued.
And in its own way, Greece reciprocated. Among the Greek orphans who were brought across the Atlantic into the United States to escape the fighting after 1821 were a future congressman and a commander in the US navy.
Young Greeks saved from the war became American educators and writers. Many of them were dedicated abolitionists, for the eradication of slavery was a cause whose urgent necessity spoke directly to men and women who had once been enslaved themselves.
Over the past two centuries our two countries have always been on the right side of history. We fought side by side in world wars to defend freedom and democracy.
Our democracies have struggled with internal demons. We endured the horrific pains of civil wars and the desperation of economic crises. But we have emerged stronger and more committed to defend the values that our ancestors gave their lives for.
Esteemed members of Congress,
I began today by saying that this bicentennial is more than a moment of celebration. It is also a reminder of the values that bind us together and the tasks we still face.
The world has changed a good deal in the recent months. But the warning signs have been with us for decades.
Following the end of the Cold War we naively believed that Europe, which had twice driven the world into global conflict, had finally found the path to peace.
We believed that international cooperation and a shared commitment to the rule of law now prevailed over guns and armies.
We believed that the deepening of the European Union, a unique experiment designed to further link our countries together, would make war on the «Dark Continent» unthinkable.
We believed that given the tragic and harrowing experiences of the twentieth century, no one would venture to suppress another people’s right to exist or alter its borders by force.
We naively ignored the warning signs flashing red. And we even ignored Russia’s actions in Syria and its annexation of Crimea.
We know now that we were wrong.
Today, like all of you, we Greeks look at what is happening just five hundred miles to our north, and we are horrified and appalled.
We look to Kyiv and to Odessa, the city where our revolution was first conceived, and we look to the tragedy unfolding in eastern Ukraine.
We see Mariupol, a Greek city founded by Catherine the Great in 1778 to resettle Greeks from Crimea fleeing Ottoman rule. And what we see once again is a people who are faced with the necessity of fighting to defend themselves in order to secure their future.
Let me be clear: we have no animus towards the Russian people, with whom we have been bound so closely by faith and history. But we cannot be indifferent to a struggle that reminds us so much of our own.
We too know what it is to be forced to reckon with invasion, to stand up for one’s beliefs and to have to resort to arms to protect our liberty.
We too know about the heroism of the underdog, for whom the first victory comes from not capitulating in the face of overwhelming odds. From simply hanging on and praying that others will come to our aid.
And we understand too the importance of friends, and the power of allies, in the defense of the values that we share.
Without allies the Greeks would not, for all their heroism, have been able to win their independence. And that is why we recognize the importance of taking sides now.
And we took sides. Unequivocally. We stand by Ukraine against Putin’s aggression. We delivered humanitarian aid. We supported the Ukrainians with weapons to help them defend their homeland. And we have welcomed, with open arms, refugees who have fled their homeland in search of safety for themselves and their families.
Mr. Putin is striving to create a world in which power is for the strong state but not the small. A world in which territorial claims are made on the basis of historical fantasies and enforced by aggression, rather than decided by peace treaties. A world in which armies rather than diplomats settle disputes.
He will not succeed. He must not succeed. He must not succeed, not only for the sake of Ukraine but also in order to send a message to all authoritarian leaders that historical revisionism and open acts of aggression that violate international law will not be tolerated by the global community of democratic states. The language of resentment, revisionism and imperial nostalgia shall not prevail.
And speaking of open acts of aggression, I ask you, esteemed members of Congress, not to forget an open wound that has caused Hellenism unending pain over the past 48 years. I am referring to the invasion and subsequent division of Cyprus. This issue has to be resolved in accordance with international law and in line with the relevant decisions of the United Nations Security Council. As I told President Biden yesterday, nobody can and nobody will accept a two- state solution in Cyprus.
The same is true for all other regional disputes. Greece is a peace seeking democracy that always extends a hand of friendship to our neighbors. We are always open to dialogue. But there is only one framework we can use to resolve our differences: international law and the unwritten principles of good neighborly relations.
I want to be absolutely clear. We will not accept open acts of aggression that violate our sovereignty and our territorial rights. These include overflights over Greek islands, which must stop immediately.
Please also note: the last thing that NATO needs at a time when our focus is on helping Ukraine defeat Russia’s aggression is another source of instability on NATO’s Southeastern flank. And I ask you take this into account when you make defense procurement decisions concerning the Eastern Mediterranean.
The United States has, I believe, vital interests in this part of the world. It is very important that you remain engaged and work with partners with whom you share not only common strategic priorities, but also shared values and a shared history.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Last Thursday the Hellenic parliament ratified the new Mutual Defense and Cooperation Agreement between our two countries. Whereas previously it was renewed annually by an act of Parliament, it now has a five-year duration, after which it is automatically renewed, unless one of the parties chooses not to do so.
This Αgreement is a powerful testament of our enduring strategic partnership and our commitment to maintain peace and promote prosperity in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in Souda Bay, which I know many of you have visited. The largest naval base in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the only port that can accommodate aircraft carriers.
But it is also obvious in the city of Alexandroupolis, in Northeastern Greece, which is rapidly becoming an energy hub for the entire region. This is important, as we seek to rapidly diversify away from Russian gas, investing in the necessary infrastructure that will make it possible to import large quantities and liquefied natural gas, this becomes critical. Not just for Greece but also for our Balkan neighbors.
I should tell my colleagues I don’t get so much applause in the Greek Parliament.
And we will interconnect the Greek electricity grids with Cyprus, Israel and Egypt in order to import cheap renewable energy from the Middle East and Africa into the European electricity system.
But the thriving partnership of our two countries is not just limited to security and energy. Pfizer has set up a big data analytics center in Thessaloniki. Microsoft is building state of the art data centers on the outskirts of Athens. JP Morgan has invested in one of our leading Greek fintech companies.
