Remember the Maine
Not much love lost between the United States and Spain.
Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By MARK FALCOFF
El Anti-Americanismo Español
Several years ago, I was summoned to the office of a member of Congress to brief him on Venezuela. The honorable gentleman--I had never met him before--turned out to resemble a congressman as depicted in a Mel Brooks film far more than most members of that august body do.
Although I was supposed to be doing the briefing, he did most of the talking, often wandering off the subject at hand. At one point, and for no particular reason, he announced that he positively hated France. By this time I was losing patience and couldn't help interrupting: "But Congressman," I said, "France is only in the middle range of anti-American countries in Europe. If you want to see a country that really hates us, you need to visit Spain."
"Spain?" he burst out. "Spain? Why, when I was an 18-year-old Marine at [the U.S. naval base in] Rota, I had a wonderful time! I didn't sense any anti-Americanism in Spain."
This must have been around 1961 or 1962, not long after the United States had signed a bases accord with the dictator Francisco Franco, and when the dollar/peseta exchange was hugely favorable, even to a low-ranking enlisted member of our armed forces. A lot of water had passed under the bridge since then; the honorable member obviously needed to be brought up to date.
Spain is not the most important country in Europe, but it is not a negligible one, either. It has the ninth largest economy in the world, and it is a publishing and media center for the second most widely spoken Western language after English. It is a member of both NATO and the European Union and its troops are actively participating in the war on terror in Afghanistan. Its diplomats played an important role in resolving civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. Spanish banks are backing many enterprises in Latin America, and Spanish finance has penetrated the far corners of the earth.
When its prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, announced the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq the morning after his election in 2004, he inflicted a grievous wound--not just diplomatic but military--on the cause for which the United States, Great Britain, and a dozen other countries were fighting. No doubt Zapatero, who had been running behind in the polls until a few days before the election, hugely benefited from a string of coordinated terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid a few days before the election. Even so, his views on Iraq (and what is more to the point, on the United States) came far closer to reflecting the opinions of ordinary Spaniards than that of his distinguished predecessor, José Mariá Aznar.
While Zapatero's own standing in public opinion has declined somewhat since his assumption of power, Spanish attitudes towards the United States have, if anything, hardened since then. This, in turn, has encouraged Zapatero and his foreign minister Miguel ngel Moratinos to continuously engage in a series of gratuitous insults to this country and its leaders. Not surprisingly, he is the only major (or minor) European chief of government who has never had a face-to-face meeting with President Bush.
While it is a fact beyond discussion that the standing of the United States has declined sharply in Western Europe in the past four or five years, the case of Spain is particularly arresting, and largely supports my comments to the congressman. In a Pew Foundation survey, released in 2004, fully 73 percent of respondents there registered an "unfavorable" or "very unfavorable" opinion of the United States, compared with 60 percent in France and Germany, and 33 percent in Great Britain. Americans as people are disliked by 51 percent of Spaniards (as opposed to 35 percent in France, 26 percent in Germany and 21 percent in Great Britain). While George W. Bush is not admired anywhere west of the old Cold War borders, fully 71 percent of Spaniards have "no confidence" in him whatever, as opposed to 62 percent of the French, 46 percent of the Germans, and 42 percent of British respondents.
When asked about American influence--which is to say, the spread of American customs and ideas in their country--Spaniards registered the highest rate of rejection: 76 percent, some 4 points higher than France, and 6 percent higher than Germany. When asked whether it was President Bush or the United States that they particularly disliked, Spaniards registered the highest percentage who responded with "both." In other surveys where respondents are invited to freely characterize Americans, the three words most often used are "greedy," "arrogant," and "violent." In other words, Spaniards by and large dislike the United States not merely for what it does, but what it is.
Of course, every European country has its reasons for disliking the United States. The Germans harbor a suppressed nationalism which cannot be openly confessed given their recent history. The French resent the loss of their cultural, linguistic, and political influence, particularly in areas where they once exercised unquestioned sway. The British are still smarting over our abandonment of them at Suez in 1956, and no doubt feel strongly (and perhaps justifiably) about their inability to play an independent global role. The Italians are still angry at us for the Marshall Plan (no good deed goes unpunished) and are irritated that our foreign policies allegedly threaten what is left of their dolce vita.
Every country has its narrative of what Washington did wrong, a story which becomes increasingly bitter as the European project reveals itself increasingly incapable of rivaling the power of the United States. To be sure, neither the Clinton nor Bush administration (nor, for that matter, their predecessors) is blameless for this state of affairs, but the point is that it would probably exist even if all of them had governed with perfect wisdom.
As in most European countries, in Spain, dislike of the United States is a sentiment found on both sides of the political spectrum. This is a point developed in some detail by Alessandro Seregni in El Anti-Americanismo Español. Although happy to take American aid, Generalissimo Franco regarded the United States with contempt. For him it was a society lacking in proper hierarchies and awash in vulgar and meaningless consumption--not to mention under the control of Freemasonry, the all-purpose bugaboo for reactionary Catholics in the 1930s and '40s. Moreover, for Franco, as for many Spaniards raised in a military or naval environment, the loss of Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 remained an open wound, and although happy to jail, torture, exile (and occasionally execute) his own Communists, the Caudillo pointedly maintained full relations with Cuba's Fidel Castro as a means of exacting revenge for his country's humiliation at the hands of the United States.
