Interview with Star Channel’s Katerina Tsamouri
Tuesday, June 22, 2021, 2:00 p.m.
Ms. Tsamouri: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview, and thank you for having us here.
Thank you, Katerina. I’m delighted to do it.
Ms. Tsamouri: I would like to start our conversation by asking you a couple of questions about the strategic importance of the Alexandroupoli Port. What is the significance of Alexandroupli for the United States? Will Alexandroupoli turn into Souda?
I think an even more important question is what’s the strategic importance of Alexandroupoli for Greece? I remember when I first traveled to Thrace early in my tenure, it was probably 2017, there was a sense that that region of Greece was very disconnected, very distant, and I committed to the principle that the United States was going to be actively engaged in that region.
To be frank, our first interest, our first area of engagement is economic and commercial. We’re strongly supporting the two American companies that are bidding on the privatization of the port. We have a huge commitment to Alexandroupoli’s emerging role as a regional energy hub. You have a series of projects that come together there: the TAP pipeline, the IGB pipeline with Bulgaria, the Floating Regassification Unit, which is a critically important piece of new infrastructure which will help to reinforce energy security for all of southeastern Europe. And we’ve been very encouraged about how these projects have moved forward. We have an American company, BlackRock, which is now invested in the FSRU. As I’ve said, we have two American companies bidding on the privatization.
There’s also, as part of the Alexandroupoli energy complex, the commitment by GasTrade to build a new GE gas-fired power plant, which is important to advancing Greece’s energy diversification and climate goals. So we’ve got a big economic agenda.
Then there’s the military piece. And one of my first military projects when I came to Greece was in February of 2017, when the U.S Army of Europe and Africa used the port of Thessaloniki for a rotational deployment of helicopters into southeastern Europe. I worked with European Command and Army Europe to identify opportunities to develop Alexandroupli as a hub for projecting power and resources into the southeastern Europe region up into Bulgaria and as far away as Romania. I’m very proud of how we’ve been able to institutionalize that now.
I was up in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace again just a couple of weeks ago for our big DEFENDER-Europe 21 exercise, which illustrated the critical role that Alexandroupoli Port has developed as a logistics hub for the U.S. military and NATO.
There are a lot of efforts that come together. As I’ve said, I’m very proud of how Greece and the United States have worked together, and how our interests have converged on this effort.
You asked about Souda Bay. We can talk more about it later, but I’ll just emphasize that Souda really is unique. It is the jewel in the crown of U.S.-Greece defense cooperation. It is a unique asset for Greece, for the United States, and also for NATO. We don’t see Alexandroupoli in any way replacing or displacing the critical role that Souda will continue to play.
Ms. Tsamouri: Now moving on to frigates, allow me to ask you, does the American offer cover the Greek needs, for example the stop-gap solution ships? In other words, what are the advantages of the U.S. Navy’s offer?
That’s a question that the Hellenic Navy, the Greek Ministry of Defense, and Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s government will have to answer. But what I can assure you is that the United States has brought to the table a proposal which responds to all of the requirements that were set out by the Hellenic Navy at the start of this process in 2019, and which we believe is unique because of the way that the U.S. Navy has incorporated local co-production, synergies with Greece’s existing maritime capabilities, including the MH-60 ROMEO helicopters, the P-3B maritime domain awareness aircraft, and the commitment from the U.S. side to continuing to develop our navy-to-navy and broader security partnership in this critically important Eastern Mediterranean region.
You asked what makes this offer unique, and I would identify a couple of things. First and foremost is that this is a government-to-government transaction. If the Greek government decides to go with the American solution, that will produce a contract between our two governments in which the U.S. Navy will stand by our offer and will remain committed for the lifecycle of that program, to the upgradation and to ensure that the project is fully successful.
I would also emphasize that the frigate, the ship that the United States has proposed is a real, operational, deployed ship. The navy of Saudi Arabia has already procured two of this vessel. It’s a proven design with proved capabilities. Many of our competitors are offering ships that are still on the drawing boards, that have never been deployed. So that’s an additional strength.
Then, finally, I would emphasize that from the beginning, the U.S. Navy has been committed to the local co-production aspects of this program. I have a long history working with the Greek government and especially with Minister Georgiadis on the issue of Greek shipbuilding and how to revive the very important maritime traditions that Greek has.
The U.S. Navy, early in this project, came to Greece. They looked at Elefsina, they looked at Skaramangas, and they determined that it would be possible to have the Hellenic Future Frigate produced here in Greece. So the U.S. proposal by Lockheed Martin with Fincantieri, their Italian partner, is to have the first of the four new ships manufactured in Italy at the Fincantieri yard, and the three additional ships produced here in Athens. And there’s a natural synergy there. That option also facilitates the training and upgradation of capabilities at the Greek shipyards, which is part of the U.S. approach from the beginning of this.
