Greek-American Relations Conference: Remarks by Ambassador Philip T. Reeker

Ambassador Reeker with Deputy Chief of Mission Kate Byrnes. (State Department Photo)

September 14, 2018

Ambassador Reeker: Thank you for that introduction, and more importantly, thank you for organizing this conference. Some of the speakers said earlier, this is really an extraordinary day to have this conference and it does represent in and of itself an extraordinary moment in Greek-American relations, and I’m delighted to be here and be a part of that. I do want to thank you and other organizers, the International Relations Department, the University of Macedonia. I’ve waited a long time to visit the University of Macedonia. The University of Piraeus, the International Studies Department. The Governor, who had [a meeting] last night and again this morning, Governor of Central Macedonia. And of course my colleagues in the press and the U.S. Mission to Greece, Ambassador Pyatt who’s a tremendous diplomat, a good friend; Kate Byrnes, the Deputy Chief of Mission who does extraordinary work. She and I have worked together many times in our careers. The Consulate. All of the Americans here are dedicated to the idea of a vital and growing U.S.-Greek relationship.

And I’m sincerely grateful for the opportunity to speak to you as an Ambassador, as a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the broader region, I’ve spent a great deal of my life and my career in this part of the world. And as I say truly in earnest every time I return, it’s good to be back. Particularly in the academic community, and to be here for the Thessaloniki International Fair, which is a manifestation of world renown. I’ve known about it for many years. To be able to visit the fair and the U.S. Pavilion, have the United States as the Honored Country, is really a great moment.

In my current position as the Civilian Deputy Commander to General Michael Scaparrotti at the United States European Command, or EUCOM as it’s known, I was delighted that the Mission and the organizers had the idea to include me in the program. I think I have a pretty unique vantage point. A fascinating job that combines military security issues with diplomacy.

Why does the Commander of U.S. Forces in Europe have a Civilian Deputy Commander? Well, it illustrates that General Scaparrotti is dedicated to the commission of the integration of the State Department and the Defense Department of security, military and diplomacy in fulfilling our national security needs and our engagement in the broader world, particularly here in Europe.

And essentially in my role, I serve as Commander, General Scaparrotti’s link to the U.S. missions and the diplomatic communities all across Europe and Israel. It’s a broad mandate, and I emphasize that geographic breadth of my team’s portfolio in order to give weight to the fact that of all the bilateral military relationships the United States enjoys with European countries that which we have with Greece is considered one of the strongest.

I really would like to echo a statement that my colleague and friend Ambassador Pyatt often makes. He always says the United States considers Greece to be a pillar of stability in the region. I can tell you from experience that our military leadership is strongly aligned with this sentiment for a number of reasons.

We have a unique moment now where we have this incredible team — diplomatic team, interagency team here at our Mission, the Consulate here in Thessaloniki that is motivated and engaged, working closely with the Department of State in the body of a particularly dynamic Assistant Secretary for Europe and that is Wes Mitchell who I know hopes to visit here soon; and his Deputy Assistant Secretary, one of my successors, Matthew Palmer, who was just here at the opening of the Thessaloniki International Fair. They are very much focused on the region, on U.S. strategic relations, on the transatlantic partnership. And that remarkable team I think is matched with what we have on our side with General Scaparrotti who wears two hats — the Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, the head of NATO’s military structure, and the head of U.S. Forces in Europe. He’s just a remarkable visionary renaissance man, the General, and it’s a great honor for me to work for him.

I want to take a minute and look at the historical context in which we’re holding this International Fair, this academic conference, on this very day in the year 2018. Assistant Secretary Mitchell often talks about this historical context, and I appreciate the way he looks at where we are now in the context of history, particularly here in a region that is often described as one that has more history than it can consume.

The 1st World War, of course, we’re marking the 100th Anniversary, the centenary of the end of the 1st World War. This region knew that war well. None of you, but your grandparents, your great-grandparents perhaps, knew how that war affected every aspect of their lives. The Eastern Front that is not far from here at all was one of the major battle lines in the 1st World War. And read the history because what people went through, the suffering, was really horrific.

The United States entered that war in 1917 and helped bring it to an end. I was just with General Scaparrotti a couple of weeks ago in [Inaudible], France where we commemorated one of the battles where the American forces joined, and it was a turning point in the war, the beginning of the end for the Germans on those horrible front lines in the Western Front. And of course, as I said, here on the Eastern Front as well.

