Ambassador Pyatt at Delphi DC Panel: How to Deepen the Bilateral Relationship Via Congressional Action

November 18, 2019
Washington D.C.

US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt

Antonis Diamataris

Mike Manatos

Congressman David Cicilline (D-RI)

Endy Zemenides, Moderator

Ambassador Pyatt: — part of government in a bureaucracy.  Mike was one of the first people who I looked to when I was getting ready for this job and trying to figure out how I could do best preparing my role leading our team in Athens.

I’ll say a couple of things in response to your question.

First of all, it’s been my experience through now six years as an American Ambassador in Europe that Congress is a fantastic force multiplier.  Whether that was working with really great leaders like Senator McCain who was an important supporter during the most difficult months of my time in Ukraine, or now in Greece.  One of the real advantages that I’ve had, and Tom was right about how this is a good time to be the American Ambassador in Greece.  But one of the added advantages of being American Ambassador in Greece and working with Congress is that many of you in this room are from the Greek-American Diaspora.  The fact that you’re all politically engaged and active is a fantastic reinforcement to the work that Congress does in helping to advance the U.S. strategic agenda in Greece, but also to provide the resources for it.

One of the things that I, and I know Admiral Apostolakis talked about this earlier, but one of the issues that I prioritized when I came to Greece in 2016 was accelerating the military engagement between our countries, in particular our IMET relationship was underweight relative to the benefits of that program and I’m very grateful for the support that Senator Graham provided in that regard.  And that came directly from a visit that Senator Graham made to Athens.  I was glad early on to get Senator Johnson, Ron Johnson who I’d work within Ukraine, to come to Souda Bay and see how important that facility was.  The fact that we had Senator Menendez in Athens just before the elections I think really helped to reinforce the momentum that we had from the previous government going into the new Greek government.  And then the fact that Chairman Deutch also was in Souda Bay right on top of the election.

I will say as I look to the future, I think the biggest challenge that we have right now with the U.S.-Greece relationship is helping those, whether in Washington or New York or Brussels or Berlin, to recognize how fast things are changing in Greece.  This is a government that has been in office for 130 days more or less.  They have made remarkable progress.  Whether it’s in terms of our defense relationship, the Defense Cooperation Agreement which was signed when Secretary Pompeo came and which is helping us already deepen the presence of our forces in Alexandroupoli, the work that we do together in Stefanovikio, the breadth of our engagement with Souda Bay, but also on the economic side, trying constantly to lift up the bill on economic development and reduction of red tape that Minister Georgiadis pushed through the system.  [inaudible]  We’re seeing progress on energy engagement; we’re seeing progress on our education agenda which is one of the real investments that we think for the future.

So I’m very focused now, having benefited a lot from strong engagement from both the House and the Senate, from Republicans and Democrats, I think especially right now it’s going to be hard to do it in Washington but it’s really important that we sustain that momentum of congressional engagement as we go into 2020.  Because as Ambassador Burns pointed out, one of the really positive attributes of the relationship right now is that it transcends politics in the United States.  I want to keep it that way, but I also want to make sure that we recognize how wide the aperture is open with Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ government and do the most that we possibly can both to take advantage of this for the purposes of American interests, but also to help reinforce our interest in the success of this government as a pillar of stability, as a government which shares America’s strategic objectives across a broad range of issues from stability in the Eastern Mediterranean to seeing right now North Macedonia become a successful member in NATO.  These are all areas that we need to continue working on, regardless of the transition that we’re going to see, in the elections that we’re going to be having in the United States in the same way that Greece successfully navigated the transition from Prime Minister Tsipras to Prime Minister Mitsotakis, without missing a beat, and frankly, without slowing down at all.  So that’s the homework we need done.

Moderator: …How — I’ll talk later about what’s to like about chairs of the committees, but how easy or how much easier has it made your job that there’s so many more Congressmen and Senators interested?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’ll answer it two ways.

First of all, again, it’s a fantastic force multiplier to have Congress engaged, because Congress is an integral part of our national security governance system, because Congress has the power of the purse, and you cannot exaggerate how important that is in terms of helping to resource the day-to-day engagement that makes the strategic relationship happen.

I think the one thing that makes me slightly more confident than Mike about where we are now is the fact that we have been quite strategic about how we’ve approached our engagement to Greece.  All of the terms of the new East Med strategy which is a written document of the administration, signed off by the Secretary of State, presented to the interagency as “this is our strategy for the Eastern Med,” which specifically endorses the 3+1 process.  That’s why Secretary Pompeo went to Jerusalem to signal his support for that, to provide the overarching approach for our engagement on Eastern Mediterranean energy issues and counterterrorism issues that Foreign Minister Christodoulides talked about earlier today.

And then likewise our strategy in the Western Balkans which is similarly sort of written down in the DNA of our strategy for engagement and seeks to leverage the fantastic progress that we’ve made.  The fact that we had Prime Minister Borisov and Prime Minister Zaev of North Macedonia in Thessaloniki on Thursday, Friday; Prime Minister Mitsotakis talking very positively about, first of all, his great disagreement, his disappointment in the French decision to block immediate progress on the acquis on North Macedonia and Albanian moving towards EU accession, but also Greece’s intention to engage forcefully with Macron and others on behalf of your northern neighbor, North Macedonia, which signals how dramatically that conversation has changed in Greece just over the past 12 months and the opportunities that provides to leverage Greece as a partner to advance longstanding U.S. goals.  I think that’s what we need to keep doing.

