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Ambassador Series

An Interview with Alan Solomont, U.S. Ambassador to Spain

Alan Solomont was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in December of 2009 as the U.S. Ambassador to Spain and Andorra. In 1997 he served as National Finance Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In 2000 President Bill Clinton appointed Solomont to the Board of Directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Solomont also serves on the board of the Boston Medical Center, Israel Policy Forum, and the WGBH Educational Foundation, among others.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I didn’t. I am what we call a non-career Ambassador. The United States, somewhat uniquely, appoints about 30 percent of its ambassadors from outside of the ranks of the Foreign Service. It is an interesting difference with other diplomatic corps, and one that I think brings a very important dimension to our diplomatic work. Just like we sometimes elect people to the Congress or to the White House who haven’t been career politicians, it is a very good thing to tap the expertise and skills of people with other life experiences to represent the United States in these positions.

It has been a great privilege for me to work with my colleagues in the Foreign Service. I have to say that we have an extraordinary cadre of Foreign Service officers who do very important diplomatic work on behalf of the American people and who are not at all sufficiently appreciated for the work they do. To answer your question: I came here because President Obama asked me if I would represent him here in Madrid.

The Politic: I think it would be hard to decline such a request.

It was hard to say “no.”

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Spain that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? If so, how so?

I’m not here to make policy. I’m here to execute policy. One of the really extraordinary experiences that I have had here has been the opportunity to do this work in partnership with my wife. She’s a very talented woman who has been enormously well-received here. She gave up the work she did advising people about their philanthropy in the United States and she has carved out a niche here working with women in business that has been quite unique. That is a dimension of this that has had an important and positive effect on the way we do what we do.

In terms of the big policies that have defined the work that we do, I would say that there are two. First, the increasing importance of economics in America’s foreign policy. Secretary Clinton observed that we no longer measure the influence of nations by the size of their armies but by the size of their economies. She coined the term “economic statecraft.” Secretary Kerry said that “foreign policy is economic policy.” The fact is that economic policy has become a much bigger driving force in the execution of our foreign policy. The most significant engagement between the United States and Europe over the next couple of years will be around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that is proposed and that we will begin to negotiate, hopefully beginning this summer. It will rewrite the rules for trade and investment between the EU and the United States and could have a profoundly positive effect on the economies on both sides of the Atlantic and on the global economy.

A lot of the work that we do here has been driven by a desire to use our diplomacy as a tool of economic policy: to help the American economy recover, to encourage Spanish companies to continue to invest in the United States, say in renewable energy, to create jobs, and to help American companies compete and prosper here. The things we do in this area not only help our economy, which is what our mission is, but also help the economy of Spain. Since the world is so interdependent and our economy depends so much on the health of both the global economy and Europe specifically, including Spain, that’s of great concern to us.

The second big area that drives our work is a realization, what I call “the end of unilateralism”, that the problems the world faces today can’t be solved by the United States alone. We no longer have national problems; we have global challenges. All the big issues the United States faces and confronts, and those that Spain faces and confronts, are international: transnational terrorism, international crime, global warming, nuclear proliferation. We have to work in partnership with our allies and with like-minded countries, or seek new partnerships even with countries with whom we differ, in order to maintain global security. There is a huge role for our diplomacy in trying to bring together like-minded nations to take a common approach to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, or to try to help the newly-emerging democracies in the Arab Spring. So these two issues of the importance of economics in foreign policy and what I call the end of unilateralism are the two biggest influences on what we do here.

The Politic: Regarding the European Union: a Pew public opinion poll showed favorability for the EU in Spain fell from 80 percent in 2007 to 46 percent in 2013. Amidst the current fiscal struggle, how supportive are politicians and the Spanish public of the Eurozone?

Almost across the entire political spectrum people understand that Spain’s fate is tied to a strong Europe, and that in fact it is in Spain’s interest for Europe to become more integrated and collectively stronger. Frankly, even the separatists of the regions seeking autonomy [from Spain] aren’t talking about breaking away from the EU. Some of them are talking about becoming a part of the EU separately. Those are, however, domestic issues that we try not to interfere in. I would say that Spain believes strongly in the benefits of an integrated, united Europe, and that it has benefitted from that, and is committed to that, perhaps as much as any other European country. In the midst of a protracted economic crisis where 27 percent of people are out of work, the fact that half of the people in Spain still believe in the European Union tells me that there is actually deep support. Naturally, people are anxious and very concerned. They are being asked to make huge sacrifices.

The Politic: Mr. Rajoy’s government has loosened labor laws and cut public spending. Labour costs are falling and productivity is climbing, but some economists have argued that to combat unemployment Spain will need wage cuts and welfare reform. Is there political will to pursue such reforms?

