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Representing Greece in a pandemic

Representing Greece in a pandemic

Alexandra Papadopoulou’s arrival in D.C. was historic even before the coronavirus pandemic upended international relations.

The first woman appointed as Greece’s ambassador to the U.S., Papadopoulou has extensive experience in top posts around the world, is viewed as one of the closest advisers of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and assumed her post amid a busy period in Washington-Athens relations.

But within a month of arriving — she presented her credentials to President TrumpDonald TrumpVirginia GOP gubernatorial nominee acknowledges Biden was 'legitimately' elected Biden meets with DACA recipients on immigration reform Overnight Health Care: States begin lifting mask mandates after new CDC guidance | Walmart, Trader Joe's will no longer require customers to wear masks | CDC finds Pfizer, Moderna vaccines 94 percent effective in health workers MORE in February — she was challenged like the rest of the world to confront the pandemic and figure out how to run an embassy and carry out critical diplomacy amid isolation.

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“I always wanted to do interesting and challenging things,” Papadopoulou said recently during an interview at the Greek Embassy in Washington.

The job is, on one hand, the peak of her career. Washington is one of the most important postings for Greece’s foreign relations — alongside those in Brussels, the seat of the European Union, and at the United Nations in New York, where she has also served in senior roles.

“It’s the culmination of the art of compromise, the art of understanding, and the art to give up something in order to get something bigger. And this involves the entire world,” Papadopoulou said of her time in New York.

Before arriving in the U.S., she was head of Mitsotakis’s diplomatic cabinet.

“She is, really, the ideal person to be here representing Greece at this stage of not only the bilateral relationship, but in terms of the U.S. once again trying to reclaim its role in the transatlantic alliance,” said Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.

“She’s on the same page with the prime minister and the foreign minister — and the prime minister has a relationship with President-elect [Joe] Biden, I think it’s very, very important. We cannot underestimate the importance of that.”

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The Greek-U.S. alliance has taken on increased importance and strength amid growing frustration from U.S. lawmakers and officials over Turkey’s increasingly provocative actions in the region. Greece is also the gateway to the Balkans, an area of strategic influence among efforts to push back on Russia’s activities to destabilize the NATO alliance.

There is robust, bipartisan support for Greece in Congress, both in general and as a counter to Turkey’s growing antagonism — most recently surrounding a military confrontation between Athens and Ankara over Turkey’s pursuit of natural gas exploration in waters Greece says are part of its territorial economic zone.

In September, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoUS Olympic Committee urges Congress not to boycott Games in China Pompeo on CIA recruitment: We can't risk national security to appease 'liberal, woke agenda' DNC gathers opposition research on over 20 potential GOP presidential candidates MORE traveled to the Souda Bay naval base on the Greek island of Crete, an operational base for U.S. forces, signaling a greater American military commitment as well as pointing to an alternative to the U.S. presence at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.

Pompeo announced on that trip that the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams, the Navy’s newest expeditionary sea base, would have its home at Souda and said of Greece that it is “one of America’s strongest military relationships throughout all of Europe.”

In October 2019, the U.S. and Greece signed an updated Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement, deepening economic and military ties, and in December that year, Congress passed legislation increasing security assistance to Greece, lifted an arms embargo on Cyprus and deepened diplomatic, military and economic ties with the two countries and Israel — the three eastern Mediterranean states in alliance promoting natural gas exploration in the sea.

Papadopoulou says she’s looking forward to working with Biden and that Athens wants to expand and deepen the relationship of the 3+1 — the official name of the grouping of Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the U.S. — as a pillar of stability in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Even now, as we speak, the Greek-U.S. relationship is the highest it has ever been. So we expect that it can go even higher, of course,” Papadopoulou said, emphasizing that the alliance is not meant as a threat to Turkey.

“It’s not about going against anybody, and everybody is welcome to join to the extent that they respect the basic principles on which this partnership is based,” she said.

Papadopoulou has not worked with Biden before, but she said the former vice president enjoys a high profile in Greece given his outsize role during the 2008 economic crisis advocating for Athens amid its debt crisis, which threatened its inclusion in the eurozone and raised fears of a domino collapse among countries within the European Union.

“In those days, the American role was instrumental in keeping Greece afloat, and we’re very much appreciative of the American administration efforts and, of course, then-Vice President Biden being at the forefront of this effort,” Papadopoulou said.

She also called the election of Vice President-elect Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHere's why Joe Biden polls well, but Kamala Harris does not Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border MORE a “vindication for all American women” and a positive image for the world, when many other nations have yet to see women at the highest levels of government.

“I am proud of her, even though I’m not American,” Papadopoulou said.

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Susan Sloan, author of the book “A Seat at the Table: Women, Diplomacy, and Lessons for the World,” said seeing women like Harris and Papadopoulou in high-profile roles contributes to efforts at achieving gender parity and has a positive influence on political decisionmaking.

“With more women in Washington and around the world serving in diplomacy, foreign policy and national security, we will see greater diversity of thought and ultimately solutions,” Sloan said.

While Papadopoulou calls her own history-making turn as Greece’s first female ambassador to Washington a “big achievement,” she said women are doing well in terms of representation among the diplomatic corps in America’s capital.

“We’re quite a big number, we have an association of women ambassadors,” she said, adding that they are in a group chat on WhatsApp and have tried to organize a Zoom meeting over the pandemic.

“We’re a nice group, we’re a diverse group, and I think we’re OK with numbers. Now nobody pays attention, whether you’re a woman ambassador or a man ambassador in Washington, D.C. This is a big achievement, but it’s not news anymore,” she said.