Ambassador Pyatt’s Fireside Chat with Marianna Kakaounaki

SKAI TV Delphi Economic Forum
May 10, 2021

Ms. Kakaounaki:  Ambassador Pyatt, welcome to your fifth Delphi Economic Forum, although unfortunately we’re not in Delphi.  You’ve said numerous times that Greece has changed a lot since you first arrived.  Did you expect this?  And what has surprised you the moist?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t an optimist.  And I did something very interesting today.  Before we had this conversation I went back and watched my conversation with Alexis Papahelas in 2017.  My first Delphi.  He asked me a similar question.  And one of the points I made to him then was that I was impressed by the resilience, which even in those difficult days one could see in the Greek economy and the prospects and sectors like technology, like energy.  It’s enormously encouraging that here we are four years later, almost five, and there’s been real progress registered.

You ask what surprises me.  I think probably the thing that I most failed to predict was how dramatically and rapidly the Prespes Agreement would change the dynamic between Greece and all of its northern neighbors.  It’s no exaggeration to say that Greece is today probably the United States’ most important bilateral partner working with all of these countries of the Western Balkans to continue their progress towards Euro-Atlantic reforms.  Whether it’s on energy, defense cooperation between Greece and other NATO allies.  So that’s been very exciting to watch.

Again, I knew that things would change after Prespes.  I didn’t know how fast and how positive the trajectory would be.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  Do you think that the Biden-Harris administration is going to change U.S.-Greece relations in some way?  And how?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I think that’s certainly President Biden’s intention.  I think you’ve seen his comments around the Greek Bicentennial.  His comments and Dr. Biden’s comments and the Vice President’s comments on Orthodox Easter.  This is a President who knows Greece and the Greek people extremely well.  He’s made clear that he’s committed to raise our relationship to the next level.  And that’s really true across the board.  My boss, Secretary of State Blinken, likewise knows Greece very very well, so I’m very excited about what we can do together.

I think one of the things that the Biden-Harris administration has done is opened up a new vocabulary of cooperation between us.  So we’re continuing on a lot of the work that began when I arrived here in 2016 like defense cooperation, like energy cooperation, but now we’ve also got new issues that we’re working on together.  Climate change is the most important one, and I think Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his government have really raised the bar in terms of European ambition, in terms of fighting against this global challenge.  

And then of course the key issues of the day.  How do we work together to defeat the global pandemic?  And Greece’s effective science-based approach to COVID provides another element of cooperation there.  

And then the big geopolitical issues.  President Biden and his administration have been clear that one of the big global challenges we confront is how to encourage China to play by the rules of the game, to support the rules-based international order that has built prosperity and peace for all of our countries.  And Greece is a very important partner as we work with all of our European partners on that issue as well.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  When can we expect a top-level meeting between President Biden and Prime Minister Mitsotakis?

Ambassador Pyatt:  That’s a very good question.  Of course the Prime Minister and President Biden will be together next month at the NATO Summit.  That will be my President’s first international trip so it’s an important occasion.  I don’t know whether there’s going to be time for a bilateral engagement there, but you saw the read-out from the White House on the excellent telephone call that Prime Minister Mitsotakis had with President Biden on Independence Day.  And it was made very clear that both sides expect a Washington visit to happen, and I think it will largely be determined on how things proceed in terms of finally defeating the pandemic and getting us back to the normal business of face to face diplomacy.  

In the meantime, there’s a lot of other engagement going on — Secretary Austin, Secretary Blinken, really across the board.  We’re building these new channels of communication which in my experience are vitally important to undergirding the work that people like me and my colleagues in the State Department do every single day.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  I know that at the Embassy you’re committed to continuing to work on issues regardless of who’s at the White House, but I can’t help but ask before we move on — was it a different experience working for the Trump administration?

Ambassador Pyatt:  It was different.  I’ve lived and worked through a number of presidential transitions right now, and every one has its own character.  