There are three big challenges Spain had to face with regard to its economic crisis. The first is getting its fiscal house in order so that it is not spending beyond its means. The second is reorganizing its banking system so that all of the bad debts that accumulated as a result of the bursting of the housing bubble get resolved and the banking system is capable of providing credit to the economy. And the third is making the economy more competitive. Part of making the economy more competitive is making labor more productive and making the cost of producing goods more efficient. There have been labor reforms enacted which are responsible for the reduction in unit costs of labor, for example, and those were necessary reforms. Similarly, government benefits are being re-rationalized so that the pension system is affordable. These are all things the government has to do to ensure the economy’s sustainability going forward. It’s painful. We have had to go through the same things. In our country we had an automobile industry that was on the verge of bankruptcy, an industry on which the entire economy depends in a region on which the country depends heavily. That industry was saved in part by government action, but also in part by reforms in the labor arrangements there. Not the labor laws necessarily, but the unions that represent the workers of the automobile industry made some sacrifices themselves in order for the industry to be more competitive, and in fact today it is growing. That is the kind of restructuring and retooling that Spain is going through.

I think most people feel as though Spain is heading in the right direction. You can disagree with specific policies or with the emphasis that is being applied in different areas, and it is not for the United States to dictate the right policies. The United States has tried to offer the benefit of our own experience with an economic crisis as I just did. The biggest sort of advice we have is that it takes big steps, big reforms, big, bold action and political courage, because needed reforms aren’t always popular, but that is the only way to get through this. When the government [of Spain] takes those kinds of actions our government has been supportive of them generally.

The short answer to your question is yes, I do think Spain has shown the political will. Spain has probably the strongest and most stable government in Europe, at least until November of 2015. Rajoy was elected with an absolute majority in his parliament — that is something that is so difficult for us to comprehend given the divisions in our congress — and he has certainly shown the political will to take steps that are very unpopular. I think that Spain is attacking the three issues that everyone understands Spain has to deal with.

The Politic:Luis de Guindos, Spain’s Minister of the Economy, said that the battle for the euro would be fought in Spain. Is that true?

It may have been true. It is not really any longer. I think what he is referring to is that as the Eurozone went through the crisis and the EU helped Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, it was Greece that really became the most difficult challenge and created concern in the financial markets about whether the EU would survive. It was generally the view that after Greece if there was another country that was at risk it was Spain — perhaps Spain and then Italy — because the cost of their sovereign debt was going up, and that’s really what these countries needed help with. The markets would no longer provide financing for their governments, so they had to go to the EU to avoid bankruptcy. I think people felt that if Spain got into that position that the Eurozone couldn’t survive. That was the situation, maybe just a year ago.

The commitment of the European Central Bank and Mario Draghi’s reassurances to financial markets that the European Central Bank was going to make sure that the Eurozone survived really calmed the markets enormously. If he [Luis de Guindos] was correct that the future of the Eurozone was decided here, than at least at this point it has been decided positively. Spain was in the forefront of that, and Spain was perhaps the primary beneficiary of the assurances Europe gave to the world through its central bank that the Euro was going to survive.

The Politic: In 2004, Spain voted Socialists into power partially because of opposition to Spanish involvement in Iraq. How did this change the relationship between Spain and the U.S. at the time, and what sort of lasting effect has it had?

The good news is it hasn’t had a lasting effect. It was not the election that changed the relationship. The election was quite a surprise, and it’s not clear that it was a result of opposition to the war in Iraq. The 2004 elections came days after the March 11 terrorist bombing at Atocha railway station. Going into the election the polls indicated that the Partido Popular was likely to win reelection. Then there was this awful event… a couple hundred people died and there were thousands of injuries. It was a similar trauma as we experienced as a result of 9/11. I think people also believed that the PP government was slow to come to grips with exactly what happened. Initially they blamed it on ETA. In any event, it changed the dynamics of the election and it was won by the Socialists. It is true that the Iraq War was very unpopular but I don’t know that the government was that unpopular.

When Zapatero was elected the first thing he did was he withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq and he did it really quite precipitously with very little consultation with his allies such as the United States. That aroused the ire of the Bush administration. I think Zapatero may have been the only leader of any major European country who was never received on a one-to-one basis at the White House by President Bush in those four years. It really chilled the relationship.

Relations between governments do go up and down depending on a lot of things, such as agreement over policy, or even sometimes over personality of leaders. In any event, when President Obama was elected, it kind of gave the relationship an opportunity to start up anew. President Obama is very popular in Spain and in Europe. The Socialist government embraced the new U.S. government, as has the Partido Popular, and so the relationship today is as strong as it has ever been. Although people talk about that period, which I think was unfortunate for both countries in terms of allowing an important alliance to chill, that all is behind us. That relationship today has shown itself to be very, very strong and very resilient, both during a period of Socialist government and during a period of PP government.

