Geoffrey Pyatt: ‘For me, coming to Greece was like coming home’

Geoffrey Pyatt: ‘For me, coming to Greece was like coming home’

On October 24, 2016, the usual crowd of politicians, journalists, academics, artists and businesspeople who comprise the so-called “Greek establishment” were invited by the US Embassy not for a drink at a swanky Athens restaurant but up onto the deck of the imposing US 6th Fleet command and control ship Mount Whitney, docked at Piraeus port. The person who signed the invitation for this special reception was none other than the new ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, who had just arrived from Ukraine, where he had made himself internationally known for his work. The warship symbolism was too powerful to be missed even by the most naïve. Greece had been through quite a testing period of financial calamity and geopolitical uncertainty. Evidently, the superpower wanted to make clear that it was still present in the country that it first backed with the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine in its effort to avert a communist power seizure almost 70 years ago, in 1947. 

Almost four years after this eventful evening where most attendees found themselves climbing the steep stairs of a navy ship for the first time and greeted by US Navy sailors, I met Geoffrey Pyatt in his Mediterranean-style ambassador’s mansion in the center of Athens, near the US Embassy. It was a sunny, warm morning. I hadn’t missed that the tall, slender ambassador with his engaging smile and piercing blue eyes, just a few days ago had tweeted a welcome to the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams at Souda, the most advanced US base in the Eastern Mediterranean, located on the island of Crete. The Twitter post hailed “the newest addition to the US Navy Europe presence in the strategically dynamic Eastern Mediterranean region.”

So, who really had the idea of that October 2016 reception on a warship? Was it Pyatt himself? “Yes, it was absolutely my idea,” he says. “But it couldn’t be done if I didn’t have a good relationship with the US European Command and the departing head General [Philip M.] Breedlove and incoming General [Curtis] Scaparrotti.” From today’s focal point, how much distance has Greece covered since 2016? “Today nobody worries about the things that people worried about when I was getting ready to come,” Pyatt tells me. “Back then my bosses in Washington worried about the stability of the Greek financial system, Greece’s ability to continue its membership in the eurozone, the role of Greece in NATO, the influence of our adversaries. Nobody worries about all that anymore. Greece has changed a lot. First, it has survived. Then it regained its sovereignty [with the end of the memorandum period]. And democracy has been reaffirmed through elections. Even during these difficult six months of the pandemic, Greece has been viewed not just as a normal member-state but as a model of success in terms of the way the government has managed the crisis.” 

So, how has this happened? Would his diplomatic cables make for interesting reading when they become public a couple of decades or so from now? He smiles. “I hope they make for a good reading.” 

The restless Californian

Geoffrey Ross Pyatt was born in 1963 in La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego, in California. His parents have had quite distinguished careers. His father is Kedar “Bud” Pyatt, a nuclear scientist widely known in certain scientific circles as the chief mathematician of the Orion Project, a hugely ambitious US government program of the 1950s that aimed to construct spaceships 400 meters wide and destined to travel the solar system fueled by nuclear energy. The program was abandoned in the 60s but the elder Pyatt continued to pursue his scientific and business interests. Geoffrey’s mother is Mary MacKenzie, an acclaimed mezzo-soprano and voice teacher. She has performed at all the renowned opera houses, including the Met in New York. One of the highlights of her career was taking part in the recording of “Medea” alongside Maria Callas in Dallas in 1958. Curiously, being raised by his rather larger-than-life parents did not affect Pyatt’s own interests, which back in his teen years were stubbornly focused on the natural world, away from math or art. 

“Just north of my parents’ house is the best oceanographic research institute in the United States. It is associated with the University of California, and I used to spend my summers working there. One summer I did an internship working in their aquariums. I wanted to be an oceanographer. But I think the main part of it that appealed to me was the idea that you came to work in shorts and sandals and could go to the beach at lunchtime. I hadn’t really focused on the chemistry and physics part of the job. So, my life as an oceanographer came to a crashing end as soon as I got into university. My major initially was in science but that changed to political science around the end of my first semester.” 

