Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Biden’s choice takes the reins at the American Embassy in Athens

Greece-US relations

Biden taps controversial Greek American fundraiser from New York to replace outgoing career diplomat from California
US Embassy Athens website
Incoming US Ambassador George Tsunis presents his credentials to Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, Athens, May 10 2022.

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US President Joe Biden’s nominee as next Ambassador to Greece George Tsunis arrived in Athens May 7, a day after his career diplomat predecessor Geoffrey Pyatt departed amid a storm of farewell tweets ending his exceptionally long assignment. Tsunis almost immediately tweeted on arrival (More on Twitter as a public diplomacy tool below) revealing a strong knowledge of modern Greek and the ability to use it in written form, something that should enable him to vastly extend his outreach to the Greek public compared to almost all of his predecessors. Tsunis presented his credentials to the Greek President May 10.

Readers will recall that Ambassador Tsunis had completely pain-free hearings back in January and no other complications, beyond his colorful legacy, getting confirmed. That legacy was significant however, as several major publications highlighted his January hearing as a major test for a Biden nominee in a tense period when a number of highly partisan issues were front and center in Washington.

To briefly recap, the Tsunis case was different than most ambassadorial nominations because it is an almost unthinkably rare “do-over” for a political appointee who withdrew from a previous ambassadorial nomination, in this case for US Ambassador to Norway under then-President Obama, after a disastrous 2014 confirmation hearing that revealed a deep lack of preparation for the position and also aggravated the Norwegian-American community, influential in some states. Tsunis’ performance at that time earned him the moniker “punchline.”

However, the crisp businesslike handling of Tsunis’ January 12 Greece hearing made it appear as if the controversy surrounding the nomination of a major Biden campaign donor/fundraiser to the sensitive diplomatic posting in Athens had faded somewhat. While grumbling from the Washington foreign affairs community continues, there is broad general acceptance that the President retains the constitutional authority to hand out ambassadorial postings as he sees fit. Undoubtedly, some in Washington will continue categorizing these kinds of assignments as “sinecures,” but life goes on.

The short-term political context

Biden’s nomination of Tsunis signals that the Greek American community is being treated by key political decision-makers as are most other large, mature, and influential US ethnic communities with important “ethnic” ambassadorial nominees in many cases. The results of Biden’s choice will be seen almost immediately, as Tsunis will be returning to Washington in the coming days to attend the meetings Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will be having in the White House and with Congress May 16-17.

It should not be forgotten that any White House visits approved for Greek leaders are invariably interpreted as Washington’s vote of confidence in that leader; this particular Mitsotakis visit has a long history and was rescheduled several times as other critical events grabbed leaders’ time and attention last year. Greek elections must be held no later than the summer of 2023, and demonstrations of strong political support from abroad such as Biden’s invitation are sure to fuel speculation that snap elections will be called, although Mitsotakis is likely more focused on fighting Covid-19, handling the recent barrage of provocative Turkish overflights, containing inflation from surging energy costs and managing the limited but important Greek role in supporting the Ukraine war right now.

Hello and….Goodbye

Tsunis will barely have time to meet his key embassy staffers before he is Washington bound. Having a trained and coordinated embassy team in place is essential in any ambassadorial transition; New Europe has learned however that key America-linked organizations are worried about the substantial number of current US diplomats, whom Ambassador Pyatt usually kept well hidden doing office staff work while he absorbed the media spotlight, that are rotating out in the coming months. This includes the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), the embassy’s executive officer and critical for most day-to-day operations, who is said to be hastily departing for a hardship posting. It cannot be overstated how important it is to have an experienced DCM in place to guide an inexperienced political appointee through the intricacies of his/her first months in the job.

Ambassador Pyatt and the power of Twitter

It will be difficult for any incoming ambassador to surpass the arduous work put in by former Ambassador Pyatt, a hard-driving career Foreign Service Officer, on bilateral economic issues and energy, but especially in galvanizing various media outlets to improve Greece’s image in the US as an investment destination. Key to all of this was Pyatt’s mastery of Twitter.

During Pyatt’s almost six-year tour in Athens, exceptionally long for a career officer who normally would face regulatory limits on tours of duty except in emergency situations, Twitter trumped everything else as the US Embassy’s main public diplomacy tool. It is unclear if Pyatt was requested to focus on Twitter by Washington or if it was a personal choice, but he earned the affectionate moniker “Tweetador” in the Greek journalistic community. Pyatt’s twitter feed, like Trump’s in the US, became a must-follow for Greek political analysts and social media junkies. Many thanks are also due to the US Embassy staffers who almost instantaneously selected any and all positive Greek-language articles for Pyatt to retweet over the years.

Pyatt himself excelled in retweeting a broad range of articles and comments from a massive gamut of US officials and policy experts outside of Greece, and also kept a tight focus on Russia’s weaponization of energy and the Ukraine, even before the war, where he had previously served as US Ambassador.

Part of Pyatt’s impact however was simply because his predecessors had opted for a much more low-key social media profile, simply tweeting niceties about their Greek travels and holidays or posting their speeches, but nothing more. And during the Greek economic crisis years that was clearly the best approach, with the Greek public’s anger focused on the country’s foreign creditors (not the US) and Germany in particular.

Pyatt at times generated controversy for his apparent support of Greece’s socialist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras early in his tenure and those now-debunked claims that Tsipras’ Syriza government was making Greece an important investment destination through reforms. In the days following his departure, a Greek TV comedy show actually ran repeated snippets showing Pyatt promising to channel US investments to rebuild Greece’s most problematic shipyard (Skaramangas), which in a music video format serves to generate a good laugh. Pyatt also focused on supporting the unpopular Prespes Agreement with North Macedonia and on trying to boost Thessaloniki as an investment destination, in some cases misallocating US government resources for poorly timed events and exhibitions that yielded little more for US business interests than a surge in Twitter traffic.

Pyatt was absolutely on target in working to keep the US government focused on the strategic role of northern Greece in the EU energy constellation and in further boosting the development of pipelines and especially north-south energy interconnections across the region. Despite Pyatt’s glowing pronouncements about northern Greece’s strategic and economic potential, the bureaucracy in Washington remained particularly stingy about devoting sufficient additional resources needed to match the Pyatt spin, although there is hope things are improving thanks to the Ukraine war.

The State Department bureaucracy attempted to move Pyatt to an onward assignment at the end of his normal three years of service (2019) in the more or less standard pattern for Ambassadors. A career Foreign Service Officer was designated for the Athens posting, and her identity was not tightly held in Washington by any means. For some reason however, the Trump administration did not advance the designated officer to the next stage, the formal Presidential nomination, leaving Pyatt in place for almost another three years. This turned out to be positive for Greek-American bilateral relations as the already strong defense relationship deepened significantly under Pyatt’s continuing guidance.

Time will tell

It remains to be seen whether Ambassador Tsunis will turn into “Tweetador V2.0” and a continuing source of entertainment for Greek journalists, although he is using the medium already and writing some of his messages in the Greek language. Time will tell, there is surely life after Twitter.

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Co-founder and Executive Director for Global Economics and Southeast Europe at NE Global Media.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.


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