Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt with John Metaxas in National Hellenic Society Talks program, June 18, 2020

Ambassador Pyatt with journalist John Metaxas during an National Hellenic Society Talks program on health issues which included Heath Minister Vassilis Kikilias and Pulmonologist Dr. Panagiotis Behrakis.

June 18, 2020

John Metaxas: Good morning Mr. Ambassador. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you very much, John, for having me with you.

I want to say what a pleasure it is to be with you and with the whole team from NHS as it just does fabulously important work in support of our people to people relationship. I look forward to continuing to build on that in the years ahead.

It’s also a real honor to be speaking especially with Minister Kikilias. You know, Vassilis got his start as a basketball player, but he’s really been one of the MVPs in terms of Greece’s response to this pandemic emergency.

It’s been really inspiring to be representing the United States through this unprecedented and difficult couple of months, but in some ways the story thus far in Greece has been a good one. The Greek government led by Prime Minister Mitsotakis moved early and aggressively to respond to the pandemic, implemented a very severe lockdown which people were not very happy about, but as a result of that two months of sacrifice, Greece has now begun the process of reopening in earnest. Greece was very successful in keeping its numbers down as I’m sure Minister Kikilias will talk about.

What was also really inspiring was for me to see how Greek citizens pulled together because this was not just a government effort. It was a society effort.

And I think one thing that especially a Diaspora audience in the United States would appreciate, this has been a moment of national pride in Greece. For a country that went through very difficult decade in which many decisions were dictated by the European Troika in which the economy lost 25 percent of its value, and all of a sudden Greeks again have a reason to hold their head high. They went from being in many ways the black sheep of Europe because of their economic difficulties to being a real model of successful management of a complex governance challenge.

I think to his credit Prime Minister Mitsotakis made an early decision to put the scientists out front. So it was Dr. Tsiodras, every night he was on television reminding Greeks of why they had to stay at home and what was happening with the progress of the pandemic. This was not a political football in Greece the way it has been in some other countries. And that has worked to the society’s benefit. And everything that the government has done from the beginning of this has been guided by scientific advice and by the epidemiology.

The last point I would make is just to emphasize how proud I was of the role that American companies played for the Greek response. American technology companies like Microsoft and Google and Cisco played an important role in helping the government to build the digital tools that they used to guide their response, to inform citizens, and to measure the effectiveness of their health policy interventions. And these same American technology companies have played an important role in what has been one of the unexpected silver linings of the pandemic, which has been the dramatic progress that Greece has made over the past three months in digital governance.

This is a country which, when I came here four years ago, was pretty close to the bottom of European rankings for technology in governance — a lot of bureaucracy, as anybody who’s done business here can tell you. They have now leapt forward in that area. Minister of Digital Policy Pierrakakis assures me that they’re not done. They want to ride this momentum to really go to the cutting edge in terms of using technology to make government more efficient, more responsive to citizens, and to help facilitate economic recovery. That’s clearly the government’s top priority now. The Prime Minister has begun to encourage the reopening of the economy, especially the vital tourism sector, but they’ve made clear they want to do so in a way that’s both safe for tourists but also safe for Greek citizens. We want to make sure that their strong record up until now is preserved going forward.

So that’s how it looks. As always, it’s a huge honor to be the American Ambassador in Greece, especially at a time when our relationship is moving forward so positively on so many different areas from defense to business to our technology and people to people ties.

Thanks for having me with you and I look forward to a short conversation.

John Metaxas: Well, I want to get into a lot of those points that you just touched on, but let me begin, as a Philhellene, you know the Greek people are known for their independence and yet they bought into measures that really constricted them personally to try to fight this crisis. Why do you think the Greek people bought into this effort?

Ambassador Pyatt: It’s a really good question. I think one aspect of it is the value that Greeks place on family. This pandemic, just like in the United States, caused a lot of fear. But that fear was especially acute for households that had older people who were more vulnerable living with them. So Greeks tended to take this very seriously.

The other, I think, is a consequence of the ten-year economic crisis — the fact that Greece’s health infrastructure had deteriorated. Everybody understood that. So when they saw this coming at them from next door in Italy, everybody knew they needed to buckle in and treat this very seriously.

John Metaxas: What has the response done to the credibility of the Greek government on the international stage?

Ambassador Pyatt: I think it’s brought great reputational benefits. As I noted, for a long time the Greek headlines were all about economic crisis: was Greece leaving the Eurozone; banks collapsing; and then it was about the refugee emergency. Now all of a sudden, you have CNN and the Washington Post and BBC and everybody else running stories about this amazing Greek success story and asking questions like the one you just asked me: how did they do it?

So, I think that’s a really commendable change in the narrative, and I know that the Prime Minister is committed to leveraging that reputational gain to the task of economic growth and recovery and promising that the same efficiencies that his team brought to fighting the pandemic, they will now bring to the task of creating an environment that’s more favorable to foreign and especially American investment.

John Metaxas: You also mentioned many challenges that Greece faces right now on the geopolitical scene, the economics of the country — also, issues with their neighbor Turkey, issues of their territorial integrity, and of course the pandemic is not yet over. How is Greece equipped now, in your view, to deal with all of these in light of where we’ve come in the last year?

