U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt Excerpts of Interview with To Vima
To correct the record, here are key excerpts of an interview Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt conducted with To Vima reporter Angelos Athanasopoulos on Tuesday, May 2, 2017, published on May 7, 2017. In this interview, Ambassador Pyatt focuses on the strength of the U.S-Greek relationship, economic reforms and investment opportunities, Greece’s geostrategic importance, our mutual defense cooperation agreement, and the Transatlantic relationship.
Changing the Narrative on Economic Reforms:
Ambassador Pyatt: So let me start with the first principles. The United States, our interest is in seeing Greece, a NATO ally, a member of the Eurozone, get out of this seven year cycle of economic crisis and get on to a path of sustainable economic growth. That is an enduring U.S. interest and it’s an interest that reflects our stake in the success of Greece as the vanguard of European democracy. This is the gateway between Europe and Eurasia, as I said at the beginning. From that perspective, we were very pleased by this morning’s news about the agreement between the Greek government and the European institutions – it’s a very important and welcome step forward. I am optimistic that we are going to see rapid movement now toward the EuroGroup’s approval of the next disbursement. That’s a welcome development under any circumstances. On the question of Trump Administration policy towards the Greek economic and financial situation, I can’t do any better than President Trump’s own words last week with John Gizzi, the Newsmax correspondent. So, you know, I’ll leave it at that.
I think, also, you know, going forward, there is a huge opportunity that Prime Minister Tsipras now has to establish a new narrative. You know, for years and years, people have worried about ‘Grexit’, and you know, is Greece going to be able to make the next payment, and what’s going to happen with the financial situation. Assuming that the process now moves ahead and this next EuroGroup disbursement takes place, Greece will have smooth sailing for about two years if you just look at the repayment calendar. So a rather unprecedented period of financial predictability and a real opportunity for the government to change the narrative around Greece from crisis to opportunity.
That’s why I’m going to be travelling in June to New York and to Washington with the Economy Minister, Minister Papadimitriou, and very much look forward to the opportunity to describe, in my words, the opportunities that I see for expanded U.S. trade and investment ties in Greece and the confidence that I have. But part of the purpose of that trip is, also, to underline our interest, our support for Greece and the Greek people in breaking out of this constant crisis, this constant cycle of crisis.
But, I want to emphasize, the burden right now lays with the Prime Minister to capture this opportunity, to change the narrative, to, perhaps, get movement on some of these key privatizations that have been outstanding for a long time. You’ve got a couple of big cases in the energy sector; you’ve got the Hellenikon project that has so much potential for job creation and for attracting investment, including American investment. And where, I think, there are some people in the political system who just want to say ‘no’. They are not interested in seeing Greece move forward because it’s inconvenient to them ideologically or, maybe, in terms of their personal financial interests. But I think Prime Minister Tsipras has a tremendous opportunity and I’m going to do what I can to be supportive and to underline America’s political interest in seeing this reform process now produce the kind of growth benefits that we hope will be the case.
Reporter: Just one question which came up from your last, from your last answer. Which could be the domains in which you think there is American business interest here?
Ambassador Pyatt:: Sure, no, it’s a terrific question. Well, one obvious one is tourism, which has the potential to produce very rapid benefits. Another is energy – we’ve already talked about TAP but you’ve also got American investment in upstream oil and gas with ENERGEAN and their activities in the Northern Aegean. But you’ve also got other American companies that have expressed interest to me. A lot, again, depends on sending the right signals and TAP is a great example. You know, I remember hearing about all the controversy around TAP, but I’ll tell you, when I travel now in Northern Greece, I don’t hear much controversy, I only hear great enthusiasm for the jobs…
Reporter: They see it happening.
Ambassador Pyatt: That it’s actually happening, exactly. And that the consortium have been good citizens – they work very hard on environmental issues and everything else. So I would say energy is another obvious sector. I think, I hear a lot in the sort of agriculture, food, kind of area. And there are really sort of two levels to that – one is just marketing Greece and its fantastic food, wonderful cuisine, it’s healthy, it’s good for you, I think there’s more that could be done in that area; but also recognizing that, in terms of the large EU marketplace, Greece is a very, potentially, attractive base of operations because it is, for the Eurozone, relatively inexpensive in terms of the cost of operations here and that the biggest obstacle, again, is regulatory. It’s getting the government, removing the government as a disincentive to investment and moving things forward.
