Spain-US relations and the transatlantic relationship

Donald Trump and King Felipe VI at the White House, Washington DC (19/6/2018). Screenshot: The White House.

Original version in Spanish: Las relaciones España-EEUU en el marco de la relación transatlántica.


The recent visit of Felipe VI to Washington provides an opportunity to analyse and reflect on the state of bilateral relations. In the short term, these relations will be framed by the arrival of a new government in Spain and by the increasing distance between President Trump and the European allies.


The first visit of King Felipe and Queen Letizia to the White House was the second top-level encounter between Spain and the US during Donald Trump’s first term. Nevertheless, the trip was marked by tension between the US and some European allies arising from differences over values, defence and (especially) trade policy, and recent domestic changes in Spanish politics. Therefore, given the many important interests at stake, there is a need to find formulas that can guarantee the stability of the bilateral relationship and avoid a new political debate upsetting it.


On 19 June 2018 the Spanish King and Queen made their first visit to President Trump in the Oval Office. In the brief public encounter that took place after their meeting, President Trump –in addition to stating his intention to visit Spain– emphasised the close relationship between the two countries, mentioning, paradoxically, the most controversial issues in the context of transatlantic relations: trade and defence. After underlining the importance of the historical and cultural legacy that unites the two countries –the central motive for the visit, which also included New Orleans and San Antonio (Texas)–, King Felipe VI, for his part, identified democracy as an important asset the two nations have in common.

Despite the cordiality and robustness of the bilateral relationship, the Spanish Royals’ visit to the US took place in a context of political debates and changes with potential consequences for both the bilateral relationship and the EU-US relationship. These changes and discussions have unfolded within two different contexts: (1) the transatlantic relationship; and (2) domestic politics in Spain.

Political controversies clouding the transatlantic relationship

The debates unfolding across the vectors of the transatlantic relationship have focused primarily on two central themes: trade and defence. A third topic might also be identified: the question of values, which for Europeans has both an international and an internal dimension.

The first of the controversies stems from the disputes that President Trump has provoked with his principal allies with his changes to US trade policy, including tariff barriers on various imported steel and aluminium-related products from the EU. Originally, the European countries (like other US allies, such as Canada) were exempted from their application. Nevertheless, the tariffs were ultimately imposed, and the EU responded with reprisal tariffs on a range of US products, following the example of other countries like Canada and China.

It is no secret that President Trump (going back at least to his election campaign) has made trade issues and the fight against the trade deficit one of his most important banners. Upon assuming the presidency, he withdrew the US from the negotiations and ratification process of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), despite the agreement’s political significance for relations with the states of East Asia, and he began re-negotiating NAFTA. Later, during his address to APEC in November 2017, Trump defended US participation in free-trade agreements but only if preferential, bilateral and ‘fair’. He himself defined the trade issue as a ‘vital’ interest for the US, and he made this argument all through his Asian tour, even with allies like South Korea and Japan; on the other hand, he also signalled the maintenance of US security guarantees in those countries.

These differences were nowhere in plainer view than at the G7 meeting in Montreal on 9-10 June 2018. The US President’s vision collided there with that of European allies like Germany and France. His prickly exchanges with Canada’s Prime Minister even led Trump to refuse to ratify the final declaration that had been previously agreed upon and drafted by consensus before the summit.

While trade has been the central part of the debate on both sides of the Atlantic, questions of security, defence and values have also been present in the discussions.

In the field of security, the US criticisms of the scant defence spending among the European allies, and the concomitant US reticence to share the costs (financial and human) of different armed conflicts are not new –and were characteristic of a number of previous Administrations– and have stimulated the development of an option for an alternative defence relationship to NATO, based on a new European security and defence policy known as Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). This new direction, observed with certain suspicion by the US, and even as much by NATO, is still subject to significant uncertainty regarding its reach and possibilities for materialisation as a realistic alternative to the US presence. Despite the many declarations by European leaders, including the High Representative, Federica Mogherini, on PESCO’s compatibility with NATO, its development has not contributed to an improvement in the relationship with the US, particularly given the exclusion of US financing from European defence and security projects.

Some of the unilateral diplomatic decisions taken by the US have not contributed to an improvement in the transatlantic relationship. Prime examples include the US withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran –never mind the negative consequences for the security of the Middle East– and the sudden warming of relations with US allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Despite the political will of European states (like the UK, German and France), and of the EU itself, to remain in the Iranian agreement to guarantee that it survives, without US participation –the key when considering the real implications of re-establishing sanctions– its survival will be difficult to maintain.

