Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt
MEGA TV – Yiannis Moutsos
May 27, 2020
MEGA TV: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview. It’s quite an honor to have you at MEGA as well. I would like to ask you about the COVID-19 pandemic which hit the U.S. as well, and currently you actually have a death toll of 100,000 people. The question is where are we now with regards to the U.S. and the response to the COVID-19?
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ll say two things. First of all, I want to emphasize as somebody who has been in Athens throughout this crisis how deeply impressive it have been to see the way Greek society has pulled together, also the way the whole government managed this crisis. It has clearly given Greece a huge reputational benefit. You see that in the international media, the way CNN and ABC and all of our networks are talking about Greece as a shining example of how to deal with a crisis like this. And as somebody who’s lived in Athens for four years now, to see Greece’s transformation from being really seen by many in Europe as sort of a black sheep, a poor performer, to a model of effective governance is really inspiring, and I’m very proud of the fact that American companies have been such active participants, especially our technology companies working with the Ministry of Digital Policy to support the government’s response. So that’s been encouraging as well.
Obviously the situation in the United States is a challenge. This is a global crisis, the sort of crisis that none of us have seen before in our lifetime. We’re only going to deal with it through collective action. I remain optimistic, especially about the capacities of our scientists. You have today in the United States thousands and thousands of researchers and epidemiologists working both on therapies but also looking for a vaccine. The United States remains the global center of biotechnology in this research, and I’m quite optimistic based on the signals we’re hearing from our scientists that a vaccine will be found and that we will go back to something that feels a lot more like normal life sooner rather than later. But we’re in this together.
The United States has led the world in terms of our humanitarian response. The billions of dollars of assistance that we have provided around the world as countries have tried to deal with this crisis, including here in Greece where we’ve provided almost $3 million specifically focused on the challenge of Greece’s refugee burden and helping to provide resources so that the international agencies can help the Greek state to ensure that the migrant communities on the hot spot islands do not become an avenue for the spread of the disease, which so far, thank God, has been very successful.
MEGA TV: Very recently the U.S. by you, obviously, have actually given a donation of personal protective equipment to the Hellenic Police. Is this something like a sign that the U.S. has actually recovered and is actually moving to normality?
Ambassador Pyatt: More than anything it’s a sign of our strong partnership with the Hellenic National Police. It was obviously a modest, symbolic donation, but it came at an important time as Greece began returning to work, returning to business. The police were the front-line responders in terms of both enforcing the rules but also dealing with emergencies. We’re very, very grateful for the years and years of partnership that we’ve enjoyed with the HNP on issues like counterterrorism and transnational crime. We have a very strong law enforcement relationship with the FBI, with our homeland security, with our drug enforcement people. So this more than anything was a symbol of that.
MEGA TV: Let’s move on to the United States and China. It seems as though the U.S. President has actually made specific reference to China saying essentially that the Chinese are actually concealing somehow the figures and all the information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is the next step in terms of the U.S. policy towards China?
Ambassador Pyatt: Thanks for the question, Yiannis. I’ve spent about half of my career in Asia. I’ve lived and worked in India for seven years, in Pakistan, in China, in Hong Kong. And through that long period, I have seen the dramatic transformation of Chinese society, the Chinese economy, and the role that China plays in the world. But I have also seen the hardening of the Chinese system in terms of its authoritarian nature and now the use of technology algorithms to harden that authoritarianism.
There are obviously real questions about the way in which China managed this pandemic. Why is it that this disease was allowed to spread out from Wuhan to infect the world with a cost, an economic and human cost of unprecedented dimensions? There are real questions that still need to be asked about how the disease spread out from Wuhan. Why is it that the Chinese government, even after locking down Wuhan was still allowing international flights to Europe, to the United States, which is the vector that carried the disease internationally? There are obviously real problems of transparency. The silencing of doctors, of citizen journalists in China who tried to get the word out as early as November and December when the first outbreak began.
So there are significant questions of accountability that are going to have to be dealt with. But right now today our number one focus needs to be combating the disease.
MEGA TV: Where are we right now in terms of combating the disease? Because the vaccines and the drugs right now, nothing set in stone, there is nothing really that they confirm anyway towards a cure.
Ambassador Pyatt: The most important example is the one that Greece provides. The measures that we can take against this disease are social distancing, wearing face coverings, washing our hands, don’t go to work if you’re sick. It’s exactly the formula that Greece applied through its early lockdown.
We’ve seen the same lesson in the United States because we’re a large country, as you know, and in the United States a lot of these health decisions belong to the state authorities, the local authorities, and not to the national. So you saw different patterns.
I’m from California. California was the first state to impose a lockdown order like what Greece had. San Francisco, a very interesting example, was the first municipality to have a very hard stay-in-place order aided by the fact that so much of the San Francisco economy is high tech. So it was very easy for all these Silicon Valley guys to keep doing their jobs from home. But the results were quite positive.
