New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
Building on an already astonishing career, Ambassador Loucas Tsilas directs fresh attention on the future.
Extensive knowledge and diplomatic experience, deep interests and rare sensitivity, dignity and style, with–last but not least–seemingly boundless kinetic energy (he plays “ferocious” games of tennis every week), back up the Ambassador’s further exploration of his potential, which includes expanding public and individual consciousness. One way he does this is helping people see the future more clearly by teaching them about the past.
Tsilas is well equipped for this, having the capacity to make “the effort to understand and be understood”, which, is the function of a diplomat, he said recently.
Ambassador Tsilas, whom Antonis Papademetriou, President of the Alexander S. Public Benefit Foundation, praised for establishing “a cultural embassy of Greece in the United States” as founding Executive Director of the Onassis Cultural Center in New York from 2000 to 2015 (at the Foundation’s February 3 dinner honoring the ambassador), kindly interrupted his intensive course preparations to meet with the GN for this interview.
GN: It seems exciting to be able to redirect your energies. You’re an attorney, a high level diplomat, an author, and a cultural ambassador present at the inception of historical markers such as the inception of the EU. What are some of the things you might be aiming to do with this vast experience?
ALT: I am active and intend to continue being active. I have tremendous respect and love for our heritage, which, I think, is our strong advantage–even a weapon–to overcome this crisis that Greece is going through as a nation. That’s why I believe that the best thing for me to do is to continue promoting this heritage as I did for 35 years as a diplomat and for 15 years with the Onassis Foundation. I hope that I will be able to continue to do so in other cooperative endeavors.
GN: How will you continue working for “the promotion of our universal and timeless heritage, building on the journey that has brought me here”, your memorable statement at the dinner held in your honor by the Onassis Foundation?
ALT: First of all, I have started teaching at university, a course titled, “Historical Transitions in the Late Twentieth Century” at Queens College of the City University of New York.
GN: I consider your students at Queens College lucky. What do you cover in the course?
ALT: It’s divided into three sections: From Apartheid to Integration in South Africa, From Communism to Pluralism, and the Break-up of Yugoslavia. What I’m trying to do with my students is to also insert the personal experience I have as a diplomat in all these countries.
We study these transitions, draw conclusions, support some seminal points and try to understand if there are any contemporary transitions…. such as the environment, globalization, the increasing economic, political and military role of Asia in world politics. So it’s not only what happened in the past. As we know, through study of the past will we be able to understand the present and, probably, distinguish an outline of the future.
GN: Is there anything in these transitions that might contain lessons on how to positively influence the present situation between Greece and the EU?
ALT: We do not discuss any transitions other than the three I mentioned, but as I said before, we do conduct wide-ranging debates. There is, for instance, a transition related to the European Union; it is known that there is a crisis, mainly economic. So again, we try to pinpoint in each major transition certain salient traits like leadership, economics, etc. Using these criteria, we further endeavor to see whether they can be used as tools to understand the international scene of today and discern other transitions in the making.
GN: Can you please talk about some transitions?
ALT: As I said before, the global perception of and response to our environment, the economic future of the European Monetary Union, the decision-making in the European Union, the emerging role of many Asian countries, the political fermentation in the Middle East, are certainly some cases in study. In the final analysis transition is change. It is imperative for nations, groups, and individuals–especially students of history–to be able to discern ongoing changes and to underline the need to adapt in a timely and proper manner.
The electronic and digital era accentuates change and makes the need of early detection and timely response even more imperative.
GN: I’m thinking again of your reference to promoting “our universal and timeless heritage”.
ALT: It’s a very nice line. I love it; it has been my belief. Hannah Arendt, a very important German Jewish philosopher—there was a movie about the last years of her life–Hannah Arendt in her book on the human condition writes about immortality in the Ancient Greek sense. Not “eternity”, “immortality”. For her, “immortality” is the absence of death. Human beings are mortal. We are born and die. But we do create immortal things. Immortal ideas, principles, values, and pieces of art; they live forever. So for her, the way to ensure immortality is to perpetuate the existence of these immortal values and ideas by transferring them from one generation to the other. That’s how a civilization becomes immortal, by being inherited. You can ensure that this civilization’s immortal values remain immortal by guaranteeing their transfer from one generation to the next, and to the next and to the next. That’s Hannah Arendt’s–in my understanding—“immortality”. This is the great service offered by institutions like the Onassis Foundation. They endeavor to transfer immortal values, created by mortal people, from one generation to the other.
If we don’t do that, these values will die. If we forget our heritage, our very identity and existence through time will die. That is why we should consider the preservation of our heritage as a major national issue and never lose sight of its critical importance: How do we ensure that the immortality–that absence of death–of our values and principles is safeguarded? This is the major task of our diplomacy, our nation… and it is on this major field that foundations like the Onassis Foundation are offering a magnificent contribution.
GN: I once heard contrasting opinions on whether Greece should or should not focus on its ancient past regarding tourism. What is your opinion?
ALT: Our history, as it is displayed on our wonderful land through vestiges and valuable sites in their diachronic splendor and cultural value, can only enhance the profile of our country.
