ATHENS – In an exclusive interview with The National Herald, Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the U.S. Ambassador to Greece, spoke with obvious satisfaction about the level of Greek-American relations, which he described as, “at a particularly high point [. . .] where we see our interests converging on shared goals.”
The National Herald asked Mr. Pyatt about the fact that some Greek-Americans believe that he is “too close to” or “too friendly with” Prime Minister Tsipras and about the role of the Ambassador with both the elected government and the opposition parties. Mr. Pyatt replied, “In diplomacy, we generally talk about shared interests and shared foreign policy objectives, [. . .]. My job is to represent the U.S. to Greece’s elected government.”
Regarding the role of the Greek diaspora, he emphasized that “Greek-Americans provide a crucial link between our countries, not just advocating for and strengthening our bilateral relationship but also improving understanding at a people-to-people level. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is the seminal example, as its investments in Greece’s infrastructure and civil society have been immensely important in supporting Greece’s economic recovery and providing hope and inspiration to the Greek people.”
Follows the full text of the interview:
You have served in very important posts, such as Ukraine, at critical times. It can be said that being the U.S. Ambassador in Greece during its first far-left government is a both a challenge and opportunity. What are your thoughts on that?
As a diplomat who has served in Greece during both the Obama and Trump administrations, I think I am a pretty good example of how U.S. diplomacy is built on shared interests. We find ourselves at a particularly high point in our relations with Greece, where we see our interests converging on shared goals like stability in the eastern Mediterranean, securing Europe’s energy supplies, promoting economic growth and prosperity, and helping the countries of the western Balkans continue their progress towards European reforms.
Was the appointment as Ambassador to Greece something that you had been interested in? What was your previous experience with Greece?
My family and I were thrilled when I was appointed Ambassador to Greece. Like many Americans, I knew Greece as the cradle of democracy, the land of Homer and the Acropolis, but also of Santorini and Mykonos. And I also was aware of the close relationship between Ukraine and Greece, through Orthodoxy and through the diaspora, especially at Mariupol which still has a big sign in Greek on its city hall saying “Mariupol is Ukraine.” I had been here as a tourist both in the prosperous times around the Olympics and during the difficult years at the depth of the economic crisis. So I was prepared for the transition, and I saw a great opportunity to strengthen an alliance with a critical U.S. ally in a strategically significant region that was coming out of a protracted economic crisis and would benefit from our strong collaboration in many areas.
Greek-Americans are looking forward to the upcoming Greece-USA “Strategic Dialogue” meetings in Washington. Is this format completely new, and how will that help improve economic, military, and security cooperation between the U.S. and Greece.
On December 13, Secretary of State Pompeo and Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs Katrougkalos will launch the first U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue. We view the Strategic Dialogue as a concrete manifestation of the investment that the United States is making in our alliance with Greece. It demonstrates our recognition of this particularly favorable moment in U.S.-Greece relations as well as the important geopolitical dynamic around Greece right now. The pillars in the Strategic Dialogue are designed to reflect the full range of areas where we are working in cooperation with Greece. We have a very strong agenda on energy issues reflecting our support for diversifying routes and supplies through projects like the TAP pipeline and the Greece Bulgaria Interconnector or IGB. We also have a full agenda in terms of our regional cooperation — how we work together in the Western Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, and in the wider Black Sea region, as well as our NATO cooperation. We’ll have important discussions about our defense and security cooperation, which continues to flourish, including with the recent deployment of several dozen helicopters to Stefanovikio Air Base in Central Greece, and of course there will be discussion about our trade and investment pillar, how we work together in that area. And then very importantly, our law enforcement and counterterrorism agenda, building on the very successful visit to Athens by DHS Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Neumann. Greece’s role as a security partner is especially important because it is the front line of Europe. The Strategic Dialogue is also a natural follow-on to the unprecedented success we had as the honored country at this year’s Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF). Many of the members of the high-level delegation from Washington that was at TIF will also be represented at the Strategic Dialogue and were very much responsible for initiating and championing it.
Greek-Americans are supportive of the expansion of U.S. military facilities in Greece. What are the most recent developments?
First, let me note that we only have one U.S. military facility in Greece, namely the Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, which is hosted on a Greek base. We are very grateful for this facility and continually discuss with our Greek partners ways to modernize it and expand its use. We are also grateful for the agreements we have to use Greek military facilities and other infrastructure on a temporary basis. One example would be our helicopters at Stefanovikio, which will have a chance to continue operating and training with our Greek partners during the coming months. We have MQ9s temporarily based in Larissa, and we are expanding our security forces and counter-terrorism cooperation. These are all symbols of the high degree of confidence we have in our security and defense relationship with Greece. The Greek-American community has been critical to building this relationship through arranging high-level meetings between our military officials, conferences to discuss the relationship, and continued advocacy. Your work in the diaspora has certainly laid the groundwork for deepening our security and defense cooperation.
Some Greek-Americans believe that you are “too close to” or “too friendly with” Prime Minister Tsipras. What is an Ambassador’s role with respect to governments and opposition parties?
In diplomacy, we generally talk about shared interests and shared foreign policy objectives, and we have to remember that, as individual diplomats, we are all replaceable. My job is to represent the U.S. to Greece’s elected government, and my service across two different U.S. administrations in Greece is the best example that I can offer of that continuity of interests. I believe that as Greece emerges from its crisis and more firmly seizes its role as a pillar of stability in the region, and as our interests continue to converge, the U.S. government will continue to deepen its ties with Greece.
What should Greek-Americans know about the concerns about people like Ivan Savvidis?
