On Altitude Sickness: Foreign Policy, Public Opinion and the Fight Against Terrorism

On Altitude Sickness: Foreign Policy, Public Opinion and the Fight Against Terrorism


The effects of March 11 have brought about an important change in the way Spaniards perceive what their role should be in international affairs. The up-beat viewpoint of recent years, with Spain’s taking on significant responsibilities both in European and Atlantic affairs, has given way to a return to the old attitudes of withdrawal from active participation in international affairs that were characteristic of the period of 19th century prime minister Cánovas del Castillo. Spain is assuming a more secondary role, playing second fiddle to the big European powers and taking a more passive role in the fight against Islamist terrorism.


Since the death of General Franco until the present day, Spanish society has undergone a process of integration in and assumption of responsibilities on the international scene. Slowly, the political culture of recogimiento or isolationism –a characteristic form of Spain’s understanding of its international relations based on recognition of its own sense of impotence– was becoming a thing of the past. During the past four years, there had been a marked change of tone in foreign affairs, with much more decisive action being taken, not only with regard to defining Spain’s own role, but also in its relations with the US, its presence in Latin America and its involvement in the affairs of the Maghreb. The crisis in Iraq and the events of March 11, however, have resulted in a significant step backwards in this process. The principles of the philosophy of isolationism have been reinforced with the rise of anti-American and pacifist feelings and, above all, with an intense political campaign aimed at convincing public opinion that it is possible to avert terrorist actions by refusing to intervene in the Middle East and by distancing ourselves from US policy. This new isolationism is tantamount to a dangerous moral disarmament on the part of Spanish society in the face of the challenges that confront it and it gives encouragement to the strategies of radical Islamism.


Over and above the heated debates of the past few weeks, there is one point on which analysts, politicians and public opinion all seemed to be agreed: the terrorist attacks of March 11, their effect on the general election of March 14 and, finally, the order given by the Spanish Prime Minister for an immediate withdrawal of our troops stationed in Iraq, are all historically important events as far as Spanish foreign policy is concerned. These events are a watershed and in no way can their importance be underestimated.

Much has been said and written, from different political and ideological viewpoints, in trying to assess the volte-face in foreign policy carried out by the new Spanish government. It is likely that such a debate will rage on for months or even years to come and, inevitably, the arguments will continue to be repeated in order to permeate public opinion. It is my purpose here to try not to go over this ground again by repeating what has already been written in previous publications but, instead, to focus on an aspect that has been less touched upon, although it is of enormous importance: the relationship between public opinion and foreign policy.

People’s attitudes regarding the State’s foreign policy tend to remain fairly stable over the years. After all, such ideas are part of what we have come to call ‘political culture’, that is, the body of perceptions and values that make up the collective subconscious of the people, the kind of ideas that are transmitted from father to son. The foreign policy par excellence of the Spaniard has been one of recogimiento or isolationism –a concept invented by Antonio Cánovas del Castillo that was based on a rational analysis of our capabilities–. Isolationism was nothing other than the recognition of our own impotence. After the Peninsular War (known in Spain as the War of Independence), the colonial wars in Latin America, the Carlist and Cantonal wars and the excesses of the 1868 ‘Glorious Revolution’, it was evident that Spain lacked the economic resources to have an army and a navy good enough to meet the challenges of a foreign policy that involved a commitment to mutual defence with other European nations. But it was not only a question of resources. The weight of history bore down upon us heavily. Cánovas had undertaken serious works of historical investigation into Spain’s decadence. The vision of a national project laden with opportunities being frustrated by subordination to the European interests of the House of Hapsburg was foremost in his mind as it was in the minds of the other leaders of Liberal Spain. Spain had no choice but to isolate herself from the chaos that surrounded her –a chaos that could only bring further disasters– in order to try to rebuild herself morally and materially and jump on the bandwagon of modernity.

