Briefing With Senior State Department Officials Briefing to Traveling Press
Office of the Spokesperson
September 29, 2020
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Let me just kick off by saying we did a sort of intro to the whole trip on Friday, but what we've done in Greece has met and gone beyond all expectations. I just really want to point out this is – a lot of what we've accomplished here is – the culmination of a number of years, and it's a testament to our ambassador here in Greece, my colleague and friend, who is into his fifth year as ambassador, and is a testament to what can be accomplished with long-term engagement with an ally that is strategic in so many ways and a relationship which has had its ups and downs. We are on a generational high in this relationship. You heard the prime minister say it today in his statement.
And I really wanted to ask my colleague to talk about the north part of the trip as well, because what is going on there is so significant from a broad regional perspective in terms of Thessaloniki as a gateway to the Western Balkans and the American engagement there and the changed attitudes and approaches. The fact that a large representation from the Government of North Macedonia came down to participate in this roundtable looking at energy and other economic aspects just plays to the strides we've made in this region in the last couple of years, which has built on work really over a couple of decades of sustained American engagement in the region.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think what I would start with was the phrase the prime minister used about "pillar of stability" and the idea that in a strategically very dynamic region, where you have all of these external forces at work – you have the Chinese buying up the port of Piraeus, you have Russian bad behavior in North Macedonia, Russian attempts to manipulate the Orthodox Church – remember it was just about two and a half years ago that Greece expelled four Russians because of their involvement – first of all, their stirring of opposition to the Prespa agreement and then also their involvement in untoward activities around the church.
And I think I made this point to – maybe it was to Carol on the airplane – about bringing together all the strands of American power and American diplomacy to meet this challenge. And I think the trip really nicely wraps all that together. There's been a lot of military and security cooperation here today with Souda Bay. A lot of yesterday was about the economic and commercial aspects of our engagement, our energy diplomacy. And one of the points that the prime minister makes consistently is his strong desire to see our trade and investment relationship – which is underweight as a consequence of a 10-year economic crisis – catch up with the dramatic progress in our defense and security relationship.
One of the other things that's really important about the moment we've arrived at in U.S.-Greece relations, and my colleague alluded to this, is the strong support across the political spectrum in Greece for this relationship. A lot of what you are seeing today, we laid the track for this when Prime Minister Tsipras was in the Oval Office in October of 2017, so three years ago. The Prespa agreement happened under the Syriza leftist opposition government, but really today across the board in Greece there's a consensus on the importance of the relationship with the U.S. and a desire to work with us in dealing with all these different security challenges.
I think the other point I would make, especially about today, was a lot of the conversation, including over lunch with the prime minister and the bilateral – the formal bilateral meeting, was about the wider region of the Eastern Mediterranean. There are a lot of strategic shifts that are happening: the Greece-Israel-Cyprus trilateral and 3+1, which, again, began under Syriza with Secretary Pompeo going to Jerusalem with Tsipras; the rapidly growing Greece-Cyprus-Egypt relationship; the UAE-Greece relationship.
And one of the other points that the prime minister and the foreign minister made was their strong, enthusiastic support for the Abraham Accords. And I think the point is, two strong friends of Greece. And one interesting military wrinkle to that is Greece's flagship air force exercise is called Iniochos, and it happens north of here in the Peloponnese every spring. As far as I know, it's the only place in the world where Israel and UAE exercise together, so it's – and it demonstrates something the Greeks are very proud of, which is their very strong historic linkages.
And the other thing I would point out – and you can see it obviously in the fact that we're out here enjoying this beautiful weather in almost October – Greece has two long traditions of engagement. One is in the Western Balkans, and the clear message of the Thessaloniki program and from the foreign minister was a very strong Greek interest in working with the United States to see all of these countries of the Western Balkans continue their progress on European reforms, become strong NATO members, if their citizens choose, get out from underneath dependence on Russian oil and gas, but then also 2,500 years of connections with the Eastern Mediterranean.
When we were on the Salamis, the Greek frigate today, the prime minister pointed out that this is literally – this week is the 2,500 year anniversary of the Battle of Salamis, which is a reminder that Greece has been a maritime power in this domain for a long time. And so we're in a place now where we can work with Greece across all of these strategic problem sets with a level of confidence that I've rarely seen across my diplomatic career. So it's a very exciting time to be doing it.
