September 7, 2021
Moderator (Andrew Novo, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Defense and Security, Center for European Policy Analysis):
I’m sure this sort of increased cooperation is something that the United States would like to see in the region, so I’d like to turn to Ambassador Pyatt.
How does the Eastern Mediterranean fit into the current foreign policy of the United States? Especially when we think about it in terms of a long list of competing priorities that the Biden administration is going to confront, just like every administration confronts a long list of priorities. Where does the Eastern Mediterranean fit in that area?
Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you, Andrew, and thanks for having me on. I’m delighted to be part of this conversation.
I think you answered your own question in your opening remarks with the emphasis on the unique character of the Eastern Mediterranean as a region that brings together all the elements of great power competition but also the core of our transatlantic relationship and the shared values that underlie that relationship.
I think it’s really important for us all to remember that of those countries active in the Eastern Mediterranean that we talk about, the governments of Russia and China have a very different view of how the international system should be organized. We’re obviously just in the opening phases of what will be a generational competition, and in terms of the Eastern Mediterranean front of that global competition, and Greece has emerged as a really critical American ally, both because we have a shared vision for building peace, stability, economic prosperity, on issues of energy and climate where our interests converge completely, but also because of our shared values and the foundation of a commitment to democracy that is held so deeply both in the United States and in Greece.
One of the things that has been interesting to me over the past five years in Athens has been to see the redefinition of the geography of Greek foreign policy. The geopolitics of this region have shifted dramatically, both because of Greece’s systematic effort over two administrations –- both the SYRIZA government of Alexis Tsipras and now very enthusiastically by Prime Minister Mitsotakis -– to build new relations with Israel, with Cyprus, but also other key players in the Eastern Med and the Middle East — Lebanon, UAE, Jordan, Egypt, Libya.
This new constellation of relationships, it’s changing dynamics around the region, are opening new avenues for cooperation. For instance, on regional clean energy connectivity, on security cooperation, on counterterrorism cooperation. And then also what’s happening to the north of Greece, and it is impossible to understate, I think, the importance of the Prespes Agreement, unlocking Greece’s relationship with North Macedonia, but all of the Western Balkans. We had Foreign Minister Dendias in Skopje just a few days ago talking about how Greece aspires to be North Macedonia’s closest ally and partner. That is dramatically shifting the dynamic around the region.
The United States has strongly supported this more dynamic Greek foreign policy, including through our strong support, again, through two U.S. administrations –- the Trump administration and the Biden administration for, in particular, the 3+1 cooperation framework with Greece, Israel, Cyprus, and the United States which has been the signature element of this new geography.
I should note also that these issues of cooperation and connectivity were a central facet of Senator Menendez’s visit to Athens just a few days ago and all of his conversations across the Greek government.
In that context, I would emphasize how seriously the United States government has worked to try to develop a strategic concept and a policy approach that capitalizes on this new dynamic. Much of the credit for starting this process I would give to CEPA’s own Wess Mitchell, a good friend and colleague in a previous administration. But also important is the work of Congress. The East Med Act of 2019 provided a Congressional framework for U.S. support and engagement in the 3+1 context –and Senator Menendez made clear in his visit to Athens and Cyprus recently that that work is not finished.
The Biden administration, of course, has prioritized the renewal and rebuilding of our alliance relationships. Greece is also a country that shares a strong transatlantic instinct and it also, because of the East Med relationships that I’ve talked about earlier, Greece is really uniquely positioned as a NATO ally that is working cooperatively across 270 degrees of the Eastern Mediterranean at the same time that it is reinvesting in its transatlantic ties and frankly, repositioning itself after a decade or so when Greece was viewed largely through the lens of its economic and political challenges, whereas now it’s viewed as a high performer.
I look forward to continuing the conversation.
I would note, especially on the energy issues, I think it’s important to recognize how quickly the ground is shifting underneath some of these traditional disagreements over things like gas and oil resources on the sea floor. Many of those resources will never be extracted in the current economic and investment environment. So the ground is shifting rapidly, and Greece’s policies have reflected that. For instance, its enhanced engagement with the United States through both our own bilateral Strategic Dialogue, but also the 3+1 process of energy cooperation on renewables, on electricity interconnections. Natural gas as a transition fuel to sustainable, and I think more attention should be given to how that changing energy conversation also promises to shift with geopolitics.
Moderator: When we talk about the role of these institutions, as you said, the EU has a fragmented foreign policy. This is a standard thing. We recognize all the time the EU’s fragmentary nature. Does that, Ambassador Pyatt, how does that relate to these new structures that are coming in? If NATO and the EU are sort of struggling to respond to this, how do we see these new structures that you were talking about, the 3+1 structure, for example, and how can this facilitate cooperation? What does this kind of framework offer for its members? How does it relate to Chinese or Russian influence in the region?
Ambassador Pyatt: Thanks, Andrew. In some ways the answer lies in the point I made in my earlier remarks about Greece’s emergence from economic crisis and the bandwidth that that provided for Greece to be able to conduct a more strategic and ambitious foreign policy.
For more than half a decade, Greece was so focused on just getting from one European Troika review to the next, that there wasn’t much bandwidth to begin thinking about where Greece’s strategic interests lie and how best to protect those.
That has now changed dramatically as Greece has emerged from economic crisis and, in fact, is positioned to be one of the stronger EU economies coming out of the global COVID shock.
You’ve got a couple of different elements of this. I talked already about the 3+1, which the United States has supported because of the prospect that it offers to build connectivity among three of our close democratic partners in a way that addresses all kinds of emerging challenges.