The First World War tested the survival instincts of the Spanish political classes. Suffering from divided loyalties, they finally opted for neutrality, based on the conviction that there was far more to lose than to gain. The policy of ‘isolationism’ was then imposed as it was, years later, during the 2nd Republic, when a part of our intelligentsia and ruling classes thought the time had come to realise the Kantian dream of an international society based on the rule of law and structured around an international organisation, the Society of the Nations. The 2nd Republic was enthusiastic in its encouragement of this project. But when difficulties started to arise, as when some member States began not to comply with the resolutions of the Society of Nations, confrontation was shunned and adherence of the resolutions was not demanded. Isolationism then became appeasement. In short, we betrayed the ideals we claimed to defend convinced as we were, once again, of our own impotence.

To those of age to have lived through the transition from dictatorship to democracy, it was obvious that Spaniards were anxious to put an end to the humiliating experience of imposed isolationism and become members of the club of democratic nations as quickly as possible. In that context, Europe was no longer characterised by the rivalries between nations or by a sterile succession of wars. On the contrary, the process of European unification, in the eyes of Spaniards, seemed to be the quintessence of everything they had been yearning for: the principles and values of coexistence, the Welfare State, and, above all, the guarantee that there would be no turning back. Spaniards needed to be acknowledged as true Europeans, as equals, in the concert of nations. That is why, since the days of the UCD governments, Spanish diplomacy has always sought to achieve the ‘normalisation’ of our international relations and our full membership of the European institutions.

Did membership of the European Community mean a definitive abandoning of the isolationist policies of the Cánovas era? Definitely not. At the time, with the Cold War still in full swing, the Community was a long way from assuming the responsibility of its own foreign policy, security and defence. That had been the task, since 1949, of the Atlantic Alliance and the ‘transatlantic link’. Spaniards had no doubts as to the advantages of belonging to the European Community. To such a point, indeed, that the lack of any critical voices in the taking of such a weighty decision was alarming. But it was different in the case of the Atlantic Alliance.

Contrary to what has happened with the Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and other Central European peoples, who fought dog and tooth to join the Alliance in order to ensure a degree of US commitment to their security, a large proportion of Spaniards saw only disadvantages in joining NATO. Their reasons, more or less explicit, were various and interrelated:

• No threat was perceived that could justify a multi-national commitment in defence matters. The Soviet Union was a distant nation whose danger had been a propaganda ploy so heavily exploited by the Franco regime that it had ceased to be credible.

• The United States had not been the nation to have saved Spain from fascism –quite the contrary–. Its collaboration with Franco, its support of several Latin American dictatorships, its internal racial conflicts and the Vietnam War, were all elements that made this the kind of nation to be rejected by a radicalised left wing.

• Political liberalism was restricted to a small minority. A political philosophy considered to be immoral and whose main exponent was the United States was not acceptable either to the Catholic Church or the left.

• The Alliance was not only unnecessary but it was also dangerous, as it was nothing more than an instrument of US imperialism in the Old Continent.

• Peace was possible, not by deterrence, but by a renunciation of the use of force. For many, therefore, the first step in guaranteeing our security was to break the transatlantic link.

In this ideological climate, the Spanish Socialist Party had no qualms about encouraging latent prejudices, nor about promoting one idea above all others: joining the Atlantic Alliance increased the risk of having to take part in wars. The spark to ignite the philosophy of isolationism was hence struck and Spain’s refusal to join NATO became a powerful lever in the gaining of power. Not only did the Socialist Party not try to educate the Spanish people, rather it exploited their prejudices for electoral ends. Even so, once in power and through means of complex diplomatic sleights of hand, Felipe González kept Spain in the Alliance. Spain may have remained inside, but Spaniards did not really understand why as they felt no need to belong to an alliance because they perceived no threat.

