Spain’s Atlantic Vocation

Spain’s Atlantic Vocation

Subject: This analysis focuses on the causes behind the Atlantic commitment of the present Spanish government, on whether this is a new development or a continuation of positions defended by its predecessors and, lastly, on whether Spain has any choice but this policy.

Summary: Regardless of the contrasting positions taken by the Spanish government and the opposition parties on the issue of Iraq, the apparent Atlanticism of the Spanish government is being questioned from various quarters. This article argues that it can be defended on five main counts: the fight against ETA’s  terrorism, this being the only explicit reason given by the government; the Europe that is of interest to Spain in establishing a southern Atlantic axis within the EU, especially once the enlargement comes into effect; security along the southern flank of the Mediterranean, the weak point in Spain’s defensive alliances; Spanish investments in Latin America; and, lastly, the emergence of a latino presence in the United States. Rather than altering the priorities of Spanish foreign policy, what this Atlanticist slant does is reorientate them, adapting them to new objective circumstances (globalisation and 11-S). In addition it’s probably the only sound foreign policy available to Spain at present.

Analysis: Over the last few weeks many journalists, mostly foreign, have shown a keen interest in finding out what lies behind the radically Atlanticist policy of the Popular Party government, a striking departure from the equally staunch Europeanism (and anti-Americanism) of Spanish public opinion and one which, or so it would appear, constitutes an about-turn in Spanish policy, placing Washington where Brussels once stood and, thereby, shattering the foreign-policy consensus that took so much work to forge in Spain’s political transition from dictatorship to democracy.

That I am aware of, no official government document exists giving the grounds for this apparently extreme decision. As I believe, however, that it is neither as radical nor as novel as many would have it and is, moreover, quite comprehensible seen in context, I shall endeavour to spell out some of the arguments in its favour as I understand them, not without stressing beforehand that this issue (for or against an Atlanticist foreign policy) is only very tangentially related to the Iraq war. That is to say, one may be a convinced Atlanticist and be opposed to the war (as occurred, for example, to not a few Britons and very many Spaniards) and vice versa (as is the case with a not inconsiderable number of Americans, who supported the war but who care for Europe not a twopenny damn), meaning that a moderately pursued Atlanticism may be a way of rebuilding some, if not all, of a foreign-policy consensus which today is not so much beleaguered as dead on its feet.

The main reason for Spain’s newfound Atlanticism, as the government has reiterated over and over again, is anti-terrorism, an issue to which the prime minister’s own personal experience is germane. The fact that ETA came within hundredths of a second of killing him has an undeniable psychological significance. And the corollary that ETA and its consequences (rampant Basque separatism and the lack of democratic rights in the Basque Country) constitute Spain’s number-one political shows that the issue transcends by far individual psychology. It allows us to understand why, confronted by September 11th and the terrifying debut of megaterrorism, the Spanish government empathised more with the American general stance, democrats and republicans alike (or almost… there seem to be significant differences between easterners and the more relaxed environment of the West Coast) than with the European approach, clearly somewhat distanced, maybe not from the danger but certainly from its perception. The anti-terrorist cooperation of the US government appears thus to crown a Spanish strategy aimed at isolating ETA internationally, one that began with help from France but continued with major political pronouncements, legal measures and concerted police operations within the framework of the EU, and was impelled to new heights by the events of 9/11 and Spain’s presidency of the European Union. It may well be that Spanish pubic opinion is unaware of the significance of this US cooperation (as it is aware, fortunately, of the enormously helpful cooperation provided by France), but there can be no doubt that the Spanish government attaches great importance to it, over and above the concrete results which such cooperation may produce and on which I have no information (although the inclusion of ETA’s political wing, Batasuna, on the US list of terrorist groups is, undoubtedly, a step of enormous consequence).