What American companies see in Greece is not just a country endowed with an advantageous geographical position, and blessed with natural beauty that makes it a magnet for visitors from all over the world. They also see a dynamic economy that has overcome the difficulties, the pathogenies of the past and is supporting entrepreneurship and private investment.
And a workforce of young, talented, well-educated Greeks who, after a decade of crisis, choose to remain in their homeland rather than emigrating. Or for those who have actually left the country, choose to return to Greece now. And, I am convinced they will be the protagonists of Greece’s bright future.
Esteemed members of Congress,
I have spoken about the joint paths that our two great democracies have chartered over the past two centuries. We have every reason today to celebrate our achievements. But it would be fullish to remain complacent.
The United States has a crucial role to play today in our even more complicated world. From addressing climate change to standing up against authoritarian regimes, from countering fake news and disinformation to preparing for the next pandemic, the world looks to the strongest and most prosperous democracy for leadership. You simply cannot afford to sit on the sidelines.
Multilateralism, in my mind, is not an option but a necessity. Not only for a more stable world order but also for your own self-interest.
But we also need to put our own house in order. Personally, I am more worried about the internal fragmentations of our democracies than I fear the threat of arrogant despots.
We frequently remember the words of President Ronald Reagan “Freedom is never more than a generation away from extinction”.
But let us not forget that Abraham Lincoln referred to the “unfinished business of democracy”. And unfinished it is indeed.
Our democracies are threatened by the sirens of populists who offer easy solutions to complicated problems. Their voices are being heard, primarily because income inequality has increased in our societies and many, justifiably, feel that they are left behind. In Greece we speak from experience. We paid a heavy price for listening to them.
Everywhere in the world, in the United States, in Greece, in Europe, social media is polarizing public debate and transforming the public sphere into a modern-day version of the tower of Babel, where we speak different languages and we only listen to those who share the same views with us.
There are three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies. Social capital, by that I mean extensive social networks, with high levels of trust, so admired by Alexis de Tocqueville. Strong institutions. And common stories that forge a unified national identity. All three are being eroded.
And at the same time authoritarian regimes are questioning our ability to deliver prosperity for all our citizens. They are offering their people a Faustian deal: trade political freedom and individual rights for high levels of growth and individual economic wellbeing. Many are willing to accept it.
These are some of the challenges we face today. That is why making our democracies more resilient is such an important priority for our generation.
I wish I had the answers to these complicated questions. But I know where to start. We need to strengthen our democratic institutions to address the root causes of our citizens’ anger and distrust. We need to tackle income inequalities without losing the dynamism of our open economies.
We need to reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive. And we need to train our young people to seize the opportunities of democratic citizenship in this new age.
And maybe a dive into our shared historical past would be of particular use. James Madison knew that democracies can be threatened by the “turbulency and weakness of unruly passions”.
That is why insulating decision making from the emotion of the moment, while still holding democratic leaders accountable on election day was one of his major preoccupations.
Madison was clearly inspired by Pericles, who knew that democracy had a dark side that, if left unrestrained, could lead to its downfall. Thucydides had Pericles say of Ancient Athens: “We are a free democracy but we obey our laws, more especially those who protect the weak, and the unwritten laws whose transgression bring shame”.
Every time we gaze in wonder at the Parthenon frieze, half of which unfortunately still sits in the British Museum rather than the Acropolis Museum where it belongs, we are reminded of the glory of a thriving democracy. 30 years after the Parthenon was constructed, democracy in Athens was no more.
Reinventing democracy to fit the challenges of the 21st century may sound like a tall order. But this is the mission of our generation and I am certain we will accomplish it.
Esteemed members of Congress,
Let me conclude by making a special reference to the one unshakable bond that will always bind our countries together. The Greek American community.
It is a special moment to see so many of you here with us today.
Over the past 120 years you have warmly welcomed, encouraged and supported the waves of immigrants who came to your country in search of a better life. Not to mention the students like me who spent seven years studying in American universities.
Those who sailed to this country were not philosophers and poets like their noble ancestors. For the most part, they were simple laborers, and they eagerly took any work they could find.
But no matter how uneducated the Greeks or how menial their work, they would typically apply themselves with great determination and embrace any chance to prosper in life and educate their children.
They offered them a brighter future, fulfilling the solemn duty that every generation should be able to live a better life than the previous one. They experienced the American dream, but never forgot where they came from.
Today the Greeks who live in the US and the three million Americans who identify themselves as Greeks include some of the most respected leaders in the arts, science, education, medicine, the judiciary, and, of course, politics.
Modern visionaries like Nikolas Negroponte and Albert Bourla. John Kassavetis and Elia Kazan. Jeffrey Evgenidis and George Pelekanos. Alexander Payne and Tom Hanks. And of course, Yannis Antetokounmpo.
Six of them are in this Congress and one of them, my friend Mike Dukakis, ran for president of the United States.
I think one of the reasons Greeks were accepted in America so readily is the fact that the values of America are Greek values. On of the qualities that Greeks value the most is called “Sophrosene,” a word best translated as self-control, temperance, and harmony.
The ancient Greeks thought arrogance, extremism, and excess the worst threats to democracy. “For man,” Aristotle wrote, “life according to reason is best and most pleasant, since reason more than anything else is man.”
That reason tells me we Greeks and Americans have a lot more to contribute as custodians of democracy. That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall thrive again.
I bring you here today the pledge of the Greek people that we stand together with the people of the United States whenever and wherever necessary to ensure that the hope our ancestors bequeathed to the world 25 cαenturies ago will endure, and the dream of freedom for every human being on this planet will never die.
Long live the friendship between Greece and the United States of America!