QUESTION: Do you worry that a lot of this collegiality is anti-Muslim? Because you talk about Israel, Greece —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Not at all.
QUESTION: It's – I mean, it's all anti-Muslim. And that's why Israel and Greece are so —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Did you notice the four UAE F-16s that we drove past today?
QUESTION: Those were UAE?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Those were UAE aircraft, the really slick new ones with the golden colored – the golden covered – colored canopies. Those were UAE aircraft.
Greece has a long history of working with the Muslim world. The ecumenical patriarch is Istanbul is really one of the world champions of interfaith dialogue. As I said, Greece has a strong relationship with Egypt. And so – and this is – we are – the other side of this island, the south side of Crete, is the Libyan Sea. I mean, Greece has a long, long history of dealing with Muslim communities in North Africa.
QUESTION: Well, are you concerned that all this hard work that's been achieved over – that a lot of work over the years could be undermined by what's going on with Turkey?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think – what I always point out is, first of all, Greece and the United States are as strongly aligned as any two NATO members on the principle that we have to keep Turkey anchored in the West. It's an abstract strategic problem for the United States; for Greece, it's a border state, and so they have a huge stake in seeing – excuse me – seeing Turkey remain tethered to European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: NATO has been such a strong force for providing not only security for the entire NATO region but giving a forum for those two allies in particular to come together —
QUESTION: It just seems there are sometimes such passions involved in this issue that a calm rationality sometimes can lose out to the anger and the nationalistic pride and everything that drives the passions. (Inaudible.)
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: It's what you have to overcome.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think the – and it's – and Greece is a democracy, just like we are, and so the prime minister has to worry about his domestic flanks. I think he is – in his mind, he is absolutely convinced of the importance of having a stable relationship with Turkey, in part because he is so focused on overcoming the pandemic, growing the economy, deepening ties with the United States in the technology area.
It was fantastic stuff yesterday with Michael Kratsios and the S&T agreement that the Secretary signed. But then also something that Mitsotakis returned to repeatedly over the course of today is how focused they are on the progress they've achieved with very significant new investments from American technology companies – Cisco, Pfizer, Deloitte. All of these are examples of how Greece is managing to navigate through the knowledge-based economy. And having a Harvard, Stanford-trained, former McKinsey associate prime minister helps a lot in that regard.
QUESTION: You'd said – or I understand you are going on to Turkey in the next couple of days. I'm wondering what message you're going to expect to hear from them after this trip, after the prime minister stood up there today and said, we believe we're on the same page with the United States and that the United States is on our same page with how to deal with Turkey. And —
QUESTION: Its aggressive —
QUESTION: And its aggressive behavior
QUESTION: Right. So I'd like to know how you think that's going to – those meetings are going to go over. And then more broadly, I think both of you started out tonight by saying that what we saw the last two days is the culmination of efforts over some years, right? But it kind of occurs to me that it's also happening at a time when Great Britain, which was the United States' strongest ally in the EU, has now left the EU. You have states like Germany and France that are a little suspicious of the United States. And so I'm just kind of wondering if there's an effort here to sweep up more support in Southern Europe and going east into the Balkans, and if that's been more of a focus of late that has evolved out of years-long efforts.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, not to get too far off the topic but it plays into it – I mean, the administration came in and the State Department focused on, developed strategies for renewing engagement in Central Europe, and we've done that. You've seen that with the Secretary's travel, renewing and looking at what we could accomplish in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Black Sea area. If you look at the National Security Strategy, it directly looks at those things. Certainly NATO itself has embraced those same important priorities.
So I don't think – it's really easy to try to find some narrative that one takes the place of the other. You have to try to do all of these things. And the great thing about the NATO alliance, which this year expanded to 30 with the addition of North Macedonia – again, sort of cementing this area of security and stability that we've been working on for so long I think really is a culmination of all that. And that takes everybody. That takes our other NATO allies as well. Everybody has to rework – focus on that.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, the other point I would add on top of that, I think why – you're sort of asking, "Why here?"
QUESTION: Why here? Why now?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Part of the explanation, I think, is what Greece went through over the past decade, a really historic economic crisis. They lost 25 percent of their GDP. And ironically, before COVID came along, Greece clearly had reached escape velocity. It had returned to —
QUESTION: Had reached what?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Escape velocity.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: It had returned to economic growth. It had gotten out from underneath these really stringent conditionalities that the European institutions had imposed on the country. And there was a sense – people felt like they were finally moving forward again. Mitsotakis made the point several times that Greece is now looking – for instance, in the Balkans, he made the point that Greek businesses had once been very present in the former Yugoslavia. They disengaged during that period of crisis, and now they were interested in coming back.