Once within the European Community –later the European Union– the Socialist government placed Spain under the protective umbrella of the Paris-Bonn axis. These were the years of Mitterrand and Köhl, a period when there was a clear transatlantic commitment and the years of preparation for the giant steps forward that the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties came to represent and of the advent of the single currency. Spain wanted to be part of the picture, to convince others of its solvency, to receive Community funds to put its economy back on track and be accepted in the same way as any other country with a population of forty million inhabitants. In time, such a policy became anachronistic. France and Germany, now led by Chirac and Schröder, abandoned their Atlantic ties and rather than being the engine of the Union they became its dead weight. Their negative economic management, their refusal to liberalize their economies, their high public deficits, low productivity and, in general, their corporate and anti-liberal mentality finally stalled the economy of their countries. The great challenges of the Union, as established in the euro stability Pact and in the Lisbon agenda were boycotted by the two big European nations. Meanwhile, Spain had attained a respectable position within the Union. It had proved its solvency and its relatively sound use of the funds granted to modernise its economy. With such good results Spain gained authority and it became a reference point recognised throughout the whole of Europe. Spain was not only ‘there’, it had now become an important player. Such authority began to be turned into real power in the capable hands of an increasingly self-assured Aznar, who was able to get very different types of measures approved, against the wishes of the big nations.

Spanish society viewed with satisfaction its growing economic well being and the increasingly important role that Spain was assuming in European affairs. But the Popular Party missed its chance to convince the people that Spain, for the first time in its history, was no longer exercising a merely rhetorical Europeanism, but had in fact taken a much more active part in the management of European affairs in order to modernise and make the continent’s economic structures more competitive.

The Iraq crisis supplied further proof of the Popular Party’s lack of interest or its inability to inform and persuade society about the rightness of its points of view. The policies pursued were coherent with the stance the government had maintained for some time on such issues as the war against terrorism, transatlantic relations, the European Union and relations with Latin America. But it did little to explain its position on Iraq. With the majority of the media against the government, the following interpretations became generally accepted:

• War is unnecessary.
• War is illegal.
• The relationship with the United States implies the risk of war.
• The relationship with the United States runs counter to the European cause.

José María Aznar had successfully achieved one of the most important objectives he had set himself at the outset of his government. He had put Spain in the place that corresponded to it in the international arena; he had placed it at the head of European construction, and had brought about a privileged link with the United States. However, bad management of his information policy and the Popular Party’s inability properly to get across the message of his triumphs in foreign policy, meant that the people suffered a kind of vertigo when they saw the role Spain was assuming and the risks it was taking. In other words, their reaction to what they did not fully understand awakened in them old ghosts from the past, together with the wish to play a more discreet but safer role. The spirit of isolationism once again reigned.

The opinion polls seemed to justify the strategists of the Popular Party. Although it was obvious that the people did not support the foreign policy being pursued, they were still prepared to go on voting for the Popular Party because of its successes in economic and employment policies, in its fight against terrorism and in its defence of national unity. One of their presuppositions however remained unfulfilled: that the costs of their foreign policy would prove bearable. March 11 put the Iraq issue fully in the limelight and the Popular Party lost the general election. The most successful period of Spanish foreign policy ended up in defeat, due to a rejection by the people of Spain’s role in Iraq and because the terrorist attacks and the war had been artificially linked. The more Spaniards had reason to overcome their complexes about their past and act in the international arena with the power and authority they had legitimately won, the more they demanded a return to their former role as a third-rate power. This they did in the belief that they would be guaranteeing their well being, in spite of having to subordinate themselves once more to Franco-German interests and of having to weaken their position in the face of Moroccan pressure.

In much the same way that, in 1981-82, the Socialist Party had shown no scruples about mobilising the radical vote in the debate over membership of NATO, a new generation of Socialists did not think twice, in 2003-04, about playing the anti-American card, despite being fully aware that cooperation with the US is important for our security both as Spaniards and as Europeans. The US, with its cooperation in the fight against ETA, in the resolution of the Perejil crisis and in the carrying out of certain policies in Latin America, deserved far better treatment than this, both as a mark of our recognition and because of our own national interest. A good example of the change in direction of the new Socialist government is in the management of relations with Morocco. The importance of the United States in this matter has been overlooked and the government has given in to Moroccan demands, thus changing a traditional stance that had obtained since the days of the UCD. This amounts to a considerable ‘preventive self defeat’, in the sense that in future both France and the United States will favour the Moroccan ally against Spain. This was our way of giving satisfaction to our neighbour and of gaining breathing space against possible future demands.

