“Security in an Insecure World”
December 17, 2020
Thank you very much Ambassador Prevelakis, and Theo, thank you for the invitation to come speak again. I want to say what a pleasure and honor it is to be on the circuit with so many old friends and colleagues. It’s great to see Jim Townsend there and also Admiral Apostolakis who gets so much credit in my mind for laying the foundation for the extraordinary military-to-military relationship we enjoy with Greece today.
I also want to say it’s a real pleasure to have the opportunity to speak to some of the issues that Ambassador Lyberopoulos addressed. There won’t be a lot of daylight between us, so I hope we’ll have some time for questions.
I also want to say Ambassador Prevelakis, since you mentioned the OECD, I just want to commend Greece for proposing such a highly qualified candidate as Secretary General, and the United States shares your objective. That is, we wish to see an organization which is effective and fulfills its important multilateral mission. So may the best man or woman win as the case may be, but I do want to highlight my personal regard for your nominee. Anna is both a friend but also a really superb representative of Greece’s interests before the OECD.
I want to touch on three quick baskets of issues. One is the broad state of the U.S.-Greece relationship. Another, our military-to-military ties. And finally some thoughts on the future of NATO as viewed from here in Athens.
I want to start on the bilateral point. I’m just coming from a meeting with Prime Minister Mitsotakis and our Secretary of Energy, Secretary Brouillette. It reminded me once again of the extraordinary moment that we have arrived at in U.S.-Greece relations. This is a relationship that is stronger today than it has been at any time in modern history, and we’re really fortunate to enjoy the leadership of Prime Minister Mitsotakis, who is somebody who is deeply committed to our transatlantic ties, somebody who shares America’s vision for the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkans as a region of stability, prosperity, economic opportunity. And somebody who frankly also believes in the critical importance of our transatlantic community working together to address the global challenges that we face today. Whether that’s the pandemic or climate change or what we do about China’s malign behavior and exploitative economic policies.
So we’re very proud of the partnership that we have there, and I would emphasize how significant it is that Prime Minister Mitsotakis has been so unambiguous in his views at a moment when there are voices in Europe throwing around terms like “strategic autonomy” that I think can lead in very unfortunate directions. I would argue that our strategic and multi-faceted relationship is really a success story that demonstrates how much we have to gain from each other by across-the-board, intense cooperation.
Of course, when it comes to the U.S.-Greece relationship, one of the shining stars, one of the strongest pillars is our energy ties, and we’ve talked about that a lot with Prime Minister Mitsotakis and with Minister Hatzidakis, but another standout area is our defense ties. And I say this with Jim on the line, somebody who’s worked a lot on U.S.-Greece defense relations, but it is really striking to see where we are today compared to where we were in the summer of 2016 when I was sworn in for this job.
I think there’s been a strategic approach that we have taken which is grounded first and foremost in the principle that Greece should be seen as a source of solutions to the challenges that the United States faces both in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Western Balkans. It’s helped greatly by the fact that Greece has consistently surpassed its Wales Pledge in terms of defense expenditures.
We also place great value on the fact that Greece has chosen to use American suppliers for so much of its recent defense procurement, whether it’s the F-16 Viper upgrades, the new Romeo helicopters, the upgrade to the P-3s, which combined with the Romeos, will give Greece one of the best maritime domain awareness capabilities anywhere in NATO’s southeastern flank. And also the big projects we have on the horizon including Greece’s acquisition of four new naval frigates and a future schedule for acquiring F-35s.
So we’ve got a lot going on in our defense ties, but the real heart of it in my mind is the way our militaries work together. We took a big step forward last October, in October of 2019 when Secretary of State Pompeo, my boss, and Minister Dendias signed an update to our Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement. Again, this is something that Jim and I were talking about when he was still in office. What’s really important is not only did we sign a significant expansion of that agreement, and I’ll detail that in a minute, but now we’ve actually started the conversation about how to go a step further. I think that demonstrates the success of the leap forward that we took together.
The update to the MDCA was important because it both deepened our cooperation at Souda Bay, and that deepening was essential the U.S. Navy’s decision to homeport its newest expeditionary platform ship, the Hershel “Woody” Williams in Souda, so this is the first U.S. Navy vessel that will be homeported in Greece since the end of the Cold War. We could not have done that without the MDCA. But we’ve also opened up new facilities.
Today we have the 101st Airborne spending the winter at Stefanovikio Air Base in central Greece and exercising every day in the unique atmosphere that Greece provides, especially in the winter. Being able to access over-water training opportunities and the top of Mt. Olympus within 20 minutes of each other. There’s no place else in the world that the U.S. Army can do that. That was facilitated by the expansion of the MDCA.
This is the third rotation. These aviation brigades that are coming to Greece are units that were originally sent to Europe in the context of the European Union Enforcement Initiative and the Russian invasion of Crimea, but the U.S. Army was looking for opportunities for those pilots to maintain their proficiency during the winter when it’s hard to fly in places like Poland or the Baltics or Germany, so they’ve come to Greece for three winters now, and this has been a very successful undertaking which U.S. Army Europe intends to continue well out into the future.
