Ambassador Pyatt’s Interview With Kathimerini’s Vassilis Nedos

19 July 2019

Kathimerini: And you know, there’s a new government in Athens. And how do you think that the U.S-Greek relations are going to evolve from now on? It’s a different reality in Greece. Does this lead to any change in the path that the Greek-U.S. relations have taken?

Ambassador Pyatt: So the good news is, we had a very strong U.S.-Greece relationship under the Tsipras government, and I think we have to credit the previous administration for the progress that we’ve made, for instance, on our defense and security cooperation. Now we have a clear commitment from Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his team to move even faster. I was very impressed at the Economist conference this week at the level of continuity especially in key areas like defense and security which have been one of the real highlights of our bilateral engagement. As you know very well, the tempo of our military engagement today is higher than it has been in decades, whether it’s the strong partnership at Souda Bay, the important operations of our MQ9s in Larissa, the pace of military exercises, the new rotations through Alexandroupoli and through Thessaloniki and Volos, the rotational combat aviation brigades operating out of Stefanovikio, and we have a commitment on the part of both of our governments to making that exercise series, that rotation series, even bigger and more substantial for the next season. So we’re well positioned there.

I’ve always said that the area of greatest potential growth in our already strong relationship is trade and investment. That’s obviously a top priority for Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his team. I’ve heard that very clearly in my meetings with Minister Georgiadis, with Minister Hatzidakis, with Minister Pierrakakis—those are the three key players on these issues: economy, digital technology, and energy. They all happen to be close friends, people I’ve worked with and gotten to know over three years, and now we’re in a position that we can really make things happen. I was very pleased to have the opportunity last week to have a good phone call with Secretary of Commerce Ross, where I described to him some of the opportunities that I see with this government to build on the work that Secretary Ross did when he came to the TIF, when he hosted Prime Minister Tsipras last September in New York with investors. He’s very willing to do that. He knows Prime Minister Mitsotakis very well. So, I think we are in an optimal position to take an already good U.S.-Greece relationship and raise it to the next level.

We’re fortunate that we’ve built a series of institutional frameworks for doing this. The most important is the Strategic Dialogue. That’s not going to change in terms of the key pillars of collaboration there, which you know very well. And I was delighted, of course, that one of Minister Dendias’s first trips as Foreign Minister was to Washington, D.C., that he was able to have good, substantial discussions with Secretary Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton. But a central part of that discussion was, how do we take the next step with the Strategic Dialogue? A year ago, we didn’t have that framework. So I’m very proud of the fact that where we are right now is the culmination of several years of work, and it’s work which delivers value for Greece, but also for my government, for the United States, and I think we’re going to do great things in the next few weeks and months.

Kathimerini: This government is declared much more friendly to investments. You talked about growing the relationship between Washington and Athens on trade and investment. Do you have something specific in mind? Which are the sectors where the economic relations between the two countries could be further grown?

Ambassador Pyatt: So that’s really up to the government in terms of where they’re going to prioritize. So far, every priority that I have heard from the economic ministers is a perfect fit with the areas that I have identified. As you know, I was in Washington in June and then in New York, laying track for our engagement with a new government and then meeting with investors in New York, and I heard a consistent message there that people are excited about opportunities in the energy sector. I always say, the untold success story is the startup sector, and I’m really delighted that my friend Kyriakos Pierrakakis is committed to sustaining the work that the Ministry of Digital Policy accomplished to lift up the startup sector. The Ministry Pavilion at the Thessaloniki Fair was directly connected to our status as Honored Country in 2018, but this year, we’re working with Minister Pierrakakis, with AmCham, with our technology companies, to have a continued American presence there and continue to highlight opportunities. One of the people I saw at the White House when I was in Washington in June was Michael Kratsios, who you’ll remember was here for the TIF. Michael is now the Head of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, but he comes out of Silicon Valley, comes out of a Silicon Valley business background. He is already connected with Minister Pierrakakis. We expect him to visit in the next few weeks, and we will use that as an opportunity to continue building these bridges between the Greek government and the startup and technology sectors in the United States.

