Ambassador Pyatt’s Remarks at 2018 American Studies Seminar

Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt
Journalists’ Union of Macedonia & Thrace, Thessaloniki

April 27, 2018

Ambassador Pyatt: Good afternoon everybody. Again, I’m delighted to be here. Thank you Professor Karvounarakis for having me here for the introduction.

First of all let me say what a real pleasure and an honor it is for me to be with you here at the American Studies Seminar. This Seminar is one of the embassy’s most longstanding public affairs programs, and it has a great reputation for helping us to share insights about the United States, about American politics, American history, American diplomacy.

Last year I was able to address the American Studies Seminar at Deree when we were focused on the 70th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan, but it’s a special pleasure to be able to do so here up here at Thessaloniki because this is a very big year for the United States in Northern Greece. My visit today is largely focused on the work we are doing to lay the groundwork for September when the United States will be the Honored Country at TIF.

Just to give you a little bit of background, and it’s very relevant to the topic of soft power which you are focusing on.

When I came to Greece, and I first came to Thessaloniki for OXI Day in 2016, and I remember talking to Governor Tzitzikostas to General Stefanis who was then the NRDC Commander, to members of the business community, and a lot of people said gee, we wish we saw more of the U.S. government, and they pointed me to the fact that Russia had been the Honored Country at the Thessaloniki International Fair in that year, 2016. That China was the Honored Country in 2017. So largely because Rebecca told me it would be a good idea, I decided to make a big effort to have the United States named as the Honored Country for TIF in 2018. The Prime Minister graciously agreed to that request and he announced it, and President Trump welcomed it when the Prime Minister was in Washington last October.

So this is a perfect case study for the impact of soft power and cultural diplomacy, so it’s very, very appropriate that I’m here today speaking on these topics.

Another real case study of effective soft power of cultural diplomacy is the U.S. Fulbright Program. And this week we are celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Fulbright program in Greece. I was really honored to be part of a program earlier this week hosted by President Pavlopoulos at the Presidential Palace where we brought together a lot of alumni of the Fulbright program. And Fulbright Greece is an incredible all-star team. It includes a Prime Minister, members of parliament, leading business people, diplomats. And I was really very touched by the generous remarks that President Pavlopoulos made about the importance of the Fulbright program, the importance of Fulbright Greece — the second oldest in the world. The oldest in Europe. And how the Fulbright program coming to Greece in the aftermath of the Second World War, in the aftermath of the Civil War, when Greece was really flat on its back played a critical role in rebuilding this country’s stock of human capital.

So it’s really appropriate that we have Professor Rusciano here, who is himself a Fulbright Scholar, to be with you and to be helping to inform these conversations. He’s a Director of the Global Studies Program at Rider University in New Jersey. So thank you for making the trip to Thessaloniki. My guess is that the weather here is a little better than it is at home right now. So that’s one of the great benefits of being in Greece.

The Fulbright Scholarship, it’s important to remember, is only one of the variety of scholarship and exchange programs that the United States maintains in Greece. On top of all the programs that are run by private organizations. Rebecca and I were reminded today about the great work that AHEPA, for instance, has done. The American, Greek-American Diaspora organization which has been so active here in Northern Greece.

One of the important things about Fulbright is that it is built on a binational approach where both Greek and American governments actively support the exchanges. So it is a reflection of both of our governments and both of our countries commitments to the values of education and to working together. And I would argue that over the past seven decades there’s probably no other single program that has done more to build understanding between our two countries, to deepen scholarly exchange, and enrich the understanding in both countries of the world around us.

So cultural diplomacy plays a critical role in the larger practice of public diplomacy, and that’s because it’s cultural diplomacy that really represents what makes the society tick.

Cultural diplomacy is the essence of soft power. It can enhance national security in subtle, wide-ranging but deeply sustainable ways. And so American values take on a whole new life in our traditions of art, dance, film, music, and literature, and I have seen this all around the world over almost three decades now of my diplomatic career. It’s one of the reasons that I am so hard on my public affairs team, because I’m always pushing them to do more, think even more ambitiously about how we can reach out.

