Even before the Nov. 6 presidential election in the United States, what many in Greece perceived as the certainty of Ronald Reagan's second term as president sparked a lively debate about the future of US-Greek relations.
Many on both sides of the political spectrum expressed fear that Mr. Reagan, freed from the need to worry about reelection and the influence of the Greek lobby, might decide to come down hard on the government of socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.
Mr. Papandreou's maverick positions and frequently anti-American rhetoric have often deeply angered Washington. Only the conservative opposition in Greece openly advocated a tougher stance by the US against Athens.
In recent days the prime minister and the US ambassador to Athens, Monteagle Stearns, added their voices to that debate. In an interview with a pro-government newspaper, on Monday, Papandreou responded to a question about bilateral relations during Reagan's second term by referring to American support for the seven-year dictatorship in Greece (1967-74) and for the Turkish position toward the Cyprus problem as reasons for Greek suspicion of US motives. He asserted that Washington must realize that ''Greece is an independent country, that the people are sovereign in this country, and that its elected government represents the people and follows a policy which it judges appropriate for the interests of the country and its people. When this message is understood in the United States, our relations will improve a great deal.''
On Tuesday the US ambassador delivered a tough though conciliatory speech in which he said that he wished to ''clear away'' some of the ''mists'' that surround perceptions of the US and ''reveal a clear view of America's purposes and motives in the world.'' Although he mentioned Greece by name only at the beginning and the end of his speech, the ambassador's address was clearly a rebuttal of leftist rhetoric here, including that of the prime minister, that the US is an imperialist country, that it seeks to impose an orthodoxy on others , that it represents a menace to world peace, and that it threatens Greece.
Rejecting the charge that Washington ''is conducting an imperial policy requiring nations to obey some standard of orthodoxy,'' he asserted ''we do not assume that because a nation takes a different route it is hostile to our interests.''
And in a remark virtually unanimously interpreted as a pointed message to Papandreou, he added ''but we do not wish to impose our friendship on those who do not reciprocate it and we will not withhold our friendship from those who do.'' He argued that ''democracies must work together if their values are to prevail. Few in number, they can ill afford to belittle each other before a noncomprehending world.'' He concluded by expressing the hope that his remarks would ''help clear the mist that is sometimes created around America. We all need clarity of vision if we are to see where we are, know what we must do, and come home'' safely.
Although the US ambassador's speech appeared to many unusually direct and outspoken, neither his nor the prime minister's remarks did much to illuminate the probable course of bilateral relations in the months preceding the next national elections in Greece.
There is a widespread view here that recent visits to the area by US congressmen and administration officials are part of an ongoing reassessment of US policy toward Greece and Turkey. On the left there is a fear that the US will tilt more heavily toward Turkey in its aid and regional policies and that it will attempt to isolate Greece within NATO and the European Community.
A report last month claiming that US Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle had told the Turkish Cypriots not to make concessions in talks over the future of the island only increased those apprehen-sions.
''We have evidence,'' according to one government source. ''First the US ambassador in Ankara says Turkey will not be pressured, but its aid will be increased on the contrary, and then the American ambassador here warns yesterday that America will tighten the screws if we do not 'reciprocate.' What does this mean?''
Although there seems to be a consensus among Greeks that America's tone will harden, few agree on what the likely consequences will be. ''We are not a satellite, and we hope Washington realizes that,'' said a Foreign Ministry official, ''but we will be ready to defend our national interests if we need to.'' According to Costas Calligas, columnist for the independent daily Kathimerini, ''There will be a change in tone but not in the substance from Washington. America barks but it does not bite. Of course, America's bark could help get Papandreou reelected.''
Polls here have shown consistently that even if they disagree with individual actions or policies, a large majority of Greeks share Papandreou's hostile attitudes toward the US. The next elections must be held by October and as they approach, said Sotiris Papapolitis, a conservative member of Parliament with access to opposition leader Constantine Mitsotakis, ''Papandreou can be expected to play on those popular sentiments. That is why the ambassador's good speech is the wrong thing, a mistake. What he says is right, but the pro-government press says it is an attack on Greece and Papandreou. Even the opposition press plays it that way. If the United States wants to send the prime minister a message it should be practical, substantive, and behind the scenes, not something public he can easily manipulate.''
Others on the conservative side of the political spectrum see it differently. ''It was too little too late. It should have been more direct, mentioning names, '' asserted Basil Coronakis, publisher of a weekly Greek business periodical. ''Sometimes I think Washington doesn't want a change in Greece,'' he said.
Although American diplomats declined to comment, Western diplomatic sources expressed the view that, although this ''clear and measured'' speech was ''positive and overdue,'' it was unlikely to prompt any policy alterations in Athens. With his eyes on the upcoming elections, they agreed, Papandreou would wait for the US to act, taking ''credit for any improvement'' and blaming Washington for any new tensions.
According to recent reports, Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash plans to go ahead with a referendum on a constitution and parliamentary elections in his unilaterally-declared independent state in northern Cyprus if next week's third round of proximity talks with United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar and Cypriot President Spyros Kyprianou achieve no progress.
For many here, Washington's reaction to Turkish-Cypriot moves to consolidate a state (which only Turkey recognizes) will play a major role in setting the tone in US-Greek relations in coming months.
Whatever happens, diplomats here do not expect a more forceful US tone to be accompanied with substantive hardening, at least until the Greek elections.