Ambassador Pyatt: Greece as a Geostrategic Ally

Atlantic Council Panel

June 11, 2019

Moderator:  At his testimony in Congress last July, Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell mentioned that the U.S. is cultivating Greece as an anchor of stability in the Mediterranean and the Western Balkans.  Please help us understand, how does Greece fit in the wider framework of the U.S. National Security Strategy, and what are the dynamics in the Mediterranean that make Greece a geostrategic ally in the region?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thanks, Katerina.  First of all, thank you to Alternate Minister Chouliarakis, my friend and partner Simos, for joining this conversation.  I also want to offer a huge thanks to the Atlantic Council.  I completely agree with the framework that Damon laid out for the work we’ve done together, and I think he captured it well with this idea of trying to raise the level of ambition of the engagement between the United States and Greece.  The Atlantic Council has really done a tremendous job, both as a force multiplier for our official engagement in Greece, but also with the work of people like Harry Sachinis and Artemis on the ground, and I look forward to building on that as we look ahead.

It’s been about three years since I’ve been on this stage.  I think Damon did a good job of framing how much has changed in that period.  It really relates to what Assistant Secretary Mitchell testified to which is the United States’ effort to cultivate Greece as a pillar of stability, as a country which is a core member of the European Union, of NATO, a country which shares our values and increasingly shares our interests.  The framework that we’ve established to advance that agenda is the Strategic Dialogue that was inaugurated by Secretary of State Pompeo and Foreign Minister Katrougalos last December, and it laid out a series of lines of effort.

One of the areas that’s gotten a lot of attention, of course, is defense and counterterrorism, our security relationship which is flourishing.  And I think there aren’t many people in Washington who appreciate both the progress that’s been achieved, how fast we have moved in terms of developing new platforms, the presence of our rotational forces in Central Greece and in Larisa where we have MQ-9s flying, in Stefanovikio where we have a rotational deployment of Army combat aviation units.  But also the frequency and the intensity of the engagement of the Greek and American militaries, the cooperation which exists between our Department of Homeland Security and the Greek Ministry of Citizens Protection.

So this is one area which explains the question, why.  What is it that’s of value to the United States that comes from this investment that we’ve made in the relationship.

Another aspect of it that has gotten more attention but has also seen dramatic transformation is energy, where Greece has been one of the strongest partners of the United States in helping to advance our agenda of European energy diversification.  Whether it’s the completion of the TAP pipeline — and I remember two and a half years ago when Damon and I were together at the Atlantic Council’s Istanbul Energy Forum, I had a lot of industry experts asking me is the pipeline ever going to happen?  Is it really going to be completed?  Today the pipeline is 99 percent complete, and next year will begin commercial operations.  So the first new energy infrastructure built in Europe specifically to bring non-Russian gas to European consumers.

But it’s not just the TAP pipeline.  It’s the expansion of the LNG terminal at Revithoussa funded by the European Union but which gives Greece the additional capacity which allows for American LNG to come into Greece.  We’ve had four shiploads, already this year, and it’s becoming the new normal that Greece is a market for American LNG.

Also the progress that Greece is making in terms of building regional energy linkages.  So the initiation of construction of the IGB, the pipeline with Bulgaria, which will also connect into TAP.  The progress being made on the establishment of a second floating LNG regassification terminal in Alexandroupolis.  The progress being made between Greece and North Macedonia for the opening of gas and petroleum pipelines.

All of this is about building out Greece as a gateway for the wider region, but also a significant factor of stability.

Another element that we’ve been working on in the context of the Strategic Dialogue, of course, is our trade and investment relationship.  As Damon alluded to in his remarks, this is an area with lots of head room.  That’s the reason Minister Chouliarakis is here today.  That’s the reason that the Athens Stock Exchange and AmCham have their group here and in New York.

I have put a great deal of effort into trying to catalyze opportunities for expanding our trade and investment relationship.  The signature element of that was the Thessaloniki International Fair last September, and I think, Katerina, you’d agree that was I think a transformative event in terms of perceptions of American engagement in Northern Greece.  But for me it was especially important because it was really about showing the very best of corporate America.  Whether it was Coca Cola or Microsoft of Facebook or Visa or IBM or Pfizer or Johnson and Johnson, and Simos is going to fill in all the others that I’ve forgotten.  It really was the very best of America.  It was America putting our best face forward, but it was also in the context of a strong program of military engagement.  We had the flagship of the 6th Fleet there, of people to people engagement.  We had a robust set of programs supported by Assistant Secretary Marie Royce in the State Department’s Education and Cultural Bureau.  All aimed at helping to demonstrate America’s commitment to continue to be engaged with Greece, to be a strong partner, and in particular, to help  Greece emerge successfully from what has been a really historic economic crisis.