GN: How can we transmit the immortal values to the new generation in practical, day-to-day ways? Enough time has gone by since the first emigrations from Greece that it seems many people might know that they had an ancestor from Greece but have no interest in that ancestry.
ALT: Perhaps there are a few people who do not realize the importance of the Hellenic heritage. I believe, however, that the vast majority considers everything Hellenic as part and parcel of the American way of life,
GN: As Executive Director of the Onassis Foundation (USA) you really did get that message across.
ALT: The Foundation has had an excellent and dedicated team.
GN: How do you think we should counter the negative stereotypes of Greece created by the international media during the crisis?
ALT: Now we are entering into what Greece is today. The Hellenic civilization lives for thousands of years. The present situation should be considered as a hiccup. In some years from today things should certainly be much better. But in the meantime, we should never forget what we are and where we come from, especially during this crisis. We should try to preserve this αθανασια, this immortality of our values, because it’s these values that count more today. That should ground us with pragmatism and awareness of what we really are. That’s important. Sometimes we forget… we have a self=flagellating syndrome of “oh, we are nothing”. Of course we’re not nothing. We are what we are; we’ve lived as a nation for thousands of years. We were able to create so many values; so especially during this crisis I believe we should take strength from that. It’s not only the dollars and euros; it’s also our self-respect that is important. If you have self-respect you have confidence.
GN: The Greek youth suffer from the negativity of the last five years.
ALT: Yes, and it’s understandable. There’s a huge unemployment rate. The Greek Education system is not very promising for them. Even if they enter the university–which is very difficult—they doubt as to what they’re going to do with the education that they’ll get. So I understand them. UNICEF had a very good slogan: “The future is in the hands of our children”… but the future of our children is in our hands, and we forget that. What do we do about the future of our children who will handle the future? That just may be the worst, the darkest side of this crisis, I think, because whether we like it or not, if the crisis isn’t over soon, there will be people between 10 and 20 that will know only the crisis conditions of doubt and pessimism.
GN: Is the situation so very drastic?
ALT: Yes, I think it is. I don’t have any inside knowledge, but I believe that it is very difficult. The new government is right in wishing to negotiate. Absolutely. But there comes realism and practicality, and also willingness to change. All these issues are very important, and I hope, I wish, that the government will take them into account. It is right to wish to change the situation. It is desperate. People are suffering.
GN: Do you think they’re capable?
ALT: It’s very difficult for me to say. I only want to express hope, and wish them well. They are the pilots in the plane. On the basis of my experience, it’s good to be feisty; it’s good to be dynamic, but it’s also good to be realistic and practical. Don’t forget that governments are many people together; it’s not just one person. That’s the democratic system.
I was telling my students that in an authoritarian regime the leader knows what is good and what’s bad; in a pluralistic society like ours, there are so many good sides and so many bad sides… there are so many choices. Choice gives the possibility to adapt and change. For me the most important thing is the ability to change, and this is what Greece is being called to do… to change, and adapt. I don’t know how much they’ve been able to do so. I’m not only speaking about the government; I’m speaking about the people. We need to change.
GN: The people have to adapt, but what about the burden of illegal immigrants?
ALT: Here too, I take a very humanistic approach. I cannot accept that you should not treat them as human beings. One should try to stem illegal immigration. Once foreign people are in your country, however, you have to take measures to treat them humanely. First of all, you have to help them get to where they want to go. There is a policy of the European Union; I don’t know the details, but all the European members should bear the burden of the immigration, not only Greece. Greece is in the forefront. All of us should bear this burden. I was ambassador there; I had to quarrel with my colleagues. When they said, “you have porous borders”, I said yes, give us the means not to allow them to come illegally… but they do. They find ways, as they do it here in the USA. Illegal immigration is an extremely difficult problem. I don’t have the solution. All I’m saying is that immigrants, illegal immigrants are human beings. We should never forget that. We should try to alleviate their suffering.
A SHORT BIO
Ambassador Loucas Tsilas holds degrees and advanced degrees in law, economics, and political science. He was an attorney in Athens, Greece in 1963-1965, then entered the Greek Foreign Ministry in 1965, serving in Athens until 1968 in the Department of Balkan States. He is the author of several studies, among which is a major thesis on the Balkans.
His roles at home and abroad have included First Secretary of the Embassy of Greece in Bucharest (1968-1972); Consul of Greece in New Orleans, Louisiana (1972-1975); Counselor at the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C. (1975-1979); Deputy Director of the Department of NATO and European Security Affairs in the Greek Foreign Ministry in Athens (1979-1980); Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Office of the Foreign Minister (1980-1981); Consul General of Greece in Paris (1981-1987); Ambassador of Greece to South Africa (1987-1990); and Director of the Diplomatic Office of the Prime Minister of Greece (1991-1993). From 1993 to 1998, Ambassador Tsilas held the position of Ambassador of Greece to the U.S. and Ambassador of Greece to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and from 1998 to 2000 he was the Permanent Representative of Greece to the European Union in Brussels. He was on the five-member committee that organized the successful bid for the Athens 2004 Olympics.