I think one thing that I’m very proud of, and I discussed this with Alexis in that same interview at my first Delphi — there was not a lot of direction in the first couple months of President Trump’s administration.  And I’m very proud of how our embassy team really kept the tiller pointed in the right direction and preserved the forward momentum which we had built up from President Obama’s visit.  

I count myself very lucky that I was here in November of ’16 for a fantastically successful visit by President Obama.  That gave us a big burst of momentum and we were able to carry that through as the Trump administration began to get itself organized.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  All these years you’ve had an open door policy for any American investor who comes to Greece to invest.  If I could be a fly on the wall in one of those meetings, could you share with us some of the thoughts, concerns or even preconceptions they’ve raised with you, and how did you address those?

Ambassador Pyatt:  The questions I get have changed a lot.  My first year or two, a lot of the questions were fundamental.  Was Greece going to stick to its economic reform obligations?  Would the financial system remain stable?  I even had people asking me whether Greece was going to remain in the Eurozone.  There were a lot of voices of skepticism about Greece’s ability to sustain itself through this very difficult period.  Nobody asks those questions anymore.

Now the focus is global variables.  How successfully will Greece be able to emerge from the pandemic?  I’ve seen some of the recent numbers that have come out from Standard & Poor’s and the rating agencies with very, very bullish predictions of how well Greece is going to do with economic growth.  One of the things I’ve learned over the years is the money has to go somewhere, and to the extent Greece presents a compelling story in terms of economic reform, in terms of openness, I think it’s going to attract a lot. 

And you have these new lines of effort.  Greece emerging as a major technology hub for Southeastern Europe.  Examples like the $100 million Microsoft cloud computing investment.  A real game-changer in this area.  And likewise, Greece’s emergence as a fantastic example of energy transition.  Leveraging what we all know from living here in Athens, the fantastic resources that Greece enjoys in terms of things like wind and solar.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  And now a question about Turkey.  Were you ever really concerned those five years about an actual military confrontation between the two countries?  And are there things about the role the U.S. played that we will find out years from now?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I eventually expect to write some thoughts and reflections on my time here, but I’m not done yet. 

I will say, I’ve always worried, and I’ve said this on several occasions, I’ve worried about the risk of an accident.  And we saw that in particular last summer during this very serious confrontation around the activities of the Oruc Reis, and in fact a real naval accident at sea between the Kemal Reis and the Limnos.  I think that was probably the period of highest tension that I’ve lived through and I give a lot of credit to the professionalism of the Hellenic Armed Forces and in particular the Navy which operated through long periods of time at a high tempo in a way that was both physically and operationally demanding.

Fortunately, I think calmer heads have now prevailed.  The Oruc Reis is back, has been pulled back.  And most importantly, Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his cabinet have made clear this government’s focus is on diplomacy and on finding ways to build a modus vivendi with Ankara which is a goal the United States emphatically supports.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  You’ve been very open in the past about the ports in Greece and the interest behind their acquisitions.  Is there a geopolitical competition going on with Greece at the center?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I think there’s some geopolitical competition.  It’s of course the Chinese government that called Greece the dragon’s head of the Belt and Road Initiative.  It became very clear to me when I arrived in Greece five years ago that the best way to push back against this was to offer a positive message in terms of U.S. investment and U.S. engagement.

I’m very proud of the work that’s been done by American investors in the maritime sector.  You have the example of the revival of the Syros shipyard by an American company, ONEX.  You’ve now got big American companies interested too in the Port of Alexandroupoli, a place that I visited again just last Friday.  And it’s really remarkable to see, especially in that region of Thrace and in Alexandroupoli, the transformation that’s happened, the confidence that people now feel because they’re optimistic that the port is going to be better utilized, because they feel that they aren’t forgotten out there in the far reaches of Greek territory.  And they’re very comfortable with the messages that have come from the potential American investors.  So we’re very excited about that.