The second reason strikes right to the heart of the European project, at least to the Europe that is of interest to Spaniards. Just at the time when Spain had become a fully integrated member of Europe, the enlargement of the EU has now tilted the centre of gravity of the Union towards the north and the east, positioning Spain once again on the south-western fringe. It is easily understood that, so long as Germany remains the hard core of Europe and France Germany’s political mentor, both countries will remain entrenched in a vision of a ‘continental’ Europe of federal leanings, which in economic matters faithfully reproduces at continental level their own protectionist inclinations. Europe’s increasing disdain for Latin America, and even for the southern flank of the Mediterranean, only serves to augment this risk.

Spain’s sights are set on an economically open Europe with an Atlanticist stance, which links Spain with Latin America much in the same way as Britain is linked to North America. In this sense, Spain’s natural allies are, first and foremost, Portugal and the United Kingdom, the much-maligned “axis of the Azores”, and not one stretching, conga-style, from France to China via Germany and Russia, pointing in the wrong direction entirely. For the rest, if Europe is finding it difficult to articulate a common foreign policy (and in this respect Iraq was more effect than cause), it faces an even harder task in establishing itself in the foreseeable future as an autonomous strategic political entity. The European Rapid Reaction Force is only of use for the so called Petersburg missions, and only then in peace-keeping more than peace-enforcing missions. Moreover, this force is still a long way short of being fully operational. And even if Europe were prepared to make the economic sacrifices necessary to guarantee its own security (and neither existing political nor economic circumstances are propitious), it would take at least fifteen, more like twenty, years to achieve tangible results. To summarize, if European security demands, and will continue to demand for many years to come, the US military umbrella, attempts to construct a united Europe not only ignoring but in flagrant opposition to the United States is a fanciful whim that France may permit itself but not Spain nor the countries of Eastern Europe, liberated from the third world war by the United States and not by Franco-German östpolitik (hence the attitude to the Iraq war taken by such ‘hawks’ as Havel, Michnick, Geremek or Enzesberger). The Europe that Spain is interested in is not, by any stretch of imagination, a weak or insecure Europe and Madrid quite rightly regards, in this context, the Franco-German axis as essential (though the Franco-British axis is, to Spanish eyes, even more important). But that axis is not sufficient, as became clear when France (or, to be more precise, Chirac) isolated itself first from NATO and then from the EU. We have all come a long way from the Europe of the 1980s; the future looks very different; it looks towards globalisation and free competition; it also looks westwards and, to a significant degree, southwards.

Europe’s southern flank is without doubt another of the main causes of Spain’s Atlanticist vocation.  The difference in per capita income between Europe and North Africa is 12 to 1, the highest across any frontier in the world, twice the size of that existing between the United States and Mexico. If we add the demographical differences between the two shores of the Mediterranean, the accelerated urbanisation of North Africa, the instability of its political regimes and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, the risk of Spain being caught, yet again, in the midst of an historic clash of civilisations is not to be dismissed lightly. Naturally, it is up to Spaniards to do more than anyone to remedy this imbalance, and we should be in the forefront of efforts to drive forward the still essential NAFTA for North Africa, the Mediterranean-basin concept of the Barcelona process and, above all, the resolution of the Palestinian conflict. But it also behoves us, however, to take a good hard look at foreseeable consequences, once remote, now much less so. In doing so we see that both the distant past (Western Sahara) and recent events (the island of Perejil) demonstrate that we can expect little help from our neighbours, not even the EU. France has always been our main competitor in North Africa or, rather, we have always been France’s competitor, and this simple fact weighs more heavily than the ideological leanings of our respective governments or even our common interests in the EU. The fact that it had to be Colin Powell who, thanks to the excellent relations between Morocco and the United States, brokered a peaceful solution to the Perejil crisis (absurd in itself but a real test of determination and strength nonetheless) is something we should not forget. Nor can we ignore the results of the recent elections in Morocco or the social backing given there to religious fundamentalism in the Casablanca terrorist attacks. To speak in diplomatic terms: Spain should maintain and strengthen its traditional friendship with the Arab nations and therefore open the EU to the south, but it should not forget at the same time that the main threat to its security lies in that direction and, in the event of this threat materialising, the EU would be diplomatically paralysed and, in the short term at least, strategically powerless.