And I think the United States has benefited in this period of resumed Greek foreign policy and strategic relevance. The United States has benefited from the perception that through the worst of the crisis, largely because of our people-to-people ties and the strong bipartisan support in the United States for relations with Greece and the strong Greek American community, we were perceived as being the good guys when some of the Europeans were perceived as willing to see Greece fall off the European, EU, and Eurozone wagon if necessary.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On your questions about Turkey, I will go at the end of the Secretary's trip, since he has to get back to the States – I will go to Istanbul and Ankara just for two days to meet with Turkish counterparts, which is something we do regularly. It's a great opportunity to —
QUESTION: From here?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, no. At the end of the trip.
QUESTION: But from Croatia, I'm sorry. From Croatia – from this trip?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right. No, I'll stay on, so you can have my seat on the plane.
QUESTION: Can we go with you?
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? There are —
QUESTION: Wait, can you finish the answer, though? Like, what is going to happen when you —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: How could I know? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, what is – so you're now going to be walking into an audience that might sound, might feel fairly hostile about hearing that the United States is on the same page with Greece when it comes to Turkey.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think our position has been very clear all along about the need to avoid escalation, de-escalate, return to talks, not take unilateral actions, and look for negotiated settlements to these issues like maritime boundaries. And that's been consistent, that's what we've said all along, if you go back, I'm sure we'll have those conversations. It's an opportunity just to meet – since the Secretary is headed back – chance for me to meet his Turkish counterparts. And again, it's just part of the regular diplomacy, and the Secretary spoke with Minister Cavusoglu last week, two weeks ago. He saw him just a couple of weeks before that. They met in Dominican Republic. So it's ongoing engagement. I would not pre-judge anything except good meetings with colleagues and allies.
QUESTION: I wondered if when you travel to Turkey you'll be addressing – today, the Armenian foreign ministry, I believe, said that a Turkish F-16 shot down an Armenian warplane.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, I just don't have anything on that. I don't have any facts to back that up or anything else at this point.
QUESTION: Will you be addressing that disagreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia in your discussions while you're in Turkey?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I suppose it'll come up just like all the issues of the region, so obviously there's – Turkey has interest in that region and involvement as well.
QUESTION: The Greek Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos, if I pronounced that correctly, said yesterday that the revised defense agreement includes a plan to expand at Souda or even build a second base and reinforce the facilities here. That statement comes out while there's a lot of rumors about – more than rumors, comments about the U.S. looking for alternatives to at least some of the capabilities that are currently housed at Incirlik. What is your plan for that second facility? What are your ambitions for that, and how does that fit into your overall strategy for the region?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So it's apples and oranges in terms of our operations in Turkey, which are important but stand on their own than what we're doing here in Greece. With the MDCA last year when Secretary Pompeo came out, we agreed on provisions for three additional facilities, which we are now investing in – Alexandroupoli up in the far northeast, Larissa where our Air Force drones operate, and Stefanovikeio – we have the 101st Airborne coming back to Stefanovikeio this winter, but it's used as a winter training ground for our Army aviation units in Europe. And then here at Souda Bay we expanded the scope of the facility which is governed by our bilateral defense cooperation agreement. So what you saw today, the pier that you were on was a NATO pier. The airfield where you landed was a U.S. airfield, a U.S. Navy airfield. So we expanded the envelope where we can make U.S. investments, U.S. MilCon investments for purposes of our operational capabilities.
The other thing I would point to, which I think is a good foreshadowing of where we're going, was the Secretary's announcement about the home porting here of the Hershel "Woody" Williams, which is very much sort of a reflection of how we are leveraging the unique asset that Souda Bay provides: its geographic location in this dynamic Eastern Mediterranean region, outstanding support from our Hellenic Armed Forces hosts, and the ability to quickly deploy into an active theater and then use Souda Bay as a gas station, replenishment site, a place to swap crews while maintaining the operational effectiveness of our military assets.