We’re very focused as well on the future of the shipbuilding industry.  Greece is a country, as we’re reminded by the anniversary of the Battle of Salamis, this is a country and a society with thousands of years of maritime history.  It should have a vibrant shipbuilding industry to go along with its global shipping footprint.  And we hope that American companies can be partners in that regard.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  Both our governments are committed to extending the duration and the reach of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement.  Can Greece hope that these negotiations can include security guarantees, financial assistance, or high quality U.S. military surplus?

Ambassador Pyatt:  We already have all of those things.  The security assurance is contained in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.  We are doing a lot more in terms of our security assistance and security cooperation with Greece and you see that with major programs like the Kiowa helicopters transfer.  We will do more, and there’s a clear commitment on both sides to continue down that road.

But I think the other important thing to understand is that the nature of our military and security relationship is of equals —two sovereign states who cooperate because it’s in our interests.  It was very interesting for me in Alexandroupoli on Friday to hear Minister Panagiotopoulos and General Floros speak so clearly about the advantages that Greece derives from things like the U.S. rotation of forces through Alexandroupoli.

We want a strong and secure Greece because it advances the interests of the United States.  It makes NATO stronger.  But we’re going to do this together.  We’re not going to do this as a quid pro quo kind of relationship.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  Recently you had an opportunity to fly with a pilot in an F-16.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I did indeed, it was very exciting.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  How was it?  

Ambassador Pyatt:  It was my Top Gun moment.  We had the opportunity, I was with an American pilot and we flew all the way around the Peloponnese.  At one point as we were heading south towards the Mani peninsula, we were about 100 meters off the sea at 550 miles an hour.  So it was a once in a lifetime experience.  I was so impressed by the American pilot.

But I’ll tell you what I really appreciated was it was the first time that I had seen American and Greek pilots flying together.  We were the wingman for the head of the Greek Strategic Forces, the general out of Larissa who was flying with us who was a spectacularly impressive pilot.  But also to see these two aircraft flying about a meter away from each other.  Their wings could almost touch.  And the level of confidence because – and that’s what NATO’s about.  That we understand each other, we exercise together, we practice together and we have the same procedures.

At one point as we were zooming along, and literally, I could see the other pilot like I’m looking at you, and on the intercom I asked my pilot, is this dangerous?  Are you worried?  He said no, no.  It’s very easy.  All I have to do is keep my eye on my wingman and our relative speed is very low.

So it was impressive and the aircraft themselves are spectacular.  It is not like flying in an Airbus, I will say that.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  And one last more personal question.  If years from now you had to share with your family or friends one story or one memory from Greece, which one do you think it would be?

Ambassador Pyatt:  You know, that’s probably the most difficult question I get, in part because I’m not done.  I’ll say two things.  And it’s funny, I’ve had this long period of time, for me still one of the most memorable moments of my whole tenure was President Obama’s visit.  I had the honor of working with President Obama for three years as Ambassador in Ukraine and then to be present as he walked on the Acropolis, to hear his references to the inspiration that Greek democracy provided to the world, his speech at the Niarchos Center.  I still get chills when I think about that, and it was a really important occasion.

The other, I think like so many of us, my life was thrown upside down over the past year by COVID and the pandemic.  And one of the coincidences for me in this job is long before everybody else in the world, I got to know Albert Bourla because I was working with Pfizer on their investment in Thessaloniki and the very important role that Pfizer and Albert played at the Thessaloniki International Fair in 2018.

So last summer I have the opportunity to sit down with Albert and with Minister Kikilias and we were talking even then, and I remember Albert saying to me, I think we’re going to do it, on the vaccine.  And nobody knew, last summer nobody knew that we would have a COVID vaccine in our hands by the new year.

So I’ll always remember the day that I got my vaccination because it as like okay, I’m getting my life back.  

Those are two.

Ms. Kakaounaki:  Thank you very much, Ambassador Pyatt.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you. It’s great to talk to you.  And wonderful to be back at Delphi at least virtually.  And as I said, we all hope we’re back really at Delphi before too long.  Thank you so much.

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