Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt’s Interview with Alexis Papahelas

Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt

Delphi Forum

March 2, 2018

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you, Alexis.  First of all, let me say what a treat it is to be back here in Delphi.  I especially want to thank Symeon and the team who put this event together.  It’s really impressive to see how this institution is growing.

I would just make one observation to start with, which is, if I think back 12 months ago to when we were last here in Delphi and Alexis and I had a conversation much like this one.  I think one of the most striking changes that I’ve seen over these 12 months in terms of the conversation here now, compared to the conversation we had 12 months ago, is the broadening scope of the discussion.  The sense that Greece really has arrived at a turning point in terms of the beginning of economic recovery, and how that has allowed us to have a much more sophisticated conversation about the role that Greece plays in the wider region.  The role of Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, the role of Greece in the Balkans, and I would just note that this goes to the core strategic concept that I have used in trying to shape our approach to this important bilateral relationship over the past year and a half, which is the vision of Greece as a pillar of stability, as a key ally of the United States which shares our values and where we have converging interests.  And of course this also helps to answer the question why does the United States care about the health of the Greek economy?

I was encouraged to hear Thomas Wiser this morning with you, Alexis, acknowledge the important role that the United States has played in helping to reinforce European policy in Greece, and also his acknowledgement of the geostrategic and geopolitical element that characterized U.S. policy.  I think the fact is, the stronger Greece is, the more healthy the Greek economy is, the more Greece is able to act as a force for good in the wider region.  Whether we’re talking about the Eastern Mediterranean and the quest for peace in the Middle East; whether we’re talking about North Africa, the battle to defeat ISIS; or whether we’re talking about the Western Balkans and Black Sea region and the agenda continuing to build a Europe that’s whole and free and at peace.

It’s a very exciting time to have the role that we have in terms of building this relationship and it’s a great time to have this conversation in Delphi.

Mr. Papahelas:  Let me start with this.  I remember last year we made quite a bit of news here from Delphi when you said that you were very concerned about the potential accident between Greece and Turkey.


Ambassador Pyatt:  I thought you made that news. [Laughter].

Mr. Papahelas:  I provoked the news. Well, now we are having some accidents, and the latest is very worrisome. I know that you were out engaging in some diplomacy.  Will you tell us how concerned you are about the current situation, what the U.S. position is, what the U.S. involvement is?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Let me say two things.  First of all on the immediate issues today, Washington is, of course, fully engaged.  We’ve had very good conversations with our Greek government counterparts so we have a clear understanding of Greek concerns and what the Greek government is doing.  We have been encouraged, importantly, by the ongoing and open communications that are occurring between Admiral Apostolakis and General Akar, between Secretary General Paraskevopoulos and the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

I should say also, this is consistent very much with what we’ve heard from Prime Minister Tsipras.  If you remember back in October when the Prime Minister had a really historic and important visit to the White House, and when he was standing there in the Rose Garden with President Trump, he was asked about Greek views of Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and Turkish democracy.  And the point that he made there with the world’s press listening was that Greece, like the United States, has a vital interest in ensuring that Turkey remains anchored in the West and anchored in the Euro-Atlantic institutions.  And I should add, the Prime Minister was very eloquent on that point last weekend, and we had one of the largest U.S. congressional delegations that we’ve had in a very long time here in Athens, led by Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the most senior Republicans in the U.S. Senate.  There was a lot of conversation about Turkey.  And one of the points the Prime Minister reiterated in that setting was his commitment to continue working very hard on the difficult issues that Greece has on its agenda with Ankara.  And on the U.S. side, of course, we too are working through some difficult issues.  I was able to be with Secretary Tillerson in Ankara two weeks ago when the Secretary was working very hard to identify a path forward so that we can achieve what I think is a strongly shared objective between the United States and Greece, which is to ensure that Turkey remains a vital member of NATO, to ensure that Turkish society and Turkish government remains anchored in the West.  And I would argue, the United States has no stronger ally in that effort than Greece because you have the greatest interests of all in seeing that Turkey continues to point in this direction.