I don’t know what ship the Greek government is going to choose. And we recognize that this is a sovereign decision that the Greek government has to make. But what I can tell you is the U.S. government stands behind this, President Biden stands behind this. And I’m also confident about what we’ve brought to the table in terms of the Future Frigate, in terms of the interim solution – and we’ve put on the table a number of options which are currently available – U.S. Excess Defense Article ships that could be part of an interim solution – and this question of co-production, and critically, the upgradation of the MEKO frigates. All of this is a package deal that the U.S. has put a lot of effort into.
I hope very much that the Greek government will go with the U.S. solution because I think that will help to reinforce a very important maritime relationship between our navies. But regardless, I can tell you that we are going to give it our best shot, and we are committed to giving Greece a state-of-the-art capability which will enhance the ability of the Hellenic Navy to play a critical role on maritime security across the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions.
Ms. Tsamouri: A few days ago, President Joe Biden came to Europe in order to participate in the NATO and EU-U.S. Summit meetings. How do you evaluate this visit and President Biden’s diplomatic engagements?
First of all, it was wonderful to see President Biden on the road again. I think it says a lot about his priorities that his first international trip as president was to Europe, and in particular, his focus on our multilateral engagement with our European allies through the E.U. Summit and through the NATO Summit.
As he and National Security Advisor Sullivan emphasized, America is back. We’re committed to that relationship. We’re committed to the U.S.-Greece piece of that relationship, which National Security Advisor Sullivan discussed just a few days before the visit in his phone call with Thanos Dokos.
You see we are working systematically to build these channels of communication, recognizing that if we’re going to be successful against all the global challenges that we face today, whether it’s climate change, the pandemic, the rise of China, our global adversaries – all of these issues require first and foremost a strong transatlantic relationship. That’s the key message from this visit.
As I said, it was really inspiring for me as somebody who’s had the opportunity in the past to work for President Biden, to see how effective he was on engaging with our allies, but also to see the sincerity of his diplomatic message and his commitment to working with our allies to building coalitions, to not come in and say, “This is what has to happen,” but rather to come in and say, “How can we work together to build the kind of values-based, stable international system that the U.S. and Europe have proven their commitment to over the years?”
Ms. Tsamouri: You’ve spoken a lot about Greece’s leadership role in the region in the Western Balkans and beyond. How does the United States view and support Greece’s role as a pillar of stability in this challenging region?
It’s a good question. I’m about to reach my five-year anniversary in this job, and one of the things that’s been really exciting about serving as U.S. Ambassador through this period has been to see Greece’s emergence after a really difficult period around the economic crisis, to see Greece’s emergence as a very important regional actor, but also as a provider of stability, a country which is not viewed as a source of problems but rather as a source of solutions.
There are multiple dimensions to this. There is an important Greek role in the Western Balkans – and I want to come back to that in a minute – but also in the Eastern Mediterranean, a strategically important region where we face adversaries, and where Greece is building new relationships with Israel, with Cyprus, two democracies that we also have strong relations with, and with Egypt, a country with a long historical relationship, to fill that vacuum and to ensure that our shared interests are advanced.
On the Western Balkans in particular, I think this government, Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s government, has played a visionary role in building on the legacy that the previous government left with the Prespes Agreement. It’s been very inspiring to see the rapid normalization of Greek relations with North Macedonia, and how that has unlocked a more strategic role for Greece, not just in North Macedonia, but also in Kosovo and Serbia, the best Greek-Bulgarian relationship in a thousand years. And you see that around Alexandroupoli with Bulgaria and Greece working very closely together on these issues of energy security.
We’ve been very encouraged to see what Foreign Minister Dendias has been doing in his work with Kosovo, his travel there recently, and I believe the Kosovo Foreign Minister will be here in Athens in the days ahead, but also great progress in the work between Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Edi Rama on the normalization of the relationship with Albania.
Especially these countries of the former Yugoslavia, up to Serbia, these are countries that still have work to do in terms of economic reform, in terms of moving towards Euro-Atlantic institutions, advancing their E.U. prospects. Greece is a critical ally in that regard, and we are very proud of the way that we’re working with the Greek government today. But also the leadership that Greece consistently has been demonstrating in helping to open new opportunities for cooperation, whether it’s on energy security or counterterrorism, or more recently, how to defeat the pandemic.