Another great example is the East Med Gas Forum, and I would emphasize on the East Med Gas Forum the very clear message that Athens has conveyed on multiple occasions from the Prime Minister to the Foreign Minister to the Energy Minister, that this is not meant to be exclusive, that Greece would welcome Turkey’s participation in this regional forum on the basis of international law and the basis of cooperative partnerships. And, in fact, one of the greatest examples of regional energy cooperation anywhere in Europe is the Southern Gas Corridor, which relies on the relationship between the TAP pipeline and Turkey every single day.
This is an area that offers the prospect of building new channels for cooperation and for win/win. I do not accept the principle that conflict between Greece and Turkey is inevitable, and it’s certainly not in the interest of the United States.
Another one of these regional dynamics that I’d like to spend just a second on is the Three Seas Initiative, which did not initially involve Greece. When I got here, coming from Ukraine, one of the questions that I asked was, why hasn’t
Greece been involved in this? And Andrew, you have a scholarly familiarity with the strategic role of the Black Sea — you only have to go back to Themistocles and see how the Athenian fleet moved across these waters to understand that it’s all connected.
We’ve made good progress over the past couple of years with Greece becoming much more involved in the Three Seas Initiative. I know that the United States and the other Three Seas partners welcomed the presence of President Sakellaropoulou at the Three Seas Summit in Sofia a few weeks ago, and we see this as an opportunity to support more of this North-South connectivity that terminates in the Aegean, that terminates in Greece.
The most important single example of this in the energy domain is the complex of projects around Alexandroupoli in the far northeast of Greece. The Alexandroupolis Floating Regasification Unit, the IGB pipeline connecting to the TAP pipeline: these projects together offer one of the most practical routes for getting non-Russian gas up into Central Europe including eventually, I hope, Ukraine. And unlike Nord Stream II, for instance, these projects promote diversification of routes and limit the ability to use gas and energy as a geopolitical tool.
We’re very supportive of this as the United States, and again it fits with the strategic vision that the Greek government has churned out for itself. Greece has become a source of solutions, a provider of solutions, and I cannot emphasize what an important change that is from when I arrived here five years ago at a time when Brussels was concerned about Greece falling out of the Euro Zone, failing to comply with the conditionality of the European Troika. Or collapsing under the weight of a regional refugee crisis. Greece has evolved from that to become, as I said, a real positive example to the region, and a country which has demonstrated its commitment to investing in cooperative relations across a broad region where the United States is involved in a global competition, and where we’re looking for friends and allies.
Moderator: On the subject of NATO and EU engagement in the region, I’d like to go back to Ozgur to talk about what is Turkey’s view of NATO’s engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean? It’s future engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean, and is that impacted at all by China’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and vis-à-vis Turkey, because China has an increasing relationship with Turkey. How does that work in your view?
I’m sure the Ambassador would like to have one final comment on that point. Thank you, Ozgur. On that point about whether the United States is or is not disengaging, or how we might frame this engagement. We have one minute left. I’d like to hear the Ambassador’s view on this narrative of engagement and disengagement since we’ve all touched on it in various ways. So Ambassador, just one last word, because I’m sure you’d like to say something on the engagement-disengagement debate.
Ambassador Pyatt: Thanks, Andrew. First of all, I would just say, I don’t think you would find any of my team at the U.S. Embassy in Athens who feel like we’ve been disengaged over the past couple of years. In fact, we’re moving very aggressively and rapidly to expand the relationship.
I already mentioned the East Med Act, I already mentioned the 3+1. I would also flag the expansion and deepening of our Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement, which has opened up additional locations and facilities in Greece to U.S. military presence, including both northern and eastern Greece, central Greece around Larissa, Stefanovikio, where we’re about to begin another one of our annual combat aviation brigade rotations.
In a military sense, we’re on the ground. We’ve expanded our footprint at Souda Bay for the first time since the Cold War. We have homeported a new major U.S. Navy vessel, the Hershel “Woody” Williams has its homeport in Souda Bay, Crete.
Also on the economic side. It is very important that Congress has expanded the mandate of the International Development Finance Corporation in order to facilitate investments by American companies in Greece. Specifically designed as a response to the checkbook diplomacy that China has pursued through its Belt and Road Initiative, recognizing that we have to have a positive agenda to push back on this.
Then we have the Strategic Dialogue, which was launched under Secretary of State Pompeo in 2018, and will be revalidated by Secretary of State Blinken in October, which has become a comprehensive setting to bring together all of the pillars of U.S.-Greece engagement, including energy, climate, investment, defense, homeland security, people-to-people ties, education, the whole gamut.
Finally, on the economic side as well, it has been a very exciting period for the expansion of the U.S. tech footprint in Greece, with large new investments by companies like Microsoft, Pfizer, Cisco, all of which are helping to expand the scope and depth of U.S.-Greece cooperation.
Then on the diplomatic side, I would finally, apropos your point about the European Union, I would make the point that during the tensions a year ago around Greece and Turkey and the collision that took place between the Kemal Reis and the Limnos. U.S. diplomacy played a critically important role working with key European partners like Germany and France to lower tensions, and I think we all can agree that it’s good that we don’t have that kind of risk of conflict among NATO allies and that the governments are able to focus on their real priorities, which include economic recovery, combating the pandemic, and dealing with the kind of challenges that climate change has thrown up including the devastating fires that both Greece and Turkey have suffered from over the past month or so.
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