Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt
European Public Law Organization
November 14, 2017
Ambassador Pyatt: Let me first say thank you, both to Professor Flogaitis for the very thorough and generous introduction, and also to Ambassador Varouxakis. Both of you anticipated one of my opening points, which is to the very long 200-year history of the U.S.-Greece relationship which finds its roots both in our revolution and the Greek battle for independence.
But let me start by underlining what a pleasure it is for me to be here at EPLO. I have not been in this spectacular building before. It’s wonderful to see your facility.
I am very proud of the Embassy’s programmatic partnership with the European Public Law Organization and see tonight as very much part and parcel of that larger partnership and conversation.
As Ambassador Varouxakis pointed out, the past few years have been a critically important period for U.S.-Greek relations. Our relationship today has a positive trajectory with opportunities for both countries to benefit significantly from both recent developments and some of the opportunities that lie on the horizon.
So what I’m going to do is try to spend just a couple of minutes with a survey of the current state of play, but then really open it up to a question and answer that can be taken in whatever direction is most useful to everybody.
As all of us have pointed out in remarks, Greek democracy and philosophy inspired our founding fathers in America, and I love the point that Professor Flogaitis made upon my arrival here about how this building, bracketed between the Greek Agora and the Roman Agora captures both that idea of democracy, that founding idea of democracy then also the balance of state power.
We’ve had strong people-to-people ties and I had not heard the story of Captain Zervas before, but I’m going to use that in the future.
But one of the important points to remember in my own country’s history in terms of our debate over foreign policy, actually one of the very first foreign policy issues to confront the young American republic was how to position ourselves vis-à-vis the Greek war of independence.
So the ties between our societies and our people are very long. From the very beginning, ours is a relationship that has been founded on shared democratic values, common economic political and security interests. And it’s those values that continue to unite us today. This has been reaffirmed recently by Vice President Pence, President Trump, and of course the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington last month. The Vice President made the point that our two continents share the same heritage, the same values, and above all, the same purpose, to promote peace and prosperity through freedom, democracy, and the rule of law.
The Greek-American community and I loved the anecdote about the first Greek-American born here on Greek soil to an American parent. I find those ties everywhere I travel in Greece. One of my favorite stories, my favorite anecdotes in that regard relates to a visit I paid to Patras in July, and I remember meeting an elderly man, a retiree who had grown up in the United States and then had come back to Greece to enjoy his pension. But he showed me the card which he’d been given as an eight or ten-year-old boy by the then U.S. Embassy branch office in Patras sometime in the late 1940s. So after the trauma of the 2nd World War, and then the revolution, this young boy got his American identification card and traveled to the States, and then had returned.
Prime Minister Tsipras made the point when he was in Washington last month that our relationship today is better than it has been in many decades. I’ll be happy to talk about why I think that’s the case. But a large part of the explanation for this happy circumstance is the converging interests that I alluded to earlier in my remarks.
So I thought what I would do to frame our conversation is walk through some of the areas that are priorities in terms of the U.S. side of the Greek-U.S. relationship, and then take the conversation from there.
Since there are a lot of lawyers in the audience I should start by pointing out that of course we are legally bound to each other’s defense as NATO allies. As a European Union and NATO member Greece is an important component of the broader transatlantic relationship that the United States is so committed to. NATO remains a cornerstone of U.S. defense policy, particularly for Europe. And within NATO we can confront threats to our collective security only with a united front. Whether it’s dealing with the challenge of Russian aggression which I know intimately from my three years as Ambassador in Ukraine; or dealing with contemporary problems of terrorism.
President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Mattis have all reaffirmed the U.S.’ steadfast commitment to our NATO alliance. But NATO’s critically important mission is only possible when all of us contribute.
Significantly in this regard, Greece is one of only six NATO countries that currently meets its defense spending commitments under Article III, a situation which reflects very well on Greece, on the Greek government, and particularly given the economic challenges the country faces at the same time. And certainly on the U.S. side we commend Greece for this decision.
