While assigned to the NATO political headquarters in Brussels, Belgium; I found myself in an odd diplomatic situation. I worked as the US Board Member to the NATO Standardization Agency’s Joint Service Board and the Air Board. The Alliance had been working for years on a Search and Rescue (SAR) publication; however, the document could not be promulgated due to the lack of agreement from Greece and Turkey regarding SAR responsibilities in the Aegean Sea. The NSA’s Air Board tried to find a way forward; the Military Committee (highest military body within the NATO Alliance) couldn’t solve the problem; and the North Atlantic Council (ambassador level) couldn’t find a path to agreement and subsequently asked the Air Board to make one last attempt to resolve disputes at our level. In November 1995, the Air Board planned a negotiation meeting for the last week of January 1996 – 2 months later.
Meanwhile – one month later on 25 December 1995, a Turkish cargo vessel ran aground on a pair of islets in the Aegean Sea known collectively as either Imia (Greek name) or Kardak (Turkish name). The islets had a combined area of 10 acres and were uninhabited. When salvage became a hot political issue, both Turkey and Greece claimed responsibility for SAR. By 20 January 1996, the issue had reached international attention and threatened to bring two NATO nations into direct military conflict. Both sides launched special forces at night to place respective national flags on the islets during the last week of January 1996. Eventually, a Greek helicopter crashed on one of the islets killing three crewmembers raising the concern that hostile action had taken place. Two NATO nations were on the verge of war!
Against this background, the Air Board had been planning the negotiation for this same last week of January for the Alliance SAR document. The negotiation would be led by the Air Board Chairman and three national Board Members (BMs) from the US, Germany and Canada. I was the US BM. As the negotiation approached against the international news backdrop, the Turkish BM approached the Air Board staff to formally complain that the US BM might be biased against Turkey. Specifically, the Turkish BM was concerned that the US BM would be biased because the US Member’s wife was a Greek citizen. The Turkish BM was told by the NATO authorities that the US BM represented the United States, not Greece, and that would be the end of that subject. Yes, my wife was a Greek citizen who generally always thought that I should support Greece, but my wife also knew that I was the US BM, not the Greek BM! Her family also seemed to think that I should always favor Greece.
Negotiations began as scheduled against the backdrop of increasing international tensions. I was aware of the Turkish complaint before we began the negotiations. Fortunately for me, the Greek BM made some emotional and irrelevant comments during the negotiations that gave me the opportunity to make a critical comment seen as favorable to Turkey early in our deliberations. At the end of our negotiations we had an agreement between the two nations. A formal reception followed to celebrate the agreement during which I made a point to speak to both Greek and Turkish BMs privately. Both BMs mentioned the same two things. They agreed that I was neutral during the debate and that each would be returning to defend their respective countries the following morning. Despite the appearance of crossfire, I never thought I was in a true crossfire since my professional goal was to act and vote in the best interests of the US. My guidance was clear. Based upon the agreement we negotiated that day, the NATO SAR document was subsequently promulgated. Elsewhere in the Aegean Sea, the crisis died as quickly as it developed.