Ambassador Pyatt’s Podcast Interview on The Greek Current with Thanos Davelis

October 20, 2021

The Greek Current:  Ambassador Pyatt, it’s great to have you on The Greek Current.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you, Thanos, it’s great to be with you guys.

The Greek Current:  Ambassador, while all the attention has obviously been on the MDCA, this is the third installment of the Strategic Dialogue that has a wide range of issues on its agenda.  Can you talk about its significance in the broader sense here?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thanks for the question, Thanos.  I will be happy to come back to the MDCA later on because that was obviously a very big step forward for both of our governments.  But you’re exactly right.  The real story last week for me was the breadth and depth of the Strategic Dialogue itself.  This is a framework that we actually began under the Syriza government in 2018 as a way to bring together the multiple strands of U.S.-Greece engagement — from energy to trade and investment to people to people to defense to our strategic cooperation in the region — and to put that underneath of a political chapeau which is why the chairmanship and the launching of this exercise by Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Dendias was so important.

This was the third Strategic Dialogue that I’ve participated in.  It was by far the highest quality in terms of both the substance of the conversations, the candor, and the sense of shared interests that surrounded the discussions.  But also the quality of the Greek participation.  This really was the A Team of the Greek government led by Foreign Minister Dendias but also including National Security Advisor Dokos, Deputy Foreign Minister Fragogiannis, and I want to come back to that a little bit later as well on the trade and investment agenda.  And then a whole host of Secretaries General and Directors General from the Ministries of Energy, Citizens Protection, Fire and Emergencies, Culture, Education.

There was nothing about our bilateral relationship that wasn’t touched on in what was a very intensive day of U.S.-Greece engagement.  It started at 8:30 in the morning on Thursday and ran through 5:30 in the evening, non-stop, with a really strong commitment on both sides to not just take stock of the high point that we’ve reached in bilateral relations but also, again, charting out an agenda for the work that lies ahead to fulfill President Biden’s instruction to all of us which is to build the strongest U.S.-Greece relationship ever.

The Greek Current:  Ambassador, as you said we’ll get into some of these issues as we look at trade and investment a little later in our conversation.  But I want to turn to the MDCA.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stated last week that the MDCA is the bedrock of the United States defense cooperation with Greece.  Can you give our listeners some insight into the importance of this MDCA from the U.S. perspective?  Especially within the context of advancing security and stability throughout the region with a partner like Greece.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thanks, Thanos.  I have said that in my mind the updated and expanded MDCA that we signed last week is less of a revolution than it is an incremental further investment in a very important defense and security relationship between Greece and the United States.  It built on, again, what we began under Syriza and very importantly it consolidates and takes forward the expansion of the MDCA that was signed shortly after the Mitsotakis government came into office in October of 2019.

This new agreement does two significant things.  One, it brings our MDCA into conformance with the NATO standard, which is not an annual renewal as it has been in the past but rather a five-year agreement which will eventually become indefinite.  Then it also adds four additional sites pivoting around the four sites that we ratified in the update of the MDCA that was done in 2019.  In that regard, this agreement represents a very significant reinvestment in NATO and in our alliance with Greece on NATO’s southeastern flank by the Biden administration.  It’s a nice rebuttal to those who might suggest that somehow the United States is disengaging from our Euro-Atlantic relationships.  Far from it.  We are in fact doubling down on this relationship, and that was the very clear message that was conveyed by Secretary Blinken and the rest of the U.S. government team last week.

The Greek Current:  Ambassador, aside from this strategic and defense dimension of the relationship, as you mentioned earlier the Strategic Dialogue also includes a focus on trade and investment and energy, all aspects of the relationship that you have worked hard on.

Over the last years, for example, we’ve seen key American companies invest in Greece such as Pfizer and Microsoft, not to mention companies involved in energy.  In the meantime, Greece has become an important energy hub as well.  In your opinion, is this a trend that we will see accelerate?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I have every reason to expect further growth along both of the dimensions that you mentioned, Thanos.

