Nicolás Sesma

Biden’s United States and Plural Spain

"If the plurality of the country ceases to be understood as a problem and comes finally to be seen as an asset, Spain could turn out to be an international point of reference and a model for the resolution of territorial tensions"

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Biden’s United States and Plural Spain
Foto: Tom Brenner| Reuters
Nicolás Sesma

Nicolás Sesma

Doctor en Historia y profesor titular de Civilización española en la Universidad Grenoble-Alpes.

Now that speculation about the formation of Joe Biden’s government is giving way at last to certainties, thanks to the distance Trump and his diehards have put between them and the Capitol and the White House, it seems like a good time to ask what can be expected in Spain of the new American administration.

The nomination of Antony J. Blinken as Secretary of State, which was ratified this past January by the Senate, presents a magnificent opportunity to relaunch Spain’s international presence, because of its membership in the European Union but also —and this is the most interesting new turn— as the bearer of its own project, based on its model of administration of territorial diversity.

One of Biden’s most trusted men, who already served as national security adviser during Biden’s term as Vice-President, Blinken has stood out as having a double facet. On the one hand, his decisive preference for multilateralism, deriving from his cosmopolitan training and his self-professed Francophilia, having pursued some of his studies in Paris. On the other hand, his preference for a more professional diplomatic model, which means that some recent personality-driven impulses will give way, in all likelihood, to a process of decision-making resting on an entire series of governmental bodies, agencies and think tanks specializing in international policy.

One of these think tanks, the oldest in America devoted to the study of the Old World, is the European Institute, which forms part of the School for International Political Affairs (SIPA) of Columbia University. The Blinken family, not only the present Secretary of State, has maintained a particularly close relationship with the Institute, which is why it can be expected to have a certain intellectual heft when it comes to seeking advice and preparing reports over any topic in the European realm. Vera and Donald Blinken, his father and former American ambassador to Hungary, are at present patrons of the Open Society Archives —yes, let’s be up front about it, before Santiago Abascal and Taburete decry it in unison, Blinken is someone who is close to George Soros’s circles— and in 2011 they made a generous contribution to the center, which for some years was renamed as the Blinken European Institute. The man in charge of signing off the agreement was Antony Blinken himself, and he did so with a brilliant speech in which he laid out his vision of “Why Europe Matters”.  A lecture that proved very revealing of his vision of transatlantic relations, and which I was fortunate enough to hear, as I was working at the time as a postdoctoral researcher beside the Director of the Institute, Professor Victoria de Grazia.

At a time when the overwhelming majority of the student body in SIPA, the research being conducted and its very finances were clearly oriented toward the Asia-Pacific, Blinken’s speech came off differently and even seems pathbreaking. In his view, since the end of World War II, every decade had experienced a crisis that had called into question the understanding between the United States and Europe, which many tended to regard as an increasingly ineffective and irrelevant actor on the world stage. A scheme in which what occurred during the Trump administration undoubtedly fit in perfectly. Nonetheless, he used the example of the Arab spring to show the limits of unilateralism, as well as the need for interdependence with a Europe capable of putting forth a model for successful political integration.

Starting with this general conception of the continent, what is the perception of Spain now current and what role can it play at the present time? Unaided by the admiration prompted by all that has to do with France, as well as the sentimental ties that Italy inspires, Spanish politics tend to go rather unnoticed in the United States. Even the educated and well-informed do not usually go much beyond generalities, which are often anchored, besides, in the period of transition to democracy. Logically, at the time, the procés [Catalan independence process] was in the spotlight and triggered the interest of public opinion, but even then it was surprising that so little was known about the system of autonomous communities and the decentralized nature of the country. Nevertheless, this is not the case with the European Institute. In fact, Columbia University as well as the European Institute are possibly the educational centers best informed about Spain’s plural reality, by tradition but also by vocation.

At the origin of this interest is the JAE (Junta para Ampliación de Estudios [Board for the Extension of Higher Learning]. Commissioned by the JAE, Federico de Onís founded the Casa Hispánica (Hispanic House) at Columbia, which is still active and the place where Federico García Lorca spent a great share of his time  during his stay in New York, as the “Poems of Solitude at Columbia University” attest. Right in the middle of World War II, and in preparation for the postwar political architecure, when it would be necessary to facilitate the transition from authoritarian governments, Columbia University recruited numerous Christian Democrats, among them the first lehendakari (Basque president), José Antonio Aguirre. In 2010, wiithin the program of events commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of his death, the European Institute paid him a lovely tribute, which included the celebration of a research colloquium on nationalist movements in Europe. At it Professor Xosé Manoel Núñez Seixas, the recent winner of the Premio Nacional de Ensayo (National Essay Prize) for his work Suspiros de España. El nacionalismo español 1808-2018 (Spanish Sighs. Spanish Nationalism 1808-2018), gave a complete lesson on identitarian problematics, the integration of immigrants, and the challenges confronting Spain in the coming years. One final example: in April 2015, as part of his efforts at internationalization, President Artur Mas gave a lecture at the European Institute titled “Catalonia at the Crossroads”. Hosting the event did not, unquestionably, mean that the Independence movement’s theses had found support, but neither was it an act without importance, as some argued, who only wish to solve conflict through the simple denial of its existence. The Institute was simply doing its job of staying on top of current affairs. Only three weeks later, Antony Blinken, then the Subsecretary of State, declared without a hint of ambiguity in an interview with the newspaper El País (27/7/2015) that the independence demands were “an internal matter on which the Spanish have to decide”.

If the plurality of the country ceases to be understood as a problem and comes finally to be seen as an asset, Spain could turn out to be an international point of reference and a model for the resolution of territorial tensions, which threaten to proliferate in the world of climate change and post-pandemic reconstruction. In this sense the new Strategy for Foreign Action, which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has presented to the Congress and Senate, placing the diversity of the country in the foreground with the aim that this form part of its international policy, could not come at a better time.  The deepening of the system of autonomous communities or a project in the federalist mold would be better understood than ever on the other side of the Atlantic.

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