US seeking to ‘modernize’ defense cooperation, says Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt

US seeking to ‘modernize’ defense cooperation, says Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt

US Ambassador to Greece Geoffrey Pyatt heralds deepening defense ties between the two countries, adding that changes to the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two allies are already under discussion and that the United States is seeking ways to utilize more military facilities in Greece.

In an interview with Kathimerini, Pyatt also expresses his optimism with regard to the new government, stressing opportunities for investments, especially in the energy sector.

How do you see US-Greek relations evolving now that there’s a new government in Athens?

The good news is, we had a very strong US-Greece relationship under the [Alexis] Tsipras government and I think we have to credit the previous administration for the progress that we’ve made, for instance, on our defense and security cooperation. Now we have a clear commitment from Prime Minister [Kyriakos] Mitsotakis and his team to move even faster. I was very impressed at the Economist conference this week at the level of continuity especially in key areas like defense and security which have been one of the real highlights of our bilateral engagement. As you know very well, the tempo of our military engagement today is higher than it has been in decades, whether it’s the strong partnership at Souda Bay, the important operations of our MQ9s in Larissa, the pace of military exercises, the new rotations through Alexandroupoli and through Thessaloniki and Volos, the rotational combat aviation brigades operating out of Stefanovikio, and we have a commitment on the part of both of our governments to making that exercise series, that rotation series, even bigger and more substantial for the next season. So we’re well positioned there.

I’ve always said that the area of greatest potential growth in our already strong relationship is trade and investment. That’s obviously a top priority for Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his team. I’ve heard that very clearly in my meetings with Minister [Adonis] Georgiadis, with Minister [Kostis] Hatzidakis, with Minister [Kyriakos] Pierrakakis – those are the three key players on these issues: economy, energy and digital technology. They all happen to be close friends, people I’ve worked with and gotten to know over three years, and now we’re in a position that we can really make things happen. I was very pleased to have the opportunity last week to have a good phone call with [US] Secretary of Commerce [Wilbur] Ross, where I described to him some of the opportunities that I see with this government to build on the work that Secretary Ross did when he came to the Thessaloniki International Fair, when he hosted Prime Minister Tsipras last September in New York with investors. He’s very willing to do that. He knows Prime Minister Mitsotakis very well. So, I think we are in an optimal position to take an already good US-Greece relationship and raise it to the next level.

We’re fortunate that we’ve built a series of institutional frameworks for doing this. The most important is the Strategic Dialogue. That’s not going to change in terms of the key pillars of collaboration there, which you know very well. And I was delighted, of course, that one of Minister [Nikos] Dendias’ first trips as foreign minister was to Washington, DC, that he was able to have good, substantial discussions with Secretary [Mike] Pompeo and national security advisor [John] Bolton. But a central part of that discussion was, how do we take the next step with the Strategic Dialogue? A year ago, we didn’t have that framework. So I’m very proud of the fact that where we are right now is the culmination of several years of work, and it’s work which delivers value for Greece, but also for my government, for the United States, and I think we’re going to do great things in the next few weeks and months.

You talked about strengthening the relationship between Washington and Athens in trade and investment. Do you have something specific in mind?

That’s really up to the government in terms of where they’re going to prioritize. So far, every priority that I have heard from the economic ministers is a perfect fit with the areas that I have identified. As you know, I was in Washington in June and then in New York, laying track for our engagement with a new government and then meeting with investors in New York, and I heard a consistent message there that people are excited about opportunities in the energy sector. I always say, the untold success story is the startup sector, and I’m really delighted that my friend Kyriakos Pierrakakis is committed to sustaining the work that the Ministry of Digital Policy accomplished to lift up the startup sector. The ministry pavilion at the Thessaloniki fair was directly connected to our status as honored country in 2018, but this year, we’re working with Minister Pierrakakis, with the American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, with our technology companies, to have a continued American presence there and continue to highlight opportunities. One of the people I saw at the White House when I was in Washington in June was Michael Kratsios, who you’ll remember was here for the TIF. Michael is now the head of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, but he comes out of a Silicon Valley business background. He is already connected with Minister Pierrakakis. We expect him to visit in the next few weeks, and we will use that as an opportunity to continue building these bridges between the Greek government and the startup and technology sectors in the United States.