I think, in the energy area, obviously, we’re going from strength to strength. I was delighted that one of the last things that we did with the previous government was the signature on the offshore exploration agreement with ExxonMobil, Total, and Hellenic Petroleum for Crete. I’ve discussed this with Minister Hatzidakis, who is very supportive of that agreement. As I said publicly this week, we hope very much that passing the Parliamentary legislation for enabling that agreement will be one of the first acts of the new Parliament. And I hope also that this will be—first of all, that the exploration off of Crete will be successful, and this will be a catalyst for other American investors looking for up-stream opportunities. In my discussion with Minister Hatzidakis, I also highlighted the interests of American energy companies in the opportunities in Greece in the renewables sector. We had the inauguration of the GE wind farm funded by an American investment group for Kato Lakomata, the first energy park of its sort with GE technology in Greece. We’d like to see much more of that. I’ve got a couple of American companies that are interested in exploring opportunities here, and I’ve been sharing lots of CEO email addresses with my new cabinet counterparts and saying, “Listen, now is the time. Let’s see what we can do.” And again, I think what’s very clear from the Prime Minister on down is this government’s intention to exceed expectations and to demonstrate results on the fastest possible timeline. That fits very much with the American style of doing business, so I’m optimistic.

Kathimerini: So you think that by the Strategic Dialogue, which I guess will occur sometime before the end of the year…

Ambassador Pyatt: Exactly.

Kathimerini: Do you think that there can be agreements until then?

Ambassador Pyatt: So, I certainly hope so! I mean, we’re going to keep throwing logs on the fire to keep this pot boiling. In addition to Assistant Secretary Reeker’s visit next week, in early August, we expect a visit from Assistant Secretary Frank Fannon, the State Department’s Energy and Natural Resources Assistant Secretary of State. That will be an opportunity to continue our intensive dialogue with the Ministry of Energy on all of these different opportunities. And again, I think the great thing about the line-up that you have on the investment-focused ministries—and as I said, I’ve met with all three of them—is that these are all people who know the United States even better than I do, in some ways, who have a clear understanding of what it takes to bring an American investment to market, and who recognize that Greece has nothing to lose. This is the moment of opportunity to really demonstrate that Greece has left the crisis years behind. I appreciated the comments that Minister Hatzidakis made at the handover of his ministry about moving rapidly on these various investment opportunities, and then I saw Minister Georgiadis saying much the same in his interview with EuroNews and others. Everybody is saying they want to take Greece and turn it into one of Europe’s most attractive investment destinations, and the United States, because we have a strategic stake in the success of the Greek economy and the success of this government, is going to be the strongest possible ally in that effort.

Kathimerini:  You’ve given me the opportunity to talk about energy already.  One of the reasons why the exploration of hydrocarbons that exist mainly around the islands which are mostly Greek has to do with the demarcation of the maritime zones with the neighboring countries such as Turkey.  And because of the tensions existing already in the Cyprus EZ, it seems that this endeavor is a little bit more complex than it looks.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I think it’s apples and oranges.  Nobody contests the waters west of Crete.  Nobody contests the waters of the Ionian where Energean, which has major American investment is conducting drilling and seismic activities.  So as I said, I really think it’s apples and oranges.

There are bureaucratic and political hurdles that have to be overcome to advance the energy opportunities in Greece.  For Kato Lakomata that I talked about, I asked when I was out at the site we had representatives of the American investment group that funded the project — I asked them, how long did this project take to get from conception to execution?  I thought they would say five years or four years.  Thirteen years.  You really have to love Greece to be willing to keep working on a project through 13 years of regulatory and bureaucratic impediments.

So I know the Prime Minister is committed to streamlining that.  I know that Minister Georgiadis is completely committed to breaking that model.  And American companies, the great thing about American capital is it moves fast, it looks for opportunities, and people are taking a serious look at Greece now.  So now is the time.

I think the issues around Cyprus, as I said, are a different thing, a different category that does not affect the perception of Greece as an energy partner for the United States, whether it’s through TAP or Revithoussa, or IGB or the FSRU or all these other things that we work on together every single day.