First of all in terms of trade and investment, it’s very clear that Greece has gone from being seen as a risk factor for foreign investors to being an opportunity and that’s reflected in all the stories that you alluded to.  A billion dollar Microsoft cloud computing investment; Digital Realty and Amazon Web Services following close behind; new investments by Pfizer, Cisco, Deloitte in Thessaloniki, all of which reflects both the great human capital that Greece enjoys but also building on the efforts that we started at the Thessaloniki Fair in 2018.

To think about Greece not just as a market of 10 million people but as a wider region of 30 million people for which Greece is the natural gateway.  And that was the very strong message from Deputy Minister Fragogiannis.  I was really glad that he was  able to have such an intensive engagement with our new Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs, Jose Fernandez.  Jose and I worked together in the Clinton-era State Department and I think Jose was appropriately impressed by how far Greece has come in escaping from its crisis decade, but also reaffirmed his commitment and his team’s commitment to working with Minister Fragogiannis to continue to lift up the story of investment opportunity in Greece and to make sure that the United States, not one of our rivals, is recognized as Greece’s trade and investment partner of choice going forward.

And then energy, as you say, is a mission figured at the highest levels including the conversation between Foreign Minister Dendias and Secretary Blinken where there was great appreciation of the dramatic progress that Greece has made in cultivating itself as a major European energy hub including through new projects like the TAP pipeline, the Revithoussa LNG terminal, the new FSRU in Alexandroupoli, and new pipelines with North Macedonia and Bulgaria.  All of that is going to continue and in fact will become even more important as Prime Minister Mitsotakis carries forward his very ambitious and welcome commitment to phasing out coal power by 2025.

The Greek Current:  That brings me to my next question which is related to climate change.  In the aftermath of last summer’s terrible wildfires in Greece, Greece and the United States added humanitarian challenges and disaster response, primarily with a focus on climate change, to the Strategic Dialogue.  The impacts on climate change are becoming increasingly evident in the United States and in Greece and across the world and both the Biden administration and the Mitsotakis government share a commitment to take urgent action on this front.

Can you expand on where Greece and the United States are working together currently to face the climate crisis and where they can expand on that front?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Sure.  I was really delighted that we added this issue to the Strategic Dialogue agenda and I was also pleased that we had participation on the U.S. side from both our USAID Assistant Administrator for Humanitarian Relief, Sarah Charles; and also representatives from Secretary Kerry’s office.

I had the opportunity to speak to Secretary Kerry briefly when I was back in Washington, and I know he has great admiration for the level of ambition that Greece has demonstrated through its coal phase-out commitment.  It’s exactly the kind of ambition that we are looking to other allies and partners to demonstrate as we head towards Glasgow.

In the meantime, however, we also need to deal with the adverse consequences of the climate crisis.  And in that regard Greece was extremely well represented by some of its senior fire and wildfire policy officials.  We had some rich conversations about the specific areas where Greece would welcome further technical assistance.  It was also helpful that we have right now, today, a USAID and U.S. Forest Service team on the ground here in Greece.  They were up in Evia for a couple of days and now they’re in the Athens’ suburbs looking at the fire-scarred areas and identifying opportunities for further collaboration as Greece works on reforestation and preventing further humanitarian emergencies as a result of those terrible fires.

So this is, unfortunately, a rich vein of future cooperation between our two countries.  There’s a lot of similarity between what we face in the American West including in my home state of California and what Greece is grappling with and what Greece lived through during those terrible days in August.  So I expect this will be an area of continued investment from both sides.  It’s an area of natural synergy between us.

The Greek Current:  Ambassador, you’ve served in Athens under three different U.S. administrations and have worked with two different Greek governments.  How has this U.S.-Greek relationship overall evolved over those years?  What would be your key observations?

Ambassador Pyatt:  It’s a sense of great satisfaction to see how the relationship has grown from strength to strength.  The foundations for the convergence of interests and the positive moment we’ve arrived at today were laid in the Obama administration, and the credit that the United States acquired through its sympathetic approach to Greece in its darkest moments of economic crisis led by none other than Vice President Biden and Secretary of Treasury Lew and the folks who worked so closely with the Greek authorities during the really difficult moments when Greece risked falling out of the Eurozone.