Pyatt received his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Irvine in 1985 and went on to Yale, where he earned his master’s in international relations in 1987. Since 1990 he has served in many diplomatic posts, including India, where he was the deputy chief of mission (2006-07), and later Vienna, where he served in the same post at the US Mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency and International Organizations. 

His fondness for Greece is not a diplomatic gimmick. “For me, in many ways, coming to Greece was like coming home,” he says. “When we first came, my wife [Mary Pyatt] and I took a walk along the coastline around Glyfada and I remember just how wonderful it was looking at the sun slowly dropping over Aegina. The pine trees here are very similar to the pine trees we have in Southern California… the same eucalyptus trees that we have all over San Diego. My part of San Diego is like Greece, especially Attica. I show people pictures from the Attica coast as you head out towards Varkiza and they cannot tell the difference. It could be the coastline of San Diego’s North County.” 

He marvels at Greece’s wonders. “Greeks take a lot of things for granted,” he says politely, “but when you’ve traveled the world as much as I have, then you realize how special this country is.” He adds that “one of the curiosities of Athens is that, just like Los Angeles, it turns its back on the sea. Los Angeles is divided between the center of the city, which is about 10 kilometers inland, and the beach cities, where the surfers are. In the same way in Athens you could be in Syntagma Square and you wouldn’t know that you are just 15 minutes away from some of the most spectacular water anywhere in the world.” 

He has tried to make a habit of getting out of the city on weekends, exploring Greece. “As you know, I’m a big cyclist and I’ll do a hundred kilometers on a weekend. I’ve got one route that goes along the coast up to Korinthos and sometimes a little down into the Peloponnese. I’ve got another route that goes to Sounio and maybe Lavrio and up into the mountains. One of my treasured memories from my time in Greece was snorkeling on an island somewhere and then suddenly I was swimming through a school of fish. But I’ll tell you this: It’s never felt as special as it did this year after the lockdown, the first time that we were able to go out and swim again.” 

His first trip after the lockdown was to Mani, “to slay the dragon.” The “dragon” is the fear associated with a previous trip to Mani when he had a widely publicized bicycle accident. He returned to Mani in summer 2020 to finish the same bicycle road trip that was interrupted by his accident in 2019. “The accident happened near Vatheia, just after I had passed Tainaron, the southern tip of Europe.” I don’t tell him that, according to mythology, that’s the site of a gate to Hades, the realm of the afterlife. The ruins of the nearby ancient Oracle of the Dead remain to this day. But I bet he knows all that. 

He was traveling north of the oracle when bad luck struck. “It was bad but it could have been much worse,” he says. He was ushered in to the Areopoli Health Center, where he was treated by the director, Dr Anargiros Mariolis. Mariolis was the recipient of the WONCA Europe Award of Excellence in Health Care for 2019. That’s when Pyatt realized what a small world we live in. In no time Kyriakos Mitsotakis called on his mobile. The then head of the opposition was informed by Dr Mariolis about the ambassador’s accident. It was just two days before the elections. “Why are you talking to me? You should have been out campaigning,” Pyatt gamely told Mitsotakis. The soon-to-be-PM contacted some doctor friends, including Spiros Pnevmatikos, the medical professor and New Democracy MP. 

On the same day Pyatt was operated on by surgeon Panagiotis Polikarpoulos at the Hygeia Hospital in Athens and met Ioannis Kalavritinos, the head of the ortho team that took his case. For Pyatt, although painful, it was one of many incidents that convinced him that what makes Greece stand out is “the quality of the people, that combine this trait of resilience with philoxenia – the Greek word for hospitality.” Pyatt’s insatiable appetite to get to know Greece better has taken him from remote Aegean islands to Mount Athos. He has visited the Vatopedi Monastery and attended the 4 a.m. service, but one of the most indelible impressions he has been left with was his introduction to a hermit monk. “He was living alone, away from the monastery. He was getting to it once every three weeks, trading eggs for bread. It was quite a profound experience.” 

