The Magazine

Remember the Maine

Not much love lost between the United States and Spain.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By MARK FALCOFF
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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.