Biden’s pick takes the reins of the US Embassy in Athens

US President Joe Biden’s candidate for next ambassador to Greece, George Tsunis, arrived in Athens on May 7, a day after his predecessor, career diplomat Geoffrey Pyatt, left amid a storm of tweets from farewell ending his exceptionally long mission. Tsunis tweeted almost immediately upon his arrival (More on Twitter as a public diplomacy tool below) revealing a solid knowledge of Modern Greek and the ability to use it in written form, which should allow him to expand significantly its reach to Greek audiences compared to almost all of its predecessors. Tsunis presented his credentials to the Greek president on May 10.

Readers will recall that Ambassador Tsunis had totally painless hearings in January and no other complications, beyond his colorful heritage, were confirmed. That legacy was important, however, as several major publications pointed to his January hearing as a major test for a Biden nominee in a tense time when a number of highly partisan issues were front and center in Washington.

To briefly recap, the Tsunis case was different from most ambassadorial appointments, as it is an almost unthinkable “turnaround” for a political appointee who has withdrawn from a previous embassy appointment. , in this case for the US Ambassador to Norway under then-President Obama. , after a disastrous confirmation audition in 2014 that revealed a profound lack of preparation for the job and also soured the influential Norwegian-American community in some states. Tsunis’ performance during this time earned him the nickname “punchline”.

However, the pragmatic handling of Tsunis’ hearing in Greece on January 12 gave the impression that the controversy surrounding the appointment of a major Biden campaign donor/fundraiser to the sensitive diplomatic post in Athens was something little faded. As grumblings from Washington’s foreign affairs community continue, it is widely believed that the president retains the constitutional power to distribute ambassadorships as he sees fit. No doubt some in Washington will continue to categorize these types 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 policymakers like most other large, mature and influential ethnic American communities, with prominent “ethnic” ambassador candidates in many cases. The results of Biden’s choice will be seen almost immediately, as Tsunis will return to Washington in the coming days to attend meetings Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will have at the White House and with Congress on May 16-17.

It should be remembered that any visit to the White House approved for Greek leaders is invariably interpreted as a vote of confidence by Washington in that leader; this particular visit by Mitsotakis has a long history and has been postponed several times as other critical events have captured the attention and time of leaders over the past year. Greek elections are due to take place no later than the summer of 2023, and displays of strong political support from abroad, such as Biden’s invitation, are sure to fuel speculation that a snap election will be called. , although Mitsotakis is probably more focused on the fight against Covid-19, managing the recent barrage of provocative Turkish overflights, containing inflation due to soaring energy costs and managing the limited but important role of Greece in support of the war in Ukraine right now.

Hello and goodbye

Tsunis will barely have time to meet key embassy staff before heading to Washington. Having a trained and coordinated embassy team in place is essential in any embassy transition; The new Europe, however, has learned that major American-linked organizations are concerned about the large number of current American diplomats, whom Ambassador Pyatt usually kept well hidden to do clerical work while he absorbed the spotlight. of the media, who will step down in the coming months. This includes the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM), the Director General of the Embassy and essential for most day-to-day operations, who would leave in a hurry for a difficult position. The importance of having an experienced DCM in place to guide a politically inexperienced appointee through the intricacies of their first few months on the job cannot be overstated.

Ambassador Pyatt and the Power of Twitter

It will be difficult for any new ambassador to top the hard work of former Ambassador Pyatt, a career foreign service officer, on bilateral economic issues and energy, but especially in galvanizing various media to improve the image of the Greece in the United States. as an investment destination. Key to all of this was Pyatt’s mastery of Twitter.

During Pyatt’s nearly six-year tour of Athens, unusually long for a career officer who would normally face regulatory limits on periods of duty except in emergency situations, Twitter eclipsed everything else. as the U.S. Embassy’s primary public diplomacy tool. It’s unclear if Pyatt was asked to focus on Twitter by Washington or if it was a personal choice, but he earned the affectionate nickname “Tweetador” in the Greek journalistic community. Pyatt’s Twitter feed, like Trump’s in the United States, has become a staple for Greek political analysts and social media junkies. Many thanks also to the staff members of the United States Embassy who almost instantly selected all positive articles in Greek for Pyatt to retweet over the years.

Pyatt himself excelled at retweeting a wide range of articles and commentary from a wide range of US officials and political pundits outside of Greece, and also kept a close eye on the militarization of energy by Russia and Ukraine even before the war, where he had previously served as US Ambassador.

Part of Pyatt’s impact, however, was simply due to his predecessors opting for a much more low-key social media profile, simply tweeting niceties about their trips and vacations to Greece or posting their speeches, but nothing more. And during the years of Greece’s economic crisis, this was clearly the best approach, with Greek public anger focused on the country’s foreign creditors (not the United States) and Germany in particular.

Pyatt has at times drawn controversy for his apparent support for Greek socialist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras early in his term 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 television comedy actually aired repeated clips showing Pyatt promising to channel American investment to rebuild Greece’s most problematic shipyard (Skaramangas), which, in a music video format, serves to make you laugh. Pyatt has also focused on backing the unpopular Prespes deal with North Macedonia and trying to boost Thessaloniki as an investment destination, in some cases by misdirecting US government resources to poorly timed events and exhibitions that yielded little more to American business interests than increased Twitter traffic. .

Pyatt was absolutely on the right track in working to keep the US government focused on northern Greece’s strategic role in the EU’s energy constellation and in further driving the development of pipelines and in particular the North-North Energy Interconnectors. south in the region. Despite Pyatt’s glowing statements about the strategic and economic potential of northern Greece, the Washington bureaucracy has remained particularly stingy about allocating sufficient additional resources to deal with Pyatt’s rotation, although there are hope that things will improve thanks to the war in Ukraine.

The State Department bureaucracy attempted to move Pyatt to a later assignment at the end of his normal three years of service (2019) under the more or less standard pattern for ambassadors. A career foreign service officer was nominated for the post in Athens, and his identity was by no means strictly held in Washington. For some reason, however, the Trump administration did not move the designated officer to the next stage, the formal presidential nomination, leaving Pyatt in place for nearly three years. This proved positive for bilateral Greek-American relations, as the already strong defense relationship deepened considerably under Pyatt’s continued leadership.

Time will tell us

It remains to be seen whether Ambassador Tsunis will become a “Tweetador V2.0” and a continued source of entertainment for Greek journalists, although he already uses this medium and writes some of his messages in Greek. Time will tell, there is surely life after Twitter.


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