And, lastly, the other major priority of Spanish foreign policy, Latin America. There is no need to insist on shared history and common culture. What should be stressed is that Spain has significant investments in Latin America on which a sizeable slice of our GDP depends: no less than 7% of the earnings of our market-listed companies and 1% of our export earnings. But Latin America is steadily pulling away from Europe and moving closer to the United States; Uncle Sam’s erstwhile ‘back yard’ is beginning to urbanise and industrialise and the US is, needless to say, the main investor there. The NAFTA was the first and most important step towards full economic integration, but the FTAA  is hard in pursuit, and meanwhile the US is busy weaving a web of bilateral agreements and conventions with Latin America countries so that today Latin America has two major financial capitals, one is Madrid, the other is Miami. Finally, if there is one lesson to be learnt from recent crises (in Argentina and elsewhere), it is that the security of Spanish investment in Latin America, ie, the future of the wealth of our investors (most of them contributors to pension funds, remember) has more to do with the foreign policy of the United States of America than it has with that of the European Union.

Yet the juxtaposition of the two Americas, North and South, holds plenty more in store for Spain. At present there are two ‘melting pots’ of Ibero-americanism simmering away, from which will emerge not a mythical but a very real ‘hispanity’. One of them is, without a doubt, Madrid in particular and Spain in general, where immigration from Latin America, as our daily experience bears out, is one of our major assets, especially when compared with an ageing continental Europe incapable of integrating its migratory inflows. But the other Hispanic “melting pot” is undoubtedly the United States. In January the US Census Bureau reported that the country’s 37 million Hispanics already constituted the largest ethnic minority (if that expression can be used to define a group whose common traits are purely cultural), and that it would be 50-million strong by 2015. The same survey tells us that their combined spending power amounts to USD 600 billion, practically the equivalent of Spain’s GDP, meaning that the US now represents the third largest Hispanic country in the world after Mexico and Colombia, on a par with Spain. These immigrants form a group or, rather, a combination of groups which, under the ‘Hispanic’ label, invented many years ago by the Bureau, is now no longer a political fiction but is rapidly carving out its own destiny, visible not only in New York, Miami and Los Angeles but in 35 of the 50 States of the Union, with growing political clout (the outcome of next US elections will be crucially dependent on what happens in the States of New York, Florida, Texas and California, all with important Hispanic minorities). I, for one, do not share the commonplace that US Hispanics are Spain’s ‘natural constituency’ (if they’re anyone’s constituency they are Mexico’s), and to pretend this to be the case is dangerous, to say the least. But there can be no doubt that something very new and immediate to us is emerging there, with a chance, remote but real, that the United States, with 28 million native Spanish-speaking inhabitants, may become a bilingual country (something that will depend on, among other things, what we do with such potentially useful tools as the Instituto Cervantes).  


All of this, if we look back in calm reflection, is far from new. The priorities of Spain’s foreign policy have long been anti-terrorism, Europe, Latin America and the Mediterranean, four focal points forming the main thrust of our diplomatic efforts since transition and beyond, as public opinion itself will bear out. For example, the Barometer of the Elcano Royal Institute last November reported that Spaniards’ foreign policy priorities were clear: Europe (62% of first-choice votes), Latin America (39% of second-choice votes) and the Mediterranean (15% of second-choice votes). However, interestingly, ahead of the Mediterranean and in the second choice option came the United States, with 22% of the votes, a priority which is hardly a surprise. Indeed, it was Felipe González, as Spanish socialist premier then on his second tour of duty as president of the European Council, who pushed through the Transatlantic Declaration. What has changed, then, are not the priorities but the ‘environment’ against which those priorities project themselves. It is a backdrop in which the new Europe of 25 member states, 9/11, megaterrorism, globalisation and its side-effects of migration and capital flows, modify a set of priorities that is essentially unchanged. So it is not a matter of strategy but of tactics which demands that the traditional pole of Brussels (and its two driving forces, Paris and Bonn/Berlin) be complemented by that of Washington. If Spain were still in the 1980s and were still a small and inward-looking nation fraught with the difficulties of constituting its own stable democracy, none of this would be of particular interest. The fact that it is of huge interest today is largely the merit of those who laid the foundations of a dynamic, open, internationalist Spain and who, for that same reason, would do well not ignoring that, today, to reach the same place it may be necessary to factor in more variables.