Mr. Papahelas:  In the old days we would expect some sort of visible U.S. mediation in circumstances like this today.  We had Dick Holbrooke in ‘96 and others in the past.  Should we expect anything similar right now?  And who exactly is engaged on this in Washington?

Ambassador Pyatt:  So back home it’s Assistant Secretary Mitchell and actually, I was on email with Assistant Secretary Mitchell at about 2 o’clock this morning, and I was on the phone with him at the very opening of business in Washington today.  By the way, the U.S. government is closed today because of the snow and the wind.  But we’re very much engaged on these issues.

And I should add, I’ve been very encouraged by the support that our whole embassy team has had from all of Washington, but in particular, our new Assistant Secretary for Europe.  Assistant Secretary Mitchell is somebody who knows this neighborhood well and I’m optimistic that he will be a very strong advocate in seeking to implement and carry forward the political framework that President Trump and Prime Minister Tsipras agreed on when they were together in Washington in October.

Mr. Papahelas:  We also have the ENI offshore exploration in Cyprus, as you know.  The drilling was stopped by the Turks.  Now EXXON which is a U.S. company is planning something there.  What is the U.S. position on that, and are you worried about that front also?

Ambassador Pyatt:  The U.S. has been very clear that we believe the people of Cyprus should be able to develop the resources that they have in their continental shelf.  We’ve spoken to that publicly through the State Department spokesperson, also through Ambassador Doherty in Nicosia.  I should emphasize, this is not just about one company.  It’s about the broad principle.  And we hope very much that the conversations that are now going on, especially in Nicosia, will be helpful in reinforcing that principle and then, of course, the larger goal of seeing progress on a solution to the Cyprus problem and our hope that President Anastasiades with the renewed mandate now will be able to get back to that path.

Mr. Papahelas:  But let me just finish this topic by asking directly whether you are really worried about increasing tensions between Greece and Turkey, and Greece and Nicosia.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’m going to answer that exactly the way I did 12 months ago, which is that what I worry about is the risk of an unintentional confrontation.  And all of us, that’s what we diplomats get paid to prevent, and I think the concerns that I expressed last year in Delphi are just as valid today.

Mr. Papahelas:  The other thing is, there’s a lot of tension between the U.S. and Turkey.  I would say between Turkey and Europe as well.  A lot of people are speculating that perhaps the U.S. defense establishment at some point will substitute Turkey with Greece, with more facilities here, with more kind of close cooperation.  Is that a realistic expectation?  Or is it sort of off the table for now?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I would answer it very differently.  First of all, this is a very important defense and security relationship for us, and that reflects Greece’s strategic geography, it reflects the perspective which drove U.S. policy 70 years ago at the time of the Marshall Plan and the identification of Greece’s membership in our Euro Atlantic community as vitally important, given the geography that this country occupies.  At the meeting point of Europe and Eurasia.  A natural bridge to North Africa.  A country which sits truly at a geopolitical hinge point.

So I’ve been very proud of the progress that we’ve been making in our broader defense and security relationship.  I was very encouraged by Admiral Apostolakis’ generous comments last night when he addressed the Delphi Forum about the role of Souda Bay, what he called the flagship of our defense cooperation.  But he also made clear that there are many other layers to that cooperation.

That cooperation reflects, is grounded in interests.  That we have a similar interest in terms of maritime security, in terms of the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean, in terms of the defeat of ISIS and what it represents.  So I think we’re going to continue to work to grow the U.S.-Greece defense and security relationship.  We do so on a very solid foundation and with some superb partnerships between all the key Greek military leaders and their American counterparts.

But that is not in any way a substitute for what we’re doing with Turkey and the unique role that Turkey plays, in particular

vis-à-vis U.S. security interests in Syria right now.

So in some ways it’s apples and oranges, but I do not see one as a substitute for the other.