The Socialist Opposition defended the idea that Spain was acting against the interests of the European Union, despite the fact that, at Aznar’s initiative, seventeen countries had distanced themselves from the Franco-German stance and that these two countries themselves represent the biggest obstacle to achieving the targets of economic modernisation proposed by the Union itself. The message went deep, as did its consequences. For many Spaniards there exist first- and second-class European nations. France and Germany, given their size and history, seem to have greater rights when it comes to defining common positions. What is good for Spain is subordinated to their interests and involves a renunciation of our rights, be they with regard to the number of votes, to the setting of the modernisation agenda or to our responsibilities in the Maghreb. The policy of isolationism thus becomes one of irresponsible surrender in the name of securities that not only will not be delivered but will have a very high cost.

After September 11, the international community slowly started defining what was needed to combat Islamist terrorism. Step by step, there came into being a kind of culture that, in the case of Spain, was not entirely unknown given the decades of combating ETA terrorism. However, in the war of words over the Iraqi crisis, the Socialist Party and certain media stated that the terrorist attacks of March 11 were directly linked to the Spanish presence in Iraq. The message, bluntly stated, was as follows: if we withdraw from the Middle East we will rid ourselves of Islamist terrorism. It is the US interfering as it does in all spheres that is responsible for these events. With such arguments the Socialist Party struck an easy chord among the electorate. The people had not been prepared by the Popular Party to analyse these events. But these arguments pushed the Socialists towards moral disarmament in the long fight against terrorism. Not only were the arguments false, they were also irresponsible and there will be a price to pay for those who put them forward. The Spanish Government, irrespective of which parliamentary groups support it, needs society to be tightly knit behind it on the question of terrorism, against which there is no alternative strategy but to fight it with determination, together with our allies. To think that by distancing ourselves from the US and by withdrawing from the Middle East we are going to appease the terrorists shows a clear lack of understanding of the phenomenon. With the West out of the Middle East, the region’s development will continue to decompose as it has done in previous decades, to such an extent that radical Islamist groups will take over political power. Spain, as a neighbouring country, will suffer the consequences very directly.

A big step in this process of returning to the old policy of isolationism and of moral disarmament in the face of terrorism was taken when it was explained to the population that the withdrawal of the Spanish troops stationed in Iraq, in the aftermath of the March 11 attacks, did not mean a step backwards in the fight against terrorism. The truth is exactly the opposite. Radical Islamists greeted the withdrawal as a triumph, in the same way that the defenders of liberal democracy in the Middle East viewed it as a serious defeat. France and Germany only expressed their ‘understanding’. The isolationism of the Spanish position was great, but the population greeted it with relief.

While it became obvious after September 11 that threats of this magnitude can never be dealt with by police and intelligence methods alone, as was made evident in Afghanistan, both in Spain and in the rest of Europe voices of the left were heard to reject the use of the armed forces in the fight against terrorism. Once again, there is an attempt to persuade people that it is possible to avert terrorist actions if we withdraw from the front line, if we cease to pursue terrorists in the places where they organise themselves and where they have their operational centres. That is the very same message that radical Islamist groups want to see prevailing in Europe, a message that would allow them to interfere in election campaigns and blackmail public opinion with the illusion of peace.


March 11 is a milestone in the history of Spain’s foreign policy, representing a step backwards in the process of Spain’s maturity and of its assumption of responsibilities on the international scene. The lack of interest or inability of the Popular Party in the fundamental task of explaining its policies to the Spanish people meant that its views were never fully supported and, as a result of the terrorist attacks, it was easy for people to adopt critical stances. The Socialist Party embraced anti-Americanism, adopted an anti-Atlantic stance and flew the flag of pacifism, creating the fiction that peace is possible if you do not intervene. The result has been the moral disarmament of the Spanish people in its fight against international terrorism and the realignment of Spain with viewpoints that are opposed to the modernisation of the economic structures of the European Union and to trans-Atlantic cooperation in the fight against radical Islamism.

Florentino Portero
Director of GEES