Pyatt’s method

Talking to Geoffrey Pyatt, you could be forgiven for getting carried away by his endless travel narratives and forgetting that you are standing face to face with one of the most seasoned US diplomats currently serving in the State Department. So, I interrupt his adventure stories and ask if there is a method in his diplomacy? What has he really done in Greece since 2016 behind the walls of the mighty US Embassy and inside the government offices that he never gets bored of visiting? “A good diplomat listens as much as he talks,” he replies with his serious, careful, calm voice. “You should put yourself in other people’s shoes. I effectively promote US interests only if I understand Greek interests.” Looking back, he refers to some “highlights” of his tenure, starting with Barack Obama’s official visit in 2016. Soon afterward he had to frame the issues until Donald Trump’s foreign policy team was installed. His efforts centered on the premise that Greece and the United States have fundamental common interests. This approach culminated with former defense minister Panos Kammenos’ visit to the Pentagon and former PM Alexis Tsipras’ visit to the White House. 

“I remember how important it was that the PM of Greece, the head of the Coalition of the Radical Left, was standing in the Rose Garden next to President Trump talking about the importance of the US Strategic Partnership,” he says. 

He then refers to the 2018 Thessaloniki International Fair, where the US was the honored country. “That changed the paradigm completely. The American Pavilion brought a vision of where growth and mutual cooperation could be heading with all these startups alongside big companies like Google, Cisco, Microsoft and Pfizer. I am very proud of that initiative.” Needless to say, the ambassador is one of the most fervent proponents of the belief that Greece can adopt the growth model of his native California, where the Silicon Valley academic and startup ecosystem is combined with a host of major investments in tourism, leisure, entertainment and clean energy projects. 

After the 2019 Greek elections, Pyatt pushed all the issues even faster. “I was most focused on making sure that Washington understood the magnitude of this opportunity to accelerate all of the lines of effort in forging an even better relationship with Greece.” He tells me that US Vice President Mike Pence is well versed in Greek matters and that he is a supporter of Ambassador Pyatt’s diplomatic work in Greece. Pence called Mitsotakis after he won the elections and, soon afterward, went into the Oval Office and told President Trump: “I just got off the phone with the new prime minister of Greece. He seems like a really good guy. You should really talk to him.” Trump liked what he heard and, the same afternoon, without warning, the White House called Athens and the US president talked to the prime minister. After a few months, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Greece, followed by PM Mitsotakis’ official visit to Washington in January. “The emotional high point [of the Washington visit] was the reception Secretary Pompeo and Vice President Pence hosted in the State Department. Everybody was there: cabinet members, members of Congress and of the Greek-American diaspora. I took ministers [Nikos] Panagiotopoulos, [Niki] Kerameus and [Kostas] Fragogiannis out on the balcony overlooking one of the most spectacular sights in Washington at night, over the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.” 

Right now, Pyatt is working on the US contribution to Greece’s 2021 Independence celebration. “I have talked with the Greek ambassador in Washington, Alexandra Papadopoulou, Culture Minister Lina Mendoni and the head of the 2021 Committee, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki. I think 2021 is an opportunity to commemorate in two directions. On the one hand it is really important to educate Americans about the contribution of ancient Greek democracy to our democracy, and on the other hand it is worthy to highlight the contribution of American Philhellenes to modern Greece’s quest for independence. Both stories are important.” 

After a long discussion in the ambassador’s residence garden, it is time to wrap it up. Surely Greece has not only turned the corner, but one could also claim that the last four years have been the best in Greek-US relations in four decades. Is there anything left for a hands-on US diplomat to do? He smiles meaningfully. “I am not done yet,” he says and instantly grabs his tablet to share with us some more photographs from his numerous expeditions to the Greek countryside. Despite no shortage of regional problems, Greece is far more stable and confident than it was just four years ago. As I leave the ambassador’s residence, I am thinking that perhaps a significant part of Geoffrey Pyatt’s legacy might be that the next US ambassador, when he or she arrives in Athens, almost certainly won’t feel any particular necessity to host Greek establishment luminaries on a glorious warship.

This interview first appeared in Kathimerini’s K magazine.


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