American Hellenic Institute Panel
“Allies of the U.S. in the Eastern Mediterranean:
The Importance of Pillars of Stability in a Sea of Instability?”
Grande Bretagne Hotel (Gold Room), Athens
Thursday, December 5, 2019
Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you, Fanis. Καλησπέρα. Let me start before I forget by saying what a terrific pleasure it is for me to be up here on the stage with my friend Minister Koumoutsakos. Through three years that George served as the shadow Foreign Minister of then Opposition Party New Democracy, George was my principal interlocutor for some really important conversations that helped to lay the foundation for the excellent state of bilateral relations that we enjoy today with Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his team.
Fanis, you and others in the press will have to wait for my memoirs or my retirement until I tell all the stories, but let me just say that without George’s leadership, vision, but real friendship, we wouldn’t be where we are today. So thank you.
It’s the first time that he and I are speaking publicly in his ministerial capacity, and I will say for Washington, we are really delighted to have such a trusted friend of the United States serving in a really critical portfolio. So thank you, George.
I also want to thank Nick and AHI, of course, for inviting me back to do one of these events. That’s always a good test of whether or not you’re doing well, if they invite you back. The first invitation’s always easy when you’re an Ambassador. It’s whether they ask you to come speak again.
I was in Washington about two weeks ago and among the panels and discussions that I had was one focused on the role of Congress, the role of our diaspora, and I made the point that organizations like AHI are really my most important force multiplier as I seek to deepen and cultivate the important strategic relationship between Greece and the United States. So thank you, Nick, for that.
And I would particularly highlight the focus that AHI has brought to our defense and security relationship, going back in my case to the summer of 2016 when I was getting ready for my confirmation hearing and getting ready for this job and AHI and Nick helped to educate me a lot.
We’ve made a lot of progress since then. And even since my boss, Secretary of State Pompeo was here in October and we had the U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue, we have set a blistering pace in terms of the bilateral relationship.
I know Ambassador Fotiadou is very sensitive to this because she’s carrying a lot of the burden, but I look, there’s not a day that goes by when we’re not putting points on the scoreboard.
I was in Syros yesterday for a really terrific event as we reinaugurated and celebrated the rebirth, the remarkable rebirth of the Syros Shipyard, a strategic investment. We were able to celebrate both the enthusiasm of the local community but also the strategic importance of this significant investment by an American company and helping Greece to revive its maritime and shipbuilding traditions. I know that Minister Georgiadis who was out on Syros with me was just as impressed as I was by the deep sense of appreciation from the workers and the community for what the Americans have done on Syros.
This morning I was with Prime Minister Mitsotakis on the outskirts of Athens as we celebrated the opening of a new recycling equipment plant, an investment by another American company, Envipco from Connecticut, illustrating how American companies are coming back.
And now we have a fantastic opportunity on January 7th with Prime Minister Mitsotakis going to Washington, DC. We’re delighted that we’ve been able to get him into the Oval Office with President Trump so early in the new government — but also the engagement that he will be able to conduct there with Congress, with our think tanks, with the diaspora community, and probably most important for me, with the American investor community to get the message out about how the U.S.-Greece relationship is changing, about the opportunities, the strategic opportunities that this relationship represents for the United States, but also how much Greece has changed in the first months of this government’s tenure. So it’s a very exciting time.
I’ll speak a minute about the Eastern Mediterranean which is the topic of this evening, and I’ll note to begin with that I was in Naples last week with the new Deputy National Security Advisor Thanos Dokos, and we were speaking at an event hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and there was a lot of discussion there about the central role that Greece plays in the United States strategy for the Eastern Mediterranean.
One of the main points of agreement in our conversations at Naples was that great power competition has returned in a big way to the Eastern Mediterranean, and that we need to work closely together as allies and as partners to ensure peace and stability in this region, and to deal with powerful global actors, in particular Russia and China, who have very different interests and values from the United States and our NATO allies and who have gained significant footholds that we now have to deal with.
And of course, there are other sources of instability in the Eastern Mediterranean. I know we’ll talk about that this evening, and first and foremost on everybody’s mind is Turkey’s drift away from the Euro-Atlantic Alliance and the challenges that that poses to us.
Greece and the United States first and foremost emphatically agree on the critical importance of helping ensure that Turkey remains anchored in the West, anchored in NATO. And despite the long list of difficulties that we have to work through — Northern Syria and Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S400 missile system are two prominent examples. We both recognize the importance of ensuring that Turkey remains firmly within our NATO alliance.
For the United States, we greatly appreciate the fact that the very first phone call that Prime Minister Mitsotakis had with an international leader after his election was with President Erdogan. And the Prime Minister has since then continued a concerted effort to manage tensions with Turkey through his meetings at the UN General Assembly in New York, and yesterday at the NATO Summit meeting.
And I can assure you based on extensive conversations when Secretary Pompeo was here, every single day over the past week I have had detailed conversations with both Foreign minister Dendias and Foreign Ministry Secretary General Demiris, and I can assure you that the Foreign Ministry of Greece and Maximou have a very clear understanding of American policies on Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean, and have a clear sense that we are committed to working with Greece in this regard.