As Ambassador Varouxakis pointed out, Greece also occupies a particularly important strategic geography. The map with the Venn diagram that’s behind me is one that I use to illustrate the three strategic problem sets that surround Greece. One, and the most critically important right now, of course, is the challenge of ISIS in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria; another is the challenge of terrorism and disorder arising from the Magreb, particularly around Libya; and then the third is the challenges which arise from the Black Sea region, in particular Russian behavior, Russian aggression and its systemic behavior, and then also the challenge of helping to move Greece’s Balkan neighbors fully into the Euro-Atlantic community.
So Greece is a particularly important NATO partner because of the strategic geography that it occupies.
The most important single element of our bilateral military cooperation is the U.S. military presence at Souda Bay. Our presence there embodies a close and continuing partnership between our militaries. I’ve been down to Souda a number of times in the course of my little more than a year here as Ambassador. I’m always impressed by the quality of cooperation that I see between our forces on the ground.
Souda provides particular unique attributes, because of where it’s located, because it is the only place to the east of Norfolk, Virginia and the west of the Persian Gulf where you have a carrier-capable pier collocated with a military airport, providing unique opportunities for support, which we demonstrated, for example, when one of our carriers, the George H.W. Bush, was in Souda last spring. I heard then from the captain of that ship that, both his appreciation for the tremendous support he enjoyed from his Greek counterparts when he was anchored in Souda, but also the unique benefit that came from being able to use that facility for support of the carrier and its associated vessels.
We are going to rely on our allies in this part of the Mediterranean more and more in the years ahead because of that Venn diagram.
If you look at the major strategic problems that I talked about, none of those problem sets is going to be resolved quickly, and all of them will depend on intense cooperation among allies. So for my part, I’m committed to building on what we’ve already accomplished in terms of our very strong military-to-military relationship and continuing to expand it in the spirit of Prime Minister Tsipras’ visit to Washington.
Of course to a Greek audience the number one issue that the country confronts is the economic crisis. How to emerge from this eight-year period of economic challenges.
I always make the point with American audiences to remind Americans who are trying to understand the depth of the crisis that Greece has passed through, that when I was growing up, my grandfather would always talk about the challenges of our Great Depression. If you look at the American Great Depression and the Greek Economic Crisis, the level of economic dislocation was almost exactly the same. We lost about 25 percent of our GDP. We had unemployment around 50 percent during the American Great Depression. But that was a one-year period before recovery began.
Greece has suffered through a similar level of economic distress which stretched out now over the better part of a decade. I think that perspective helps to place in context what Greece has gone through.
President Trump made very clear in the course of the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington the U.S. commitment to supporting Greece through this economic crisis, our satisfaction that Greece appears now to be emerging from this period of crisis, and our commitment to continue doing what we can to grow investment and the economic partnership.
I am convinced that 2018 could be a turning point for the Greek economy, but that depends on creating the right investment conditions. I can tell you I have more American investors coming to me right now than any month previously in my tenure here. American investors taking another look at Greece. There’s a sense that a window has opened, but it’s going to be up to the government to sustain the encouraging message that Prime Minister Tsipras conveyed when he was in Washington. In particular, regarding his commitment to welcoming U.S. investment, creating an investment environment that allows for predictability and allows for economic growth.
As American Ambassador, I want to do all I can to support and encourage more American investment here, to create jobs and help create private-sector-led economic growth.
I’m also deeply committed to doing all that I can to help sustain entrepreneurship here. Despite all the challenges, I am continually impressed by the start-up culture that I see here. I think it’s one of the great untold success stories of Greece, is what’s happening in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation. I’ve seen it in Patras, I’ve seen it in Heraklion, I’ve seen it here in Athens, I’ve seen it in Thessaloniki. I’ve tried to do, from the Embassy platform, as much as we can in terms of creating opportunities for mentoring, for partnership, to help young Greek entrepreneurs recognize that they’re not alone and that there are lessons that can be taken from the U.S. start-up system as well.
I think the knowledge-based economy is obviously going to be a big part of the future as far as Greek economic growth is concerned. You can count on the United States for partnership in terms of growing that economy.