QUESTION: Could I have one follow-up on that? Is there any language in the agreement that would restrict – that would restrict the deployment or transit even – except for a precautionary landing – the transit of nuclear weapons or strategic assets in Greece?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think that sounds like a Pentagon question. But what I would emphasize —
QUESTION: But is it in the agreement, in the texts that —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, I – I think – Pentagon question, but what I would emphasize is the strong signal from Minister Panagiotopoulos, from the CHOD, General Floros, and from Prime Minister Mitsotakis, first of all. Enormous satisfaction with how the year – this first year of the new agreement has worked out, and a desire to put all of us to work to figure out what the next stage is, how we go even deeper and longer in terms of our defense cooperation. And again, the Woody Williams is a good foreshadowing of where I think things are going to go in terms of how we work together with our Hellenic Armed Forces counterparts.
QUESTION: How do you think the Turks are going to see the Woody Williams?
MODERATOR: All right, one or two – one or two more.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think you have to ask them.
QUESTION: Could I ask you —
QUESTION: Could I clarify? You said oranges and apples, Incirlik versus —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Right.
QUESTION: — versus here.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Completely different mission sets.
QUESTION: Because one is Air Force and one is naval, or why? Why are they apples and oranges?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Because – because of the different services, because of where they're located geographically. It just —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: (Off-mike.)
QUESTION: But they're pretty close. I mean, the geographic location is not so different.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Incirlik is landlocked and Souda Bay is in —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: You can't anchor – you can't anchor a ship into Incirlik.
QUESTION: Incirlik is landlocked, okay, got it, got it, got it.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No deep water port.
QUESTION: Okay, okay, that's good.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: One of the things – Souda Bay is unique. That pier that – where the Salamis was is the only pier between Norfolk and the Persian Gulf —
QUESTION: No way. Oh, wow.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: — where you have an aircraft carrier pull up pier-side —
QUESTION: Oh, wow.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: — and have the airfield right there. So for instance, when we've – and we've had – on my watch, we've had —
QUESTION: Say that again. Norfolk and?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The Gulf.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And it provides unique capabilities, for instance, when maintenance is required. So we've had one incident with the Harry Truman. The whole carrier group was on its way across the Atlantic, something broke, and a smart engineer in Norfolk said rather than turn the whole battle group back to Norfolk, let's just park in Souda Bay for three weeks. And they brought the crews and the spares and —
QUESTION: I'm sure the crews loved that. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Better here than —
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Except for the fact that all the officers got – they all complained to me about how much weight they gained from the food.
QUESTION: (Laughter.) Great.
QUESTION: Sorry for them. Poor guys.
QUESTION: Excellent. So final questions?
QUESTION: I wanted to ask, like, a kind of esoteric question. We're sitting near the cradle of democracy and this is a time when so many people throughout Europe, some in the United States, are questioning the value and some of the basic precepts of democracy. How much do you think what we're seeing here in Greece and the relation with the U.S. is a reflection of a perception that the world is on the brink and a country that kind of invented democracy needs to – everybody needs to step up and do something?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, it's actually – thank you for asking, Carol, because it's a really good question, and I think the answer is, in fact, Greece demonstrates the resilience of our democratic institutions. This is a country that went through an enormous crisis in terms of its economy. A lot of people were losing faith.
But the elections that brought Prime Minister Mitsotakis to power also voted out the far right. The Golden Dawn party didn't get enough votes to retain its seats in parliament. It's come through this crisis with its press free; its courts are independent; it's not perfect, just like we're not perfect in the U.S. But I think it's actually a very hopeful message about the resilience of the Western model that we're all associated with, and I think you would hear this same point from Prime Minister Mitsotakis. There's a sense among Greeks that, in fact, their experience demonstrates the importance of all of us having faith in these democratic institutions and democratic practices.
And I think for me, having worked with Prime Minister Tsipras before, he – the election happened, he lost fair and square, and he's now in the opposition and he's prepared for the day when he hopes at some point to return to power, but he recognizes that for now, the people's will have given the mandate to Prime Minister Mitsotakis. That's a hopeful note to end on.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I agree. That really will be a case study of —
QUESTION: Thank you all so much.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: — resilience in democracy. I mean, I think historians and political scientists will look at Greece as a case study in resilience, I mean, and what democratic institutions provide, and the international institutions like NATO that play a role in providing security, which gives you stability and allows you to bounce back.
MODERATOR: Thank you.
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