Ambassador Pyatt’s Remarks at the George C. Marshall Center’s Virtual Seminar on Countering Malign Influence 

Tuesday, March 2, 2021, 1500-1700 

I want to thank the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies (GCMC) for organizing this virtual event on such an important and timely topic.  I want to welcome my friends Latvian Ambassador Peteris Elferts, a proud GCMC alumni, and German Ambassador Ernst Reichel – both here in Athens – as well as my friend Dr. Andrew Michta, Dean of the George C. Marshall Center in Germany.

Let me also say thank you to the speakers this afternoon from the Marshall Center.  And I’m really glad that we’ve been able to do this in partnership with ELIAMEP.  I know we’ve got some ELIAMEP representatives also listening in.  The Marshall Center is by definition a force multiplier, and Andrew and I have been talking for a couple of years about the virtues that I see in building tighter links between the Marshall Center and institutions like ELIAMEP in Athens that are helping Greece to elaborate a more thoughtful, strategic foreign policy.

And I think if there’s one theme that I would single out from my now quite long tenure here in Athens, it’s the degree to which Greece has assumed a new, much more ambitious foreign policy role, in part because it’s been allowed to do so by the progress that it has made in escaping from the financial crisis, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Balkans, where the Prespes Agreement played an enormous role in helping to unlock the Greek relationship with all of the countries of the Western Balkans, and helping countries from Serbia to the south continue to move towards European institutions, European reforms, and Euro-Atlantic institutions.  I’m really proud of the way in which the U.S. government has supported and encouraged a much more sophisticated U.S. policy and Strategic Dialogue between our two capitals in this changed environment.

Of course, when I look back at my ambassadorial tenure and now nearly eight years in Europe, between Ukraine and Greece, the defining feature of that period has been the rise of strategic competition in this part of the world with both Russia and China as great power rivals of the United States, countries which have very different visions for the future of the international system from what we in the Euro-Atlantic community hold dear.  I think how we deal with those challenges is clearly one of the defining issues for foreign policy and strategy in the years ahead.

From my part, I was enormously grateful to see the work that my old colleague Wess Mitchell did in conjunction with NATO’s excellent report on 2030, and the challenges to our Alliance.  And certainly the message that came through loud and clear there that transatlantic cooperation is essential to our common security and to American national security, is a perspective that the Biden Administration is deeply committed to.

On the question of strategic rivalry, I’ll just offer a couple of quick thoughts that I hope will be useful to the conversation to come.  And I’m really delighted that we have such broad participation from all of the Greek alumni network here.  First of all—and I’m lucky also that not only is Ernst my colleague here in Athens, but we overlapped briefly in Ukraine, so both of us lived through that country’s difficulties.  And for me, the period of the invasion of Crimea, the invasion of Eastern Ukraine, was a dramatic illustration of how the hybrid domain in particular, the manipulation of information, has become just one more arena of conflict, and an area where we have to be working together.  And we see that certainly now in the number one challenge for all of our countries, which is defeating the COVID-19 pandemic.

I will say on COVID, especially with this particular audience today, it is heartening to see that leading the charge in the effort to defeat this pandemic is a U.S.-German consortium, the Pfizer vaccine, with a CEO who is himself Greek American, a proud son of Thessaloniki, Albert Bourla.  I think that really does highlight how this pandemic has demanded the closest possible cooperation among all of us, and in particular those of us in the Euro-Atlantic community, again something President Biden and his national security team have emphasized, including in the President’s terrific remarks to the Munich Security Conference two weeks ago, which I hope everybody has taken the time to watch and listen to and to read.

In my case, as Donna noted, I’ve had a somewhat curious foreign service career that has been split roughly evenly between Europe and Asia.  In Europe, I dealt with the malign influence of Russia, the manipulation of energy by Gazprom, all of the challenges to our Euro-Atlantic community.  And in Asia, through service in Hong Kong and Pakistan and China, I’ve lived through what I think is going to be the defining strategic issue of the 21st century, which is the rise of China and the challenge created by a model of techno-authoritarianism, which China now seeks to present as an alternative to our democratic model.  So how we work together on these issues is, I think, job number one, and again, that came through loud and clear in President Biden’s remarks to the Munich Security Conference.

Bringing it back to here in Greece for a second, I have seen over the course of the past five years the challenges that Russia has presented, for instance to the Ecumenical Patriarch, the use of energy as a strategic tool.  And in this regard, I think that one of the less noticed but strategically important developments of the past few years has been the rise of Greece as arguably the most important driver of energy diversification in Southeastern Europe with all of this new energy infrastructure that’s come online: the TAP pipeline, the FSRU in Alexandroupoli, the Greece-Bulgaria interconnector, the new LNG facility in Revithoussa, all of which have weakened the ability of Russia to use energy and to use gas as a source of leverage, not just against Greece, which is secure because it’s part of the European Union, and that’s not going to change, but also against more vulnerable neighbors like the countries of the Western Balkans.

On China, I think we all understand this is a longer-term challenge. One of the things that’s striking to me, and I hope that the speakers today will be able to address it a little bit, is the manipulation of information by the Chinese system.  We saw that in the silencing of doctors in Wuhan a year ago, which has a direct link to the severity of this global pandemic that has turned upside down all of our lives over the past few months.  But also the way in which China has sought to use tools like vaccines as part of its diplomatic strategy, very much linked to the way China has approached its development and financing agenda.

I’m especially glad to have my Latvian colleague here because one of the priorities for us at the Embassy is working with Greece on the Three Seas Initiative, which is very much an answer to China’s Belt and Road and the challenge that that presents to the European Union.  In that regard, again, I’m very pleased to see the Biden Administration moving so fast in its strategic dialogue with all of our European Allies on the question of China and how we contend with the rise of China.

The last point I will make to sort of bring it back to Colonel MacDonald and the Marshall Center: just to emphasize how important our military and security ties continue to be to building our alliances.  We see that almost every single day of the week now, as you’ve seen a real ramping up of the U.S.-Greece military and security relationship.  We have a major transfer of forces underway right now in Alexandroupoli in northern Greece.  We’ve had a series of naval exercises with the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf in conjunction with the Hellenic Navy ship Hydra’s crews on that side of the Suez Canal.

Greece will play a major role in something I’ll be talking about in the days ahead, in Defender 2021, a major NATO exercise that Germany also will be involved with, and we will be taking advantage of the geography that Greece provides and the strong partnership that we’ve been able to build with our Hellenic Armed Forces partners.

So let me stop there and just say, first of all, how much I’m looking forward to today’s conversation, but how much I really treasure the Embassy partnership with the Marshall Center and all of Andrew’s good thoughts about the future of our Euro-Atlantic community.  So thanks all, and I look forward to hearing what folks have to say today.