The issues around the waters off Cyprus are important.  They’re important matters of principle and important matters of regional stability.  But they in no way, in my mind, affect the attractiveness of Greece as an investment opportunity.

Kathimerini:  So how is the trilateral with the support of the United States with Greece, Cyprus and Israel going to move on in their energy and security aspect.  I think there are a couple of meetings ahead.

Ambassador Pyatt:  So, we are, first of all as you know, strongly committed to the 3+1.  I had the opportunity at the EconomistConference, aside from speaking to my Greek partners who were there, we also had Minister Christodoulides there, so I was able to speak to the Cyprus Foreign Minister as well about our vision now for continuing to institutionalize the 3+1.  We want to continue to have the top-level meetings periodically at the level of Prime Ministers and Secretary of State Pompeo, but it’s also very valuable to have more expert level discussions.  So we were glad last month to have a counterterrorism-focused 3+1 in Cyprus which one of our embassy officers participated in. So the United States is there.  We’re going to try to do an energy focused 3+1 very soon.  And I’ve also suggested to colleagues that we should look at opportunities, for instance, in the digital policy realm where Israel, of course, has a lot of experience, Greece has great potential, and the United States leads the world. So business investment, digital technology, that’s another area of collaboration.

But the idea is to take the political level agreement that we have to keep the United States engaged in the 3+1 on an ongoing basis, and to begin to move that into areas where the experts can really maximize the opportunities for collaboration.  And I know the Greek government is supportive of that idea.  I was discussing it just today with some of my Foreign Ministry counterparts.  I know the government of Cyprus is supportive of that idea.  But at the end of the day, as I’ve said from the beginning of this 3+1 process, we’re the “plus one.”  So you guys — the three — have to decide in the first instance how and where they want the United States to be engaged.

Kathimerini:  So I’m not going to [inaudible] region.  Minister of Foreign Affairs Dendias was in Washington the last couple of days.  He made some statements on remarks after his meetings with Secretary Pompeo and the National Security Advisor John Bolton about Turkey.  By chance, it was the day that the F-35 problem was canceled for Turkey.

And I wanted to ask, from the eyes of an American diplomat stationed for all these years, you know the attitudes here very well.  Do you think that let’s say a bad course of American-Turkish relations could somehow affect as well the relations, the stability of the region?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.  The fact is, and I was glad to hear both the Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Defense Minister at theEconomist Conference make the point that Greece cannot change its geography.  Turkey is an inevitability for you as it is for us.  And as I’ve said frequently, there are no two NATO allies who are more strongly aligned on the question of Turkey than Greece and the United States because both of us believe strongly that it’s essential for us to work as hard as we can to ensure that Turkey remains anchored in the West.  The United States has spoken very clearly on the question of the S400 and the F-35.  We’ve spoken very clearly on the provocative nature of the drilling activities that Turkey has engaged in in waters off of Cyprus.  But none of that changes the fact that we, like you, need to find a way to make this work.

So I think it’s a huge mistake to view U.S. relations with Greece through the lens of Turkey.  Our relationship with Greece stands on its own merits.  It is a relationship between two time-tested allies, two democracies, two countries that have the same values with deep people to people ties.  And Turkey is one of the areas where we want to work together.  I think that was the clear message that Foreign Minister Dendias heard as well when he was in Washington.  We’re going to keep working on this.  I’ve worked on this for three years.  I was up at two o’clock in the morning on the day when the Greek soldiers were abducted on the Turkish border.  I was on my phone and working with Washington when the Turkish and Greek Coast Guard vessels were colliding with each other in the waters of the Eastern Aegean.  We will remain engaged to the extent there are crises that need to be diffused, but that’s not where we want to spend our energies.  We want to spend our energies in an affirmative, positive, forward-looking way in terms of how we deepen and develop this important strategic relationship.  But we want to do so in a way that is not a threat to Turkey, is not perceived as hostile to Turkey.

