The war in Ukraine came as a geopolitical shock to Europe and a cultural shock to the EU. It reminds us that the use of force continues to be a determining factor in international (and European) relations and challenges the idea that economic ties with powers such as Russia (or China) contribute to their political liberalisation. The war has lent credibility to European leaders’ recent calls to ‘rediscover geopolitics’ and the ‘language of power’, encouraging Europe to transcend an excessively legalistic or normative conception of foreign policy and security and to align economic policies and strategic priorities. Specifically, the resurgence of interstate rivalry and Russian and Chinese challenges to the international order at the regional and global levels seem to have established themselves as the main elements structuring European foreign policy and transatlantic relations. Meanwhile, the leadership exhibited by the US amid the Russian aggression in Ukraine, the widening of the economic gulf between the US and EU in the last two decades and the perennial intra-EU discrepancies on questions of security and defence point to the existence of major obstacles in the path towards greater European ‘strategic autonomy’. However, doubts surrounding Washington’s commitment to Ukraine over the short and medium term and the US decision to prioritise rivalry with China over the long term may oblige the Europeans to take on greater strategic responsibility.
Spain needs to convince itself that it can play a proactive role on the international stage
The war in Ukraine seems also to have hastened and accentuated other significant trends in the international system, such as the growing assertiveness of regional powers (India and Brazil, for instance), which are reluctant to align themselves in the context of political rivalry between the West and Russia or China, and are seeking alternatives to the ‘liberal’ international order that emerged in the wake of the Second World War. It is also worth highlighting the growing disaffection of the so-called ‘global South’ towards the West, as the recent resurfacing of instability in the Middle East demonstrates. The West is accused of double standards and of failing to pay the same attention to their wars and crises as it does in the case of Ukraine. For their part, Russia and above all China seek to tap into this disaffection and exploit the (historical) sense of grievance in the global South to undermine the West’s and Europe’s image there. That said, the global South operates within a space of geopolitical non-alignment and ambiguity and is guided by pragmatism (depending on the circumstances, which great powers can deliver the most benefits?). The Spain aspires to act as a ‘spearhead’ in the Western and European battle for the global South, by virtue of its status as a geopolitical bridge between Europe, America and Africa; by virtue of its cultural and economic ties with a significant part of the global South, especially Latin America and, to a lesser extent, Africa; and by virtue of a relatively positive image in regions such as the Middle East and Asia. To achieve its ‘spearhead’ aspiration, Spain needs to convince three key audiences: itself; Europe and the West; and the global South.battle for the global South cannot therefore be reduced to its simple overall alignment with Russia (or China) or the West/Europe; rather, small changes and nuances in the stances of various actors in the global South could have major geopolitical consequences across a range of geographical and functional arenas.
Against such a backdrop, Spain aspires to act as a ‘spearhead’ in the Western and European battle for the global South, by virtue of its status as a geopolitical bridge between Europe, America and Africa; by virtue of its cultural and economic ties with a significant part of the global South, especially Latin America and, to a lesser extent, Africa; and by virtue of a relatively positive image in regions such as the Middle East and Asia. To achieve its ‘spearhead’ aspiration, Spain needs to convince three key audiences: itself; Europe and the West; and the global South.
First, Spain needs to convince itself that it can play a proactive role on the international stage, something that requires a change of strategic culture and mentality. Specifically, it needs to overcome the excessively normative and copycat reflex (letting Europe do the thinking on its behalf) that has frequently beset Spanish foreign policy and reconcile itself with the concept of its own (national) interest. The transition towards a world characterised by the resurgence of interstate rivalry requires Spain to replace a conception of international relations where attempts are made to solve problems of a transnational nature (terrorism, organised crime, climate change, etc) by means of conciliatory multilateralism with a conception of Spain as a ‘nodal’ country, one that aspires to weaving relationships on all sides without clearly discriminating between partners, allies and competitors.
The spearhead metaphor is intended to evoke a proactive and assertive rather than belligerent attitude, one that would start from the recognition of interstate rivalry as the main driveshaft of international relations and from a clear diagnosis of Spain’s geopolitical lodestars (Europe and the West) as well as its geopolitical competitors, while retaining from the ‘nodal country’ idea the importance of building bridges towards a global South whose alignment is fluid and disputed. Such a ‘cultural’ or conceptual transition requires underpinning the foundations of national power and significantly increasing the resources devoted to its foreign presence, especially in regions such as Latin America and Africa, where Spain has either withdrawn or punches below its weight and aspirations. In this regard, and without denying the existence of internal political divisions, it should be pointed out that unlike other countries in Spain’s orbit, foreign policy enjoys widespread domestic consensus –its relations abroad have historically been, and continue to be, one of the main factors in contributing to Spanish cohesion–. It should also be emphasised that this assertion of national interest is by no means at odds with its pro-European stance. On the contrary: a strong Europe requires strong and proactive states that help to stoke and develop European foreign policy. Spain also needs to convince both Europe and the West and the global South of its ability to act as a spearhead. First, assimilating the resurgence of interstate rivalry and articulating a clear public narrative about the challenges represented by China and Russia are indispensable for Spain’s strategic credibility in Europe and elsewhere in the West. Spain has made major headway in this regard in recent years. Secondly, Spain should promote a strategy and a narrative towards the global South that starts from an understanding of its own dynamics and needs and goes beyond the requirement to adopt Western frameworks.
 This analysis emerged from discussions at a meeting of the Working Group on ‘Foreign policy, security and defence’, held at the Elcano Royal Institute’s offices in Brussels on 14 June 2023. The author is grateful to Guillermo Ardizone, Félix Arteaga, Mario Esteban, Raquel García, Rubén Díaz-Plaja, Álvaro Imbernón, Emilio Lamo de Espinosa, Enrique Feás, Elena Gómez Castro, María Lledó, Mira Milosevich, Ignacio Molina, Miguel Otero Iglesias, Nereo Peñalver, Charles Powell, José Juan Ruiz, Fidel Sendagorta, Pedro Serrano, Federico Steinberg, Federico Torres Muro and Camilo Villarino for their comments on earlier versions of the analysis. The author is solely responsible for the content of this Policy Paper and for any errors or omissions.