Conversation with Ambassador Pyatt, Olympia Forum

Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt
Alexia Tasouli – Olympia Forum

September 19, 2020

Alexia Tasouli: Thank you, Ambassador, again, for the privilege to have this conversation with you again, online this time.

Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you, Alexia. I’m really delighted to be able to do it. Like you, I’m really sorry not to be in Olympia on this rainy morning.  Western Greece is a region that I’ve gotten to know pretty well over the past four years. It is, of course, the home of our most important annual Air Force exercise, which I’ve visited every year. And of course, it’s also the home of Patras, and I count it as a source of pride that I’ve been able to get to know Patras pretty well over these years. We’ve put a lot of energy as an embassy into the issues of high technology and digital entrepreneurship. I was thrilled when Think Silicon, one of the companies at the Patras Technology Park that I visited a few years ago, was acquired by one of the giants of the technology industry in California, Applied Materials. And of course, I’ve been to Patras a couple times for the Race of Sacrifice, the bike race from Patras to Kalavryta, so my body remembers that well. We also are really looking forward to next year, the Greek Bicentennial in 2021, and the history there that Western Greece played such an important role in.

Finally, as a Californian, I’ve got a special focus on Ancient Olympia. I always say to Americans, it’s probably the least well known, most important classical site in all of Greece. And we’re hosting the Olympics in 2028 in Los Angeles, and I’m very excited about building stronger links between Ancient Olympia and my hometown of Los Angeles in Southern California as we approach that very important event in the history of my home state.

Again, I’m delighted we get to do this again. Sorry we don’t get to do it in person. I thought Fani and my German counterpart had a terrific conversation, and I hope we can meet the same standards this morning.

Alexia Tasouli: I’m sure we will, Mr. Ambassador.  Let me start our conversation on the U.S. elections. We have less than two months before the elections, and the main question for us here in Greece is if Joe Biden wins the election, what his administration in foreign policy would mean for the Greek interests? My question is also, what will it mean if Donald Trump wins again since a lot of Greek Americans voted for Trump before, but now they seem to be a little disappointed, and they are not certain who they are going to vote for this time.

Ambassador Pyatt: I have to be really careful on this one, Alexia. I’m a career official. My usual answer on these issues starts with, “I don’t do domestic politics.” Moreover, we have a law in the United States which prohibits me from getting involved in any way at all with our internal democracy, which is how it should be.

What I will say is, it’s a source of great pride to me that there is such strong bipartisan — Republican and Democratic — support for the U.S.-Greece relationship. You saw that last year with the passage of the East Med Act, a very important piece of legislation that highlighted U.S. interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the absolutely critical role that Greece and the U.S.-Greece relationship play in that regard. And that of course was driven by Senator Menendez but with extremely strong support from Senator Rubio.

So we’re in the happy situation where I don’t think the outcome of the U.S. election is going to dramatically change U.S.-Greece relations one way or another. And here at the Embassy, what we’re committed to is continuing to work on these issues as hard as we possibly can, to continue to drive the agenda forward, not paying a lot of attention to what happens in November, but continuing to put points on the scoreboard. And I think even in the next couple of weeks, you’ll see some more manifestations of that.

Alexia Tasouli: We hope so. So we don’t expect any miracles because we say here, when a new administration comes in the United States, the foreign policy of each administration remains the same because the U.S. has also a strong alliance with our neighbor Turkey.

Ambassador Pyatt: A more important point, I think, is that the U.S.-Greece relationship is grounded in interests. I think when people ask me, why have we been so successful over the past few years in U.S.-Greece relations, I think a lot of it has to do with converging interests. A shared interest in seeing the countries of the Western Balkans continue to move towards Euro-Atlantic institutions, a shared interest in seeing energy issues in the Eastern Mediterranean be developed in a way that creates opportunity and prosperity for everybody. And I think it’s very important that Minister Hatzidakis and Minister Dendias and of course the Prime Minister continue to say this at every opportunity. Nobody is looking to exclude one state or another. Rather Greece, and this is very important, I think, Greece has been at the center of a web of cooperative relationships. Whether it’s the trilateral Greece-Israel-Cyprus; the trilateral Greece-Cyprus-Egypt; and now increasingly, the interconnection of those webs of cooperation.

