February 15, 2022
Q&A with Andrew Palmer, Executive Edit
Ambassador Pyatt: First of all, thank you, to you and Nektaria for the invitation to come back.
I’ve been asked to speak about the year ahead in U.S.-Greece relations, which is a very easy topic because we really had, despite the pandemic, a banner year in U.S.-Greece relations in 2021.
The headline is the fantastic progress we’ve seen in the economic relationship, the enormous new investments of Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Digital Realty, the announcement just last week from JP Morgan and Viva Wallet. It’s a really new narrative in terms of U.S. business interest and investment in Greece.
We’ve also seen continued growth in our strategic relationship. We had an indefinite extension of our Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement last October in Washington, DC when Foreign Minister Dendias was there, which has proven to be particularly prescient in light of subsequent developments around Ukraine and the eastern flank of NATO.
And then continuing to grow the work that we do together in critical areas like climate where Prime Minister Mitsotakis has carved out such a leading role for Greece.
It’s a very satisfying time to be the American Ambassador. We’re putting points on the board, across the board, and I’m extremely bullish for 2022.
Andrew Palmer: You mentioned Ukraine, and I think we probably have to start there given the focus. I wanted just to start with your sense of what chance there is of a peaceful resolution, what your prognosis is given tensions we’ve seen in the past month.
Ambassador Pyatt: I long ago gave up trying to put myself inside Vladimir Putin’s head. What I will say is we are working the diplomatic side of this just as hard as we possibly can.
When I was Ambassador in Kyiv, I used to say Vladimir Putin could end the war with one phone call. That is still the case today. This crisis has not emerged because of anything Ukraine did or didn’t do, or anything the United States did or didn’t do, or anything Europe did or didn’t do. It’s because Russia has put 120,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders, the largest mobilization of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea since the end of the Cold War.
But I wouldn’t be in this role if I wasn’t a committed diplomatic optimist. And I’m also very encouraged by the kind of cooperation that we have and the synergy and the convergence of perspectives that we have with the Greek government.
Andrew Palmer: Perhaps you can dig into that a little bit. What role does Greece play from an American perspective as you negotiate the geopolitics of Russia and Ukraine?
Ambassador Pyatt: A couple of things.
First of all, Greece is a core member of NATO in a particularly dynamic and important part of the Alliance’s southeastern flank. Our naval presence in Souda Bay is critically important and is very busy right now.
We’ve also worked very closely with Foreign Minister Dendias.
Very glad to see two weeks ago he traveled to Mariupol right on the front lines where Greece maintains a strong consular presence. He has also continued to speak clearly, including just today, reaffirming Greece’s strong support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, with a special focus on that community of Greek Ukrainians which numbers around 120,000, right in the center of the conflict zone.
Andrew Palmer: The other thing this tension, this buildup over the past few weeks has done is bring energy security front and center. So again, from your perspective, what role does Greece play in alleviating a reliance on Russian gas?
Ambassador Pyatt: Greece is the United States’ most important partner in southeastern Europe building energy security and resilience. It has done this over a number of years. The TAP pipeline which came online two years ago; the first LNG infrastructure brought online in Europe specifically to bring non-Russian gas to European consumers.
So all the work that Europe is doing with Azerbaijan right now depends on the operation of the TAP pipeline. The expansion of the Revithoussa LNG terminal here in Athens has opened the door to a dramatic expansion of U.S. LNG deliveries to Greece. There’s not a month that goes by that we don’t have a U.S. LNG ship pulling in, delivering gas not just to Greek consumers, but Greece has also helped to break the Gazprom monopoly in Bulgaria.
We’ve also been strongly supportive of American investment projects for a second floating regassification facility in Alexandroupoli which will come online in 2023, one more contribution to the diversification of energy sources and routes which has been a goal of U.S. policy in Europe for two decades now and which Greece has been instrumental in helping to facilitate, not just for this country but for Bulgaria, for the countries of the former Yugoslavia, a new pipeline on the drawing boards with North Macedonia, conversations with Kosovo, with Serbia which has contracted to take gas from the Alexandroupoli facility.
So, at a moment when everybody is very focused on Russia’s manipulation of gas as a political tool, Greece is in the fortunate position of not being particularly vulnerable to Gazprom or to Russian manipulation, and in fact contributing to the energy security of the region.
Andrew Palmer: If I was in Germany, I might say that’s wonderful for southeast Europe, but I still need Nord Stream 2. Is there a connection that you can draw between what’s going on in this region?
Ambassador Pyatt: There’s a lesson to be had from what Greece has done with the TAP pipeline, with Revithoussa, with Alexandroupoli, which is that you have to invest in this kind of diversification infrastructure. At the same time that Greece, like the rest of Europe, like the United States, has been doubling down on energy transition.
And I would really put a spotlight on the convergence of interests and viewpoints between the Mitsotakis government and the United States on the critical importance of that energy transition and the leadership that Greece has established, committing itself to the phaseout of lignite by 2023, accelerating the transition to hydrogen, areas where American companies, including Greek-American companies, are playing an important role.
Greece really is the right example of how to approach these issues, recognizing that Russian energy is going to continue to be part of the story for Europe for quite some time to come, but nobody wants to be in the position where they are a monopoly customer. The key is diversification.
Andrew Palmer: Let’s widen the lens a little bit away from Russia and talk as well about China. Again, in the wider geopolitical context, there was a moment when it felt like China came in and really left a big footprint in Greece after the financial crisis. Where are we now in terms of, from an American perspective, in terms of Greece’s dependence, relationship, connections with China?
