ATHENS, Greece — Returning to the US Embassy in April to interview departing Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt felt like a homecoming, nostalgia touched with strangeness, relief and pride in what I’d learned and experienced since leaving to begin my ICWA fellowship in September 2021.
Inside the compound, memories of my frenetic days as the embassy speechwriter flooded back. People strode the halls, refreshing email on their phones and firing off responses. Insanely busy days like this had become the norm over the past six years. Ambassador Pyatt, a 33-year career diplomat, served in Greece through three US administrations and two Greek ones. During his exceptionally long term, he developed a reputation as an extremely active representative of American interests, reflecting the recent acceleration of this country’s ties with Washington.
That may seem surprising given previous decades of anti-Americanism in Greece following US support for an anti-communist military junta that dismantled democracy, jailing and torturing its opponents from 1967 to 1974. Every year on November 17, thousands of Greeks still march from the Athens Polytechnic university to the US Embassy to commemorate the 1973 student uprising against the junta that ended in bloodshed when a tank crashed through the school gates.
Bilateral relations remained cool until the global recession in 2008 triggered the Greek debt crisis, wiping out a quarter of the country’s GDP. Amid harsh austerity measures imposed by European creditors, the Obama administration sought to keep Greece in the eurozone, opening new avenues for cooperation with the leftist Syriza government in power from 2015 to 2019. When the center-right New Democracy government succeeded Syriza, it advanced that agenda further.
“It’s very clear that there is a cross-party consensus in Greece on the importance of the relationship with the United States,” Pyatt said during our interview. “Most importantly, there’s no political mileage in trying to fan anti-Americanism as part of a political strategy. It just doesn’t work anymore. And I think both countries benefit from that.”
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has reaffirmed Greece’s commitment to the West and validated deepening US-Greek military cooperation in the northeastern port city of Alexandroupoli, where I have lived since October. At the same time, Greece’s involvement in the war has galvanized the political left and raised old fears about how far the US is willing to support Greece in its tense relationship with Turkey. Pyatt’s departure provided a natural opportunity to reflect on the turning point in relations his tenure has marked.
A busy day for a farewell interview
The ambassador’s schedule the day of my visit hinted at the breadth of current US-Greek cooperation. That morning, he delivered remarks at a discussion held by the Atlantic Council think-tank and American-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce Energy Committee with Greek Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas. After our interview, he met with members of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, a diaspora group that had dedicated a museum in Alexandroupoli a few days prior. Later that afternoon, he signed a new memorandum with Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias, promising to exchange tourism data and best practices.
Meanwhile, the embassy was preparing for the Delphi Economic Forum, an annual, multi-day gathering of Greek and regional leaders set to begin later that week. High-level officials from the State Department including Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland were coming to Greece for the conference, followed by three congressional delegations and trips to Thessaloniki, Crete and Alexandroupoli. Instead of slowing down in his final month, Pyatt was sprinting to the finish line.
The press attaché, my former supervisor, met me in the chancery and walked me to a conference room. On the way, I peered into my old office. That bare, quiet room with its narrow strip of window looking out onto the courtyard served as my sanctuary for two years, where I drank tea and snacked while writing hundreds of speeches and tweets.
Ambassador Pyatt entered the conference room a few minutes later, greeting me at the door. Tall and lean with gray hair, glasses and his signature green suspenders, he took his spot at the head of the conference table, rolling his chair back to an appropriate social distance. He was ready to start and had an all-business demeanor that sometimes made him seem a bit aloof. Occasionally, our press team had had to remind him to smile for photos while delivering his remarks.
As we began the interview, I reflected on how our relationship had evolved over the past six years. We were Southern California natives who had arrived in Greece at the same time, September 2016, when the country was still in the midst of its decade-long financial crisis. Back then, I was a Fulbright fellow with a freshly minted Master of Fine Arts degree, and he had just completed a challenging three-year stint as US ambassador to Ukraine.
Now, after having written for him for over two years, I was embracing my new role as an objective, outside observer and analyst of Greek affairs. And Pyatt was returning to Washington, having been nominated by President Joe Biden to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, head of the department’s efforts to promote international energy security. As Europe and its allies rushed to disconnect from Russian gas, this critical position would likely bring him back to Greece in the near future.
Our conversation focused on the current state of the US-Greek relationship as he ended his tenure, especially in light of the war in Ukraine. He shared lessons he had brought to Greece from his last post, the rationale behind American investments in Alexandroupoli, and his thoughts about the apparent end of anti-Americanism in Greece.
The interview affirmed Greece’s significant location and growing role in the region. Having escaped a dreadful economic crisis that was still very much an “existential challenge” when Pyatt arrived, “now Greece has the luxury of being able to develop a more strategic foreign policy,” he said. “From the American perspective, our interests converge almost completely, so we’re very eager to develop the opportunities therein.”