I’m very proud of the progress we were able to sustain through the Trump administration including importantly the creation of the Strategic Dialogue, the deepening of our defense and security ties, the consolidation of the Prespes Agreement which has been a game-changer in terms of the Greek role in the Western Balkans, and then all the energy developments that we’ve talked about many of which also go back to the Obama administration but really came to fruition during the past couple of years.  As we saw, for instance Greek imports of U.S. LNG go from essentially zero to the United States now accounting for 50 percent of Greece’s LNG imports, in large part as a result of both global price developments but also the infrastructure that Greece has put in place, for instance the large storage facility at Revithoussa.

This is an incredibly exciting time in U.S.-Greece relations because of the sense that we have the wind at our back.  As one of my senior interagency colleagues said in the Strategic Dialogue last week, our relationship is at a peak, but it is not at the summit.  That is, we have achieved breathtaking progress but we still have headroom and opportunities ahead of us.

The Greek Current:  What are some of the key areas that you see the most potential for closer cooperation moving forward?

Ambassador Pyatt:  A lot of the things we’ve already talked about.  One particular priority for me is our trade and investment relationship.  The United States has been underweight over the past decade, not surprisingly given the difficulties of the Greek economy, the consequences of losing 25 percent of GDP, and the fact that Athens is a long way even from the East Coast of the United States.  That’s now starting to change, and one of the accelerants of that has been the remarkable story of the Greek tech sector and the natural synergy that that creates with Silicon Valley, with American companies including our tech giants like Google and Microsoft and Cisco and AWS.  But there’s also been quite a bit of growth, for instance in the tourism sector, accounting for 25 percent of Greek GDP.

I was delighted to see on my flight back to Athens on Friday night, I was on the American flight from New York City, 100 percent full.  Even here as we head into late October.  And it demonstrates how American carriers are helping to deepen and extend the Greek tourism season in a way that’s good for our ties and frankly lets more Americans get to know and to enjoy the fabulous things that this country offers.

So trade and investment is going to be one priority.  I’m hopeful that we’re going to see a couple more senior visits before the end of the year including one or two governors, a couple of trade associations that we’re talking to as well.

Defense is going to continue to expand around these four hubs that we have created through our MDCA.  We’re about to have another one of our annual CAB rotations with U.S. Army helicopters coming into Stefanovikeio for the winter.  We’re going to see the largest movement of aircraft ever through Alexandroupoli in the next couple of weeks as we continue to develop that port as a key logistics hub for projecting American military power into and out of the Black Sea and Balkan regions.

Energy is going from strength to strength, and one of the really welcome developments has been the U.S. return to the Paris Climate Agreement and the opportunities that has allowed to revive and intensify the cooperation between Athens and Washington.  Not just on the global issues around the climate crisis but also investments by American companies in sectors like renewables – wind, solar, offshore wind.  You have an American company out of Texas that’s about to become the largest wind power operator with a huge project up in Northern Greece.  We have new interests in Greek market opportunities from companies like Invenergy in Chicago.  And we’ve worked very hard to support U.S. firms including GE Wind as they look to bring their goods and services here to the Greek market.  Again, the energy transition is also linked to the gas economy and there too the United States is a key partner.

Counterterrorism and law enforcement continues to go from strength to strength.  Then there’s people to people ties.  And I was so glad that we had such superb representation at the Strategic Dialogue from the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Labor.  We talked about our projects in areas like women’s economic and political empowerment.  We talked about the opportunities because of the projects that Minister Kerameus has led to help attract American universities to have programs here in Greece, to develop Greece as the hub for exchanges.  As we begin to come out of the pandemic and as American universities return to in-person classes, we’re going to see a rapid reacceleration of those programs as well, building on the foundation that Minister Kerameus laid before the pandemic but also reflecting the bias that Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s government has shown towards what he calls extraversion of the Greek educational sector.

So we have a very rich menu ahead of us and a fabulous opportunity to drive progress in a way that delivers value for American interests and American citizens.

The Greek Current:  Ambassador Pyatt, thank you for joining us on The Greek Current.  It was great speaking with you.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Good to talk to you, Thanos.  Thanks again.


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