All of which means too that Atlanticism should not be Spain’s sole foreign policy goal. The South Atlantic remains indeed one of our principal policy concerns. And that Atlanticism modulates and qualifies everything else. It replaces nothing. Indeed, we must be on our guard to ensure that this inevitable but new Atlantic focus does not harm our traditional interests. Spain is relevant in Europe because it is also Latin America, and it is relevant in Latin America because it is European. This we all know and were it not for this fact (which takes us back into history), Spain would amount to very little in Europe. What we must appreciate today is that Spain is also relevant to the United States because it is Europe and Latin America at one and the same time, and it will become all the more relevant the nearer it moves to Washington. This is not a zero sum game. And for this reason neither Brussels nor, far less so, Paris can force Spain to give up its Atlanticist ambitions, in just the same way that Washington cannot expect us to renounce to our ties with Europe or Latin America. Spain simply cannot put all its eggs in just one basket. And let’s hope none say, “With us, or against us”.

Has Spain any viable alternative to this European-cum-Atlanticist foreign policy? I sincerely believe it has, and it is worth the trouble mentioning, albeit briefly. In the opinion survey I referred to earlier, when Spaniards were asked whether Spain should invest more in foreign policy and defence, the answer was a resounding ‘no’.  Spaniards appear to be perfectly content with their presence in the world. I think they are wrong. The fact is that we are the NATO country that spends least on defence and we are one of the smallest spenders on our foreign service (we have the same diplomats we had thirty years ago!) meaning that there is a major imbalance between our real foreign presence, the result of the dynamism of Spanish society, and the resources devoted to managing that presence. But, without doubt, there is an alternative: a reduced foreign presence, probably entailing a high degree of neutrality and a somewhat higher contribution to development cooperation and aid (which is already significant in comparative terms), combined with, it hardly needs adding, defence of democracy and human rights by strictly diplomatic multilateral means. In short, Spain could opt for a model along the lines of the ‘exemplary democracies’ of the Scandinavian countries: pacifist, neutral, somewhat inward-looking, closed and timorous of the blast of history. There is great deal of wisdom in such a stance; I have always agreed (with Hegel and Unamuno) that the happiest periods of humanity were those when history was absent. No news are good news. But I have serious doubts as to whether Spain, for geo-strategic reasons (our location on the frontier of Europe), historical reasons (the legacy of the Empire) and, above all, for social reasons (the tremendous dynamism of Spanish society and the Spanish economy) will allow us to play such an ahistorical quietist role. But that would be, as far as I can see, the only viable alternative. And if it has its costs, so, too, does our present role.

Conclusions: There are three main conclusions to be drawn from the above ideas. The first is that the strong Atlanticism of the Spanish government is understandable in the light of the present interests of and threats to Spanish society. The second is that this same Atlanticism will not substantially modify, though it may qualify, the traditional priorities of Spanish foreign policy. And, lastly, although there may be alternatives to this policy, they are probably worse in the long run.

Emilio Lamo de Espinosa
Director of the Elcano Royal Institute

An abbreviated version of this article was printed in El País, 30 May 2003

Written by Emilio Lamo de Espinosa

Emilio Lamo de Espinosa (Madrid, 1946) has a PhD in Law from Madrid’s Complutense University (1972), a PhD in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB, 1979) and has been Visiting Professor at various institutions. Former Chairman of the Elcano Royal Institute, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the Universidad Complutense, member of the […]