I should emphasize that we greatly appreciate the sophistication that Greece has brought to its approach to Turkey, including on sensitive issues like the unlawful Turkish actions in the territorial waters off of Cyprus, and the MOU that Turkey signed with Libya that we’ve been talking about.
The MOU, in particular, has raised tensions in the region and is unhelpful and provocative. These actions run contrary to the spirit of cooperation and stability that the United States has sought to encourage in this region.
In this regard I would note that it’s not just me saying these things. It’s the Department of State in Washington.
I’m fairly confident, Fanis, that the United States was the first party not part of the Eastern Mediterranean to speak out clearly on these issues, followed by many of Greece’s other partners and allies including Israel, the European Union.
The United States and the U.S. Department of State have been very clear on these issues. Secretary of State Pompeo emphasized in his meetings in October with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, Foreign Minister Dendias, Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos, that the United States sees Greece as part of the solution to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Finally I’ll say just a couple of words about the migration and refugee crisis. First of all, we are extremely sympathetic to the approach that Minister Koumoutsakos and the Greek government have taken on these issues. The Minister and I were in Washington last month where he was able to meet with officials from the U.S. government on all the sensitive issues of homeland security and screening because we understand in the United States that European security begins in Mytilini, that Greece’s frontiers are Europe’s frontiers.
This important cooperation on the security and homeland security agenda will continue next week with a visit by Minister Chrisochoidis to Washington where he will have discussions with the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, Department of State. These engagements are intended to help us build the strongest possible counterterrorism network between our countries.
We also admire and greatly respect the extraordinary compassion that the people of Greece have shown towards the new arrivals and dealing with this unprecedented European crisis of migration.
We have consistently noted, and I have regularly pointed out, that this is an issue that needs to be addressed and handled by all 27 members of the European Union. European institutions need to find a way to work through these issues.
We commend the Mitsotakis government’s efforts to reduce wait times for asylum seekers and fully enforce the EU-Turkey agreement. Having visited the hot spots on many occasions and discussed the situation just yesterday with the Governor of the South Aegean, Governor Hatzimarkos, when we were together in Syros, I have a very clear sense of the frustration on these islands that small communities are being asked to bear a burden that rightfully belongs to all of Europe.
We also appreciate the efforts that Greece is making to work with UNHCR and IOM to improve conditions for migrants and asylum seekers on the islands, and I’m sure we will hear more about that as we come into the winter.
I would note in this regard that the United States of America remains by far the largest contributor to UNHCR, which is leading in the humanitarian response to this crisis. The Greek people, Greek civil society organizations and the Greek Church have dealt with the migration problem with an impressive degree of human decency, and that’s clear to any of us who visit the islands.
Finally, let me note that it’s no surprise to me, given what we’ve been talking about so far this evening, that the Eastern Mediterranean has returned to the forefront of U.S. strategic thinking. We are trying to take, in the United States, a systematic, whole-of-government approach, looking at the Eastern Mediterranean as a single, coherent region.
Secretary of State Pompeo recently signed off on a new Eastern Mediterranean strategy, one that he personally advanced by launching the 3+1 Dialogue among Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the United States in Jerusalem last March, and through his visit to Athens where these issues figured prominently.
Greece is central to our strategy for helping to build peace and stability in this wider region.
During my time as Ambassador, I’m extremely proud of the progress that we had made in advancing the bilateral relationship but also helping to transform the way people in Washington think about Greece: seeing it not as a problem child of Europe, but as a pillar of stability and a key ally in advancing shared values.
In this regard I particularly want to acknowledge this evening General Floros who played such an important role as Deputy CHOD in helping us to build this new architecture of defense and security cooperation, and we’re delighted that he now continues to do so from his new command. We are going to continue to invest in this defense and security relationship because it’s the best way we know to reinforce Greece’s regional role.
The U.S.-Greece strategic dialogue has also helped us to institutionalize this progress, advancing our engagement on a broad range of issues we can talk about later this evening including energy, our engagement in the Western Balkans, and of course trade and investment ties.
We understand that here in Greece the number one issue before the government is helping to sustain economic growth and that means attracting foreign investment. Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ visit to Washington and to the White House in January will be a fantastic opportunity to spread the word, to get the word out that Greece is changing fast, that Greece is open for business, and as I’ve pointed out and discussed personally with the Prime Minister, I think one of the challenges we face is that things have moved so fast in recent months that perceptions in New York and Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, have not fully processed how much the business environment has changed. January 7th and 8th is a critical opportunity to get that message out and to also highlight for the strategic community in Washington the value proposition that our alliance with Greece represents.
So speaking for me and for the rest of the team at the embassy in Athens, we’re going to continue to do everything that we possibly can to see that Greece continues to move forward in terms of investment in job creation, in terms of regional stability, in terms of our vital defense security, homeland security and counterterrorism relationship.
So I’m confident that our partnership has a lot of head room ahead of it, but also very, very proud of the sense of momentum we enjoy today.
So thank you very much for giving me an opportunity to share some of this and I look forward to the dialogue this evening.
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