The left has an even longer bill of particulars, starting with the bases agreement with Franco in 1953, which supposedly rescued him financially in a moment of extreme crisis. The photograph of President Eisenhower (unwisely) embracing the dictator after his unprecedented state visit in 1959 has been reproduced in the Spanish press thousands, perhaps even scores of thousands, of times; its subliminal message has been absorbed by several generations, including one or two not even born at the time. Secretary of State Alexander Haig's unfortunate comment at the time of a failed military coup against the country's nascent democracy in 1982 ("an internal Spanish affair") has been trotted out endlessly, even though it had no impact whatsoever on the course of actual events. The same could be said of the Eisenhower visit.
One could even argue that the kind of stabilization plan which the United States and the World Bank demanded of Franco in the late 1950s laid the groundwork for the growth of a middle class and the successful transition to democracy a generation later--even if this was not Washington's conscious intention, an argument admittedly not likely to impress many on the Spanish left. Quite apart from our real or imagined diplomatic and political missteps, for Spanish "progressives" the United States represents a model of individualism and the uninhibited pursuit of wealth, which offends their egalitarian sensibilities. (Not that it stops many of them from indulging in an orgy of consumerism of their own, as anyone who has ever visited a Spanish shopping mall on a Saturday can attest.)
Of course, not all Spaniards are intensely political, and much of the dislike of the United States feeds on other sources as well. This aspect has been perspicaciously explored by Antonio Caño in Estados Unidos: Primer o Tercer Mundo? Caño is a veteran journalist, deputy editor of the country's flagship daily El País, and a former correspondent of that paper in the United States. He organizes his book in the form of a debate with an imaginary Spaniard, allowing the latter to pose the most common objections to this country, to which he offers balanced and sensible replies. A man of the moderate left--a Socialist of the Felipe González school, rather than that of Zapatero/Moratinos--Caño has made a serious and courageous effort to understand a phenomenon which is not necessarily his cup of tea.
Some of the issues raised by his imaginary Spaniard are, no doubt, similar to those that would be fielded by any Western European--the widespread ownership of guns, capital punishment, the existence of super-millionaires and the persistence of pockets of poverty, the lack of socialized medicine, and so forth; in other words, our failure to be like them. One criticism that would be new to most Americans is our failure to adequately appreciate the films of Woody Allen, who enjoys something of a cult status in Spain. (The fact that Allen embodies a very specific New York Jewish sensibility--and, therefore, might not appeal to widespread popular taste in the United States--is a nuance that probably most Spaniards miss.) The most interesting conclusion Caño reaches in his book is that anti-Americanism in Spain arises primarily out of the fact that "the United States has never done anything for Spain"--that is to say, unlike the French or Italians, its people have no history of liberation from dictatorship or foreign occupation, or even significant foreign aid. (Spain was excluded from the Marshall Plan for reasons which most left-wing Spaniards would surely approve.) One cannot help objecting, however, that while we have "done something" for France and Italy, neither seems to feel particularly kindly towards the United States today. Thus, an otherwise excellent book ends on an unsatisfactory note.
Few Spaniards visit the United States each year. An academic of my acquaintance, who teaches classes in which Spanish and American students are mixed together, told me that the latter complain to him that their Spanish contemporaries never ask them any questions about the United States.
"I suppose," he added, "the reason for that is that young Spaniards think they know the United States without having ever been there." From whence this knowledge? From American films, obviously. During a recent stay in Madrid I had occasion to visit my local video store on a regular basis. Although Spain has an excellent and expanding film industry, American films seem more numerous, and are probably also more popular. In light of what my academic friend told me, I could not help thinking that if all one knew about the United States came from Hollywood, one would imagine a country constantly in turmoil over race and class, corrupt to the core, and above all extremely violent. I refer not only to films made by Michael Moore (who is, obviously, hugely popular in Spain) but by mainstream Hollywood directors and writers.
When these films are shown in the United States, the local audience sees them for what they are: entertaining fantasies which may or may not have an element of truth to them. Spaniards have no context whatever. Thus, the mixture of cultural inputs from the United States mixed together with episodes from Spain's own recent history (or in some cases, its imagined history) combine to create an extremely negative image.
To be sure, what I have just said about American movies would probably be true for a majority of the countries of the world. What makes Spain different is its emergence as a young democracy and also a new middle-class society. It is no exaggeration whatever to say that today's Spaniards have a higher standard of living and a more civilized political system than ever in their history, with the prospect of even better to come. But memories of dictatorship and the hunger years of the 1940s are still vivid, if not in the form of lived experience, then in the form of accounts passed down by traumatized older generations. Thus, there is a sense of precariousness about this new good fortune. No one wants to rock the boat.
The United States, with its penchant for military adventures and crusades for democracy in the Middle East, is viewed with extreme discomfort. Spain is heavily dependent on North Africa and the Middle East for its supplies of oil and natural gas, and has a growing Muslim population of its own. Spaniards lack the optimism and sense of possibility that are part and parcel of American culture, and given their history, they are not likely to acquire it. While relations may improve somewhat this year, when both countries will have the opportunity to change their governments, there should be no exaggerated expectations of things to come.
The two countries may never be outright enemies; they may even cooperate on a limited number of projects. But even in the diffuse way we use the term for nation-states, they will probably never be friends.
Mark Falcoff, resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute, is at work on a book about the Hispanosphere.