I should emphasize that that was also a very clear message, if you watched Foreign Minister Christodoulides’ remarks at the Economist Conference, he was very careful in this regard as well.

So we’ll be okay.  We’re going to have to work through some challenges, but you have 200 years of experience of dealing with Turkey so you know how to do this.

Kathimerini:  I think more, much more.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I was counting 200 years of modern Greece.

Kathimerini:  Absolutely, yes.

I wanted to go to North Macedonia and the Balkans in general.  This government has some specific views about how the Prespes agreement should be handled right now, especially in terms of the EU integration.  And also there are other issues involved that remain open and involve Greece like bilateral relationship with Albania.  And of course other broader issues that have to do with the EU integration of the Western Balkans.

What are the signals you’re receiving from the government in this regard?

Ambassador Pyatt:  So on this, and on Prespes in particular, I’m going to let the Greek government speak for itself.

The important thing for me is that for 27 years the name issue was a source of irritation between American diplomats and their Greek counterparts.  I wasn’t there, but I heard that there was a little bit of reminiscing about this when Dora Bakoyannis and Victoria Nuland were on stage at the Economist, and former Foreign Minister Bakoyannis was recalling the disagreements that we used to have.  This is no longer an issue in U.S.-Greece relations.  We are focused now on supporting North Macedonia’s membership in NATO.  That’s going to be the focus over the course of the fall as we work with our Congress.  Greece, of course, was the first country to ratify North Macedonia’s NATO accession, so you finished the issue.

We are very supportive of the role that Greece is carving out for itself in North Macedonia.  For instance, the NATO Air Policing Mission in North Macedonia, paralleling what you are already doing in Montenegro.  We see great possibilities for Greek business in North Macedonia.  We are supportive of the dialogue that began under the previous government to repurpose some of the pipelines between Thessaloniki and North Macedonia to deliver finished petroleum products from the Thessaloniki refinery to customers in North Macedonia.  We see great opportunities to help leverage Greek expertise and know-how to support the further modernization and reform of North Macedonia so that it’s ready to be a strong member of NATO and a good candidate for EU membership.  I know you were part of the journalist seminar that Bill was up in Thessaloniki for.  Those kind of exercises are a fantastic opportunity for counterparts in North Macedonia to learn from their Greek counterparts what it is to be a European state, and what it takes, whether it’s fighting disinformation or meeting NATO checklists and standards of procedure.

But this is not an issue that I worry about at all, and as I said, I’ll let the government speak for its policy on relations with North Macedonia, but our focus as a government, as the United States, is now on how do we support this country to become a strong and effective member of NATO.  And of course I’m very proud of the fact that my former deputy, Kate Byrnes, is now on the job as our Ambassador in Skopje, and I’m quite confident, and I had the opportunity to spend some time with Foreign Minister Dimitrov when he was here at the Economist Conference, and I told him that we had sent the very best American diplomat.  I have the greatest respect for Kate.  I chose her to be my deputy, and I’m very proud of the fact that she now has the ambassadorial responsibility there.  And she is as well positioned as anybody in the United States government to understand both the challenges and the opportunities of the relationship across the border.

Kathimerini:  You already made some initial comments about our defense, Greek-U.S. defense relations.  I wanted to ask, [at least the way I look at things] [inaudible].  One is training.  The other one is equipment, and whether that’s modernized F-16s or other problems that are already [inaudible].  And the third one is the way the American facilities function in Greece, and these are regulated by the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement.

I wanted to ask if there are things coming in the [direction] of both these [pillars].