So there’s a lot of excitement around all of this. I was up in Thessaloniki about two weeks ago, and it’s very, very exciting to see how the American business and investment presence in Thessaloniki is growing, but not just because of the market opportunities in northern Greece, but because of the market opportunities in a region of 30 million people that is part of the Thessaloniki catchment area. Companies like Cisco look to Thessaloniki as a platform to both recruit human capital, but also to advance their economic and commercial plans across this wider region.
So it’s a very exciting time for all of these issues, and as I said, when I came to Greece, there was very little discussion about this big strategic role because so much was focused on what was going to happen with the next visit of the Troika and was Greece going to stay in conformance with its obligations. Nobody asks those questions anymore. Now it’s, “What is the role that Greece is playing?” and “How do Greece’s interests converge with those of the United States?”
Ms. Tsamouri: What can we expect for U.S.-Greece relations in the new Biden-Harris administration? What are the priority areas the United States will be focusing on with Greece in order to take this relationship to the next level?
I’ll say a couple of things. First of all, I would emphasize President Biden knows Greece. I’ve discussed this with him at great length. He cares about the U.S.-Greece relationship in a way that has rarely been seen in our history. Secretary of State Tony Blinken is the reason I am in this job today. He called me in August of 2015 and asked, “Geoff, would you be willing to be our nominee to be the U.S. Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic?”
Ms. Tsamouri: You remember that time?
I remember the phone call very well. I never would have imagined that I would be sitting in this garden six years later. But I also would not have imagined – remember, that’s a phone call that came amid the referendum, questions about whether Greece was going to leave the Eurozone. I would never have imagined that we would have a conversation that was not focused so much on economic stability or the refugee crisis but rather focused on Greece’s strategic role and energy cooperation and all the areas that we’re working on together.
So this is a leadership in my government that knows Greece, that recognizes what Greece has gone through, but most importantly, as President Biden emphasized in his address to the Greek people on the bicentennial, this is an administration that cares deeply about the democratic values that were born here in ancient Athens, and those values are the foundation of our ties. And I think you are going to see, as President Biden said in his bicentennial remarks, a commitment from this administration to take that relationship to an even higher level.
I’m very heartened by the fact that this is not just the agenda of the White House, but also of Congress, and I know you’ve been following the developments, including today in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where the Menendez-Rubio bill is about to move forward with strong bipartisan support, reflecting Senator Menendez’s leadership in seeking to build a congressional foundation underneath this strong government-to-government relationship, in particular on issues of the defense relationship. But if you look at that bill, it doesn’t just talk about frigates, it doesn’t just talk about access to facilities, it talks about the interoperability, it talks about the strategic relationship between our two forces. Because that’s ultimately what this is about. So we have strong support on the congressional side as well.
You asked what will change, what will be the new areas of focus. I’m very proud of what we built during the Trump administration, the framework of the Strategic Dialogue and the systematic cooperation that that has facilitated on issues like people-to-people ties, energy, counterterrorism, law enforcement, military and security relations, our economic and investment ties.
One area that I think is opening fantastic new horizons is climate. President Biden and his team are strongly committed to American leadership on the question of climate change, which is so important to the future of our international community. Greece has played a leading role there, and Prime Minister Mitsotakis in particular has embodied the kind of ambition that our Climate Envoy, Secretary of State John Kerry, has emphasized in his decision to phase out coal-based lignite power several years earlier than planned by 2025. That will be a game-changer and sets the tone for the kind of leadership that we hope other European countries will also embrace. We strongly support Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ decision to prioritize climate in allocating the resources that will come into Greece as a result of the European Recovery Funds, this game-changing 32 billion euros in resources.
So I think you’re going to see a lot more work that we’ll do together on climate, that’s already happening, and I think we’re also going to continue to invest in all of those areas of the Strategic Dialogue. You see it happening already, and as I said, what I find most encouraging is the fact that this has now been institutionalized through two Greek governments, but also, because I’ve been here so long, I’ve worked for three American presidents, and I saw the foundation for this strategic relationship being laid by President Obama and the support that the Obama administration provided to Greece in some of its most difficult years. And now I see a president in President Biden who really believes in the importance of our relationship, has a whole political lifetime of engagement on Hellenic issues, and as he said in his remarks, is committed to taking the U.S.-Greece relationship to the highest level it’s ever achieved.
Ms. Tsamouri: I hope so, that we are here to see that. Thank you very much, any wishes for the summer ahead?
Well, most importantly, kalo kalokairi to everybody. I had the opportunity to have a little preview taste of the summer just last week on Paros and Amorgos. I had forgotten how wonderful the Cyclades is at this time of year. We’re all hoping for a quiet summer now, and I hope that everybody in Greece will be able to enjoy all the fantastic opportunities that this country provides.
Ms. Tsamouri: Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador. It’s been a pleasure.
Likewise, thank you for having me.