But the great thing about these soft power programs is they also build people-to-people ties, and at the end of the day, those are the most lasting and enduring connections. Human beings are social animals, so it’s one thing to have a press release saying that this is what the President of the United States said, this is what the Prime Minister of Greece said. But it’s those individual human connections that really make a difference.

I talk a lot about the importance of people-to-people ties in the U.S.-Greece relationship, and I always say our relationship rests on three pillars. One is our economic and investment relationship, and I’ll talk a little bit about that later on. Another is our security, law enforcement counterterrorism relationship, and that’s become more and more important as Greece’s neighborhood has become more complicated. And this idea that we look to Greece as a pillar of regional stability.

But then there’s the people-to-people ties. Whether it’s education, Diaspora, the literally tens of thousands of Greeks who travel every year to the United States for studies, the millions of Greeks who have family connections one way or another.

I was in the Peloponnese, speaking at Peloponnese University in Tripoli on Wednesday, I guess. It’s been a busy week. But I was in Tripoli on Wednesday, and everybody has a relative, some going back two or three generations, who are living and working in the United States.

So it’s public diplomacy that creates these meaningful relationships that really stick with people. The relationships that withstand changes of governments, economic crises, the difficulties that are part of life. And these relationships are much harder to erase than official and governmental ones.

I honestly believe that it’s the soft power which is America’s strongest card. It’s the reason why, and I began my diplomatic career in the waning days of the Cold War, and I’ve spent a lot of my career in India. I remember in the early years after the Cold War, and India had a very important relationship with the Soviet Union for many, many years, and people would ask me do you worry about where the India-Russia or India-Soviet relationship was going, and I always said listen, there are a thousand people lined up outside the American embassy to get visas to study or travel or do business in the United States. I don’t see anybody lined up in front of the Russian embassy. It’s that attractiveness, that openness of the United States, the American dream. I see it all the time in stories from Greek-Americans, and a lot of them come to see me — scientists.

A story I tell all the time is a young woman I met a couple of weeks ago who’s a little older than all of you. She’s in her early 30s. She graduated from the Polytechnica with a degree in chemistry and pharmaceuticals. And she won a competition that was put together by SFEE the Greek pharmaceutical industry association, and because she won that competition, she got to go to one of the NASA laboratories in the United States. While she was at this NASA laboratory she met a guy from Mexico and a guy from Chile who had all had a similar idea about trying to take DNA sequencing and develop a chip-based application that would sequence DNA without all the laborious manual chemical processes that go into that.

Long story short, she finished her time at the NASA laboratory. She came back to Greece. She won a few more competitions. She got a few ten thousands of euros together. She was Skyping with her new friends in Mexico and Chile, and eventually they got something like $60,000 together and they said let’s start a company. We’re all going to move to San Francisco. So she moved to San Francisco, to Silicon Valley. She started a company. And today that company has 30 employees. She has something like 17 U.S. patents. They actually have a product that does DNA sequencing on a chip, and they’re starting to get offers to be bought out by huge biomedical companies like Johnson & Johnson.

But I asked her, the interesting thing, I asked her, I said are you going to stay in Silicon Valley? She said to me listen, first of all, I pay $3,600 rent every month for a one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco. I would move back to Greece in one second if I had the right business environment. She also made the point that there was no place else in the world, other than Silicon Valley, where she could have found the collaborators, the product designers, the patent attorneys, the engineers, the marketing people that helped her to build the company that she first started dreaming of when she was a student at the Polytechnica in Athens.

So that is the essence of American soft power. That is the American dream. And I think my job as a diplomat is to build the strongest possible relationship between our countries. But part of what that involves is supporting people like the young chemist I described.

Exchanges are one of the tools that we can use to build those kind of partnerships. In this context, I always say the embassy’s highest goal right now in 2018 is to support Greece in the process of economic recovery, so that 2018 really is the year that this country leaves eight years of economic crisis behind it.