Finally, the third facility that we added as part of the MDCA aside from Larissa Air Base, where we’ve been flying MQ-9s, is Alexandroupolis which is a critically and strategically located port which provides an alternative line of communications with the Black Sea. We demonstrated the utility and the effectiveness of Alexandroupolis as a military reception port this summer when the ARC Endurance, one of the big, heavy carrier ships came into Alexandroupolis to deliver a U.S. Army unit and was heading into the Black Sea region into Bulgaria and Romania, and we’re going to exercise that capability to a much larger extent next summer as part of the big Defender 21 Series.
Then finally in this area of military-to-military cooperation, I would also highlight a really thriving special forces relationship. We have a new SEAL Team Souda with their small craft which are based in Souda Bay. Greece was the host of Jackal Stone two years ago, the Special Forces Command’s largest, most expensive and most complex contingency exercise. And we’re working with the Hellenic Army and Hellenic military and General Floros as he seeks to develop Greece’s Special Forces capability and also leveraging Greece’s dramatically improved relationship with its neighbors to develop a regional NATO Special Forces capability.
So there’s a lot of goodness going on which demonstrates the old saw that we’re stronger together.
Finally on the future of NATO, I can’t do very much better than my friend and former colleague Wess Mitchell. For anybody who has not yet read the 2030 report that he co-drafted, I would really commend it to your attention. Wess was of course my partner in the elaboration of the framework for the new U.S.-Greece relationship, our strategic dialogue, our 3+1 with Greece, Israel and Cyprus. Those were all bureaucratic innovations that we could not have accomplished without Wess’ involvement.
The most important single message that I took out of that 2030 report was the critical requirement for NATO to take a hard look at the challenges of great power rivalry. Wess has characterized the rise of China and the emergence of China as a rival in Europe as the greatest single change in NATO’s strategic environment since the end of the Cold War. Certainly something that we have to work together to address, recognizing that China is a state which has a dramatically different vision from our transatlantic community in terms of how our societies, politics, and economics should be organized.
And then there’s the question of Russia. Having spent much of the past seven years dealing with the fallout of Russia’s malign behavior and four years now in Greece, I would just highlight the requirement for all of us to take a hard look at the activities and the malign activities that Russia is engaged with here, both in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Western Balkans. During my time in Athens, we’ve seen Russia amount a coup attempt in Montenegro to prevent that country’s accession to NATO.
We’ve seen Russia seek to undermine the Prespes Agreement and thereby prevent North Macedonia from becoming a NATO member. In fact, its actions were so extreme that the Greek Foreign Ministry expelled two Russian diplomats and two Russians here under non-official cover. But we also see a consistent pattern of behavior that Secretary of State Pompeo highlighted in his statement just the other day, this driving a whole variety of Russian malign behavior across the Eastern Mediterranean.
Sitting in Brussels and at NATO Headquarters sometimes, I know people feel like Souda is a long way away. What you feel when you’re sitting in Souda Bay is that Libya is 20 minutes’ flight to the south. And so there is great concern, of course, with the Wagner mercenaries that Russia has introduced in Libya, who are literally due south from NSA Souda Bay, and the profoundly destabilizing impact of that action, as well as Russia’s activities in Syria. We’ve also seen Russian efforts to undermine the unity of the Orthodox Church and manipulate energy resources to extract political concessions, all of which are behaviors that Greece lives with in a very immediate way.
I would also note in this regard the great importance that we in the United States place on the step that Greece took through the conclusion of the Prespes Agreement and how important Greece has become as a partner to all of the countries of the Western Balkans, helping North Macedonia to become a successful member of NATO. And now much of our conversation with Secretary Brouillette was about the opportunities that Prespes has created for Greece to become the principal energy partner of Serbia, of Kosovo, of North Macedonia. Greece has already helped to liberate Bulgaria from its dependence on Gazprom. This is a whole new equation which I think will be especially important in the context of an American presidential transition.
My next boss, Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken, has probably spent more time working in and on the Balkans than any U.S. Secretary in history, and so I know he will be keenly aware of both the strategic environment that Greece operates in but also the opportunities that Prespes has unlocked for Greece’s constructive role in the neighborhood.
Finally, one other issue that was alluded to in Wess Mitchell’s 2030 report, and it goes to the China question, and that’s 5G. I would just highlight the importance of the conversation that we’re having with the Greek government, including the Ministry of Defense, on issues of cyber security and in particular the appreciation we have for the fact that Prime Minister Mitsotakis was well ahead of the curve in recognizing the importance to protect Greece’s 5G networks from Huawei and other unreliable suppliers.
So Greece made policy statements early in 2020 that the rest of the world has largely caught up with now, but I think again it’s a tribute to his clarity of vision and also his recognition that choices need to be made.
I think we’ve got a little bit of time for conversation. And again, I want to say thank you to Theo for what you’re doing with this event and the commitment from the U.S. Embassy and from the United States more broadly to work jointly with Greece to make sure that we continue to reinforce the commitment that both of our governments have demonstrated to our NATO alliance.