Shared values –the defence of human rights, and of liberal democracy as a form of government– have been a traditional asset of the transatlantic relationship. This traditionally shared pillar of identity is today nevertheless in crisis and subject to growing debate. The appearance of so-called ‘illiberal’ democracies and the rise of populist movements –both to the right and the left– have caused a crisis in one of the pillars of the transatlantic relationship straddling the Atlantic. Although the Trump Administration and the major EU leaders have contrary positions on the issue, it should be noted in this regard that it would be an enormous simplification of reality to maintain that such divisions only exist between Europeans and Americans.

Currently these disagreements on democracy, human rights and migration issues also exist between different domestic political forces in the US and within European states themselves; but the divisions are also there between European countries, with Germany and France on one side, and Italy, Austria and the countries of Eastern Europe on the other. But even within Germany, the same divisions have affected the government, forcing it to work hard to maintain its complex political balance.

Relations with the US and domestic politics in Spain

The censure motion of 1 June made Pedro Sánchez Prime Minister. This is a significant political change, even if its consequences, along with the new government’s elbow room, will remain limited by the current composition of the Congress of Deputies and by the limited time (two years) remaining in this legislature.

As analysed elsewhere, the bilateral relationship with the US has often been subject to political debate and has typically been at the centre of most major disagreements in Spanish foreign policy (including the 1986 referendum on NATO and the 2003 debate over the Iraq war). There was a cold personal relationship between President George W. Bush and Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. A string of diplomatic incidents only made matters worse, and the relationship only began to recover after Obama’s election victory in 2008 when Rodríguez Zapatero made important decisions to incorporate Spain into the European anti-missile shield (for which four US destroyers would be based in Rota).

Since then, the bilateral relationship has remained on cordial terms. However, there has been little US interest to make the bilateral relationship more visible. Obama’s visit to Spain only came at the end of his second term, greatly disappointing the Spanish authorities.

Despite the potential risk for a political debate to break out around the bilateral relationship upon Trump’s assumption of power, the Rajoy government was able to maintain a cordial relationship. On 26 September 2017 Mariano Rajoy was invited to visit the Oval Office, where he gained US support on the all-important Catalan issue (support for Spain that was even stronger than that of some of the European partners). Trump even went so far as to support an increase in trade with Spain. Of course, this openness was facilitated by the fact that the bilateral trade balance is in surplus for the US (in contrast to many other countries with which the US maintains a bilateral trade deficit). Within the bilateral relationship, the Rajoy government did not openly align itself with the countries (like Germany) most critical of Trump, but nor did it give anything like unconditional support for US positions.

The new government poses at least some uncertainty as to the potential for continuity –or rupture– in the bilateral relationship. Traditionally, US interests in Spain have revolved around questions of security, economy and trade, and the defence of intellectual property. Although the latter issue is now less contested, the other two could easily see new controversies.

In the realm of security, the Spanish commitment to increase its defence spending to 2% of GDP –first made at the Cardiff Summit in 2014 and clearly in Spain’s best interest to achieve– has cooled to a certain degree with the passage of time. Even with the previous government and despite successive increases in defence spending, the percentage calculation for this year is no higher than 0.91% of GDP –very similar to the level when Donald Trump became President–. The former Minister of Defence, María Dolores de Cospedal, proposed that defence spending increase to a ceiling of 1.53% in 2024 –instead of the 2% set in Cardiff–. The trend has been confirmed by the new Minister, Margarita Robles, when she said that to reach a level of defence spending of 2% of GDP, as established by NATO, ‘is not a realistic objective’.

It remains to be seen how this decelerating trend in Spanish defence spending –contradicting Trump’s extreme discourse, which nevertheless maintains a clear continuity with the positions of past Administrations– might affect the bilateral relationship, or if it will take a back seat to the issue of the military bases –perhaps the most important US assets in Spain–. Some indication on this could arise at the next NATO summit on 11-12 July 2018 in Brussels, where the first encounter between the US President and the Spanish Prime Minister will likely take place.

Trade is another key issue. However, excepting the black-olive case, the issue will be highly conditioned by US trade policy towards the EU and by the US Administration’s overall goal to reduce trade deficits without distinguishing between allies and adversaries. In this policy area, Spanish interests will likely tend towards an alignment with the rest of the countries of the EU, given that the US has imposed tariffs on a wide range of European products.