Of course, the war ended, and the United States went home. Everybody wanted to get back, bring their sons and daughters home, and that’s what we did. We all know the history, two decades later we had to come back. In 1941 the United States was again in Europe, came back to Europe using massive resources to arm and fund a new great alliance, a great alliance that freed the European continent.

And this time, well, everybody wanted to go home and their sons and daughters come back. My own grandfather was a naval officer in the 2nd World War. Not in Greece, but he participated in the Sicily Campaign, the Italian Campaign, and ultimately in 1944 in the landing at Normandy to help bring an end to that war. And I have the correspondence between my grandfather and my grandmother as he wrote things are over and they keep saying we’re going to go home. Of course, he finally did go home, but America stayed. America stayed in Europe and rebuilt Europe. We dug Europe’s great cities out of the rubble. We shipped tons of supplies, food, clothing, fuel for winter, heavy equipment. We shipped all of that to Europe to resurrect European civilization.

We built permanent military bases, we laid the foundations for NATO — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. We funded the Marshall Plan. More than $110 billion in today’s terms. And we insisted that Europe’s nations drop trade barriers and coordinate to rebuild one another.

Now we’re looking at the Thessaloniki International Fair and the Governor spoke this morning about this moment in time in innovation and entrepreneurship where Thessaloniki and this region of Central Macedonia can lead the way forward as Greece emerges from years of terrible economic hardship. And the United States wants to be a part of that.

In this regional context, as we think about the 70th Anniversary of the Marshall Plan, almost 75 years since the end of World War II, I’d like to focus today and share some thoughts on the importance of NATO and regional partnerships and the ways in which regional institutions are helping to advance security and stability including here in the Eastern Mediterranean.

First, I think it’s important to say that regarding the U.S. relationship with NATO and with the European Union, I want to emphasize that the United States remains steadfast. Our security commitment to our allies are ironclad and non-negotiable. It is America’s interests for allies to be strong, sovereign, prosperous and committed to the advancement of our shared values and ideals. And if you doubt any of that, just read the Joint Declaration from the NATO Summit just a couple of months ago signed by all the leaders including President Trump underscoring exactly those messages.

Terrorism, Russian aggressive actions, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and unprecedented migration flows to Europe are among the most pressing challenges we all face, and you know that here very well.

Just as we can’t ignore these challenges to our security, we can’t face them alone. None of us. Partnerships and alliances, institutions, organizations, have to be a part of that, working together just as we have for over 70 years, preserving the longest period of stability and peace in the European space.

As you may well know, burden-sharing within NATO and encouraging allies to increase defense spending are among the top foreign policy priorities of the current U.S. administration.

But while we encourage countries to step up and meet their commitments, it in no way undercuts our commitment. And Greece, of course, is one of the few countries, one of eight in fact, that has consistently met its NATO defense spending commitments. Even amidst prolonged economic difficulties.

While meeting the numeric targets for defense spending is itself a success story, we’re seeing a lot of progress in that regard, Greece has also committed to investing significant resources into developing military capabilities and operational effectiveness in addition to supporting and hosting an increasing network of NATO and bilateral military exercises. And all this has to be done in the context of scarce resource, economic hardships, but understanding that security, which creates stability, is ultimately vital and necessary for prosperity.

Indeed, right here in Thessaloniki the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps, Greece, is one of only nine Multinational Graduated Readiness Courses Land Headquarters in the NATO force structure. Twenty-nine NATO members and one of the nine Multinational Headquarters is here in Thessaloniki. I’m sorry that I won’t be able to stay later, after this talk, because I have to go visit the NATO [NRGC] in Greece.

They are ready and able to support all Article 5 and non-Article 5 missions of course on a case by case basis. That’s a lot of NATO jargon, but that aside, Greece has proven to be not only a willing but a very capable NATO partner, reflected further in Greece’s recent commitment to upgrade its fleet of F-16 aircraft and really the role that Greece has played since it joined NATO in 1952.

The U.S. Naval Support Activity with our Greek hosts at Souda Bay is another tangible example of our security cooperation, and it’s somewhat of a crown jewel of our military to military relationship bilaterally as well as within the alliance. Souda Bay, of course, is the largest deep water port in the Mediterranean, hosting around 240 NATO ship visits per year. That’s a lot of ship visits. And it serves as an air and sea logistic hub.

Souda Bay is key not only to supporting critical U.S. activity in the region and beyond, but it’s an important resource for Greece and for our Greek military colleagues from the standpoint of training and exercises.