Obviously the success that Greek entrepreneurs have enjoyed in the United States proves that there is enormous potential here if you can just create the proper surrounding ecosystem of laws and regulations and governmental attitudes. And I think that’s one of the areas that I have made a priority for my Embassy and our team.
I’m often asked, especially when I’m traveling in America, where do I see other opportunities for economic growth in Greece? Obviously, another major one is energy. This is a strong priority. It’s an area where Greece is right at the tipping point in terms of establishing itself as a major European energy hub. This was a significant focus of Prime Minister Tsipras’ presentations in Washington. His emphasis on new pipelines like TAP. His commitment to seeing a new floating regassification unit in Alexandrouplis, hopefully including American investment. His commitment to seeing forward progress on the IGB Interconnector which has the potential to open up the whole Balkan energy island, using Greece as the entry point to get away from the current dependent on monopoly suppliers that characterizes many of the Balkan countries.
So energy is an obvious area of growth. There is clear interest from American companies. And I’m encouraged also that there is such a convergence between American perspectives, Greek government perspectives, and European perspectives. I was reminded of that when Commission Vice President Šefčovič and I were speaking together at an event on Friday. We literally could have delivered each other’s speeches, there was that much convergence between our views on the energy basket.
Privatizations will create other opportunities. There’s been a lot of press around some major privatization cases. I think I would simply make the point here that whether we’re talking about Hellenikon or other opportunities, for instance around the shipyard in Syros, American companies bring transparency, they bring high standards of corporate governance, they are looking for the same from their Greek partners. There have been some good success stories in this area. For instance, what’s happened with the airports and the way that Fraport has been able to improve efficiencies and bring investment to some of the regional airports.
I hope that during my tenure here we will see some of the same on some of these other major projects that have been outstanding for too long.
Again, that was a major part of the Prime Minister’s message when he was in Chicago and in Washington.
A couple of other concluding points, and then we can open it up to a dialogue.
First of all, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the tremendously important academic partnerships between our countries. We’re going to be celebrating next year the 70th anniversary of our Fulbright program, something that I’m very proud of. It’s one of the most transformational undertakings that the United States has anywhere in the world. And whether it’s working on high profile exchanges like Fulbright, or helping young Greek leaders to get to know counterparts in the United States, this element of how we work together is one of the great force multipliers in the U.S.-Greek relationship. And again, I’m constantly reminded of that.
I was in Apivita this morning, and the head beekeeper there, it turns out he was still enthused about his experience in Florida as a post-doctoral student researching bees, clearly inspired by both the academic learning that he took from his time in the United States but also the scientific partnerships that he had established that he was committed to continuing.
So to wrap up, and then to really open it up to a conversation, in whatever direction is of interest to people.
First of all, I’d like to underline how proud I am personally to be serving as Ambassador at this particularly hopeful moment in the U.S.-Greek relationship. We’ve reached a very special moment in terms of how our countries look at each other. There’s an opportunity to think ambitiously about how we move forward in the future.
We’ve got a very big year ahead of us. Everybody here I know has heard about the American status as the featured country, the partner country for the TIF next September. I’m glad to tell you we already have both the U.S. government team and our partners at the Hellenic-American Chamber, but also the Greek government focused very intensively on this. We’re meeting every two weeks under the leadership of Minister Pappas, to pull our teams together, to think about how we advance programs that use TIF as a platform to underline the message of Greek versatility to American innovation, to American investment. But also to help get the message out in the United States that Greece is coming back, that the economy has begun to turn around, and that there are real opportunities here. And I’m very excited about what we’re going to be able to do around the TIF.
So let me conclude where I started by emphasizing both the continuity of this alliance between our two countries which traces back to the founding of both modern Greece and the United States; but also my optimism that we are at a moment now where for the first time in many, many years, we can begin to think about how to take what’s already a very strong relationship and take it to a whole new level. I see that as very much the task of my embassy team, and I’m encouraged, that’s very much consistent with the messages we hear today from the government.
So let me leave it at that and we can take the conversation in whatever direction is most interesting to people. And again, thank you very much.