The risk remains (as it does for other European countries) that Trump’s lack of popularity and low public-opinion rating in Spain (only 2.2 out of 10, according to the latest Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute) will prompt new political debates over the bilateral relationship. This would not benefit the important security, economic and cultural interests that Spain has at stake in the bilateral relationship with the US (Spain’s leading foreign investor). Despite Trump’s low popularity in Spain, paradoxically, most Spaniards (64%) consider the US a good ally. This is even higher than last year, implying a certain departure in the positive sense from the more traditional ‘personalisation’ of the bilateral relationship, which has typically meant that the current leader temporarily occupying the presidency tended to become a decisive variable. It is very possible that the need for US support for Spain on issues as complex as the Catalan independence process have contributed to this new perception of Spanish public opinion.

Given the important interests at stake in the Spain-US bilateral relationship, one of the most important objectives is to maintain stability, regardless of who temporarily occupies the presidency. In this respect, in the wake of his recent US visit, the King can play a decisive role. It is well known that for decades the US has cultivated a relationship with the King of Spain, perceiving him as a key to the stability and continuity of the bilateral relationship. The King’s recent visit only strengthens this position. In complex political circumstances like those today and given the transatlantic political realities of the moment, along with the uncertainty generated by the recent domestic political changes in Spain, the King could play a key diplomatic role in guaranteeing a certain level of stability in the bilateral ties with the US.

Cultural ties have an important position in the bilateral relationship and served as an additional motive for the trip. This was clear from the King’s attendance at the 300th anniversary of the founding of both San Antonio and New Orleans (where Spain’s 40-year presence –from 1763 to 1803– is more significant than is generally recognised in other parts of the country like the south-west or Florida). The celebrations will publicise the knowledge of Spanish links with states like Louisiana. Such little-known Spanish ties with the US have recently been brought to light by the spreading of new, concrete symbols attached to the bilateral relationship (as with Bernardo de Gálvez).

The US trip also occurred at a moment of controversy over migration issues –as the two countries have generally opposing positions– but particularly at the European level, where a tightening of EU migration policy is expected at the next European Council on 28-29 June. The domestic debate and division in the US over immigration does not sit well with Spain’s traditional aspiration to represent the Hispanic population. But the objective is not very realistic; in any case, it should be subordinated to other more important objectives for the national interest, in line with how other EU countries (like Germany, France and Italy) manage the issue within their bilateral relationships with the US, which is what the current US Administration would prefer. A different question is whether common points can be found on issues of mutual interest (ie, a solution to the Venezuelan crisis in which Spain could play a leading role).


The Spain-US bilateral relationship has traditionally been the controversial source of much dissent and debate. The visit of the Spanish Royals to the US came at a particularly complex moment across several crucial debates unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic over migration, trade and defence policies.

The ‘Jacksonian’ posturing of the Trump Administration on these issues has made dealings with the allies (and not just the Europeans) very complex, while the lack of a defined global strategy exposes US foreign policy to abrupt shifts, lending it an unpredictable character. Despite everything (as mentioned above), the lack of hostility towards Spain on the part of the US President reduces the most pernicious effects of such dynamics.

Given the important security, economic, cultural and even domestic political interests at stake, it remains in Spain’s best interest to maintain cordial relations with the Trump Administration –even despite the ongoing lack of US awareness as the vital nature of this relationship, as revealed in strategic documents and the public pronouncements of US leaders–. The new Spanish government should avoid committing the mistakes of the past; nor should it place the Spain-US relationship up for a new debate.

Therefore, a policy of continuity should be applied to the bilateral relationship. This will allow Spain to avoid aligning unconditionally with either the US Administration or the European states (who have totally contrary positions), and to strive for an autonomous and neutral stance that guarantees Spain’s defence interests without ruling out the possibility that when US and Spanish interests clash its reaction can be tailored and discreet and undertaken within the EU context (just as is expected to happen with trade).

One important factor to keep in mind is the need to dissociate the bilateral relationship from the individual temporarily occupying the US presidency. Spanish public opinion has already begun to make this distinction, seeing the US as a good ally even despite the very negative view on President Trump held by Spanish public opinion. Spanish leaders should be able to make the same distinction.

Security and defence are the most important aspects of the bilateral relationship. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to think that the increase in defence spending is simply to do with the desires of Trump and his predecessors. Expenditure should be seen as a strategic investment in Spain capacities and in its position in the international system –not as an unpopular move prompted by pressure from the US Administration–.

The Royal visit also raises the visibility of the important diplomatic role played by the King in Spanish foreign policy. His contribution could be key to the stabilisation of bilateral relations and as a guarantor of their continuity. While the Royals have prompted controversy, they remain highly important for Spain’s interests, particularly in the current moment of the Spain-US bilateral relationship.

Juan Tovar Ruiz
Professor of International Relations, University of Burgos | @JuanTovarRuiz