Again, I am optimistic. I have had a lot of conversations with the Economy Ministry, with Minister Stathakis on the energy side. I think everybody wants to figure out how to attract investment. And, I would argue, for the SYRIZA government, attracting that investment is the single most important requirement now to driving economic growth.
Greece’s Geography and Strategic Importance:
Ambassador Pyatt: And the first, you know, to answer your ‘why now’, I mean I am a great believer in the geography of international affairs. And that geography is one of those things, despite globalization and connectivity and all of that, geography is still a decisive factor in foreign affairs. I’ve just finished another terrific book, if you get a chance to read, Robert Kaplan has a book that’s about American geography and how our international engagement has been decisively affected by our own geography. But that’s particularly true in Europe and Eurasia. And, you know, I’ve seen that throughout my diplomatic career.
Greece occupies a particularly important geography. It has been, for centuries, the gateway to Europe, the gateway between Europe and the Eurasian landmass. And, in terms of immediate issues today, I always think in terms of three different circles. The most immediate one, of course, is developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, in particular, Syria – where Greece is an important partner in helping us to manage all the challenges that come to us from that direction. The second circle relates to the situation in the Black Sea but, also, the Eastern Balkans and the Russia problem, which is attached to that. And then the third is the Southern Mediterranean and North Africa, which is important to the migration challenge and will become particularly important as we succeed in our military campaign against ISIS in Syria.
So, Greece sits right at the center of this very complicated and strategically important geography. So, for me, that is the argument for building the strongest possible defense and security relationship. You know, we have a strong alliance. And it’s, you know, one of the strongest pillars of our bilateral relationship has historically been the partnership with professional respect between our military services, the way we work together. We’re about to celebrate the 70th anniversary of our Defense and Security Cooperation Office, our Office of Defense Cooperation in Athens, so this has been true for a very long time.
But, the importance of the south – NATO’s focus on the south – is something new. And it reflects developments of the past few years across all three of those spheres of influence that I talked about. The important thing, for me, is not just that the geography impels us to cooperate but, also, that we have completely convergent interests. The U.S. and Greece have the same exact interest as far as the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean region; our interest, our economic interest, in maritime security and dealing with challenges, unconventional challenges, like illegal migration and smuggling networks. So it’s a natural area of growth in our relationship.
You know, you say that others have not spoken so clearly about it. I mean, I think, you know I’d rather not speculate on where we were in the past on these issues. What I know, about where we are today, is that there is a clear opportunity that I hear in my conversations with my Defense Ministry and Greek government counterparts to think more ambitiously about how we work together and position ourselves for the future. You know, especially in the security domain. It’s always important not to worry about where you are today but where you want to be five or ten years from now. It’s a safe assumption that, five or ten years from now, Greece is going to remain a strong member of NATO. Greece will remain a democracy.
There’s a lot of other developments in the periphery of Greece and the neighborhood which are less predictable. So that, in my mind, is an argument for reinforcing the strong investment that we’ve made here, as I’ve said, over nearly 70 years now.
U.S.-Greece Defense Cooperation:
Ambassador Pyatt: So, when Minister Kammenos was in Washington last, he talked publicly about the government’s interest in going to a multi-year arrangement for our activities at Souda. We would welcome that, of course. It would facilitate planning, it would facilitate investments. We have already made significant investments in the upgrade of facilities at Souda and a multi-year arrangement would make it easier for both of us to plan. I would emphasize, also, and this comes especially from my conversations with the Chief of Defense, with Admiral Apostolakis – we are very supportive of the Hellenic Navy’s interest in developing a more robust and high profile presence in the South Aegean. But that deployment of Greek Navy assets, which would serve our common interests in policing that region, also requires a degree of support. So this is another area where there is a natural synergy between American interests.
And we are very grateful for the support that we receive at Souda Bay – whether it’s carrier visits, or aircraft performing emergency landings, or the hundreds of routine refuelings and resupply missions that take place at Souda Bay every year. But, you know, we will do so as guests of the Hellenic Navy and of the Air Force. The Greek government will decide what it is prepared to support. So, we’ll see where this conversation goes. But I and the U.S. Government were very encouraged by the messages that Minister Kammenos delivered during his very successful visit to Washington.