So we’re going to focus on continuing to deepen those interests. We had a very important institutional development two years ago when we created the U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue as a vehicle to bring together all the different pillars of our cooperation – energy, security, law enforcement, counterterrorism, economic growth, people-to-people ties. And that’s one institution which I’m very proud of, and it’s clearly taken on great importance as a way of bringing together the various efforts that our governments are engaged in and then putting a political impetus on top of them. I think we’re in a very positive situation right now because for both governments, there is at the senior-most level, from President Trump and from Prime Minister Mitsotakis, an absolute commitment to continuing to build on this relationship, and I think that’s going to continue.

Turkey is an area where U.S. and Greek relations converge. I think you and I have talked about this before. Among the NATO member states, there are few countries as closely aligned with the U.S. as is Greece on the principle that we have to keep Turkey anchored in the West. That the worst outcome of all would be for Turkey to become untethered from Western institutions, from NATO. That we want to see Turkey remain on the path towards the European Union and towards European reforms.

This is not going to be easy, and there have been some setbacks over the past few years, but that’s certainly where our focus is going to remain. And I know from talking to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and others in the Greek government on this, there’s nobody in Greece who wants to see the United States walk away from Turkey.

Alexia Tasouli: You mentioned Strategic Dialogue, and I remember in the past that Greece has put an agreement on defense issues with the United States as part of the Strategic Dialogue. Now at the same time, Greece is about to strengthen its armed forces by buying new weapon systems. Greece is about to acquire Rafales from France and a new frigate, and a new defense deal is about to be signed with France. How does the United States see all these decisions from the Greek government?

Ambassador Pyatt: We welcome these decisions. We want to see Greece, which is a strong and effective NATO Ally, the United States has placed a particular emphasis on all of our NATO Allies meeting their Wales commitment to spending two percent of GDP on defense, and Greece is one of the few NATO Allies that consistently meets that target, and these new acquisitions will further that.

Of course part of my job is to support American exports and American companies, and we’re doing very well on that in the defense realm including, of course, the major F-16 upgrade program, the MH-60 Romeo maritime helicopters that the Prime Minister announced as part of his remarks in Thessaloniki will go to the United States. We have the P-3 upgrade program. And the United States is going to be very, very competitive on the initiative that the Prime Minister has launched for the four new frigates. In fact next week we’re going to have a team from the U.S. Navy here in Greece meeting with the Defense Minister, but also importantly, visiting the major shipyards in order to assess the prospects and the capabilities of Greek shipyards to be part of a coproduction for these next generation frigates that the Prime Minister has committed to acquire.

The U.S. defense industry is extremely competitive in Greece, in part because companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have years and years of experience with coproduction, with technology transfer, and they have the relationships with the Hellenic Ministry of Defense that puts us in a very good position.

We’re not going to win everything, and from that perspective, the Rafale acquisition that the Prime Minister announced is natural. And from an American perspective, it’s also helpful because it further modernizes the Hellenic Air Force and enhances the capabilities that Greece has to serve as a goodNATO Ally and to advance our collective interests.

It’s exactly the same way we look at the German submarines which have been part of escort missions for U.S. naval craft in the Eastern Mediterranean. That’s how an alliance works.

Alexia Tasouli: You mentioned your interest in shipyards, and I know that the investment Syros, in Neorion, went very well. You’re satisfied. Should we expect soon any news about the investment, the American investment either in Skaramagas or Elefsina?

Ambassador Pyatt: The big news there is something that Minister Georgiadis talked about publicly the other day in his remarks at the Economist Conference. That is, on Monday, I will be welcoming here in Athens a very large U.S. delegation led by the CEO of our Development Finance Corporation, Adam Boehler, but including representatives from the NSC, from our Export/Import Bank, from the Department of State, and from the Department of Commerce. They will all be here in furtherance of the two big Development Finance Corporation initiatives in Greece.