We have a terrible situation in New York City, but that’s begun to improve — again, as the effort was made to reduce interactions. And I think as long as it takes to find a vaccine, to find a cure, we’re going to rely on those kind of measures. And what Dr. Fauci and the American doctors have warned is that this is not going to be a flat trajectory. There will be waves that come and go. And in the United States, which is a big country, you’ll have situations like we have today where cases have declined dramatically in New York City; the hospitals are no longer in crisis in New York City. But there are other cities in other parts of the country that are seeing the disease still grow in its numbers.
So we’re going to have to work together on all of this. I think again, the Greek example is fantastically helpful — even in the European context, compared to many analogous European countries. Look at the comparison with Belgium, for instance, a country of a very similar size with a massively larger case load in part because the government there did not move as early and as aggressively as the government here moved. But then also the efforts of the Greek citizens — I think it’s Greek society that also should take some credit for this accomplishment.
MEGA TV: Mr. Ambassador, we could be talking about the pandemic for ages.
Ambassador Pyatt: And we will be. [Laughter]
MEGA TV: It’s actually time to talk about the economic repercussions, and one of them is tourism. Should we expect any American tourists from the U.S. in Greece in the next month or even in summer?
Ambassador Pyatt: I certainly hope so, and I hear from a lot of Greek-Americans who are very, very eager to come back to Greece this year. It will depend on the decisions of the government. I’ve been lucky to have a very intensive dialogue with Minister Theoharis, with Minister of Health Kikilias. These guys are all friends, and they’ve been very, very busy but they’ve made time for me over the past weeks. So, we have a pretty good picture of the methodology the government’s going to use. The Prime Minister has been clear that the initial opening of the tourist economy will be for a limited number of countries that will not include the United States, and then they’re going to see how that goes.
It’s been really fascinating for me to see how Minister Pierrakakis has built this architecture for gathering data which is the basis of the government’s decision. That’s exactly the right way to approach this.
MEGA TV: But should we actually expect a greater wave of U.S. tourists to Greece in the aftermath of COVID-19, such as let’s say cooperation that we may have with Israel or other countries with similar epidemiologic rates.
Ambassador Pyatt: I don’t think we’re going to decide. I think the disease is going to decide. And a lot, especially in terms of American travel, a lot will depend on the trajectory of the pandemic in the United States.
I have no doubt — I mean Greece is a fantastic place to visit any time of the year. The Greek summer is unique. My wife and I have been very lucky to enjoy three Greek summers. We look forward to our fourth beginning now. You can see it in terms of what we’re enjoying right here.
I think the degree to which Americans get on airplanes and come to Greece is going to depend on what’s happening at home in the United States. And as I said, it will also depend on as and when the Greek government makes a decision to open up Greece for visitors from the U.S.
MEGA TV: Let’s move on to the national issues about Greece. We’ve seen Turkey actually making some provocative actions against Greece both in the land borders of Evros, the Aegean as well as the Exclusive Economic Zone or the continental shelf of Greece. Bear in mind there has been an expanded military cooperation between U.S. and Greece, what should we expect from the U.S. as a preventative measure against Turkey to the actions the neighboring country has taken against Greece?
Ambassador Pyatt: First of all you can count on the United States to be a strong NATO ally. We stand by our relationship with Greece. Our military and security relationship today is stronger than it has been in many, many years, helped significantly by the very strong personal relationships at the top of our government with our military counterparts and also the significant step forward that we took last year with the expansion of our Defense Cooperation Agreement.
Greece, as you point out, lives in a very complicated neighborhood. I don’t need to tell you that. The United States has spoken very clearly on all of the issues that you just mentioned. On the issue of maritime delimitation and the agreement between Libya and Turkey the United States, and I personally, made very clear at the end of last year, we have a completely opposite interpretation of international maritime law compared to Turkey. We believe that islands have the same rights as any continental territory in terms of off-shore development. We also believe that issues of maritime delimitation like this cannot be addressed through unilateral action of the sort that Turkey took last year. These issues can only be addressed through dialogue. So we’ve spoken clearly on that.
We’ve spoken clearly on the situation in Evros. I paid close attention to Foreign Minister Dendias’ statement a couple of days ago. Greek borders cannot be changed. That is certain. Greek sovereignty is indisputable and the United States has made clear that provocations of the sort that happened last February and March when the Turkish government was encouraging migrants to travel to the land border — oftentimes misinformed. Many of these migrants were victims. They were told that the borders or Europe were open and that’s why they came to Evros. But the United States made very clear at the time that that had to stop. So we’ve been clear on that point.
Then on the question of the situation in the Aegean and the problem of overflights that has gotten attention recently, here too we’ve been very clear. We expect Turkey and Greece to address these issues as NATO allies. We’ve been very supportive of the efforts that Prime Minister Mitsotakis has made to better manage these issues including through dialogue between Athens and Ankara — and hopefully the resumption of talks on confidence building and measures to reduce the risks of accidents and unprofessional military encounters.
So I think the United States has great confidence in this government, this Greek government, and its prudence and professionalism in managing these issues. We also have heard at the senior-most level a clear message in terms of Greek red lines. Prime Minister Mitsotakis was quite clear on this issue when he was in Washington in January.