Mr. Papahelas:  Eyebrows are raised whenever you or Jonathan Cohen or someone else says that the U.S.-Greek relations are at their best since the war.  Is that a true statement?  And isn’t this a bit of paradox with a leftist government?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I think, what I always say is that the relations are better than they have been in many decades, and I think that is true in part due to a lot of hard work by multiple American and Greek governments.  It is not the unique invention of the particular personalities that are in place at this moment in time.  In fact, one of the things, when you’ve been doing this as long as I have been, you realize we’re all replaceable, and that ultimately what drives relations between states is interests.  And I think the positive moment that we are at in U.S.-Greece relations right now reflects our converging interests.  Whether it’s on European energy security, whether it’s on counterterrorism, whether it’s on the future of the European project.

So I think there’s a lot for us to be satisfied about.  Nothing should be taken for granted.  And I will say for my embassy, one of our tasks as we look to the next couple of years is how do we capitalize on this uniquely positive moment where we have both SYRIZA government and a leading opposition, both of whom are strong advocates of our alliance and our bilateral relationship.

And think about how we grow the cooperation between our two countries in a way that makes Europe safer, makes America safer, builds prosperity in both countries.

The last point I would make, and I know we’ve got some significant personalities from the Greek-American Diaspora in the audience today.  I would say one of the great aspects of being U.S. Ambassador to Greece is the secret sauce, which is this Diaspora which is so positive as both a multiplier for the official government relationship, but also I can tell you every time I meet with a member of the U.S. Congress, they all talk about so and so in my district from the Greek-American community who talked about the importance of this relationship.  And likewise here, of course, in Greece.  I’m not even going to ask people to raise hands in terms of how many folks have family or relatives living or working in the United States, or how many have gone to school in the United States.  That’s what builds our strongest and most enduring alliance, which is that people-to-people relationship.

Mr. Papahelas:  Another issue which is very important at the moment is of course the name issue between Greece and FYROM.  Do you see the U.S. as having an interest in that, and do you have a realistic expectation that this could be solved by May?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I had a long conversation on this issue with Alexis’ colleague Sia a couple of weeks ago on Skai TV, and I’ll answer it pretty much the same way. First of all, we are keenly interested in seeing the success of the diplomacy which is underway right now, and the best way that I as American Ambassador can help advance that diplomacy is by not speculating too much about motivations and prospects.

What I would say is it’s very clear to the United States that both the Greek government and the government in Skopje see this as a moment of opportunity in terms of putting this issue in the rear-view mirror, and opening the door to moving forward in a way that will help to build a larger community in the Western Balkans which remains oriented towards Europe, which continues to make progress towards membership in the European Union, which continues to make progress towards NATO membership for all of the countries which choose to do so.

And here too, I would note this is an area where the United States and Greece are in powerful agreement.  Our perspective on all these countries is exactly the same.

Mr. Papahelas:  How much of U.S. policy on this specific issue is influenced by your willingness to counter Russian influence in the Western Balkans.  Because this is something that has been widely discussed.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Our concern about Russia’s malign influence in the Western Balkans is real.  It’s grounded in what we see across a broad spectrum of Russian behaviors ranging from the manipulation of energy to the manipulation of the Orthodox Church to the kind of frontal engagement we saw during the October 2016 coup attempt in Montenegro.

Certainly the concern about this malign influence is a further incentive for the United States to invest in working with all of these countries, to sustain the progress towards Europe and Euro Atlantic institutions.  And I, for one, was very encouraged, for instance, by what we heard from Borisov yesterday, and the Bulgarian government making very clear their shared interest in seeing all of these countries continue on the European path.  And Greece is a very, very important partner in that effort, both because of the deep investment, economic, cultural and historic ties that Greece enjoys, but also, frankly, because you know a lot.  You know the political personalities.  And every time that we have an American official working on the Balkans coming to Greece, it strikes me that our side learns at least as much as the Greek side learns from the exchange of perspective and strategies.

Mr. Papahelas:  I want to start asking you the next question by reading you your rights: that whatever you say can and will be used against you.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you.

Mr. Papahelas:  You recently made some news in domestic politics by your alleged statement on what the FBI knows or doesn’t know about this Novartis investigation.  So let me ask.  I’m not sure I will get an answer, but I can still ask it.  What did you actually say?  What is the clear meaning?

Ambassador Pyatt:  So let me be pretty clear on this.  First of all, I have had a policy for the past 18 months of not wading into Greek domestic politics, and that’s served me pretty well so I’m going to try to stick to that.