The Politic: In terms of issues pertaining to international rule of law, what are your insights about Judge Garzón’s efforts to incriminate the Bush Six for complicity in Gitmo torture. In your opinion are Garzón’s efforts legitimate?

We believe that the United States has a strong judiciary and is quite capable of maintaining its own commitment to the rule of law. Though I wouldn’t claim perfection for any nation, I don’t believe our country is one of those nations that benefits from the help of other countries in administering our system of justice and our commitment to the rule of law. In fact, I rather believe the United States is a leader in that area, and has helped Spain in that regard. And our response to efforts of that nature has been that we are quite capable of judging those matters ourselves. We certainly are concerned about the administration of the rule of law globally, and we express ourselves on that matter, but it would be similarly presumptuous of us to look at another country with a strong, functioning justice system and try to meddle in that ourselves.

The Politic: In February you urged the Spanish government to swiftly address any existing corruption. How important is public trust in the Spanish government right now?

Every government depends on the confidence of the body politic. That is what gives democratic governments their legitimacy. That is the source of their strength, and when people lose confidence, there is a democratic system for changing things. I think it is no secret that Spain is going through a period of figuring out how it is going to deal with corruption in the public sector, and how it is going to prevent its occurrence in the future. We have certainly had our own experiences. I think we can lay down some principles we would all agree are necessary, such as accountability and transparency.

There is no question that if you look at the public opinion polls, Spain is going through a period where confidence in the political class and public institutions is at a low point. I think a lot of that, of course, is because the economy is going through such a tough time, and governments both on the left and the right have had to do things that are unpopular. The daily stories about corruption allegations and investigations really undermine peoples’ trust, and that has a very corrosive effect in a democracy.

I think the United States’ view of this is to simply encourage the government to recognize the importance of maintaining the trust of its public. That is something the Spanish government knows, but I think it has a ways to go in terms of crafting policy to prevent the actual corrupt processes or even the perceptions of that. When President Obama was elected he implemented standards for government service that were as tough as any that had ever existed. He also implemented policies of transparency that were different than any other government. Who visits the White House is now a matter of public record. You can also see the federal budget in all of its complex detail on the internet. Sunlight is a great antiseptic and a great antidote, both to corruption and also as a source of confidence building. As it goes through this difficult economic crisis and reforms its economic system, Spain is going to have to pay attention to political reforms that encourage participation in the political process and help restore confidence in public institutions.

The Politic: You mentioned earlier that your role is to execute rather than to set U.S. policy, but in broader terms, how do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

I think one of the primary goals of President Obama when he ran for office and took office was to change the way America does business around the world, and I think engaging and restoring strong ties with our traditional allies has been an overarching driver of our foreign policy. He’s made a big investment in working closely with European allies — We have no more important partner in the world than Europe.

He is also reached out and engaged with new partners, and even tried to find common ground with countries with which we have differences. He met this weekend with the leader of China. Certainly the world will be a much safer and more stable, prosperous place if the United States and China can find areas of cooperation while acknowledging differences. When I was a college student, China was going through the Cultural Revolution. It was isolated, it was tearing itself apart. It was going through an experiment that was a dismal failure. It has certainly moved a lot in a different direction since then, both in its relationship with the United States and its role in the world. Today, China is certainly part of the community of nations. It’s the second largest economy in the world and it’s a quasi-free market economy. It’s growing a middle class.

As I was growing up American foreign policy was defined by a Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union where we had nuclear weapons aimed at each other. Today we’re looking to find common ground with the Russians. The Berlin Wall fell. We acknowledge the differences we have, but even on Syria, where we have really strong differences, we both recognize the importance of that conflict ending, or finding a political resolution to that Civil War, so our Secretary of State has been working feverishly with the Russian leadership to try to bring the parties together to find a political resolution to what is a horrendous human tragedy and a source of great instability in that part of the world.

These represent really quite profound changes in the way America deals with the world. The most important thing I have said in this regard is that there is no challenge that we face any longer that we can deal with alone. It is not because we have changed. It is not because we have gotten less influential, or less powerful. It is because the world has changed and so we have got to adjust our foreign policy to today’s reality. There are many more rising centers of influence, both economic and political, than ever before. I mentioned China, but also Latin America. Many years ago Latin America was ruled by left-wing guerrillas or right-wing dictators — today there are strong democracies in Latin America, as well as prosperous countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, which are important actors in their own right. We deal with them differently than we might have dealt with them forty years ago, or even ten years ago. This has been a significant adjustment in our foreign policy which this president has led.

We still have huge challenges out there, and I know the president continues every day working on them. In terms of policies over which I may have differences? I am here as the personal representative of the President of the United States. My job is to manage the relationship with Spain in a manner consistent with policies that are the creation of our administration. And therefore I have no differences with our policies.

The Politic: Thank you very much for your time, Mr. Ambassador.

My pleasure.

Embassy of the United States to Spain: http://madrid.usembassy.gov