We need to consider a larger picture here. For Greece to truly recover from its economic crisis, it needs healthy, transparent foreign investments that are supported by clear, market-driven forces. It is something that I note as we look at opportunities for U.S. investment in Greece, namely that regulations are predictable and ensuring that privatizations go through in a transparent manner. These kinds of reforms will create an environment that is conducive to increasing healthy foreign investment, especially from the United States, and I believe that American companies – including Greek-American companies – offer a culture of doing business that will help Greece recover. I’d point to ONEX’s investment at the Syros shipyard as a prime example of both creating jobs and improving the local economy. So this is not a question of personalities but of practices.
Hellenes in Greece and the USA are following the ecclesiastical situation in Ukraine. What is the United States perspective on the Ecumenical Patriarchate granting autocephaly to the Orthodox church in Ukraine?
The U.S. has been very clear in our support for the right of the Ukrainian people to determine how they worship and in what context they practice their religion. We have also been clear in our support for the Ecumenical Patriarch and his firm commitment to religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue. I know it was also an important topic of the conversations that Vatopedi’s Abbot Ephraim had when he visited the State Department and White House earlier this year follows up on my own discussions at Mt. Athos, and earlier at the Phanar. In this instance, as in many others, Russia appears to be using the Church as a means to undermine Ukrainian democracy, and we will continue to call out those attempts.
The Greek economic crisis has prompted criticism that it is not quite a first world country. You have served in Honduras and India. The latter is well on its way in its transition from third to first world status. How do you compare the challenges and opportunities for economic development in those three countries?
The Greek economic crisis, marked by a 25% decline in GDP and the EU’s highest unemployment rate, lasted far longer than America’s Great Depression. Its negative effects continue to reverberate throughout society in a way that few outside the country understand, and so it is hard to make any comparisons. I am impressed by the resilience of the Greek people amidst this crisis and the resilience of their democratic institutions during this period. But Greece really isn’t comparable to the developing countries where I have served. It is an EU, NATO and Eurozone member. It has 100% literacy, highly developed human capital, and excellent infrastructure. The only comparison I might make is that, in some ways, the Strategic Dialogue that we organized with India a few years ago was an inspiration for the U.S.-Greece Strategic Dialogue as we had reached similar points in our relationship where our bilateral work had begun to span a number of government agencies and we found it useful to convene and ensure all our efforts were moving in the same direction. In this sense, I am very optimistic for the Strategic Dialogue this December and the prospects it offers for the future of our bilateral relationship.
Greek-Americans appreciate that you often note the importance to the U.S. of Greece as an ally and island of stability in the Balkans and Easter Mediterranean, but what are you biggest concerns about Greece’s economic progress and the reform process, which many Greek-Americans are disappointed in?
I mentioned before the need for reforms that streamline the process of privatization and bring predictability to the regulations that allow foreign business to invest in Greece. The Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF), where we were the honored country, provided us with a unique platform to have a broad discussion between our two governments and the private sector to find ways to achieve these goals and increase investment. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross discussed these topics at TIF and then again later in September when he met with Prime Minister Tsipras and the U.S. business community in New York. I also point to the startup community in Greece, which was on display in the U.S. pavilion and the Digital Greece pavilion for startups organized by the Greek government, it is a source of innovation and inspiration and the capital is starting to flow in recognition of its potential. So I think we are very much on the right track, but we do have more work ahead of us. As for frustrations, my biggest disappointment is that we still haven’t seen a breakthrough on the Hellenikon project, which has so much potential to drive economic growth, attract U.S. investment and transform the Athens Riviera.
People are often the harshest critics of their own nations and communities, and that is the case with Greek Americans and Greece. What are some of the positive things you have seen in Greece that you share with Americans, especially those of Greek descent? For example, do you talk about the young entrepreneurs you have met?
I always say that the Greek people are the country’s strongest asset: the amazingly talented human capital here, the untold success story that is the startup sector, and the warm hospitality that Greeks have shown throughout the migration crisis, are just a few examples. It is no surprise to me that Tesla decided to open its first research center abroad in Greece or that a small group of Aristotle University students won a global Microsoft app competition for their innovative iCry2Talk app. I have seen incredible commitment to innovation and achievement across Greece – in Heraklion, Patras, Ioannina, and Thessaloniki. And Greece is full of natural beauty. I had an incredibly memorable trip to Epirus with Nick Gage and an amazing experience in Drakolimni. I’ve had the fortune to visit Mt. Athos, a deeply spiritual place where I learned more about the church’s role in Greek society and its connection to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And my travel to other places like Monemvasia, Nea Moni, Hosios Loukas and Meteora have given me a better understanding of Greece’s fascinating Byzantine legacy. I have thoroughly enjoyed skiing in the Greek mountains where you can see the sea – which made me appreciate Greece as a 12-month destination, beyond its unbeatable summer and islands like Santorini, Naxos, Crete and Kimolos. Then there’s the Peloponnese, which has all of the above and more.
In closing, what message would you like to convey at this time to Greek-Americans?
First and foremost, thank you. Greek-Americans provide a crucial link between our countries, not just advocating for and strengthening our bilateral relationship but also improving understanding at a people-to-people level. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is the seminal example, as its investments in Greece’s infrastructure and civil society have been immensely important in supporting Greece’s economic recovery and providing hope and inspiration to the Greek people. The support of SNF along with Bloomberg Associates for the city of Athens led to the recognition of Athens as Europe’s innovation capital this year. And of course, we work closely with The Hellenic Initiative in support of Greece’s startup sector. The Greek American community was fully represented at TIF: AHEPA also had space in our pavilion. So I would just encourage you to sustain the momentum and support as the U.S. government does as well.