I am not in a position to comment on any Greek investigations.  And as regards U.S. investigations, all I can say in this public forum is the FBI only investigates violations of U.S. law.

Mr. Papahelas:  I want to ask you about investments now.  There has been a lot of discussion about U.S. investment interest in Greece and so on.  There was recently a setback.  There was a lot of hope about this Greek-American group of Calamos and others that were going to invest in Ethniki Insurance but that is not apparently happening.  Is that setback, were you disappointed by that?

Ambassador Pyatt:  So let me say two things, and I’ve worked very hard on this basket of issues because it goes to the U.S. interest in Greek economic recovery.  I’ve done that through meetings with American investors. Pretty much any American investor who comes to Athens knows that my door is open.  But also traveling to Chicago, traveling to New York, traveling to Washington with our partners from Athex, from the AmCham getting the word out that there are real opportunities here, and I am convinced there are, and helping educate the U.S. investor community about the progress that Greece is making, the return to economic growth, the success of the startup and entrepreneurial sector which I always say is Greece’s greatest unknown success story.  And the real prospects that there are because of the value proposition that Greece represents today after eight years of economic crisis and economic adjustment.

We worked very hard on the Calamos-EXIN transaction, and we were very glad to see that that Greek-American group emerged at the top of the tender process.  We still hope that the transaction will be completed in a way that puts that important asset, Ethniki Insurance, in the hands of a credible Western-American group if possible.

But it’s also important to note that is by far not the only success story.  There’s a lot happening in terms of U.S. financial groups, Blackstone, GSO, Varde Partners, all of whom are becoming involved in key sectors in Greece.  We have some real success stories especially in the marquis tourism sector which is a large part of the Greek economy, where you have companies like Avis, like Marriott, like Hyatt, like Wyndham, all of whom are expanding their footprint here, are bringing real money into Greece.  I’m confident that that’s going to continue.

We’re obviously very encouraged by the progress that seems to be occurring after much too long around Hellenikon and the opportunities that that will create for new U.S. capital and job-creating economic growth in Greece.

And then finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t flag what we’re going to do in September around the Thessaloniki International Fair.  It was very important that this was part of President Trump’s agenda with Prime Minister Tsipras, and we certainly recognize the strategic gesture that lay behind Prime Minister Tsipras’ decision to designate the United States as the honored country for TIF in 2018.  We were very encouraged by the results of the trip that Minister Pappas made to the United States two weeks ago, covering an awful lot of ground in the space of a week, including Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, and Washington DC.  I’m encouraged by the messages that I get from Fortune 500 company representatives here in terms of their intention to have a significant presence at TIF.

Mr. Papahelas:  Do you expect a high level of U.S. representation?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Absolutely.  President Trump made that commitment in October, and we’re going to have —

Mr. Papahelas:  Cabinet level?

Ambassador Pyatt:  That’s certainly the expectation, that we will have Cabinet-level U.S. representation, a strong U.S. business contingent, and of course the timing could not be better in terms of helping to put a spotlight on the economic opportunities here in Greece as Greece begins the process of the post bailout era.

Mr. Papahelas:  What’s the question you hear most from U.S. investors?  You’ve been talked to many in New York and elsewhere.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Continuity.  The biggest concern I hear from American investors is, “are the rules of the game going to shift underneath them.”  Business can plan against tax rates, they can plan against tariffs.  What they can’t plan against or hedge against is unpredictability.  So the number one concern that I hear from American investors is, “if I bring money into Greece can I be confident that the terms of engagement that I take to my Board, that I take to my investors back in the United States will still apply a couple of months down the road?” And then, of course, implementation.

Mr. Papahelas:  There is also discussion about energy projects.  There is discussion about the project in Alexandroupoli.  Are any of these actually going on?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Yes, there are a couple of levels to this.  First, it was very important when Prime Minister Tsipras was in Washington in October he announced Greece’s intention to become the third EU member state that is a U.S. energy importer.  And everything that I have heard from the Greek government including over the past week or two suggests that that is still on track.