Ambassador Pyatt: One of the things that works to Greece’s advantage is the fact that the bilateral relationship is stronger than it’s ever been. That was stated repeatedly by President Trump, by Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Senator Menendez, Speaker Pelosi — all of the leaders that Prime Minister Mitsotakis heard from when he was in Washington in January.

I think we were really lucky that we got the Prime Minister to Washington when we did. You heard a very clear message there reaffirming the U.S. commitment to our alliance with Greece, the value that we place on this relationship. And then significantly, it was also the occasion to mark how Greece is doing more with the United States especially in the defense and security areas where our forces at Souda Bay are busier than they have ever been, where we have new deployments of American helicopters in Stefanovikio, American Air Force units in Larissa, American troops moving through Alexandroupoli. So we are here, we will stand by our alliance relationship, and I can promise you that Washington is strongly committed to continuing to develop and deepen this relationship as we cultivate Greece, as we say, as a pillar of stability in a strategically dynamic and complicated region.

John Metaxas: Mr. Ambassador, there are so many issues you just touched on and I would love to spend a whole hour speaking with you about all of those, and perhaps we can set something up in the future to get more in-depth into all of those issues.

But let me ask, you know, I think a lot of Americans and Greek-Americans are wondering what kind of experience they might have coming to Greece this summer. What is your message to anybody who’s thinking of traveling, any American who’s thinking of traveling to Greece at this time.

Ambassador Pyatt: The Greek government has adopted this wonderful advertising campaign that “Greek Summer is a State of Mind.” It was funny to me watching the reactions — most Greeks looked at this and said what does this mean? I looked at it, and I said I know exactly what it means, because I’ve had three Greek summers and I’m looking forward to my fourth.

This is a wonderful country and it’s a wonderful season. This summer is going to feel different because of the social distancing measures that will be in place. The government has made clear that they want to ensure that people continue to respect the most important measures that we all know from life in America. Wear a mask if you’re in a crowded space like on a ferry. Masks are required for people riding on ferries or on aircraft. Keep your distance when you’re out in public.

One epidemiological practice that seems to be pretty clearly established now is the disease is less likely to spread in open spaces where people are spread around, and the good news about Greek summer is that is the essence of a Greek summer experience, sitting on a spectacular beach where you’ve got a house to your own, enjoying the wonderful water, the wonderful food, the wonderful people.

So they’re going to be careful about this and what I’ve said to Americans who are coming is it’s important to be smart. The disease has not forgotten Greece, so everybody has to be smart through this summer, but this is also, especially for Greek-Americans, a moment where the government is hoping very much to salvage some of its tourism economy which is so important to the overall economy — twenty-five percent of GDP roughly. And as the Prime Minister has been saying, the pie this year for tourism is going to be smaller, but Greece wants to take a larger share, and it’s especially interested in more of the high end quality tourism and less of the kind of mass tourism that you see some places in Crete and Rhodes that involve lots of people jammed into close spaces, which isn’t very wise in the current environment.

John Metaxas: Let’s try to wrap up now. Many people, or some people are fearful about some of the issues that Greece faces and perhaps that they might accelerate. But how optimistic are you at this point about where Greece has come from in the last few years and where Greece is going and where Greek-American relations are going?

Ambassador Pyatt: John, you put your finger on it. Your perspective depends on when you started. And when I came to Greece four years ago, people were worried about Greece leaving the Eurozone, about the banking system collapsing, about Greece not complying with the obligations of the Troika. Nobody asks about those things anymore.

Greek economic recovery should be relatively strong as we get into 2020 and the U.S.government’s committed to supporting that process — the U.S. government at the highest level. Our bilateral relationship is stronger than it’s ever been. I’m very optimistic we’re going to continue to invest in that and regardless of what happens in our politics, one of the great benefits that I enjoy is the fact that today there is a strong bipartisan Republican and Democratic consensus behind the relationship that we’re building here.

It’s a complicated environment in a difficult world, but I think the record of governance that Greece has demonstrated and the record of continued reform that the Prime Minister has reaffirmed made me optimistic that Greece is going to come out of this about as well positioned as anybody, and my job is to make sure that we on the U.S.government side, the U.S. embassy, the State Department, all of our colleagues in Washington, that we’re focused on the opportunities here. We capitalize on those opportunities. And we continue to do what we’ve done so effectively over the past few years which is to work along multiple lines of effort. Our defense relationship, our investment relationship, our people to people ties, the way in which we work together to synchronize our foreign policies in the wider region, how we deal with challenge whether it’s the pandemic or the role that China’s playing in the international system.

So it’s a very exciting and positive time in the bilateral relationship. I’m really proud to lead our team out here, and I’m very bullish on the future.

John Metaxas: Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us.

Ambassador Pyatt: Great. Thanks, John. And again, my huge thanks to all of our colleagues and friends at NHS. I look forward to seeing you in person here in Greece before too long.

John Metaxas: I look forward to that too. Thanks.
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