And of course, I think the fact that the flagship of the United States Navy 6th Fleet, the Mount Whitney, is currently pier-side here in Thessaloniki. In fact I think it just left the pier as we were coming in. We could see the Mount Whitney begin to pull out from the pier after a very successful visit here.

This is further evidence of our security partnership and this moment in time that I think we can be very proud of.

We’re grateful for Greece’s commitment to the world’s most successful alliance in history. For all of its challenges and differences and trials and triumphs, NATO is far and away the most successful security alliance, and the goal of that alliance is to maintain peace and stability so that we can have a prosperous [inaudible] space.

I’m confident that we can all agree that our alliances must be strengthened, of course, in the context of the current strategic environment. The lack of diligence in modernizing our alliance approach will only invite greater risk. As General Scaparrotti underscores, in the 21st century, in 2018 and beyond, what we have to look at is interoperability, mobility of forces and equipment, and we have to look at the hybrid threats that we face in terms of cyber warfare, space issues. And this is all part of what NATO is focusing on, all of us together as partners.

As you may know, Greece has recently hosted some of the most senior members of the U.S. military to include Admiral Foggo, the NATO Joint Forces Commander based in Naples and the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and of course, the 6th Fleet itself is headquartered in Naples.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, visited Greece earlier this month, and I can tell you from experience that engagements at this level, these are busy guys who have worldwide responsibilities. It really makes a difference and they want to come to Greece.

Consistent high-level cooperation has brought the level of U.S.-Greece defense cooperation to its highest point in the modern era. Through the alliance, but also bilaterally and through our work together in other formations with other countries.

Thanks to these engagements, our cooperation is expanding. In fact, in addition to the Navy’s engagement, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Army components in Europe are eagerly pursuing several different opportunities for training in and partnering with Greece.

U.S. European Command staffing components see great value in cultivating these relationships not only because they further our strategic priorities in the region, but because we value the unique approach, and importantly, the regional insights our Greek counterparts bring to the table. Greece plays a leadership role in the Balkans, in the Eastern Mediterranean, and looking as we said this morning as a country that bridges in many ways East and West. Historically and geographically.

So what our counterparts can tell us, as I discovered meeting with Admiral Apostolakis yesterday in Athens is really, really valuable and our leadership from Secretary Mattis, Secretary Pompeo at the State Department, and the senior generals all appreciate that very much.

So it is in a regional context that the United States supports Greece taking the initiative to build bridges and to be an ever-broadening group of regional partners with a mutual interest in security, stability and prosperity.

For instance, Greek bilateral [efforts] with Israel and with Cyprus; the Greek-Egypt-Cyprus trilateral; and other emerging strategic geographies all demonstrate the leadership that Athens plays in this neighborhood.

This too is of utmost importance. Greece exists at the nexus of three separate strategic problem sets that we face in 2018 and going forward. Its position is therefore critical and unique in the world and particularly along Europe’s southern flank.

On the one hand is the ongoing conflict in Syria. As the Civilian Deputy of United States European Command, I’ve learned more about Syria and about Iran than I ever would have imagined, but it indicates the fact that the problem sets and geography overlap. And so our forces in Europe, our engagement with the NATO alliance, we have to pay attention to what’s going on in other regions. Our Central Command, combatant command area which includes the Middle East.

The threat of Iran and asymmetric threats from the Eastern Mediterranean [are present]. To the south, the instability and emergence of refugees and other problems emerging from the as yet to be united Libya. And to the north, the maligned influence of Russia exercised with illegal annexation of Crimea and increased militarization of the Black Sea.

Greece is a critical ally in dealing with all three of these challenging areas.

Allow me to say just a little bit more about Russia. Through the 4.5 years since the invasion of Crimea, the international community has appropriate been united in condemning Russia’s aggressive efforts to foment instability and discord and its continuing disrespect for other nations’ sovereignty. As the NATO leaders concluded in the 2018 Summit Declaration, Russia’s aggressive actions including the threat and use of force to attain political goals challenges the alliance and are undermining Euro-Atlantic security and the rules-based international order.

The leaders at the NATO Summit went on to say that NATO does not seek confrontation with and poses no threat to Russia. NATO is a defensive alliance from its very foundation, from its founding documents the treaty makes very clear that it has no offensive goals. It’s defensive in nature. And I know from my own now more than a quarter-century of experience in European diplomacy that the United States and NATO allies very much want to have a more positive relationship with Russia. We extended the hand in many ways at the end of the Cold War to support Russia and the successor states of the Soviet Union and we pose no threat to them. But we also made clear that there can be no return to business as usual until there is a clear, constructive change in Russia’s actions, in the actions of Vladimir Putin and his regime to demonstrate compliance with international law and norms and obligations and responsibilities.

