NEW YORK – The delicious dinner served at the inaugural “Trailblazers Dinner Series” of the Association of Greek American Professional Women (AGAPW) honoring Ambassador Loucas Tsilas for his 50 years of public service was a mere intellectual appetizer for those who cannot wait for the distinguished public servant to write his memoir – an end toward which he was presented the symbolic gift of a pen.
The informative and entertaining talk over dinner and dessert proved a delightful experience in the private dining room of the new Limani restaurant at Rockefeller Center. Dr. Elena Frangakis-Syrett moderated the discussion and Dr. Aphrodite Navab was the event’s Emcee.
Retiring after his successful 15-year tenure as the Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation (USA) following a distinguished career as a Greek diplomat, Amb. Tsilas is now a professor at Queens College.
The ambassador offered fascinating observations about the lives of diplomats – the consensus of a brief discussion about the origin of the word was that it is related to “diploma” and pertains to the documents ambassadors present when they arrive at their posts.
He said a diplomat’s function can be summed up in one word: understanding, and one activity: “the effort to understand and be understood.”
When a diplomat arrives in a country, his job is to observe and understand what is going on there and to explain and give a profile of his own country and its interests.
While a nation’s strength rests on its armed forces and economy, Amb. Tsilas said its cultural resources should not be underestimated. Among his regrets is that Greece never committed – even in good times – sufficient funds to promoting its rich cultural profile. “In Washington, DC you need a strong budget, and we never had one.”
On the other hand, he was thrilled to have been able to promote Hellenism at the Onassis Foundation though generously funded events and academic programs of high quality throughout the Western Hemisphere, thanks to the generous support from its Board under the leadership of Antonis Papademetriou.
While diplomats revel in sumptuous dinners and receptions, he said the substance of diplomacy is to “make or preserve peace, create conditions for the promotion of your country’s interests, and to create the basis for mutual understanding and benefit.”
The consequences of failure can be immediate and catastrophic: War.
Sometimes, even presidents and prime ministers don’t realize they are on the brink of destruction.
A horrific war almost broke out between Greece and Turkey over the tiny islet of Imia in 1996. Although some observers believe Turkey’s then-premier Tansu Tsiller tried to take advantage of the transition to a new government in Greece (Costas Simitis had just become prime minister) to squeeze concessions from Greece, Tsilas sees it as an example of potentially deadly misunderstandings.
A series of incidents culminated in Greeks and Turks alternately raising their own flags on the uninhabited islands.
In the midst of the crisis, whose danger was apparently not fully grasped by Greece, Tsilas was stopped by an American official as he was about to board a plane to Athens to brief the new Greek leader about the status of Greece-U.S. relations.
Shocked that Tsilas was leaving, the American said, “Don’t you know you are on the verge of war with Turkey?”
Washington knew what Athens apparently did not, that Turkey was preparing to attack Greece, and Amb. Tsilas felt he had to personally convey what he knew to Simitis.
Greece had not realized that Ankara interpreted Athens’s actions not as a defense of Greek sovereignty, but as an attempt to extend its territorial waters from six to 12 miles, an act Turkey had declared to be a casus belli that would trigger an attack.
“Developments were so rapid that…despite hotlines between the two capitals… only America, with its satellite reconnaissance technology observing Turkish forces, grasped what was going on,” and was feverishly working to prevent a clash he said
One of his saddest experiences was having to attend the funeral at Arlington National Cemetery of Richard Welch, the CIA employee who was murdered by November 17, but among the many positive elements of his career was seeing how much Greece and Greek culture was appreciated around the world.
“Hellenic principles are part and parcel of Western Civilization and are universal,” he said.
He spoke of charismatic people who he met – especially Nelson Mandela and a young Fidel Castro in 1970, and President Bill Clinton – and those who were disappointing, like Mikhail Gorbachev.
There were also moments of personal insight. Tsilas said that while a career in foreign service is rich with glittering events and political action, diplomats also struggle with the mundane – as parents they are especially concerned with the lives and education of their children as they adjust to frequent moves to very different places. Ambassador and Mrs. Tsilas have a son and a daughter.
The bittersweet reality includes opportunities to make countless many friendships, only to lose most of them and maintain the rest only by great effort across the miles and time zones.
Amb. Tsilas concluded by expressing his appreciation for AGAPW’s acknowledgement of his wife, Penelope (Penny) Tsilas. Ambassadors’ wives play important roles and Tsilas smiled as he said “In Washington I was known as Penny’s husband.”
He said they are both proud to have been a supporter of the organization from the beginning.
Nikos Papaconstantinou, who just retired from the Greek diplomatic service, spoke warmly of his work with Amb. Tsilas. “I call him my ambassador; he will always be my ambassador.”
Alexakos invited guests representing the Onassis Foundation to speak about Amb. Tsilas’ leadership. Dr. Maria Sereti, who was his Director of Educational Affairs for 10 years, called him an inspiration and said “this is his essence: he is an amazing combination of idealism and pragmatism.”
Amb. Ioannis Vrailas, Deputy Head of the EU delegation to the UN, said Amb. Tsilas “was not just a legend or a role model but a constant source of inspiration, ahead of the times, an outside the box thinker.”
Amb. Tsilas holds degrees in law and economics from the University of Athens, and a Master’s in Political Science from the State University of Louisiana, New Orleans. He began his career as an attorney in Athens, Greece in 1963 – Mrs. Tsilas is also an attorney – and entered the Foreign Ministry in 1965.
He served as Greece’s Ambassador to America during a critical period when relations improved and his numerous high level positions in Greece included membership on the committee which organized the successful bid for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Among the dignitaries – speakers regretted the list was too long to mention all of them – were Amb. Vassilios Philippou, Consul General of the Republic of Cyprus in New York and his wife, Anthi Philippou; Nikos Papaconstantinou, Director of the Greek Press Office and his wife Marina, Nancy Papaioannou, President of Atlantic Bank and the Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Kathryn Yatrakis, Dean of Academic Affairs, Columbia University; Dr. Thomas Papathomas, Dean Rutgers University; and Dr. John Xethalis.
One of the highlights was a performance of a Mikis Theodorakis song by Soprano Flora Kyrou.
Alexakos invited Mrs. Tsilas to close the event and she chose to praise AGAPW for promoting networking among Greek women. She also urged the community to teach the younger generation to be sensitive to what is going on in Greece. “In these hard times we must stick together,” she said, quoting the ancient aphorism “I ishis en ti enosi – there is strength in unity.”