Life as the embassy speechwriter
When introducing me to a colleague from the State Department, Pyatt once joked that I was a poet who was now doing boring governmental writing for him. That style of writing was new to me when I started in April 2019. The learning curve was steep: I was responsible for drafting remarks on any topic the ambassador was asked to speak about, ranging from entrepreneurship to defense, energy to 5G, American philhellenes to the Marshall Plan, COVID-19 and space exploration to micromobility and exchange programs. My workload was keyed to Pyatt’s schedule, and as part of his effort to increase embassy engagement, he accepted virtually every speaking invitation.
At first, I had doubts about whether I could write that much that quickly, but I rose to the challenge by necessity because he and my colleagues were depending on me. It was a surprise, early on, to realize how many people at the embassy read the drafts I sent out every day for review. Over two-and-a-half years, I wrote more than 500 sets of remarks, talking points, op-eds, statements, letters and interview responses for the ambassador and deputy chief of mission.
My relationship with Pyatt developed on the page. He read everything I wrote, marking up the pages by hand. Sometimes his assistant would call me up to his office to retrieve a stack of dog-eared pages flagged with Post-it notes where he had added lines or replaced paragraphs. I became adept at reading his scrawl, learning his buzzwords and turns of phrase, the formulas he was apt to use when framing certain issues. Greece was a “pillar of stability,” and the US presence in Alexandroupoli sent a “clear message to all those who are watching” that our countries “stood shoulder to shoulder” in promoting regional peace and prosperity.
The ambassador’s voice was part persona and part personal. On one hand, it was a mouthpiece for State Department policy, weaving together official guidance and quotes from higher-ups. It pulled from an ever-growing, ever-changing body of approved government language. I was the keeper of that bank, and I became adept at remembering when a talking point or factoid had last been used and remixing the language for new occasions.
The voice also drew from books and articles Pyatt had read, from meetings he’d held and companies he’d visited. That required some detective work, so I followed his schedule and spoke with colleagues who traveled with him to find out what experiences he might want to share in future remarks. I also kept up on his Twitter account and local developments on which he might be asked to respond. I listened to interviews he gave in order to channel the rhythm of his voice. I paid attention to how he edited his remarks at the podium, tracked the way he punctuated sentences, the adjectives he favored, his transitions. I added historical references, the occasional Greek word and allusions to our shared home state.
Every few months, the ambassador would indicate how he wished to push the narrative of the US-Greek relationship forward. For important speeches, like an event the embassy organized with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou to mark Biden’s inauguration at the Athenian Agora, we went back and forth on multiple drafts.
As time progressed, I grew into the position, learning to handle intense bouts of writing, sometimes up to four speaking engagements a day. I became familiar with the annual cycle of online and in-person panels, keynote speeches, graduations and launch events, and I was conversant with various aspects of the US-Greek relationship. But I also longed to be out in the field exploring Greece rather than shut up in my office all day. I wanted to hear local perspectives on the issues I was writing about, especially on Greece’s strategic borders, where eastern and western cultures mix and reify themselves.
During our interview, Pyatt emphasized the importance of leaving the Athens bubble, a validation of my decision to take the ICWA fellowship. Widely considered a friend of Greece, he found his island trips and bike rides through the Peloponnese well documented. He described traveling around Greece as the best part of his job, a reminder of how different the conversation in the capital is from what you hear people talking about in Crete, Rhodes, Ioannina or Patras. “The embassy has been able to do less outreach work during COVID, and I very much hope that as we come out of the worst of COVID that people will be able to get out of the city more,” he told me.
War in Ukraine tests US-Greek relationship
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24 created a new global crisis that has shifted the West’s geopolitical focus back to Greece’s neighborhood in southeastern Europe and the Black Sea. As Pyatt said during our interview, Greece occupies a “particularly complicated” geography at the place where Europe meets Eurasia and Africa. As a result, it must necessarily navigate both the European outlook, “this extraordinarily prosperous bastion of democratic values and economic success,” but also the challenges of the Middle East, North Africa and the Russian landmass.
Ukraine is home to a sizeable Greek diaspora community, especially in cities like Mariupol, which has been devastated by the war. That is one reason Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has supported Ukraine, sending military equipment, accepting more than 25,000 Ukrainian refugees and maintaining an active diplomatic presence in the country.
The war has especially made itself felt in Alexandroupoli and the wider prefecture of Evros. Indeed, the village of Ormenio in northern Evros is only 600 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. In the early days of the invasion, I could feel a palpable tension in the air as residents of the city followed developments just beyond their borders.
The war in Ukraine has put deepening US-Greek relations under trial by fire, demonstrating the importance of policies Pyatt has pursued in Greece over the past six years. As ambassador to Ukraine from 2013 to 2016, when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, he was uniquely positioned to speak about how lessons he learned influenced the strategic priorities he brought with him to Greece.
Many of those priorities centered on northern Greece and in particular Alexandroupoli, which was perceived as an area of economic vulnerability after the Greek financial crisis. Early in his tenure, Pyatt identified Thrace as a “region of systematic Russian malign influence,” including a canceled cooperative agreement between the Evros Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber in Russian-occupied Crimea, Russian funding to Church officials and Russian attempts to influence Greek domestic politics. Pyatt determined to help the Greek government revive the city in order to strengthen Greek security.
