Ambassador Pyatt’s Fireside Chat with Athanasios Ellis, Editor in Chief, Kathimerini English Edition

Thessaloniki Summit

November 4, 2021

Mr. Ellis:  Let me move to my first question which has to do with Thessaloniki since we are here and you’ve been here so many times.  I was wondering if you could talk to us about the growing, I daresay growing role of the area, of the city, the area, not only for Greece but for the Balkans and possibly the European Union too, if one sees our ports and airports and the city itself and Alexandroupoli, the whole norther part of the country as a gateway into the European Union.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you, Tom.  And first of all, thank you to Thanassis and the Federation for having me back.  I’m really glad we’re continuing our tradition of this conversation here.

I want to say what perfect choreography it is that I’m able to speak after Minister Lajčak because in so many ways what I’m going to say is a reaffirmation of what the Minister said and the tremendous convergence between American and European perspectives on this part of Europe but also on this city.  

And thank you for mentioning this really remarkable transformation that I’ve seen Thessaloniki go through in the five years that I’ve been coming to the Thessaloniki Summit.  I’m very proud of the role that American investment has played in that transformation — the presence of flagship American companies like Pfizer and Deloitte and Cisco which nobody was talking about five years ago.  A lot of this goes back to the Thessaloniki International Fair in 2018 and the vision that we elaborated there of reaffirming Thessaloniki’s role as the gateway to a market of 30 million people across the wider region of the Western Balkans.  

And it really is what Minister Lajčak talked about.  It’s the original Thessaloniki Vision which is more real today than ever before thanks in large part to the courage that the governments of Greece and North Macedonia showed in pursuing the Prespes Agreement.  And it’s incredibly important that we all hold onto that.  And when I say we I mean the United States, I mean the European Union, and I mean the governments of Greece and North Macedonia.  

It has had a catalytic impact on the perception in the United States of Greece’s role in the Western Balkans.  And that was so much a feature of the conversation between Foreign Minister Dendias and Secretary Blinken at our Strategic Dialogue a few weeks ago.  But it’s also affected how companies think about this region. 

I appreciated also Dimitry mentioning the role of Alexandroupoli and the climate issues, because there too, you see the catalytic impact of the U.S. and European partnership around Alexandroupoli, the FSRU, the IGB, the TAP Pipeline, all projects that Brussels and Washington have been working together to advance for a number of years which are having such a transformative impact in undermining the ability of Russia to use energy as a political weapon, especially in the Western Balkans, but is also helping to advance our shared climate goals.  For instance the ways in which the new GE gas-fired power plant in Alexandroupoli will be critical not just to Greece’s ambitious climate goals but also to the ability of North Macedonia, to Serbia, to move away from their dependence on coal-based power.

So this is a very exciting period and as the previous panel talked about, we’re going through a little bit of a rough patch right now but the vision is as valid today as it’s ever been and the United States is committed to supporting it.

Mr. Ellis:  Since you mentioned Alexandroupoli and of course you talk about your strategic adversary Russia and other things,  I was wondering, our NATO ally Turkey is also part of the area and the President, Mr. Erdogan, expressed some dismay about the presence of the U.S. in general in Greece and he pointed out Alexandroupoli as being so close to Turkey.  How would the U.S. government respond to this point by, let me remind you again, a NATO ally?

Ambassador Pyatt:  The alliance partnership between the United States and Greece as manifest in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace is not a threat to Turkey.  It’s about reinforcing the credibility of our alliance commitments.  It’s about developing Greece’s role and the strength of Greece on NATO’s southeastern flank, and deepening the bilateral military partnership between us which as the new MDCA demonstrates, is stronger than it’s ever been, something that is good for Greece, good for the United States, but also good for our alliance.

Mr. Ellis:  And you also pointed out at the beginning about how the Prespes Agreement is important for the stability of the region.  I would like to get your view on what’s happening in our neighboring country.  You are the Ambassador here, not there, but I assume the State Department has a single policy for the area.  So I was wondering, are you concerned at all?  Because we all know that the nationalists who are in a position right now have done well.  These are regional elections, not national ones.  Still we know they are opposed to the agreement.  So how do you see this development there going forward?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Of course we’re concerned.  And Minister Lajčak I thought did a very good job of explaining why it is so strongly in Europe’s interest to keep this process on track including critically important the EU accession process for North Macedonia and for Albania.

Our shared friend and my dear colleague Ambassador Burns in Skopje will speak for the tactics there, but I think from my perspective it is very clear first of all for the U.S. government, we need to hold onto the gains that the Prespes Agreement represents.  

I thought your essay the other day in Kathimerini did an excellent job of pointing out that this was a difficult negotiation and we both lived through this.  I will carry with me for the rest of my career the memory of my conversations with Foreign Minister Kotzias and others in that government at the most difficult moments of the Prespes negotiations.  But exactly because it was so hard to achieve and so important is why we have to hold onto it.  

