Madrid view: Zero foreign policy


Spain’s foreign policy is in a critical state. Due to the crisis, true; but also due to decisions made in recent years. We need only take a close look at the three pillars that sustain the exterior action of any country: diplomacy, defence and development. As for diplomacy there are a number of elements that have combined to create the present situation. Most obvious of these is the crisis, which has had a serious impact on Spain’s capacity for international action. Spain, which always had to jockey for elbow room between the big states of the EU, now has a hard time not just being influential but merely being heard in Europe, not to mention outside it.

The crisis has also relegated the Foreign Ministry to a back seat in favor of Economy and Finance, whose decisions are now the ones that count internationally. This tendency, which is general in Europe, means that foreign ministers, unless they possess exceptional capacities or political weight, are not normally in the decision-making nucleus. In the case of Spain, whose system is highly dependent on the prime minister — and Mariano Rajoy not having desired to play an active foreign role, being more in the line of Zapatero than of González or Aznar — Spanish foreign action lacks any political driving force. Internally, too, budget cutbacks have left the already ill-provided Foreign Ministry in further reduced circumstances. Then come three questionable strategic decisions. First, the energy devoted to promoting the “brand-name Spain” in a very adverse, resource-draining context; second, the almost exclusive focus on promotion of the interests of Spanish companies abroad, reflecting a narrow, mercantilist vision of foreign policy; third, the attempt to overhaul the Foreign Service at a time of the Foreign Ministry’s weakness within the government, so that instead of strengthening diplomatic action, it may tend to weaken it.

Of the second pillar, defense, nothing much better can be said. The armed forces are the victim of an armament bubble, seriously prejudicial to their operating capacity. Due to purchase decisions made in the past decade, the Defence Ministry now has to pay out some €3.5 billion annually until 2025, so that expenditure on personnel, operations and missions has to be kept to a minimum. Worse, the costly armament programs that keep the armed forces thus hamstrung are of doubtful utility, the decisions to purchase these systems having been made on grounds more of industrial policy than national security. Strangely the Defense Ministry, far from undergoing cutbacks, is in practice spending more, and at the same time reducing its operating capacity.

Last comes the poor relation of Spanish exterior action: development aid. Between the previous government, too fond of it, and the present one, too little fond, it is withering away. The Socialist governments sought to put it on the fast lane toward the 0.7 percent of GDP objective which, here too, caused something of a financial bubble. There were no clear priorities, and the aim was to make development cooperation a matter of stable consensus with the Popular Party.

Nor do the present government’s cutbacks now reflect any clear priorities, or a vision of how to rebuild the aid program on a sustainable basis in the future. The drop to 0.15 percent of GDP, in a single year, shows that the PP government does not believe that the developed countries (Spain is still in this category) have obligations beyond the mere defense of their interests. Apparently this is too evident to merit discussion. Or perhaps among so many problems it has gone unnoticed; or at least, we are not overly concerned about it. But the obvious fact is that, if we go on amputating the limbs of our exterior action, we are soon going to be left without a foreign policy, if this is not the case already.

This article first appeared in Spanish in El Pais

Read more on:

Latest from ECFR