I think, in the energy area, obviously, we’re going from strength to strength. I was delighted that one of the last things that we did with the previous government was the signature on the offshore exploration agreement with ExxonMobil, Total and Hellenic Petroleum for Crete. I’ve discussed this with Minister Hatzidakis, who is very supportive of that agreement. As I said publicly this week, we hope very much that passing the parliamentary legislation for enabling that agreement will be one of the first acts of the new Parliament. And I hope also that this will be – first of all, that the exploration off of Crete will be successful and this will be a catalyst for other American investors looking for up-stream opportunities. In my discussion with Minister Hatzidakis, I also highlighted the interests of American energy companies in the opportunities in Greece in the renewables sector. We had the inauguration of the GE wind farm funded by an American investment group for Kato Lakomata, the first energy park of its sort with GE technology in Greece. We’d like to see much more of that. I’ve got a couple of American companies that are interested in exploring opportunities here and I’ve been sharing lots of CEO email addresses with my new cabinet counterparts and saying, “Listen, now is the time. Let’s see what we can do.” And again, I think what’s very clear from the prime minister on down is this government’s intention to exceed expectations and to demonstrate results on the fastest possible timeline. That fits very much with the American style of doing business, so I’m optimistic.

Do you foresee any agreements before the end of the year?

I certainly hope so! I mean, we’re going to keep throwing logs on the fire to keep this pot boiling. In addition to Assistant Secretary [Philip] Reeker’s visit next week, in early August we expect a visit from Assistant Secretary Frank Fannon, the State Department’s energy and natural resources assistant secretary of state. That will be an opportunity to continue our intensive dialogue with the Ministry of Energy on all of these different opportunities. And again, I think the great thing about the lineup that you have on the investment-focused ministries – and as I said, I’ve met with all three of them  – is that these are all people who know the United States even better than I do, in some ways, who have a clear understanding of what it takes to bring an American investment to market and who recognize that Greece has nothing to lose. This is the moment of opportunity to really demonstrate that Greece has left the crisis years behind. I appreciated the comments that Minister Hatzidakis made at the handover of his ministry about moving rapidly on these various investment opportunities and then I saw Minister Georgiadis saying much the same in his interview with Euronews and others. Everybody is saying they want to take Greece and turn it into one of Europe’s most attractive investment destinations, and the United States, because we have a strategic stake in the success of the Greek economy and the success of this government, is going to be the strongest possible ally in that effort.

You mention energy. However, many of the issues in hydrocarbon exploration off the Greek islands stem from problems with the demarcation of maritime zones with neighboring countries such as Turkey. And given the tension in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone, this endeavor is proving to be a bit more complex than it looks.

I think it’s apples and oranges. Nobody contests the waters west of Crete. Nobody contests the waters of the Ionian where Energean, which has major American investment, is conducting drilling and seismic activities. So as I said, I really think it’s apples and oranges.

There are bureaucratic and political hurdles that have to be overcome to advance the energy opportunities in Greece. For Kato Lakomata that I talked about, I asked when I was out at the site – we had representatives of the American investment group that funded the project – I asked them, how long did this project take to get from conception to execution? I thought they would say five years or four years. Thirteen years. You really have to love Greece to be willing to keep working on a project through 13 years of regulatory and bureaucratic impediments. So I know the prime minister is committed to streamlining that. I know that Minister Georgiadis is completely committed to breaking that model. And the great thing about American capital is it moves fast, it looks for opportunities and people are taking a serious look at Greece now. So now is the time.

I think the issues around Cyprus, as I said, are a different thing, a different category that does not affect the perception of Greece as an energy partner for the United States, whether it’s through TAP or Revithoussa, or IGB [Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria] or the FSRU [Floating Storage Regasification Unit] or all these other things that we work on together every single day.

