Remarks by Ambassador Pyatt at the 3rd South East Europe and Mediterranean Conference, Delphi Economic Forum

“Pillar of Stability: The Evolution of the US-Greek Bilateral Relationship »

Roundtable with Lena Argiri

Washington DC, March 15, 2022

Question: Ambassador Pyatt, you have been an ambassador throughout this recovery so far. You have come to the end of a Russian-induced crisis in Ukraine, when bilateral relations were causing concern. You end your mandate in the midst of a new crisis in Ukraine, but with Greece as a pillar of stability. Are there two or three tipping points that brought Greece to the point of the “pillar of stability”?

Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you Lena, and thank you to the organizers for putting together this panel with three very good friends. In particular, Thanos [Dokos] and Eva [Kalpadakis] really been two of the main intellectual drivers of Greek foreign policy in the two governments I worked with. And then George [Koumoutsakos] played an extremely important role for me as shadow foreign minister when ND [New Democracy] was in opposition. Eventually, I will have to write some things about my time as an ambassador and I will have to save the good stuff for that. But just to say that there are a number of important anecdotes and moments where George played a really pivotal role in helping us set the stage for this new era of US-Greek relations.

You asked about benchmarks. I would say in general, I’ve found as a diplomat for too long, these things are less like a switch where it sort of turns on and off, and it’s more like a dimmer where the light changes and all of a sudden you find you’re in a much brighter room.

I would say that in this context, there are probably three different luminous fluxes that have an impact here. The first and most important is of course Greece’s recovery from a devastating economic crisis that lasted a decade. It’s hard to remember now, when we talk about Pfizer, Microsoft and AWS, the impact that the loss of 25% of GDP had on Greek society, on politics, but also on available bandwidth to have a more outward-looking foreign policy. So that would be number one. And certainly getting out of the economic crisis was the first priority of my mandate when I arrived. This was the major issue, as Evan will recall, when President Obama met with Prime Minister Tsipras just before heading to his farewell visit to Berlin.

One of the things that putting this period behind Greece allowed was the bandwidth and the time, the possibility of having a more ambitious foreign policy. We’ve seen this start under Syriza and we’ve obviously talked about it a lot over the past two days. The 3+1 process. I am very proud of American leadership through two administrations in this regard. Our strategic dialogue which has been so important in advancing the different pillars of our commitment.

The Prespes Agreement. Imagine how different the situation would be today in the face of Russian revanchism if the relationship between Greece and North Macedonia was still unresolved and if North Macedonia did not have the security that comes from being a member of NATO. And how different the picture would be if Russia was able to take advantage of this fact not only in places like Serbia and Bosnia, but also in the immediate north of Greece.

I would also say that Prespes has been instrumental in changing perceptions of Greece’s foreign policy role here in Washington. I remember sitting down with Secretary Albright, who I worked for in different settings, just before going to Athens, and we talked about a lot of issues, but one of the things that stood out to me was his warning: “Can you do anything?” about this name problem? It’s just such a burden on the relationship. So I would really stress the importance of that.

And now, under the government of Prime Minister Mitsotakis, you have seen this effort to develop a more ambitious and strategic Greek foreign policy approach reflected in Foreign Minister Dendias’ engagement with India. All the work Greece has done to leverage the Abraham Accords and Greece’s strong relationship not only with Israel but with its Arab neighbors. The Greek role in North Africa, including Libya. So all of that was a factor.

And finally, I would say that the other current that I would highlight is the simple fact of the election of Prime Minister Mitsotakis in 2019. It is important that he came to power with a clear intention to deepen and accelerate the US-Greek relations. He demonstrated this incredibly quickly. We forget that the first amendment to the MDCA, which added these different facilities that Katerina and Admiral Foggo had just talked about, took place in September/October 2019. So, only a few weeks after the government came to power. This does not happen in our bureaucracy or in the Greek bureaucracy, and it is because of the direction that came from the Prime Minister.

Last October, when Foreign Minister Dendias was here, as you know, we signed the indefinite extension of the MDCA and added additional facilities. All of these different facilities in Larissa, Volos, Stefanovikio, Alexandroupoli, Souda Bay, played a vital role in the ability of the United States to react as clearly and quickly as we did to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

And I just want to point out something that a number of speakers have alluded to, especially the Congress leaders who were here earlier. This is the defining question for American foreign policy in the years to come and certainly in our transatlantic relationship. And it is really important that the Greek government was right, that Prime Minister Mitsotakis, Foreign Minister Dendias, Thanos Dokos and others spoke as clearly as they did, that Greece reacted so quickly.

Greece was, as Karen Donfried said this morning, one of the first allies to intervene in response to the Ukrainian request for lethal assistance to help the Ukrainian people defend their own sovereignty. And this robust response also sets the context for how we will work together to build whatever comes after this invasion, because it is clear that the security environment in Europe and in the transatlantic community has changed.

Question: Greece is one of many U.S. allies and partners who find themselves in a delicate position during this crisis. Many of them – including Turkey, Israel and India, where you also served – have not taken a clear position on Ukraine as Greece has. As a result, we see Russia taking on Greece while Turkey continues with air violations and the same rhetoric. What is it about improving bilateral relations that should make Greece, its citizens, and the Greek-American community here feel comfortable that when Athens makes correct but difficult choices, Washington will have his back?

Ambassador Pyatt: Some points. First of all, it really goes back to what Premier Mitsotakis said in Parliament. It’s a matter of Greece being on the right side of history. And clearly, Greece demonstrates this, as Thanos just described.

The nature of our alliance and the decades-long collaboration between our two countries is not defined by some sort of quid pro quo record. Rather, it’s how we work together to improve everyone’s safety.

At least in terms of my tenure as Ambassador, I think we have a very strong track record in that regard. And just to think of the period of the Mitsotakis government, remember how clearly the United States responded to the migration crisis of February 2020 and Ankara’s decision to use tens of thousands of innocent victims as an instrument pressure on Greece and the European Union.

Remember how the United States reacted in the summer of 2020 to the very serious military crisis between two NATO allies, including the collision between two warships in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean.

And I don’t know if he’s still in the room, but I know that Secretary Pompeo will be speaking shortly, and I encourage someone to ask him about his visit to Souda Bay. I will talk about the bureaucratic aspect of it, which happened a few weeks before this trip. Secretary Pompeo called me and he said, “Geoff, I’m thinking of a trip to Greece. What should we do?” I said to him, “My staff is going to kill me, and the EUR office is going to kill me, but what I would really like you to do is go to Thessaloniki because we don’t We’ve never had a US Secretary of State there, and I’d like you to go to Souda Bay because of the message it would send about US presence and US engagement in the eastern Mediterranean. Secretary Pompeo speaks for himself regarding other aspects of this, but it was a critical signal at a very intense time.

And then we only have to look at the last two weeks and the very strong and immediate response from the United States and Washington to Turkey’s rhetoric questioning the sovereignty of the Greek islands. This morning you heard Karen Donfried reaffirm our very clear position on this. And I just want to point out that I was very proud that it was actually the European Union that weighed in after the United States to make this obvious point about another EU member state.

So I think we’re doing pretty well in that regard, and the goal of our collaboration isn’t about scoring. It’s about how the United States military presence in Alexandroupoli, Souda Bay, Volos, Larissa strengthens our alliance, sends a message to our adversaries, and certainly makes Greece safer and more secure.

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