The most mature of those initiatives is DFC’s expression of interest in the Elefsina shipyard jointly with the American company Onex. Onex, of course, has already taken over operational control of the shipyard which is good for Greece and good for the Ministry of Defense because it means that the torpedo boats there are closer to being completed and closer to being delivered to their Hellenic Navy customer. But Onex has much bigger plans for Elefsina which, much like the work that Onex did successfully at Syros, is aimed at reviving the Greek shipbuilding industry and turning Elefsina into a major maintenance and construction hub for shipping, including LNG tankers and all kinds of other heavy ships that used to be serviced here in Attica in an industry that had largely collapsed over the course of the decade-long crisis.

So this is very exciting to me. I know it’s a priority for the Prime Minister. I was glad to hear him talking about shipbuilding in particular in his remarks with Daniel Franklin at the Economist Conference. And I think it’s important to the United States that this isn’t just an area where Greece has long experience. It’s also, the maritime domain is an area that’s deeply woven into Greek history and Greek culture.

When I go to Syros, there’s so much pride among the shipyard workers there that they have gotten back to work, and they are delivering quality products again. But there’s also pride among these world class champions of global shipping. Companies like Tsakos and Prokopiou and Martinos, all of whom are very pleased to be able to bring some of their vessels to Syros, and we hope eventually to Elefsina, for maintenance and repair.

Alexia Tasouli: Allow me to move on from investment and economics to politics and to the Greek-Turkish relations. Because it’s going to be —

Ambassador Pyatt: I knew we’d get there eventually.

Alexia Tasouli: It’s my favorite subject these days.

So we have the Greek-Turkish relationship, but do you see that de-escalation is going to be possible between the two countries? Because we’re waiting for the exploratory talks, but they haven’t been announced yet. And how do you see the role of Germany as a mediator between Ankara and Athens these days?

Ambassador Pyatt: I listened carefully to what my friend and colleague Ernst had to say, and I think we have very similar perspectives, which is no surprise because we’ve been coordinating closely.

This is a great example of effective transatlantic burden-sharing and cooperation. Germany, the United States, Greece, France, all of us have been working together on these issues. The return to port of the Oruc Reis was an important de-escalation step. It’s one that we strongly, strongly welcome. And now all of our focus, and I think that includes the Greek government, is on getting back to the exploratory talks, which we hope will provide a diplomatic means in order to address some of these longstanding issues of EEZ and continental shelf.

We are very, very focused on the principle that these issues, as my boss Secretary of State Pompeo has said on a couple of occasions, need to be resolved through diplomacy and dialogue. Not through military actions or confrontation on the high seas.

So we were very glad to see the redeployment of the Oruc Reis. I was also very glad to hear the signals from Ankara come in over the past few days indicating that Turkey too sees the redeployment of the Oruc Reis as an important gesture of de-escalation.

So we’ve gotten this to the point where now everybody can go back to the diplomatic table. How that diplomacy unfolds is going to depend first and foremost on the two involved states, Greece and Turkey. We hope very much that all sides will continue to refrain from destabilizing actions that will again raise tensions and make it harder to achieve the diplomatic breakthrough that would allow us to see some of these issues resolved.

I want to say one other thing on this, Alexia, which I think is really important. I’ve had this conversation with a couple of people in the Greek government as well.

I’ve obviously, and the U.S. government, has spent a lot of time and energy on these Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean tensions over the past two months or so. I would much rather have my focus be on investment, economic recovery, defeating the pandemic, how we work together. So I think we share an interest with the Prime Minister in that regard as well.

Alexia Tasouli: You mentioned the Kalin statement, and these statements were very welcome. Mr. Kalin said the message for diplomacy. At the same time, we see other officials, and even Mr. Erdogan saying provocative statements, and have new NAVTEX inside Cyprus for Barbaros and Yavuz, and you have this in the Aegean. So how can a dialogue take place when you have some officials having good statements in favor of diplomacy and some other actions that are not in favor of de-escalation?

Ambassador Pyatt: This is the challenge of diplomacy, especially in a lively democracy like Greece’s. You have a free press. Everybody has different perspectives. Henry Kissinger used to say that you knew diplomacy was getting serious when people stopped talking in the press. Or at least when you stopped reading about it. That’s harder to do in these days of Twitter and hot takes, where everybody is responding to hourly developments.