In this context, I think it’s good to point to the importance and success of what we call Atlantic Resolve. An institution, or a series of allied military actions which are designed to reassure NATO’s allies including Greece, and partners, reassure them of America’s dedication to enduring peace and stability in the region in light of the changed Russian behaviors.

This year Greece contributed tremendously to the success of Atlantic Resolve by enabling a substantial portion of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade to enter the European theater through the Port of Thessaloniki. Again, using this terrific port and the support of our Greek allies.

They departed after the exercise through the Port of Alexandroupolis. It’s important to remember that while Thessaloniki is the larger port, there are other important ports and geography matters.

As a result, the alliance showed once again its superior and efficient logistical capabilities, interoperability that I talked about. The ability to mobilize resources quickly to deal with any potential threats. And we saw a better and more innovative way to use existing resources here in Greece to achieve our joint and multilateral objectives — something that we plan to continue doing in the future.

In the same category, I flag the Balkans. The region which is, we believe, a critical region and where we appreciate very much Greece’s leadership in promoting the integration of the whole Western Balkans into Euro-Atlantic institutions. As we pursue a Europe that is whole, free and at peace, as we’ve said over successive presidential administrations and leadership, that has remained our goal, the goal of the alliance. We have to finish some of the uncompleted business, and that includes integrating the Western Balkans into those institutions.

Following the signing of the Prespes Agreement in June, the NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg invited the government in Skopje to begin accession talks with NATO upon implementation of the agreement and all its details. The agreement that was signed between Prime Minister Tsipras and Prime Minister Zaev. This really is, we believe, a historic opportunity to improve security, stability and economic prospects for the whole region.

Now I know, and believe me, I know because I’ve lived this, it is a difficult and emotional issue for many people in both countries. I talked about my grandfather and how I look at the role he played, the contribution he and what we call the greatest generation made in World War II to ending the horrors on this continent and instituting a set of values and norms and institutions to protect our security and preserve this space for prosperity.

But I would say that it is often important not to think just of our grandfathers, but to think of our grandchildren. And frankly, I think that our grandfathers, your grandfathers, the grandfathers of people north of here and all across the region, would be very proud of the steps taken by brave leaders today not because they’re perfect, not because anybody loves to have to do this, but because the leaders today are doing what our grandfathers did. The actions they took, they were doing in the context in which they lived to preserve and make a better world for their grandchildren, and that’s what leaders today are doing with the agreement like [Prespas]. They’re looking ahead to their grandchildren in the context of the world today. This is not the 19th century. This is not post-World War I. This is not post-World War II. We are where we are in 2018, and we have great opportunity by working together to keep doing regionally where I see a tremendous chance to improve economic, commercial, transportation ties which again create jobs, create economic movement and growth, attract investment, present a broader stability including to American companies who are eager, as we’ve seen with the Thessaloniki International Fair, eager to come to Greece, eager to come to this region. And when they see signs of moving beyond tensions, I think they’re ever more confident in coming here.

So perhaps in that context, it’s worth briefly to conclude, highlighting a little bit of the “so what” of our strong defense relationship.

In addition to the secondary economic effects and capabilities that our cooperation lends to the civilian realm, such as when U.S. drones and aircraft, some of which are based in Greece, provided support to Greek firefighters as they were responding to the very tragic fires recently in Mati.

At the end of the day, our cooperation on defense and security makes both of our countries more safe, more secure. U.S. missions and activity against radical elements around the world, including fighting ISIS, is made logistically possible by our cooperation with Greece, makes both of our homelands more secure.

Our training and our exercises create a more capable and formidable NATO lines, a force for peace and stability in Europe and elsewhere. Our joint efforts on security and our shared dedication to peace and security produces a stabilizing effect throughout this region, a region which has had its share of conflict.

So I am a firm believer that the strongest weapon the United States has in our arsenal is actually our allies. Our ties, our shared history, our friends and our allies. And our enduring and growing relationship with Greece reaffirms this belief.

So with those thoughts, I just want to thank again the organizers for doing this. I want to thank you who are here. Thank you for listening. I wish you all the best in what is a very exciting time. I think we’re at a turning point not just for U.S.-Greek relations and shared goals, but for this part of Greece, this part of Europe. There’s a lot to do, but doing it together we’ll be very successful.

Thank you very much.


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