If you think back on the conversation that we were having and Damon alluded to this, three years ago.  Today nobody’s talking about Brexit anymore, Greece has exited its bail-out programs, the banking system has stabilized, steady deposit inflow since 2016, consistent GDP growth since 2017, unemployment at a nine year low.  Lots of work still to be done, but also a sense that now there’s an opportunity to move the conversation forward.

And to wrap up on what are we trying to do, what do we mean when we talk about Greece as a pillar of stability.  One of the areas that I think has been particularly illustrative over the past year or two is Greece’s ability to convoke other allies and partners in a way that few other countries are able to do.  Greece is, by definition, the place where Europe and Eurasia come together.  And whether it’s the trilateral dialogue between Greece, Israel and Cyprus which the United States has supported through the participation of Secretary of State Pompeo; the work Greece has done with its Balkan neighbors, in particular with Bulgaria, with Serbia and Romania; the work Greece does as a core member of the European Union and I think especially as we look to a post-Brexit era, we’re going to need strong partners in the European Union who recognize the importance of working with the United States, and Greece clearly understands that.

So this is about, as Damon put it quite well, raising the level of ambition, defining a strategic relationship which transcends politics, and obviously Greece is going to have an election in a couple of weeks, and I am confident that whatever the choice of the Greek people we’re going to continue to make the kind of investment we’ve made in this relationship and continue to move it forward in a way that reflects both of our interests.

I’ll make sure we pass out at some point today, and I’ll finish up here, there was some interesting polling data which was put together by KAPA Research a couple of weeks ago, and I think we’ll have a hard copy that will come out to everybody.  But the number in the slide deck that really leapt out at me was when Greeks were asked about their desired alliances, and the United States was named by 73 percent of Greeks as their preferred partner.  I think that’s a really important reflection of the consensus that has emerged among the Greek people on the importance of this relationship.

Moderator:  Ambassador Pyatt, we have witness your [showing] an improvement in the bilateral relationship and the perception of it in the Greek people during your time in Athens, really.  Certainly [better than] say the bilateral relations, U.S. relations with most other European countries, I would say.  Do you expect this to continue after the snap elections that have been called for July 7th in Greece?  If a New Democracy comes to power as is projected, then I’m asking bearing into account the fact that Young Democracy presents itself as the party that traditionally was pro-Western, pro-European in its approach to these issues, but also because, but rather because they didn’t support the Prespas Agreement.  Do you expect they will abide to the agreement after coming to power?  And what can the U.S. do to ensure the normalization of relations of Greece with North Macedonia, promoting at the same time Greece as a pillar of stability in the region?

Ambassador Pyatt:  There are a lot of questions loaded up there, and I will let Party President Mitsotakis and New Democracy speak for their own party positions.  That being said, to answer your most important question, I have absolute confidence in the positive trajectory of the U.S.-Greece relationship, and I have no doubt at all that that will continue and accelerate in the event that the Greek people select Mr. Mitsotakis as the next Prime Minister.  I say that in part based on the conversation that we had just a few days ago, last Thursday.  I think the statement that New Democracy issued after that meeting reaffirmed the party’s strong commitment to the Strategic Dialogue and the relationship with the United States.  So that part I don’t worry about at all.

I also think it’s very important that we have maintained an active conversation as Simos said, not just with the government but with Greek society about our role of Greece as a pillar of stability; the role that not only the Greek government but Greek business plays in relations with the countries of the Western Balkans. I think there are fantastic possibilities. I already talked about energy, but fantastic possibilities also in the services area in terms of deepening the role that Greek business plays in the wider neighborhood.

Unfortunately, one of the areas of entrenchment that Greece suffered from during the economic crisis was the sell-off of, for instance, some of the banks which were obliged by the Troika to dispose of their subsidiaries in the Western Balkans.  I think there’s a possibility now for that trend to be reversed.  And certainly from the perspective of the United States government, we see Greece as one of our strongest partners in the longstanding American goal of building a Europe whole, free and at peace; of helping to ensure that all of the countries of the Western Balkans continue to move towards our EuroAtlantic community.  And that means not just NATO membership.  It’s very important, first of all, that Greece was the very first country to ratify the accession of North Macedonia to the NATO Treaty, and also that the U.S. Senate will begin hearings just this week on the same issue.