MEGA TV: Are there any red lines for the U.S. with regards to the provocations from Turkey against Greece with regard to either the borders or the continental shelf issue?
Ambassador Pyatt: Our red line is it’s unacceptable for NATO allies to engage in activities that can produce a military clash, accidental or otherwise, between two important NATO allies in a geopolitically important region.
That’s why we have remained so strongly engaged here in Athens and in Ankara. I’m in regular contact with my counterpart. We have an excellent American Ambassador in Turkey. David Satterfield is one of our most respected diplomats. He’s been closely engaged on these issues with the government that he works with as I’ve been engaged here in Athens.
But if there were to be any sort of escalation, the only winners are our shared adversaries. The winner is Vladimir Putin. The winners are those who oppose our Euro-Atlantic community and the community of values and principles that our institutions represent.
MEGA TV: Finally, we are aware that there are actually some U.S. investments about to take place in Greece. One of them may be the renewable energy companies that may invest in Greece. So where are we right now? Because there has been a break in these investments due to the pandemic.
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ll say a couple of things. As the focus in Athens has shifted from the health emergency to the economic challenges that you’ve talked about, I have sought also to refocus the efforts of our embassy. We’ve been intensively engaged with especially the Ministry of Development, with Minister Georgiadis, but also the Ministry of Energy, the Ministry of Digital Policy.
There have been some recent success stories. I’m very excited about what’s happening in the technology sector where you have really top tier American technology companies like Microsoft and Applied Materials acquiring Greek subsidiaries because of the talents that are here.
We’re very excited about things that will happen in the tourism sector. I’ve been saying for four years that we hope to see progress on Hellenikon, and Minister Georgiadis promises me that it’s actually going to happen this summer and I think that will be a fantastic signal to the markets. And as I talk to the companies that are involved on the American side, if they are allowed to begin construction this summer, Coronavirus should be an issue of the past by the time these projects open up so the timing will be very positive in that regard.
We’ve also been closely engaged with the Minister on the Elefsina Shipyards including with the resources of our Development Finance Corporation which is a body established by the U.S. Congress to target billions of dollars of American government capital on projects of strategic significance, and they have made clear, in Greece there are two projects that have been identified by the Development Finance Corporation as strategic priorities. One is Elefsina and the other is the Alexandroupolis Port. So we’re hopeful that those are going to move ahead as well.
A lot’s going to depend on the cycles of the global economy. You mentioned energy as well, and I think there are very exciting things that will continue to happen both in the traditional Greek economy but also in the renewable sector where clearly one of the things the Coronavirus has done and the pandemic has done in Europe as in the United States is put a renewed focus on the environment, on health. Everybody in Los Angeles was passing around the pictures of how all of a sudden you can see the snow in the mountains from downtown Los Angeles for the first time in living memory. So I think there’s going to be an enhanced focus in these areas. Here too, the United States is a leading technology provider, and we’re very excited that companies, including Tesla for instance, has been talking with partners here in Greece, but also our big companies involved in areas like wind power like General Electric, so we’re excited about that as well.
MEGA TV: Finally, Mr. Ambassador, I know this is actually taking longer than I expected, but there is a big issue with Libya and the connection that Turkey has into this conflict, if you like. But we have the 3+1 deal between Israel, Cyprus and Greece with the support from the United States. So where actually the United States are in this kind of confrontation in Libya with the involvement of Turkey?
Ambassador Pyatt: All the issues you’ve flagged illustrate how great power competition has returned to the Eastern Mediterranean in a big way. Greece is an essential partner for the United States in helping to advance our interests in the region. One element of that is the 3+1 process with Greece, Israel and Cyprus, and we’ve been talking to the Greek government about how, now that Israel has a government to engage with, we have a shared desire to see the 3+1 start moving again on the broad range of issues that we’re engaged with.
Libya is a separate matter, and I think I’ll say a couple of things. One, the United States has been very clear that the most important thing to have happen in Libya to begin with is to have all of the external powers stop interfering in a way that escalates the fighting. That means Turkey, that means UAE, it means Russia.
The United States government yesterday publicized new intelligence about the advanced fighter aircraft and bombers that Russian mercenaries, the Russian government have provided to Libya. That represents a significant further escalation of the conflict and is very bad for the region.
Everybody at my embassy understands that Greece is a neighbor of Libya. It’s the Libyan Sea, when you travel to the south of Crete — what you’re looking out towards is Libya. So we recognize that Greece has significant interests there. We had a good discussion last week with Foreign Minister Dendias and our Ambassador. There’s a high degree of convergence in our shared objectives. We want to see diplomacy come back on track. That means all sides in the Libyan war need to stop military escalation. We want to see the formation of a legitimate government that can bring stability.
Greece is not one of the problems in Libya. It’s very clear who the problems are at this point and we have asked all of them to stop.
MEGA TV: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview. It’s been very enlightening, although we could have had more time to actually go through many more other topics.
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ve appreciated the opportunity. It’s my first live in-person interview since March, since the beginning of this crisis. So I’m glad we were able to do it with Mega, and I look forward to continuing the conversation.
MEGA TV: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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