I would say, in terms of our military and security assistance, again, we have a very long history here – I already talked about the 70th anniversary of our Office of Defense Cooperation. We have a relationship today, Greece is an EU Member State, a member of the Eurozone, that will remain. And, because of that, there are limits in terms of the level of specific material assistance that we provide. That being said, we are very interested in maintaining and seeing Greece maintain a robust and fully capable military because it serves our alliance interests. And so, from that perspective, my team and I have worked very hard to identify additional operation, additional opportunities for things like transfer of excess defense equipment. We had the recent transfer of Chinook helicopters. We have a new program underway for the transfer of Kiowa helicopters. We are very excited about the progress that’s happening on the modernization of your P-3 maritime patrol aircraft. So we’ll continue to do that kind of thing as well.
But, you know, the nature of an alliance relationship is it’s not so transactional. It’s not about ‘you do this’ and ‘you do X, and I’ll do Y.’ We do things because it advances our shared interests.
Trump Administration’s Europe Policy:
Ambassador Pyatt: So, I mean, first of all, I think, and you imply this in your question, but I think it’s important to understand that, after a period of anxiety early in the transition, there have been very clear messages from the Trump Administration – from Secretary Mattis; Vice President Pence’s travels in Europe, his speech; Secretary Tillerson; we had NATO Secretary Stoltenberg was in the Oval Office; President Trump will be in Brussels in a couple of weeks – so we’re sort of back to business and back to normal. And, you know, the idea that the United States, back to business with a clear understanding that the United States is interested in the strength and resilience of European institutions.
In terms of, you know, prospects for the future, we’ve got some trade issues that we need to work our way through and those have traditionally been, sometimes, difficult in our bilateral relationship. But that misses the fact that this is the largest, bilateral, economic relationship anywhere in the world – transatlantic trade between the European Union and NAFTA is as big as it gets in global trade. So it’s natural that both, you have occasional irritants, but underneath those occasional irritants is a very high volume of mutually beneficial exchange – huge volumes of services, of goods flowing back and forth. So I’m very confident that our trade experts will be able to work our way through these, work our way through these issues.
Beyond that, at the strategic level, the simple fact is one of the things that I’ve seen, throughout my diplomatic career and I came into our Foreign Service in the fall of 1989 so, literally, as the Berlin Wall was falling down. You know, I remember exactly sort of how that process was intersecting with my own diplomatic future. The history is such that, throughout that period of my professional, diplomatic life, Europe has always been the first place we go when there’s a problem that we have to deal with internationally. Whether it’s tackling an Ebola crisis in Africa or responding to 9-11, the first thing we do is we look to our European allies. I don’t see that changing, at least for my professional career.
So I think, you know, we’re going to continue to come at our global engagement as sovereign states but sovereign states that have, first of all, a strong, our systems that are anchored in our democratic values and where we both have a stake in rule of law – the system of rules and understandings that have created this period of extraordinary and unprecedented prosperity in Europe. You talk about Ukraine, I mean, one of those principles, probably, I would say, the first principle is territorial integrity. You know, you cannot invade countries. It is not acceptable. And that’s understood both in, on both sides of the Atlantic very clearly and I think the statements from everybody – from President Trump on down – has reaffirmed that.
So, I’m an optimist about the future of U.S. relations with Europe. I’m also a realist in the sense that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the dynamic of politics is such right now that citizens are saying they want to see, they want to see results. They want to see how their governments, their democratically elected governments, are actually addressing the real world concerns that citizens have – whether it’s employment, or migration, or what have you. So we need to work on that and that’s part of the mandate that diplomats like I have to be responsive to. But I’m very confident that the U.S.-Europe relationship, now and looking to the future is on solid ground.
Russia’s Regional Involvement:
Ambassador Pyatt: So, let me say a couple of things. I mean, I’m not even going to begin to speculate on Russian motivations because, you know, if there’s one thing I learned through three years in Ukraine it’s that most of the experts didn’t do very well in terms of making those predictions. Secretary Tillerson was very frank, very direct when he was in Moscow recently, about the difficult state of U.S.-Russian relations. He was also very clear that the onus is on Moscow to change those circumstances and he was quite specific about the areas where we look to see a change in the Russian approach – whether it’s in Syria or in compliance with the obligations that President Putin undertook as part of the Minsk Agreements, which Russia is not currently fulfilling. So, I think, you know, we’re going to be pretty direct, I think, and Secretary Tillerson has made clear that we’re going to be pretty direct about our expectations. But we’re also going to be very clear about the limits that will be placed on our bilateral relationship if Russia’s behavior continues in the same direction that it’s been heading in over the past three and a half years now.