Ambassador Pyatt:  I would add one more pillar, and that is Greece’s role as an enabler of American operations in the wider theater of the Eastern Med, Aegean, Black Sea, and Balkans.  Greece has a highly capable armed forces.  It’s a strong and trusted NATO ally.  And one of the reasons that we are so supportive of the enhancement of Greek capabilities is because it makes Greece a better ally.  Whether it is the Hellenic Navy providing escort services for a U.S. carrier group moving through the Eastern Mediterranean, or Greek Special Forces working with American Special Forces as we did during Jackal Stone to exercise the capacities that we would need if, heaven forbid, there were ever a complex terrorism episode in this theater, or the kind of support and facilitation for raising capacity that Greece provides through NRDC and the Land Command Headquarters there and the exercises that the Greek Army remains engaged with.  And then Stefanovikio, which is a great example — the reason we have our helicopters at Stefanovikio — obviously it’s an opportunity to exercise their capacity with Greek counterparts, but it also provides an unmatched operational environment to maintain the readiness of U.S. forces.

So if the combat aviation brigade that spent last winter – I remember when I was in Thessaloniki meeting with the commanding officer that deployed out, he told me that he believed that his pilots were at the highest level of readiness that they had enjoyed at any time since they were deployed to the war zone because they were flying so much, because they were taking advantage of this fabulous complex geography that Greece offers, where one minute you’re over water and the next minute you’re over the top of Mt. Olympus, and everything that you saw in that exercise.  And these are pilots who, had they remained in Germany or Poland, they simply wouldn’t have been able to operate because of weather conditions.

So Greece is an important enabler and helps us to make NATO stronger and make the alliance stronger, both by the platforms that Greece provides — and Souda is the flagship in that regard — but also what you’ve seen us do much more of in recent years which is operate out of additional facilities.  We’ve provided additional opportunities for different sorts of forces.  Souda Bay is pretty much full.  There’s not a lot of room for growth there because it’s a dual-use airport, because of the importance, especially during the tourism season, of regular commercial operations.  But you have a lot of geography, you have a lot of military facilities that are under-utilized where we’re working together.  And that’s one of the priorities as our experts work on the Defense Cooperation Agreement, that’s one of the priorities.

If you go back to the Joint Statement from the Strategic Dialogue in December you’ll see we specifically referred there to the commitment that both of us made to finding ways to modernize our Defense Cooperation Agreement to better reflect the real world collaboration that we have today.

The current DCA names three facilities.  The only one that’s actually in use today – it names Hellenikon, which is obviously irrelevant — the only one that’s relevant in that DCA is Souda Bay.

So we’ve agreed at the political level that we need to modernize this.  Now the experts are working on what the language looks like.

Kathimerini:  Something now about something that falls between the news cracks, and it’s a very deep and profound I would say, relationship between the United States and Greece on education, on people to people exchange.  And I will say that during the last three years of your tenure here there has been an explosion of such programs.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’m glad you noticed.

Kathimerini:  And I wanted to ask you if this is going to further evolve.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’ll say a couple of things.  First of all, as you know, this is one of the pillars of the Strategic Dialogue, and that reflects the importance of this basket of issues.  I could not be more enthusiastic about having Niki Kerameus as the Minister for Education.  She and I have spent years talking about these issues.  Now we get to put our words into practice.  She’s got a big and complicated job.  I know that working with Americans is only a small piece of what you have to do as the Minister of Education and Religious Affairs in the Hellenic Republic, but she has the perfect biography and technical competence to help us develop opportunities here.

This was another one of the things I heard very clearly when I was in Washington and New York.  There’s fantastic appetite to do more in terms of educational cooperation, whether it’s programs like what Harvard does at Nafplio or the new New York University, NYU, Center in Kolonaki; the programs that are run under the umbrella of CYA, College Year Abroad, and all the universities, Princeton and everybody else who are running Semester Abroad programs.

I remember a conversation about a year ago with the Cyprus Minister of Finance, and we were talking about these issues.  He said that the greatest incentive to the development of education as a service in the Cyprus economy was the bureaucratic and political obstacles to doing the same thing in Greece.  So this is an area with fantastic potential.  I know that it’s an area that Prime Minister Mitsotakis cares about.  As somebody with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, he needs no convincing of the value of these educational partnerships with the United States.