We are also very strongly supportive of what’s happening with the regassification plant in Alexandroupoli and see that as a significant U.S. investment opportunity.  That is linked, importantly, to progress on the IGB Interconnector, the Bulgarian Interconnector which Secretary Tillerson has publicly talked about the importance of that, and I was very glad, again, to hear from Borisov last night, a reaffirmation and commitment to seeing IGB move ahead.

This goes to a larger phenomenon which is Greece’s emergence as a European energy hub.  And I think it hasn’t received as much attention as it might because I can tell you when I was getting ready to start this job in the summer of 2016, aside from the TAP pipeline there wasn’t a lot of talk about the wider regional role that Greece has played.  But it goes to this pillar of stability agenda that I talked about, and it’s an issue, again, where there is, in a very complicated Greek domestic political environment, one issue that I hear noted frequently is the attractiveness of Greece becoming a significant European player on the energy story in a way that helps to strengthen energy diversification, not just here in Greece, but in the wider region, including in particular the Balkans in general.

Mr. Papahelas:  I like to end this conversation usually with a story or a vignette.  So the first question is, what has surprised you the most in this year and a half you’ve been in Greece?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I think two things.  The first, it’s the same answer I gave last year at Delphi, which is the resilience of the start-up sector which doesn’t get enough attention certainly in the United States, and oftentimes even in Greece.  That in the context of some tremendous economic difficulties and economic sacrifices that the people of Greece have made over the past eight years, you have, nonetheless, underneath that some globally competitive companies which are innovating, which are creative, oftentimes run by people in their 30s or 40s who became entrepreneurs because the kind of things they would have done in a previous era of the Greek economy, those jobs, those opportunities didn’t exist anymore.  I think that resilience is an important and positive story.

I think the other thing that has surprised me in a positive way has been how successful we have been at building a relationship which is very important to U.S. interests in Europe, and the fact that we have gotten through an important presidential transition in the United States.  We had a very successful visit by Prime Minister Tsipras, but not only that, that we were very successful in terms of getting key Greek Cabinet members including Foreign Minister Kotzias, Defense Minister Kammenos, Minister Pappas, all of whom were in Washington, engaging with Trump administration counterparts within the first weeks of the inauguration.  And I think that sense of positive momentum is both a huge burden for all of us who work at the embassy, because in my business the reward for success is more work, but also a fantastic opportunity which is good for Greece, but also good for the United States.

Mr. Papahelas:  The last question is, we had Trump and Tsipras in the same room.  You were one of the few people who had the privilege to watch this.  Two very different people.  [Laughter].  Can you tell us how this worked?  The chemistry?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Let me say a couple of interesting things.  The President chose to do the first part of the meeting with Prime Minister Tsipras one-on-one.  It was just the two of them in the Oval Office.  And that meant that there were a whole lot of us sitting in the Roosevelt Room just talking, and it was Secretary Mnuchin and Gary Cohen and Secretary Ross and Secretary Tillerson and all of our Greek counterparts.  As Ambassador, it was sort of horrifying because there were all of these unchaperoned conversations going on, and it took me about two weeks to unfold all of the things that I was supposed to be following up on.

But I’ll tell you, when the President and Prime Minister walked into the Cabinet Room, I was fixed like a laser beam on the Prime Minister.  I was trying to read the expression on his face.  And there was a big smile.  And I think what that reflected was the fact that these are, as you say, two very different political leaders, but they found a language, a common language with which they could communicate, and the visit itself was fantastically successful, both because of the White House conversation in the Cabinet Room that day, and a very, very, successful discussion with Vice President Pence the next day which focused on a lot of this regional pillar of stability agenda that I talked about — Eastern Mediterranean, Western Balkans, how we work together on those projects; and then the congressional engagements.  The Prime Minister had at Blair House some very substantial and successful conversations with some of our key Republican and Democratic congressional leaders.

And I think we have a lot of momentum, and the commitment of our team at the embassy is to do as much as we can to sustain that.  And I previously said that’s where the Greek Government stands as well.

Mr. Papahelas:  Thank you.

# # # #