With strong relationships in US European Command, US Army Europe and Africa and the US Sixth Fleet (his welcome reception was held aboard the USS Mount Whitney in Athens’s port of Piraeus), Pyatt was seen by many Greeks as a representative of American hard power. During his tenure, Greece hosted more US ship visits, increasingly participated in joint exercises and purchased more excess US military equipment.
“We made [Alexandroupoli] a priority in terms of our military partnership with Greece,” Pyatt told me. “And I would just point out that what we have accomplished with the Mitsotakis government in terms of the expansion of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA), the removal of the sunken dredger Olga [from the Port of Alexandroupoli], the expansion of US platforms at Camp Giannouli—these are all things that actually began under the Syriza government.”
As a result of two “extraordinarily important” updates to the MDCA and the success of the US Army Europe and Africa project to remove the sunken dredger from the port basin, Alexandroupoli has become a key staging point for the transportation of NATO military equipment to reinforce its eastern flank after Turkey closed the Bosporus strait. In late March and early April, the US carriers Liberty King and Liberty Passion moved tanks and armor to Poland by rail and convoys to Romania. Military equipment has also been sent to Ukraine through Alexandroupoli, according to defense sources.
But not everyone is happy that Alexandroupoli is facilitating NATO war efforts. According to an EU survey conducted in April, Greece is among the European countries least likely to blame Russia for the war and least likely to support the supply of military equipment to Ukraine. In April, employees from Greece’s railway company TrainOSE refused to go to Alexandroupoli to support the transfer of NATO tanks from the port. Others, like Dimitris Koutsoumpas, general secretary of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), believe Greek involvement has made Alexandroupoli a Russian target.
On the day parliament was scheduled to ratify the MDCA, the KKE unfurled banners on the Acropolis that read “No to war. No to involvement. No to the bases of death.” New Democracy, which has an absolute majority of 158 seats in parliament, approved the MDCA with a vote of 181 to 119, while Syriza voted against the update. Party leader and former prime minister Alexis Tsipras, who made overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the height of the Greek financial crisis, criticized Mitsotakis for giving “everything” to Washington without asking for any security guarantees against Turkey.
“The Prime Minister gives Alexandroupoli to the Americans while they are ready to give F-16 fighter jets to Turkey,” he said. Indeed, many Greeks were concerned by recent reports that Biden had asked Congress to approve an upgrade of Turkey’s F-16s, even as Victoria Nuland called frequent Turkish overflights of inhabited Greek islands “provocative.”
The news has reawakened Greek fears that the US might come to take its ally for granted—something Pyatt has warned against. “Ultimately, we’re both democracies and the relationship will only continue to flourish to the extent it enjoys popular support,” he told me.
Pyatt also made Alexandroupoli a priority for US energy diplomacy, and projects he supported since his first visit to Thrace in 2017 are now proving their worth. The Trans Adriatic Pipeline, which came online in 2020, brings Azeri gas to Europe. The Natural Gas Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria (ICGB), scheduled for completion this summer, will send gas to Bulgaria after Russia halted exports. Finally, the Alexandroupoli Floating Storage and Regasification Unit (FSRU) which was inaugurated this month, will give Greece its second liquified natural gas terminal, further diversifying supplies.
This early work has put “Greece in a much better position than many other EU member states in responding to Russia’s weaponization of energy and the huge shock that’s rippling across Europe right now,” the outgoing ambassador said. I will discuss Thrace’s role in Balkan energy security in my next dispatch.
US-Greek relations have also been challenged a bit in recent months as the US effectively killed the EastMed pipeline, a €6 billion project intended to bring offshore gas from Israel, Cyprus and Egypt through Greece to Europe. Washington withdrew its support in a poorly communicated State Department non-paper, and during her visit to Greece in April, Nuland reiterated the need to move away from expensive and time-consuming pipelines toward a “greener future.”
But some Greeks believe the decision rewards Turkey’s confrontational and uncompromising stance on maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean. In a February piece about Greece welcoming the United States at Russia’s expense, the journalist Nektaria Stamouli wrote that the rapid upgrade in US-Greek relations “may be creating great expectations some analysts worry the US cannot ultimately meet.”
Nevertheless, the bilateral relationship is continuing to develop even after Pyatt’s departure. His successor, the Greek-American businessman George Tsunis, arrived in Athens and presented his credentials to President Sakellaropoulou on May 10. A week later, President Biden hosted Mitsotakis at the White House to discuss support for Ukraine, energy security, climate change and other issues. While in Washington, he also addressed a joint session of Congress in belated commemoration of the Greek bicentennial.
At this important moment in the transatlantic relationship, as Europe and the West face formidable challenges, there are signs both Greece and the United States will continue reaping benefits from their deepening alliance as the largest war in Europe since World War II reshapes European geopolitics and security.
Top photo: The US Embassy in Athens lit red, white and blue for July 4, 2020 (State Department)