To that end, our embassy public affairs team has developed a very robust program of exchanges and activities that are intended to build entrepreneurship, and especially with younger people, to help to transfer that Silicon Valley ethos that I talked about. So we work with groups like the MIT Enterprise Forum, the Mindspace, Foundation, Impact Hub, to bring U.S. expertise on entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship here to Greece and to Greek startups. But then we also partner with other NGOs like the Hellenic Initiative with whom we send a group of Greek entrepreneurs every year to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.

We have the International Visitor Leadership Program which similarly helps to build networking opportunities.

We’ve prioritized science and technology education. We’ve got a flagship program which I am a huge fan of CodeGirls which is a workshop for young girls, 10-16 years old, to get them interested in computing. Last hear CodeGirls was in Trikala. This year CodeGirls was in Ioannina These are small cities where, it’s not like being in Thessaloniki or Athens. If you grow up in Trikala you don’t have all these possibilities before you. But it was incredibly powerful to see these young girls get excited about computing, excited about math and science, and to begin to think more ambitiously about their own future in our networked economy.

We support the Athens Science Festival. This week we had an incredibly impressive NASA astronaut who was here in Thessaloniki and then was down in Athens for the Athens Science Festival.

We’ve also got an active program to advance and to present American culture. We work with groups like the Onassis Center, the Thessaloniki Film Festival, the Benaki Museum to bring the best of American culture to Greece.

One of the great things about being in Greece is you invented culture. There is nothing more subline in the history of human artistic creation than the sculptures of classical Greece. So it’s not a hard sell to bring American artists to this country. But it helps to put another face on the United States and it helps to tell the story of our country and the diversity that is America’s strength.

To wind up, and then we can open it up to questions. Just a little bit more about TIF. We’ve got a very big plan for the week of September 8th. We’re going to, of course, have a business pavilion, we’ll have American companies, American investors. But we also want to have a strong focus on technology and innovation. We’re working with TEDx Athens on a pop-up incubator that would help to highlight the success of the U.S. startup economy. Were working with the AmCham to put a positive spotlight on the story of Greek economic recovery, to help the government to get the message out in the United States that Greece is returning to economic growth, that there’s fantastic human capital here, and that there are great possibilities there.

And then we’ve got plans in the arts space as well, including a project called Art Everywhere, which I won’t spoil the surprise, but the name tells you what the idea is behind it.

The last point I’ll make, cultural diplomacy is a two-way street. The greatest strength of America is our openness. The richness of our cultural traditions which, almost by definition, come from a global background. So the idea of our cultural diplomacy is not just to export U.S. ideas or U.S. traditions or U.S. visions, but also to enrich our own society. That’s as true for culture as it is for education.

I was speaking to a Fulbright group yesterday, and made the point, I still think one of the areas that I hope there will be further reform in Greece is on the issue of educational exchanges so we can have more opportunities for American Fulbright scholars to come here to work in Greek universities, for American students and young people to come here, and I’m happy to talk a little bit more about this in the question and answer.

Last point, and then we can open it up to questions for however long Ioanna and Rebecca tell me I can take questions. I want to thank all of the, especially the Greek academics and professors who are here today. What you do to help teach new generations about the United States and what makes us tick is critically important.

I have been struck, as I said, I’ve spent 30 years as an American diplomat. I’ve been ambassador twice. I have rarely found a country which offers the kind of hospitality and generosity that Greece offers, but I’m also amazed by all the misinformation that still sloshes around. I can’t quite figure out why anybody wanted to chop down Harry Truman’s statue two weeks ago. But what I do know is we’ve got a very proud history of American policy in Greece, and I think, I’ve always found that when you’re trying to deal with things like this it’s usually a function of ignorance. So education can play a critical role in helping people to understand what is, how we got to where we are, but also where we want to get to in the future.

So thank you very much for your attention. As I said, I’d be happy to take questions about anything you want.

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