The issues around the waters off Cyprus are important. They’re important matters of principle and important matters of regional stability. But they in no way, in my mind, affect the attractiveness of Greece as an investment opportunity.

How is the trilateral partnership between Greece, Cyprus and Israel, with the support of the United States, going to progress in the areas of energy and security?

We are, as you know, strongly committed to the 3+1. I had the opportunity at the Economist conference, aside from speaking to my Greek partners who were there, to speak to Cyprus Foreign Minister [Nikos] Christodoulides about our vision now for continuing to institutionalize the 3+1. We want to continue to have the top-level meetings periodically at the level of prime ministers and Secretary of State Pompeo, but it’s also very valuable to have more expert level discussions. So we were glad last month to have a counterterrorism-focused 3+1 in Cyprus which one of our embassy officers participated in. So the United States is there. We’re going to try to do an energy focused 3+1 very soon. And I’ve also suggested to colleagues that we should look at opportunities, for instance, in the digital policy realm where Israel, of course, has a lot of experience, Greece has great potential and the United States leads the world. So business investment, digital technology, that’s another area of collaboration.

But the idea is to take the political level agreement that we have to keep the United States engaged in the 3+1 on an ongoing basis, and to begin to move that into areas where the experts can really maximize the opportunities for collaboration. And I know the Greek government is supportive of that idea. I was discussing it just today with some of my Foreign Ministry counterparts. I know the government of Cyprus is supportive of that idea. But at the end of the day, as I’ve said from the beginning of this 3+1 process, we’re the “plus one.” So you guys – the three – have to decide in the first instance how and where they want the United States to be engaged.

Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was in Washington last week and made some remarks following his meetings with Secretary Pompeo and national security advisor John Bolton about Turkey. The visit also happened to coincide with the cancellation of the F-35 deal with Turkey, so I wanted to ask you – as an American diplomat who has been stationed here for years and knows the attitudes very well – do you think that a souring of American-Turkish relations could affect the relationships of other countries or stability in the region?

I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. The fact is, and I was glad to hear both the alternate minister of foreign affairs [Miltiadis Varvitsiotis] and the defense minister [Nikos Panagiotopoulos] at the Economist conference make the point that Greece cannot change its geography. Turkey is an inevitability for you as it is for us. And as I’ve said frequently, there are no two NATO allies who are more strongly aligned on the question of Turkey than Greece and the United States because both of us believe strongly that it’s essential for us to work as hard as we can to ensure that Turkey remains anchored in the West. The United States has spoken very clearly on the question of the S400 and the F-35. We’ve spoken very clearly on the provocative nature of the drilling activities that Turkey has engaged in in waters off of Cyprus. But none of that changes the fact that we, like you, need to find a way to make this work.

So I think it’s a huge mistake to view US relations with Greece through the lens of Turkey. Our relationship with Greece stands on its own merits. It is a relationship between two time-tested allies, two democracies, two countries that have the same values with deep people to people ties. And Turkey is one of the areas where we want to work together. I think that was the clear message that Foreign Minister Dendias heard as well when he was in Washington. We’re going to keep working on this. I’ve worked on this for three years. I was up at 2 o’clock in the morning on the day when the Greek soldiers were abducted on the Turkish border. I was on my phone and working with Washington when the Turkish and Greek Coast Guard vessels were colliding with each other in the waters of the Eastern Aegean. We will remain engaged to the extent there are crises that need to be diffused, but that’s not where we want to spend our energies. We want to spend our energies in an affirmative, positive, forward-looking way in terms of how we deepen and develop this important strategic relationship. But we want to do so in a way that is not a threat to Turkey, is not perceived as hostile to Turkey.

I should emphasize that that was also a very clear message, if you watched Foreign Minister Christodoulides’ remarks at the Economist conference, he was very careful in this regard as well.

So we’ll be okay. We’re going to have to work through some challenges, but you have 200 years of experience of dealing with Turkey so you know how to do this.