I think the important thing for us is first of all, we don’t really have a Ministry of Education in the Greek sense of the word because our universities are either state level institutions like the University of California, or private institutions.  So this has to happen more at the retail level.  It’s very good also that we have IIE, the Institute of International Education, which is the big umbrella organization for these issues which has Greece on its radar scope, and I’m going to keep working on this as hard as I can.  Unfortunately, we lose Monica Cummings as our Public Affairs Officer at the end of the summer, but we have a new Public Affairs Officer coming on board.  And I will tell her that her number one job is to help us ensure that by the time of the next Strategic Dialogue we have some points on the score board in terms of our educational cooperative activities.

And this one, this is a more complicated set of issues.  One, because there’s a lot of politics in Greece — I understand that — around these issues.  It is also — it doesn’t deliver the kind of short-term strategic benefit that a Defense Cooperation Agreement or an energy deal does.  Those are things where you can say six months later, here’s what we’ve done.  Education is a long-term investment, but it’s the most important strategic investment we can make.

I’ve said publicly, I’ve always been a great believer in the human capital of this country.  My little leg experience has reinforced that lesson for me.  It’s a question of how you unlock that potential.  We want to be the best possible partner on that.  We’ll work – again, I can’t deliver Stanford or NYU or the University of Virginia because none of them work for me or my government — they’re all private or local, state institutions.  But I know there’s a lot of value waiting to be unlocked there and we very much look forward to working with Minister Kerameus to support this.  And as I said, I count her as a friend.  I respect enormously how thoughtful she is on these issues.  And I think the Prime Minister made just the right choice in giving this basket of issues to her.  And we look forward to making some real progress.

Kathimerini:  I cannot help myself but to make another observation, that one of the frictions between the United States and the previous government was about how they treated 17 November.

Ambassador Pyatt:  We had a strong difference of opinion.

Kathimerini:  A strong difference of opinion.  And of course now even in symbol, the new government has a totally different approach on this issue.  I think that the Minister of Civil Protection is actually the guy that arrested and dismantled 17th of November. I wanted to ask if you expect a much closer cooperation with the Greek authorities in terms of counterterrorism during this new, under this new administration.

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’ve had good conversations already with the Minister of Citizens Protection and with the Minister of Justice.  We see eye to eye on all the major issues.  We had a very strong counterterrorism relationship and information sharing relationship with the Ministry of Citizens Protection in the previous government.  Now we’re going to remove the one issue that was a major irritant which was America’s frustration at the government’s inability to ensure that, in particular, the terrorists of November 17th stayed behind bars in a way that was consistent with the sentences handed out by Greek justice, and a way that also honored the victims, including the American victims, of those terrorist groups.

We’re very excited about the potential to continue growing our partnership with the Ministry of Citizens Protection.  I’ve been in touch already with our Department of Homeland Security.  We’ve made great progress in recent years in clearing up some of the historic issues, for instance, around information sharing.  We have one of the strongest relationships in Europe right now with Greece in terms of information sharing and the way in which we work together to keep our homeland safe and to keep your homeland safe.

I think, as I said, I’ve also spoken to the Minister of Justice and we had — he also conveyed a very reassuring signal on the importance of this cooperation.  We put a lot of energy into these issues from my embassy team, my FBI legal attachés, my Department of Homeland Security representatives.  It’s also a core pillar of the Strategic Dialogue.  And I’m quite confident that the cooperation there will only deepen and improve under this government.

Kathimerini:  Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you.  It’s a good time to be having this conversation.  Our goal for the next few months is to take what is already a very strong U.S.-Greece relationship and raise it to the next level.  I have never been so optimistic as I am today about the potential of this relationship, but also the importance of this relationship for our transatlantic balance, for our security, for your security.  This is about as good as it gets in terms of how the United States engages with a major European country, and I’m very grateful for the support that I’ve gotten from the White House, from Secretary Pompeo and the State Department leadership, and all of my interagency partners.

Frankly, we demonstrated in the transition from President Obama to President Trump that on the U.S. side the commitment to this relationship was bipartisan and above party politics.  And I think we’re clearly seeing in your transition now that the same applies in Greece.  We are in a new environment.  We want to capitalize on the opportunities, and we look forward to working with Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his team to make his government as successful as possible.