That’s why I think we welcome the East Med Bill as a congressional counterpart to the East Med strategy that the State Department, Secretary Pompeo has signed off on.  It’s why we need to continue building a congressional component into our U.S.-Greece strategic dialogue which I will share with this audience, when Wess Mitchell asked me for ideas about how we could consolidate the positive momentum in the relationship, the first thing that I did was think back to my work on India when we launched the U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue as a means to bring together all of the different strands of the U.S. interagency community.  And I’m extremely grateful for the support that we had from Minister Apostolakis and others from the previous government who were part of the first Strategic Dialogue in December of last year.  I can tell you that this government, the current government, managed to take what was already a very solid foundation and make it even more substantial, and I think we need to keep inserting the congressional element into that because that’s how we managed to further institutionalize all this stuff.

Moderator: …Why don’t you tell everybody, even as a career Foreign Service officer, how you work with Congress to do this [increase IMET, budget].

Ambassador Pyatt:  [inaudible] If I had to single out one specific issue which is still very much in play and is something that we spend a lot of time talking to Senator Menendez about and which will be on my agenda this week, it’s the new U.S. Development Finance Corporation which is the congressionally chartered body which the Trump administration is currently rolling out to be the United States single channel of U.S. government support for American trade and investment overseas.

The DFC was initially put together with a particular view of, and a particular concern about Chinese checkbook diplomacy in places like Africa or South Asia where China has used its concessionary financing to lock countries into unsustainable projects which both undermine sovereignty and detract from American foreign policy goals, but this is still very much a work in progress.  I know Senator Menendez has said that he is a personal supporter of the idea that the Development Finance Corporation should be chartered in a way that also allows it be effective in places like Greece which have been targeted by China to be, as President Xi said, the dragon’s head of the Chinese engagement in Europe.  And in a region where the United States has clear strategic interests, but also, frankly,  has a very strong business case to make in terms of the technology, the know-how, and the capital that our companies can bring to bear, but could benefit from the extra leg up that activities of the sort the DFC will engage in could provide.  So that’s my priority.  I’m particularly glad that Minister Georgiadis is meeting tomorrow I think with the new CEO of the Development Finance Corporation and I’ll be doing the same thing on Wednesday.  So we’re going to keep working on this.  But again, because it involves money, Congress is involved.  Congress has a critical role.

I think especially for my Greek colleagues, that’s the point that I constantly have to remind people, the power that Congress has, our Constitution gives the President of the United States tremendous authority in foreign affairs.  The power the Congress has derived in the first instance from the power of the purse.  The ability to appropriate U.S. taxpayer money to advance our resources, and then second, in the Senate’s power to say thumbs up or thumbs down on anybody who’s Senate confirmed.  So if you’re like me, you learn very early on to pay great attention to the views of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Moderator: …What are three issues that you think Congress just does not get about [inaudible]?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Again, with the caveat that this is, these are the areas where Greece is helping to make America great.  Where Greece is advancing U.S. interests.

Number one is defense and security.  Greece is the single most important partner of NATO in terms of the projection of American power into the Eastern Mediterranean at a moment when great power competition has returned.  We’re competing for positive influence with China, with Russia.  Russia’s military and naval presence today in the Eastern Mediterranean is dramatically increased because of the invasion of Crimea, the new Russian naval base in Tartus.  It’s going to be a reality that our forces have to continue to deal with, and Greece is an essential partner in helping to project American power into that region, principally from Souda Bay but now also from the air base at Stefanovikio where our helicopters are operating.  Right now, today, we have U.S. Army combat aviation brigade there.  From Larisa where our MQ9 drones are flying over North Africa and in the Eastern Mediterranean.  And from Alexandroupolis which is a new, critically important platform for projecting American power and U.S. forces into the Black Sea and Central and Eastern European region to uphold our NATO commitments.  That’s one.

Two is energy.  Greece has done more than any other country in Europe other than perhaps Poland to advance the American goal of advancing energy diversification in Europe and helping to get countries off their dependence on Gazprom in Russia.  This year LNG from the United States and other sources will displace Gazprom as the leading source of gas coming into Greece, but you also have gas delivered through Greece which has gone to Bulgaria — the first ever non-Russian deliveries of gas to Bulgaria, and real possibilities in the months ahead to see progress with North Macedonia, and after North Macedonia with Kosovo, and eventually with Serbia.  So energy is number two.

And then number three is how we stabilize the Western Balkans.  At a time when Russia is actively seeking to undermine these countries and undermine their move towards European institutions, Russia is trying to challenge the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch as the voice for Orthodoxy in this region.  Greece is our most important single ally and agrees with us on the critical goal of helping to ensure that these countries continue to move towards NATO and the European Union if that’s what their citizens so choose.

And the flip side of that, to Turkey.  There’s no country, I would argue, that is more closely aligned with the United States than Greece on the critical importance of ensuring that for all of the difficulties we make sure that Turkey does not come untethered from NATO, not come untethered from our Western Alliance.  So we need to keep working on that as well.

And again, one of the things that I’m very proud of is how much the fidelity of the conversations that Secretary Pompeo had with his counterparts when he came to Greece, with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, with Foreign Minister Dendias, with Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos was at the very highest level, and I think it reflects the tremendous progress that we’ve made in the relationship, but also as I talked about the fact that there are some fantastic opportunities that have opened up which we as Americans need to be working very hard to consolidate and advance in the weeks and months ahead.