Ambassador Pyatt: First of all, it’s the Chinese government that has described the port of Piraeus as the dragon’s head of the Belt and Road Initiative in Europe. The United States has worked very hard to see to it that the circumstances which gave rise to COSCO’s arrival in Piraeus do not repeat themselves. That means working to encourage other investments including from the United States, especially in these critical infrastructure sectors like energy, like shipping and shipbuilding, like ports. That’s why we’ve been so supportive of the two American bidders on the port of Alexandroupoli. That’s why we’ve been so focused on the fate of the shipyards at Elefsina and Skaramangas, strategic assets for Greece but also for Europe and for U.S. naval interests in this part of the world.
On the question of COSCO and Piraeus, there are two things that I would put a spotlight on. One is the fact that we now have really succeeded in changing the narrative for American investment and American investors coming to Greece, and I’ve pointed to a number of those. I would also cite Pfizer, Deloitte, Cisco, all of whom have a significant presence now in Thessaloniki.
Then also the degree to which our American companies across the board I would argue have been good citizens of Greece. Especially during the very difficult two years of the pandemic. The way in which American technology companies and all of our companies really stepped up to support the Greek response to the pandemic whether it was on distance learning or on facilitating access to palliative care. And I contrast that with some of the pushback that we’ve started to see on COSCO from the Mayor of Piraeus, from the community, and the sort of discomfort with the China takes-all approach that we’ve been seeing.
We’re all capitalists. We believe in competition. And the key to making that competition healthy is to see that we have good western alternatives in the picture. Not always American. Very happy to see important European companies coming into this space as well.
Andrew Palmer: Can I just get a little more flavor on what competition means in this context? So, you wouldn’t be happy to see another COSCO-Piraeus. You’re encouraging investment from American and European competitors.
What does that actually mean? Does that mean just a friendly nudge get involved? Does it mean a willingness to subsidize? Does the market really get a chance to operate?
Ambassador Pyatt: The market has to operate. That’s a core principle for the United States. I would start with a couple of points. One, this is a geostrategically dynamic region. That has been the case for 2,500 years. We just celebrated the anniversary of the Battle of Salamis and Themistocles against the Persian fleet.
Geography matters. Greece’s geography and Greece’s status as both a core part of Europe, a NATO Ally, a member of the European Union, the Eurozone, the Council of Europe, all of those things, is critically important and frankly, that was the major focus of U.S. interest when I came to Greece in 2016 for President Obama. The reason Greece’s fate matters to the United States was because Greece existed on Europe’s frontiers.
We want to see Greece be successful. It clearly has crossed that Rubicon. The market sees Greece as a success today. That’s why these big American deals keep coming forward. It’s very healthy to see the halo effect that has started to emerge around Greece. The United States can be helpful keeping our companies interested. The U.S. government can be helpful in that regard. The role of the International Development Finance Corporation, especially in the strategic and energy sectors is something that our Congress has endorsed.
But ultimately, the market is going to prevail. What it really hinges on, success hinges on, are the policy choices of the Greek government. And for the past couple of years we’ve been fortunate, we’ve had the Greek government making smart policy choices, and that’s why the markets are responding.
Andrew Palmer: You made reference to arriving here in 2016. So over that period what has been kind of the nature of change in U.S.-Greek relations given the sort of rocky history?
Ambassador Pyatt: I would say a couple of things. The most important thing that has changed is that Greece has regained its status as a normal successful European state. When I came here people were worried about whether Greece was going to fall out of the Eurozone, whether one of the big banks would collapse, whether Greece would fail to meet the obligations of the Troika. This week Greece announced that next month it will repay the last of its IMF loans. It’s probably the biggest success story or comeback story in the Eurozone over the past two or three years. It’s been quite remarkable to watch that.
I’m very proud of the role that the United States has played in helping to support and facilitate the process, but I also recognize that it’s Greek citizens and the Greek government that did the hard work to achieve that.
I’m very proud of the consensus that we’ve built in Greek society in favor of our relationship. We have made progress – and I have worked for three American Presidents, very different American Presidents, but I’ve also worked with two Greek governments with distinctive ideological perspectives. And it’s quite significant that we have sustained that progress across those different governments. We’ve done so because our interests converged and ultimately that’s what matters in this business. States behave according to their national interests. But there is a convergence of interests today between Greece and the United States.
There’s also great appreciation in the United States for the intangibles that Greece possesses. Its democracy. The debt that we owe as Americans to the ancient Athenians, the importance of Greece as a country which has reaffirmed and demonstrated its commitment to democratic values, its commitment to the European Union, its commitment to transatlantic relations at a moment, and through a moment that has been testing for all of us. Where our democracy at home in the United States has been tested, where our commitment to our transatlantic relationship has been questioned by some, where some in Europe have argued that Europe needs to go its own way.
And for the United States, having that kind of an Ally here in Greece is of significant value, a value that is compounded by the relationships that Greece enjoys as a bridge between the European Union and the Middle East; our close allies and partners in Cyprus, in Israel, Egypt, the Gulf countries; the way in which Greece leveraged the Abraham Accords to rapidly accelerate its relationships simultaneously with Greece and many of the Arab countries.
There aren’t many European countries that have that kind of bridge-building capacity, and again I come back to Themistocles and the Athenian fleets. You look at the outposts of Hellenic influence during the period of classical Athens and you realize how much of that is replicated today when you look where Foreign Minister Dendias or Defense Minister Pangiotopoulos or Prime Minister Mitsotakis have traveled. That is of value to the United States as we try to deepen the network of countries that share our values, which share our interests, and seek to build stability.
And to come back to you question, Greece when I came here was viewed by many as a source of problems or a problem to be dealt with. Today Greece is viewed, certainly by the United States, principally as a source of solutions. A source of solutions in the Western Balkans, a source of solutions in the Eastern Mediterranean, a source of solutions in the Black Sea region and beyond.
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