And again, I would come back to something I said earlier.  It’s remarkable to me to see the progress that these two governments, these two sovereign governments have achieved.  The emphasis that Foreign Minister Dendias placed when he was in Washington on Greece’s support for North Macedonia in NATO; North Macedonia’s role in the European Union; the further deepening of trade and investment ties.  And again I would come back to Thanassis and I would just say how important it is, for instance, that AmCham Greece is now organizing ties with the AmCham in Skopje and looking for opportunities to develop what is essentially the reengagement of Greece’s strategic approach.  

I thought it was so poetic that Minister Lajčak pointed out that the last time he was here in this city was at the time of the Thessaloniki Vision, which we have to be honest, did not amount to much at the time but today is more achievable than ever before and it’s connected to Greece’s economic recovery, the greater ambition we see today in Greece’s strategic approach, what Foreign Minister Dendias was talking about the day before yesterday with his counterpart from Serbia and this remarkably dynamic Greek return to the Western Balkans with all of the governments, including Kosovo.  And this is something that the United States strongly supports.  

We see Greece as a country that shares our strategic interests but also shares the influence which will help to move the rest of the European Union in the right direction.  Because, again, as Minister Lajčak pointed out, this is Europe.  This is not some far-away region.  It’s central to the vision of a Europe whole and free that the United States has sought to support for many years.

Mr. Ellis:  Quickly, if possible, some assessment of the defense cooperation and the Strategic Dialogue going on between our two countries.  Substantively speaking where are we right now?  And what’s the prospect for the near future?

Ambassador Pyatt:  We’re at a peak but not the summit.  Our defense relationship I think everybody agrees is stronger than it’s ever been.  We’re going to demonstrate that in the next couple of weeks with a very large rotation of forces through Alexandroupoli.  We have our F-15s operating out of Larissa right now.  There literally is not a week that goes by now when we don’t have our militaries working together, exercising together, developing capabilities from the south, from Souda Bay to the far north in Alexandroupoli.  

I’m very proud of the progress that we’ve achieved.  I had the opportunity just the other day to be with General Floros and one of our senior generals from European Command, and it was very clear in that conversation that our professional militaries, our officers place extraordinary importance on the partnership that we’re building, the signal it sends to our adversaries, and the capacities that it gives to the United States to project power and to advance peace and stability in a region that is at times quite challenging, and where the strategic challenges are going to continue to arise.

So we’re going to continue to invest here.  I keep pushing back on this narrative that I hear from time to time in Athens, I hope not here in Thessaloniki, that somehow the United States, that our renewed focus on the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific means that we’re disengaging from Europe.  To the contrary, I think it means that our alliance relationships are becoming even more important because that’s how we protect our Euro-Atlantic core.

Mr. Ellis:  In that context since you mentioned it, how do you see Greece’s role not only in the Balkans, but in its cooperation with Israel, Egypt, also major partners and allies of the U.S.?  Could this 3+1 which is kind of dormant, I would say, be back again or be expanded into 4+1 or 5+1 and let them – meaning us, Israelis, others – take more of the responsibility?  As you mentioned before, the U.S. is looking to Asia and elsewhere.  Maybe take more of the responsibility of NATO or the west Euro-Atlantic alliance being there, being in the area.

Ambassador Pyatt:  In answer to your first questions, yes and yes.  We are deeply committed to the 3+1 project.  We also share Foreign Minister Dendias’s vision that the 3+1 doesn’t stop there.  It can be 3+1+X, leveraging the partnerships that Greece is developing across the Levant into the Gulf and even into the Indo-Pacific.

I’m very excited about what happened in the defense domain the week before last with the Blue Flag exercise in Israel which had the U.S. Air Force, the Hellenic Air Force, also had the Indian Air Force.  This is a real pointer towards this new geography of Greece’s foreign policy in the east which the United States strongly supports.  That was something we made very clear during the Strategic Dialogue.  And I will say for my Washington colleagues at the State Department especially, many of whom are dear friends and people I worked closely with in the Obama administration, they all were so impressed to see how Greece has gotten its momentum back and has leveraged that momentum to project itself in a strategic way into this wider region in a way that advances our shared interests, that reinforces the Abraham Accords, that reinforces stability, that builds opportunity for both of our countries.

Mr. Ellis:  I was wondering, I think I know the answer, but there was a lot of discussion about this defense agreement with France.  France is a NATO ally.  There was a little friction.  A little, I’m very diplomatic.  But then the two presidents met and it seems that their relationship will slowly be back to where it was.

I was wondering since Greece opted for some French weapons in the air and in the sea, how does the U.S. feel?  You’ll be polite enough to say you’re a democratic free country you decide what you get, but I’m sure you would have always preferred to probably pick something from the U.S. instead of France.  I’m wondering how you would respond to that.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Very differently.  First of all, I’m delighted that my colleague, the French Ambassador, will be speaking here later today.  I hope he’s asked the same question.  But from an American standpoint, it’s very good that Greece continues to invest in the development of NATO capabilities.  