I would like to move on to North Macedonia and the Balkans in general. This government has specific views about how the Prespes agreement should be handled right now, especially in terms of North Macedonia’s European Union integration. There are also other unresolved issues, such as Greece’s bilateral relationship with Albania. And of course other broader issues that have to do with the EU integration of the Western Balkans. What are the signals you’re receiving from the government in this regard?

On this, and on Prespes in particular, I’m going to let the Greek government speak for itself.

The important thing for me is that for 27 years the name issue was a source of irritation between American diplomats and their Greek counterparts. I wasn’t there, but I heard that there was a little bit of reminiscing about this when Dora Bakoyannis and Victoria Nuland were on stage at the Economist, and former foreign minister Bakoyannis was recalling the disagreements that we used to have. This is no longer an issue in US-Greece relations. We are focused now on supporting North Macedonia’s membership in NATO. That’s going to be the focus over the course of the fall as we work with our Congress. Greece, of course, was the first country to ratify North Macedonia’s NATO accession, so you finished the issue.

We are very supportive of the role that Greece is carving out for itself in North Macedonia. For instance, the NATO Air Policing Mission in North Macedonia, paralleling what you are already doing in Montenegro. We see great possibilities for Greek business in North Macedonia. We are supportive of the dialogue that began under the previous government to repurpose some of the pipelines between Thessaloniki and North Macedonia to deliver finished petroleum products from the Thessaloniki refinery to customers in North Macedonia. We see great opportunities to help leverage Greek expertise and know-how to support the further modernization and reform of North Macedonia so that it’s ready to be a strong member of NATO and a good candidate for EU membership.

But this is not an issue that I worry about at all, and as I said, I’ll let the government speak for its policy on relations with North Macedonia, but our focus as a government, as the United States, is now on how do we support this country to become a strong and effective member of NATO. And of course I’m very proud of the fact that my former deputy, Kate Byrnes, is now on the job as our ambassador in Skopje, and I’m quite confident, and I had the opportunity to spend some time with Foreign Minister [Nikola] Dimitrov when he was here at the Economist conference, and I told him that we had sent the very best American diplomat. I have the greatest respect for Kate. I chose her to be my deputy and I’m very proud of the fact that she now has the ambassadorial responsibility there. And she is as well positioned as anybody in the United States government to understand both the challenges and the opportunities of the relationship across the border.

You already made some initial comments about Greek-US defense relations. As I see it, there are three pillars: training, equipment and the way American facilities function in Greece, as regulated by the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement. Should we expect developments in any of these areas?

I would add one more pillar, and that is Greece’s role as an enabler of American operations in the wider theater of the Eastern Med, Aegean, Black Sea and Balkans. Greece has a highly capable armed forces. It’s a strong and trusted NATO ally. And one of the reasons that we are so supportive of the enhancement of Greek capabilities is because it makes Greece a better ally. Whether it is the Hellenic Navy providing escort services for a US carrier group moving through the Eastern Mediterranean, or Greek Special Forces working with American Special Forces as we did during Jackal Stone to exercise the capacities that we would need if, heaven forbid, there were ever a complex terrorism episode in this theater, or the kind of support and facilitation for raising capacity that Greece provides through NRDC and the Land Command Headquarters there and the exercises that the Greek Army remains engaged with. And then Stefanovikio, which is a great example – the reason we have our helicopters at Stefanovikio – obviously it’s an opportunity to exercise their capacity with Greek counterparts, but it also provides an unmatched operational environment to maintain the readiness of US forces.

I remember when I was in Thessaloniki meeting with the commanding officer that deployed out, he told me that he believed that his pilots were at the highest level of readiness that they had enjoyed at any time since they were deployed to the war zone because they were flying so much, because they were taking advantage of this fabulous complex geography that Greece offers, where one minute you’re over water and the next minute you’re over the top of Mt Olympus. And these are pilots who, had they remained in Germany or Poland, they simply wouldn’t have been able to operate because of weather conditions.

