Geoffrey Pyatt is one of the longest serving US ambassadors to Athens – his fifth anniversary is on 19 May – and his tenure has coincided with some of the more difficult moments in recent history from the country’s economic precariousness to Greek-Turkish tensions last summer that brought the two countries to the brink of a military clash at sea.
In a full-length interview with Marianna Kakaounakis at the annual Delphi Forum, Pyatt stressed the Biden administration’s intention to deepen bilateral strategic ties and that a visit by PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Washington is on the cards, though at some as yet undetermined point in the future.
He noted in particular the importance of the military relationship which is clearly expanded based on key geopolitical objectives. He did not mince his words regarding the aim of curbing Chinese influence in Greece.
But he also touched on the prospect of direct foreign investment in the country, including the keen US interest in Greek ports and shipyards, and he expressed some optimism (citing the rating agencies) about the prospects for a post-pandemic comeback of the Greek economy.
Pyatt said that Biden has “opened up a new vocabulary of cooperation” with Greece in areas ranging from defence to energy and suggested that Washington will pursue every closer ties based on the existing bilateral agenda. He noted, in that context, that Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken are extremely familiar with Greek issues.
“I think that’s certainly President Biden’s intention [to change and further improve bilateral relations]…This is a President who knows Greece and the Greek people extremely well. He’s made clear that he’s committed to raise our relationship to the next level. And that’s really true across the board. My boss, Secretary of State Blinken, likewise knows Greece very, very well, so I’m very excited about what we can do together.”
“I think one of the things that the Biden-Harris administration has done is opened up a new vocabulary of cooperation between us. So we’re continuing on a lot of the work that began when I arrived here in 2016 like defence cooperation, like energy cooperation, but now we’ve also got new issues that we’re working on together. Climate change is the most important one, and I think Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his government have really raised the bar in terms of European ambition, in terms of fighting against this global challenge.
And then the big geopolitical issues. President Biden and his administration have been clear that one of the big global challenges we confront is how to encourage China to play by the rules of the game, to support the rules-based international order that has built prosperity and peace for all of our countries. And Greece is a very important partner as we work with all of our European partners on that issue as well.”
Washington visit on the cards, but when?
Pyatt addressed the question of a Biden-Mitsotakis meeting in Washington asserting that both sides want it, but it appears that the timing remains very unclear and he linked it to the future development of the pandemic.
“Of course the Prime Minister and President Biden will be together next month at the NATO Summit. That will be my President’s first international trip so it’s an important occasion. I don’t know whether there’s going to be time for a bilateral engagement there, but you saw the read-out from the White House on the excellent telephone call that Prime Minister Mitsotakis had with President Biden on Independence Day. And it was made very clear that both sides expect a Washington visit to happen, and I think it will largely be determined on how things proceed in terms of finally defeating the pandemic and getting us back to the normal business of face to face diplomacy.”
Optimism about direct foreign investment
Pyatt expressed some optimism in addressing Greece’s economic growth prospects in terms of direct foreign investment. Noting that during his first two years in Athens he fielded questions from prospective investors about the viability of the economy and even whether the country would remain in the Eurozone, he underlined that this has changed radically and that rating agencies are now displaying trust in the prospects of the Greek economy.
“Now the focus is global variables. How successfully will Greece be able to emerge from the pandemic? I’ve seen some of the recent numbers that have come out from Standard & Poor’s and the rating agencies with very, very bullish predictions of how well Greece is going to do with economic growth. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is the money has to go somewhere, and to the extent Greece presents a compelling story in terms of economic reform, in terms of openness, I think it’s going to attract a lot.”
“You have these new lines of effort. Greece emerging as a major technology hub for Southeastern Europe. Examples like the $100 million Microsoft cloud computing investment. A real game-changer in this area. And likewise, Greece’s emergence as a fantastic example of energy transition. Leveraging what we all know from living here in Athens, the fantastic resources that Greece enjoys in terms of things like wind and solar.”
Concerns about Greek-Turkish tensions, last summer’s brinkmanship
As regards Greek-Turkish tensions Pyatt underlined that the US “emphatically supports” a modus vivendi between its two important allies and he reiterated fears of a military “accident” as occurred last summer at a moment of heightened tension that brought the two countries nearest to a clash.
“I’ve always worried, and I’ve said this on several occasions, I’ve worried about the risk of an accident. And we saw that in particular last summer during this very serious confrontation around the activities of the Oruc Reis, and in fact a real naval accident at sea between the Kemal Reis and the Limnos. I think that was probably the period of highest tension that I’ve lived through and I give a lot of credit to the professionalism of the Hellenic Armed Forces and in particular the Navy which operated through long periods of time at a high tempo in a way that was both physically and operationally demanding.”
“Fortunately, I think calmer heads have now prevailed. The Oruc Reis is back, has been pulled back. And most importantly, Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his cabinet have made clear this government’s focus is on diplomacy and on finding ways to build a modus vivendi with Ankara which is a goal the United States emphatically supports.”
Keen US interest in Greek ports, shipyards
Pyatt underlined once again the strong interest of the US government and enterprises in Greek ports and shipyards and acknowledged that this sector is marked by geopolitical competition. Though he cited China exclusively by name, he has in the past raised questions about the Russian stake in the Port of Thessaloniki.
“I think there’s some geopolitical competition. It’s of course the Chinese government that called Greece the dragon’s head of the Belt and Road Initiative. It became very clear to me when I arrived in Greece five years ago that the best way to push back against this was to offer a positive message in terms of U.S. investment and U.S. engagement.”
“I’m very proud of the work that’s been done by American investors in the maritime sector. You have the example of the revival of the Syros shipyard by an American company, ONEX. You’ve now got big American companies interested too in the Port of Alexandroupoli, a place that I visited again just last Friday. And it’s really remarkable to see, especially in that region of Thrace and in Alexandroupoli, the transformation that’s happened, the confidence that people now feel because they’re optimistic that the port is going to be better utilized, because they feel that they aren’t forgotten out there in the far reaches of Greek territory. And they’re very comfortable with the messages that have come from the potential American investors. So we’re very excited about that.”
“We’re very focused as well on the future of the shipbuilding industry. Greece is a country, as we’re reminded by the anniversary of the Battle of Salamis, this is a country and a society with thousands of years of maritime history. It should have a vibrant shipbuilding industry to go along with its global shipping footprint. And we hope that American companies can be partners in that regard.”
As always in public statements, Pyatt underlined the importance to the US of the deepening defence cooperation with Greece and that a strong Greece is a distinct component of America’s geopolitical planning. Interestingly, he noted that it is not a “quid pro quo type of relationship”.
“We already have all of those things [security guarantees, financial assistance, or high quality U.S. military surplus]. The security assurance is contained in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty. We are doing a lot more in terms of our security assistance and security cooperation with Greece and you see that with major programs like the Kiowa helicopters transfer. We will do more, and there’s a clear commitment on both sides to continue down that road.”
“But I think the other important thing to understand is that the nature of our military and security relationship is of equals —two sovereign states who cooperate because it’s in our interests. It was very interesting for me in Alexandroupoli on Friday to hear Minister Panagiotopoulos and General Floros speak so clearly about the advantages that Greece derives from things like the U.S. rotation of forces through Alexandroupoli.”
“We want a strong and secure Greece because it advances the interests of the United States. It makes NATO stronger. But we’re going to do this together. We’re not going to do this as a quid pro quo kind of relationship.”