But this is, for the United States this isn’t just about North Macedonia.  It’s about the wider role that Greece plays across the region.  The role that Greece can play in helping to, as I said, enhance diversification of energy sources and routes for all the countries of the Western Balkans all the way up to Ukraine, frankly.  And likewise in the Eastern Mediterranean, in an era of renewed geostrategic competition in that region the role that Greece plays as a country with a millennia-long maritime tradition with strong cultural links through the Orthodox Church which is something we don’t talk about enough here in Washington, the role that the Orthodox Church plays as an element of strengthening our community of values, strengthening the West, as Ambassador Fried would put it.  And here too, this is an area where Greece plays a very important role.

I should add in that context, I’m very excited to see what happens with the arrival of Elpidophoros as the new Archbishop of North America which I think is a very positive development for U.S.-Greece relations because of the critical element that the church plays as part of the strong people to people ties between our two states.

Moderator:  Mr. Ambassador, would you like to tackle this as well?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Just very quickly.  First of all, if you look at some of the issues that have been most difficult in our bilateral relationship with some of our other NATO allies, my job is made easier by the fact that Greece is one of the few NATO allies to consistently meet its two percent Wales pledge, so that box is checked.  Likewise on the trade and investment account.  Our trade and investment relationship, our trade balance is broadly balanced.  It’s growing in both directions, which is a sign of health.  Also a sign of the recovery of the Greek economy.  As Greece comes out of its crisis, and we hope that process will accelerate in the quarters ahead, you have a huge amount of untapped demand from consumers who haven’t replaced their cars or their washing machines or their consumer products for many years because of the crisis.  That will produce some organic growth.  Then you have some real bright spots in terms of the growth of the Greek economy which happened to involve American partners significantly as well.  Tourism is the most dynamic at this point.

I’m very optimistic, very bullish like Simos about the energy sector, and we talked a lot about gas pipelines, but that’s not the whole story.  Greece should be one of the great European success stories for renewables.  It’s the European capital of wind and sun.  I was very excited a couple of weeks ago to be in Corinth to inaugurate a new wind power project funded with American capital.  I’m actually going to be meeting in New York later this week with the investors who are behind that project.  Unfortunately it took 13 years, as the Minister and I were talking about, to get from conception to the first kilowatt of power generated, and I hope very much that some of those kind of legacy impediments to moving ahead can be removed.  I think Greece has fantastic potential there.  Because it has all the benefits of being part of the European Union in terms of regulatory standards and the rest, but it’s also a country that should have a significant growth spike coming ahead, including sectors that are particularly important to the United States.

I want to come back to something Simos highlighted about the Thessaloniki Fair, because I applaud the fact that the AmCham and AthEX delegation this year, aside from doing Washington and New York, is also going to my home state of California.  The startup sector and the digital economy is not going to move the needle over the short term in terms of the Greek economy, but there is no question in my mind that there’s enormous scope to continue to expand that relationship.

I’m amazed, every time I get out of Athens and visit research and technology parks, and you find the stories.  I was in Patras about six weeks ago and I met two ship design firms, both of which are headquartered at the Patras Technology Park associated with the University.  One of them is working directly with Qualcomm.  Their area of expertise is on the chip.  They design the video circuits.  So if the chip is your thumb, this is a little tiny mark, but that’s their area of expertise.

I asked the researchers, I said so why does Qualcomm need to hire you?  Why can’t they just do this in-house in San Diego?  And their answer is, because we do it better.  I said why aren’t you in San Diego?  Because we live in Patras.  Why would I want to move to California?

That’s a big part of the story that doesn’t get enough attention.  Greece has fantastic human capital.  There’s been, one of the burdens of the crisis that has to be overcome is the phenomenon of brain drain.  But it’s very clear that there are Greek young people who are choosing to come back or are staying because it’s a beautiful country, because that’s where their families are, because that’s where they belong to.  And I think from the United States’ standpoint, this is good.  Because the healthier the Greek economy is, the more Greece is growing and moving forward, the more it’s able to perform the strategic role of being a strong NATO ally and a pillar of stability, surrounded by some countries that are not part of the European Union, who don’t enjoy the stabilizing factor that Europe, being part of the European family provides.

Moderator:  I would be amiss not to mention the Eastern Mediterranean Energy and Security Partnership Act.  It’s a bill that’s being promoted in Congress in both the House and the Senate.  This is bipartisan, driven among others by Senator Menendez who last week said that even if Turkey was a perfect ally, which it isn’t, the East Med bill should have happened anyway.