We recognize first of all that France is a strong NATO ally which shares the United States’ focus on the Eastern Mediterranean and NATO’s southeastern flank, and we also welcome the fact that Greece is going to continue working with American defense suppliers as well, including in the maritime domain.  We’re going to compete commercially as we do around the world.  And I very much hope that the Hellenic Navy will identify future opportunities to work with American companies including on the revival of the Greek shipbuilding and shipyard industry which is incredibly important at a strategic level, and where I would argue our companies are very well positioned because of their long experience working, for instance, with EAB in the aerospace sector.

So we’re going to continue to compete, but we do so as allies, as countries that share interests and have a common vision of how the international system should be organized in the future at a moment when we are dealing with global adversaries who clearly do not share that vision.  And we all have to be honest about that.

Mr. Ellis:  The President just came to Europe, Rome, Glasgow.  He met with Macron, one thing which although indirectly you talked about that.  He also met with the Turkish President. 

Can you give us an assessment from the American side what this discussion emphasized, was about, any agreements, disagreements, what’s the atmosphere?  Because we all know there was a little bit of friction.  I mean Mr. Erdogan has been public about it, between him and President Biden.

Ambassador Pyatt:  The White House has spoken a lot, including Jake Sullivan’s comments, about President Biden’s meeting with Erdogan.  What I would just emphasize is the convergence of interests between Greece and the United States.  I know from my own conversations with Foreign Minister Dendias and others, that Greece is quite confident of America’s agenda vis-à-vis Turkey and our shared interest in seeing a Turkey that remains anchored in the West.  And in particular, our shared interest in avoiding military tensions in this region and keeping the focus in a positive way on all the opportunities.

We are incredibly strong supporters of the work that Deputy Foreign Minister Fragogiannis has been doing including here in northern Greece.  His meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Onal in Kavala focused on the positive agenda of cooperation on trade, on the environment.  

The fires last August were a reminder, and I was on Rhodes as the sky was bright orange from the fires in Turkey.  And it was a reminder of the shared stake that both countries have both in the climate crisis and in developing their civilian response capability to the inevitable consequences of that climate change.

Mr. Ellis:  Let me say finally, although you never know, but can you assess for us, you’ve been here for five years plus, your relationship and your experiences with the governments in Greece.  You were the representative of two very different governments.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Three.

Mr. Ellis:  Okay, Obama and Biden, I tend to put them together.  So two different approaches from Trump and let’s say Obama-Biden, and from this side of the equation from Tsipras to Mitsotakis, and you were in the middle during these five years.  So can you in two minutes or maybe three they will give us, assess these five years given that prism that I just mentioned?

Ambassador Pyatt:  First of all I will say how proud I am of the extraordinary progress that we’ve achieved through that five years, but also the progress that Greece has achieved.  Greece has gone from being a country that was viewed as a problem for the European Union, a country where people worried about the stability of the financial system, Greece’s compliance with the European Troika, whether a bank would collapse, whether Greece would fall out of the Eurozone, to now being a model of good governance.  And nothing illustrates that more than the government’s sound management of the pandemic, its use of digital tools, including American companies like Amazon Web Services, to drive the Greek government response to the pandemic, and then deploy tools like the emvolio [vaccine] platform, like the digital COVID pass.  And I’ve just downloaded by COV-safe, GR-safe app so that I have that when I’m on the airplane and otherwise.  

This is an extraordinary reputational turn-around and I think it’s worth recognizing.

The fact that there has been so much continuity in U.S. policy towards Greece through this period of very different governments in the United States, tells you a lot about how our interests have come to converge, but also the enduring U.S. commitment to our presence in southeastern Europe, to our relationship with our democratic allies and partners.  

I rewatched on the way in from the airport the YouTube video that the State Department put out after Secretary Pompeo came here last September 28th, the first visit to Thessaloniki ever by an American Secretary of State.  And it was a reminder to me, first of all, of what a long 12 or 13 months this has been, but also how much of the progress that we celebrate today had a foundation that was laid in the previous administration.  And I think that’s a very good thing for Greece because it says that in Washington Republicans and Democrats are agreed.  

Greece is going to have a debate in Athens in the next couple of days about the new MDCA and I hope very much that that same spirit of bipartisanship will be reflected in the way in which Syriza and New Democracy approach the necessary and appropriate parliamentary debate about the amended MDCA.  

And I am quite confident that we have crossed the Rubicon, in the sense that this change in the Greek domestic conversation about relations with the United States is something that is now a permanent feature but it’s also something that both of us need to keep investing in.  And we advance that investment exactly by the kind of things you and I have been talking about for the past 20 minutes which are these new partnerships between Greece and the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Levant, in the Gulf, critically important in the Western Balkans, in Libya where Greece has come to be seen as a pillar of stability and a source of solutions at a time when the United States is looking for strong allies and partners that share our values.

Mr. Ellis:  Ambassador, thank you very much.  The time is up. 

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thanks, Tom.  And I’m not done yet.  Let me just emphasize that I’m not finished yet.

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