But I will just at this point speak for the United States and speak for my conversations with the Greek government. I have absolutely no doubt that the Greek government, Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his cabinet, are 100 percent committed to a diplomatic solution and are committed to the hard work and the compromises that will be necessary to see these issues resolved in a way that allows everybody to get the focus back to the economy, to the pandemic, to moving this region forward.

Alexia Tasouli: During the summer, was there a time when the two countries were close to a serious accident like the serios crisis that we had in Imia in 1996.

Ambassador Pyatt: Of course you had a serious accident in the collision between the Limnos and the Kemal Reis. I think that was a real wake-up call for everybody. It was clear to us that the Greek Navy captain involved, the captain of the Limnos, acted quickly to avert an even worse accident.

We strongly support the work that NATO has been doing in a very narrow, technically focused way to help the two governments reaffirm standard principles of deconfliction, the rules of the road, if you will, to avert this kind of accident in the future. We welcome that progress. We hope that it will be able to lower tensions. But I think it’s important also to understand that NATO’s agenda is very narrow. This is not a political negotiation, and this is not a replacement for the exploratory talks that will be led by Ambassador Apostolidis on the Greek side. It’s focused narrowly on the question of how to make sure that these complicated and lethal military systems don’t produce an accident between two NATO Allies.

Alexia Tasouli: A couple more questions, Ambassador. Thank you for the time.

On energy diversification, there is a great American interest in the harbor of Alexandroupolis. What are the perspectives from now on regarding the harbor of Alexandroupolis?

Ambassador Pyatt: This is an incredibly exciting time in the U.S.-Greece energy story. You see increasing cooperation across a broad range of issues. U.S.-exported LNG has accounted for about half of Greece’s overall LNG imports so far in 2020. A lot of that is because of the expansion of the Revithoussa Terminal. We’re also working very hard to support all of this other new gas infrastructure in Greece. The TAP pipeline, which will come on-line later this year, culminating literally decades of American diplomacy to build a southern gas corridor. The construction, which is now underway, of the IGB between Greeceand Bulgaria. And then the FSRU in Alexandroupolis.

I think what’s especially exciting about the FSRU is its regional impact, because you see the Bulgarian investment in the FSRU; we had Borisov here in Athens just a few weeks ago. Serbia’s decision to contract for capacity from the FSRU. And now just this week, the visit of Prime Minister Zaev, and I was really glad to be able to talk to the North Macedonian Prime Minister and to hear his strong interest in becoming, like Bulgaria, an investor in the FSRU and using the FSRU to bring liquid natural gas into North Macedonia.

What’s important here is that all of these countries that I’ve talked about — Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Serbia — they are all 100 percent dependent on Russia today, and that means they have no leverage on issues of pricing. It means that they are subject to the political manipulation of energy supplies that Russia has engaged in in the past, and it means that they don’t have options when it comes to developing their future energy mix.

So the FSRU provides options. That’s why the United States has supported it.

I’m quite confident that the project is going to proceed now. In fact, the investors at this stage are over-subscribed. I’m also very committed to continuing to work with American LNG suppliers so that just like the Revithoussa expansion, when the FSRU comes online, a lot of the gas that comes through it comes from the United States.

All these countries are going to continue to purchase Russian gas. That’s fine. That’s the nature of the legacy infrastructure. But the point is, Russia will never again be able to use gas as a weapon. Russia will never again be able to use gas to threaten the sovereignty and the policy choices of these governments in the Western Balkans who are looking to diversify their supplies and build their energy security.

Alexia Tasouli: Thank you very much for the time, Ambassador. Our scheduled time is over. Thank you for your time and for your extremely interesting remarks. I hope we can do it next time in person in Olympia maybe or somewhere else. Thank you very much for your time.

Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you very much. Have a great day, and let me say also, I’m of course watching the rain out the window here, but having lived through cyclones in Hong Kong and seeing how damaging these can be, I’m really thinking about the people in the Peloponnese, especially the Western Peloponnese. So I hope everybody in Patras and Olympia and that part of the country stays safe over the next day or two.

Alexia Tasouli: We hope so too. Thank you very much!