So Ambassador, this is a question for you.  The bipartisan bill is pushing for more support on trilateral cooperation with Israel and Cyprus and Greece and in particular, energy cooperation.  What’s your view on the East Med bill?  How can the U.S. support initiatives like the East Med pipeline, promote Greek [inaudible] the project, while at the same time always being conscious and can’t avoid but raise the issue of Turkish aggression in the Cypriot territorial waters and in Cyprus [inaudible]?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Again, a couple of questions stacked up there.  Let me start by saying if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in six years as an American Ambassador is it makes a world of difference to have the support of the U.S. Congress.  I’m very grateful for the support that our Greek agenda has enjoyed, not just from Senator Menendez, from Chairman Risch as well, from Senator Johnson, from Senator Murphy, the whole Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Likewise from the House side.  In fact I was looking at the clock because as soon as we’re finished here I’m going to go see Chairman Deutch to express my appreciation for his support as well of the House version of the East Med Act.  This is going to be part of a congressional deliberative process, and I don’t want to get in front of that, but it’s a very strong signal that there is both bicameral and bipartisan support for this bill.  The effort that it represents, as Senator Menendez put it when he was in Athens not too long ago, essentially to complement the administration’s East Med strategy.  To provide a legislative counterpart to what we have been doing from the executive branch through the Strategic Dialogue, through Secretary Pompeo’s participation in the Greece-Israel-Cyprus, what we call the 3+1 Process.

So this is all for the good, and I think it demonstrates something that is quite remarkable about the U.S.-Greece relationship, which is exactly that it enjoys this broad bipartisan support, and it reflects the mirror image of the CAPPA figures which is I think among the American people as well.  Greece is a very strong brand, and I say this, again, I remember when I was nominated to be Ambassador to Ukraine I had to tell my parents where Ukraine was on the map.  Greece doesn’t have that problem.  It is one of the world’s great brands.  It’s associated with our democracy, our own founders who were inspired by Athenian democracy.  And unfortunately for the past decade all of that positive brand equity has been overshadowed to some degree by some of the great difficulties that Greece has confronted.  First, the financial crisis.  And It’s important to remember this is a country which endured the most severe economic crisis that any developed economy has ever seen.  Losing 25 percent of GDP, 50 percent youth unemployment.  But it has come through that crisis with its democratic institutions intact.  Greece is going to have an election next month and it’s going to be free and fair.  That’s unquestionable.  And I think that is not an insignificant accomplishment.

Now as the crisis begins to be something of the past, there’s an opportunity, as Damon put it again, to develop a more ambitious agenda and a conversation about Greece and U.S.-Greece relations which reflects the strategic — first of all, reflects the enduring strength of the ties between our two countries, our two peoples; but also reflects our converging interests and the recognition that on some very consequential issues as we look to the future, the role that China is going to play in Europe, the role of a revanchist Russia with a shrinking economy but expanding ambition to cause mischief in its periphery, the role as I mentioned earlier of the Orthodox Church and the role of the Greek Orthodox Church across the Orthodox world.  How we strengthen the West.

Greece is a very important partner in that regard, and my job as Ambassador, and as I said I’m fortunate that Congress agrees on this, is to figure out how we take all the goodness that we’ve already built up and we raise it up to the next level.

Moderator:  On Turkey?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’ll say two things.  The most important is the fact that Greece and the United States emphatically agree that we need to ensure that Turkey remains anchored in the West, anchored in Western institutions.  That’s a harder job today than it was a few years ago, but it’s no less important.

I think it’s also important to acknowledge the forbearance that Greece has demonstrated in response to some pretty provocative actions by Turkey, but also the leadership that Greece has demonstrated in reaching out to the Turkish government, the consistent efforts of the Greek Ministry of Defense and the Greek Foreign Ministry to resume a dialogue on confidence building measures.  That’s what we would expect between two NATO allies and we hope very much that that process will remain on track.

I think it’s also important to note that as the Minister said, in a rather contentious political season in Greece, this is one issue that’s been fenced off.  A conscious decision by political leaders in both the SYRIZA and New Democracy not to allow the question of relations with Turkey to be used as a political football.


Question:  Ambassador Pyatt, to what extent is the U.S. willing to intervene in order to help [inaudible] incident or crisis in the East Med or the Aegean?  Thank you.

Ambassador Pyatt:  That sounds a little bit like a hypothetical question that I should stay away from, but let me just say that we are strongly committed to our alliance with Greece.  We are strongly committed to our engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean.  One of the things that I am very proud of as I talked about earlier is the breadth and depth of our military to military relationship with Greece.  That was reaffirmed last week when Minister Apostolakis was here.  I think you saw the statement that the Pentagon put out which described our military to military relationship with Greece as one of the strongest we have in the region.  That presence I think is a concrete manifestation of our commitment to stand by our alliance relationship with Greece in every dimension of that.

On the question of relations with Turkey, our strong intention is to resolve those issues in the diplomatic channel.  That’s where the Greek government has placed its efforts, that’s where the U.S. government has placed its efforts, and that’s going to be the channel in which we try to keep the issue with all of our diplomatic and political energies.


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