So Greece is an important enabler and helps us to make NATO stronger and make the alliance stronger, both by the platforms that Greece provides – and Souda is the flagship in that regard – but also what you’ve seen us do much more of in recent years which is operate out of additional facilities. We’ve provided additional opportunities for different sorts of forces. Souda Bay is pretty much full. There’s not a lot of room for growth there because it’s a dual-use airport, because of the importance, especially during the tourism season, of regular commercial operations. But you have a lot of geography, you have a lot of military facilities that are under-utilized where we’re working together. And that’s one of the priorities as our experts work on the Defense Cooperation Agreement, that’s one of the priorities.

If you go back to the Joint Statement from the Strategic Dialogue in December you’ll see we specifically referred there to the commitment that both of us made to finding ways to modernize our Defense Cooperation Agreement to better reflect the real world collaboration that we have today.

The current DCA names three facilities. The only one that’s actually in use today – it names Elliniko, which is obviously irrelevant – the only one that’s relevant in that DCA is Souda Bay.

So we’ve agreed at the political level that we need to modernize this. Now the experts are working on what the language looks like.

Education is another area of cooperation, which tends to fall between the news cracks, and there has been an explosion of exchange programs in the last three years of your tenure here. Is this going to evolve further?

I’m glad you noticed. I’ll say a couple of things. First of all, as you know, this is one of the pillars of the Strategic Dialogue, and that reflects the importance of this basket of issues. I could not be more enthusiastic about having Niki Kerameus as the minister for education. She and I have spent years talking about these issues. Now we get to put our words into practice. She’s got a big and complicated job. I know that working with Americans is only a small piece of what you have to do as the Minister of Education and Religious Affairs in the Hellenic Republic, but she has the perfect biography and technical competence to help us develop opportunities here.

This was another one of the things I heard very clearly when I was in Washington and New York. There’s fantastic appetite to do more in terms of educational cooperation, whether it’s programs like what Harvard does at Nafplio or the new New York University, NYU, Center in Kolonaki; the programs that are run under the umbrella of CYA, College Year Abroad, and all the universities, Princeton and everybody else who are running Semester Abroad programs.

I remember a conversation about a year ago with the Cyprus minister of finance and we were talking about these issues. He said that the greatest incentive to the development of education as a service in the Cyprus economy was the bureaucratic and political obstacles to doing the same thing in Greece. So this is an area with fantastic potential. I know that it’s an area that Prime Minister Mitsotakis cares about. As somebody with degrees from Harvard and Stanford, he needs no convincing of the value of these educational partnerships with the United States.

I think the important thing for us is first of all, we don’t really have a Ministry of Education in the Greek sense of the word because our universities are either state level institutions like the University of California or private institutions. So this has to happen more at the retail level. It’s very good also that we have IIE, the Institute of International Education, which is the big umbrella organization for these issues which has Greece on its radar scope, and I’m going to keep working on this as hard as I can. Unfortunately, we lose Monica Cummings as our public affairs officer at the end of the summer, but we have a new public affairs officer coming on board. And I will tell her that her number one job is to help us ensure that by the time of the next Strategic Dialogue we have some points on the score board in terms of our educational cooperative activities.

And this one, this is a more complicated set of issues. One, because there’s a lot of politics in Greece – I understand that – around these issues. It is also – it doesn’t deliver the kind of short-term strategic benefit that a Defense Cooperation Agreement or an energy deal does. Those are things where you can say six months later, here’s what we’ve done. Education is a long-term investment, but it’s the most important strategic investment we can make.

I’ve said publicly, I’ve always been a great believer in the human capital of this country. My little leg experience has reinforced that lesson for me. It’s a question of how you unlock that potential. We want to be the best possible partner on that. We’ll work – again, I can’t deliver Stanford or NYU or the University of Virginia because none of them work for me or my government – they’re all private or local, state institutions. But I know there’s a lot of value waiting to be unlocked there and we very much look forward to working with Minister Kerameus to support this. And as I said, I count her as a friend. I respect enormously how thoughtful she is on these issues. And I think the prime minister made just the right choice in giving this basket of issues to her. And we look forward to making some real progress.

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