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Spanish Perspective On Biden Presidency And Future Of Transatlantic Relations – Analysis

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What challenges and opportunities lie ahead, from the perspective of Spanish influence, on the road to relaunching transatlantic relations following Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House?

By Carlota García Encina and Luis Simón*

This analysis examines the transatlantic relationship and the potential for a strategic synergy in its three dimensions for Spain –bilateral, European and NATO– in light of the renewed transatlantic agenda emerging from the new US Administration. It analyses relations with China and Russia, the strategic role of NATO and EU-NATO relations going forward, the challenges presented by technology and the digital economy, and European strategic autonomy, with a specific focus on Spanish influence.

Analysis

From a Spanish perspective, the transatlantic relationship has three dimensions: bilateral (Spain and the US), the relationship between Washington and the EU, and NATO. The three dimensions are strategically interdependent and must be viewed as different ‘means’ or tools for achieving the same end, namely strengthening Spain’s influence in Europe and on the world stage.

Madrid’s decision to transfer control of its trade and monetary policy to the EU and the fact that its military autonomy is now partly shared with the other NATO member states, has meant many of the problems inherent to Spain-US relations have become increasingly multilateral in nature. Yet this is arguably also the case with some of the solutions: both the EU and NATO can act as ‘multipliers of influence’ for Spain, making the country more effective in asserting its priorities with the US. Nonetheless, while a significant proportion of Spain’s needs from the transatlantic relationship can be met through the EU and NATO, there are a number of areas in which these two organisations fall short or do not fully align with Spanish priorities.

All this means the bilateral dimension remains fundamental. Given the different facets of the transatlantic relationship, the concept of influence multiplier is highly relevant and can work in different directions: while the EU and NATO can help strengthen Spanish influence on the US, the bilateral relationship between Madrid and Washington can also give the country leverage in both the EU and NATO and help to temper excessive dependence on certain European countries. Washington’s interest in Madrid to maximise its position in Europe is also an asset to Spain. The departure of the UK –the cornerstone of transatlantic relations– from the EU means that Spain is now seeking to take advantage of its status as an Atlantic state and its maritime tradition to play a greater role as a bridge between Europe, the US and the Americas as a whole.

This paper will first give an overview of the multilateral dimensions (US-EU relations and NATO) before examining Spanish interests in each and addressing how the bilateral dimension can help ensure multilateral debates align with Spanish interests. It will conclude with a discussion of how to address issues that remain on the sidelines of multilateral debates but that nonetheless fall within the scope of Spain-US bilateral relations.

The election of Joe Biden: towards a relaunch of the transatlantic relationship?

Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House has created great expectations for a relaunch of the transatlantic relationship. In stark contrast to his predecessor, Donald Trump, who sowed doubts over the US commitment to its allies (including NATO) and even referred to the EU as a ‘foe’, Biden has made NATO and the relationship with Europe foreign policy priorities.1 Washington acknowledges the EU as an increasingly significant player, given its importance in areas like trade, technology and the ecological transition, all of which have taken on renewed importance in the context of geopolitical rivalry with China.2

Given his commitment to the transatlantic relationship and to strengthening multilateralism, the EU has welcomed the Biden Presidency with open arms. Yet there are grounds for remaining cautious.

First, it is yet to be seen how the US commitment to Europe will materialise, given the Biden Administration’s strong focus on domestic issues, such as the vaccination roll-out, the challenges created by the pandemic, the associated economic recovery and reducing the country’s extreme social and political polarisation.3

Secondly, China and the Indo-Pacific region are the Biden Administration’s top foreign policy priority.4 Nonetheless, Washington needs Europe to address the challenge posed by China. The global supply chain review commissioned by the new US President (encompassing microchips, pharmaceuticals, and critical and strategic minerals) highlights the importance of closer cooperation with European partners in this area.5 The defining feature of transatlantic politics will be competition with China. The US will be willing to invest, so long as it perceives Europe to be willing to align with its policies to check the Asian giant.6

However, the US fear that Europe is unable to provide effective leadership in an increasingly competitive international environment7 and a wariness in European capitals that future Presidents may return to the course set by Trump,8 are both sources of uncertainty regarding the long-term sustainability of the US commitment to European security and US-EU economic cooperation.

Notwithstanding the scale of these challenges, the political willpower and a commitment to find common ground between the US and the EU appears to remain. Examples include setting trade rules and environmental standards, shared strategies to address China, digital taxation and 5G.9 Progress in some of these areas will depend on rebuilding –on both sides of the Atlantic– the international framework neglected during the Trump era. New life must be breathed into US-EU summits, an institutional dialogue needs to be launched between the EU and the US on security and defence10 and the idea of a trade and technology council11 to counter Chinese technology supremacy appears to be gathering pace.12

In terms of NATO, which was questioned by Trump, Biden has committed to breathing new life into an alliance he has described as the ‘bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal’.13 A first example of this commitment has been the Pentagon’s decision to provisionally suspend the Trump Administration’s plans to withdraw 12,000 US troops from Germany,14 leaving the final decision in the hands of a strategic review of the US global military posture in 2021.15 At the time, members of the Biden Administration publicly criticised the decision to withdraw troops from Europe for weakening the deterrent on the eastern flank, ‘penalising Germany’ and not consulting with allies.16 The recently published Interim National Security Strategic Guidance17 says that the strategic presence of the US in the Indo-Pacific region and Europe will be stronger, while it will be recalibrated in other regions, specifically the Middle East.

As we await the results of the strategic review, the promise of strengthening US positions in Europe appears to reflect Biden’s commitment to the deterrent in Eastern Europe and his warnings of the threat posed by Russian subversion and disinformation.18 The new US Administration has also voiced its support for non-proliferation and arms control, which has already translated into a desire to re-establish a nuclear agreement with Iran. Yet as far as Europe is concerned, the extent to which Biden will go beyond extending the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is unclear, given his reluctance to resume cooperation with Russia.19

Russia is another key player in the current geopolitical competition between major powers and its recent behaviour has favoured increased alignment between the US and Europe. On the one hand, the destabilisation of neighbouring countries, such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, together with Moscow’s support for Lukashenko during the recent unrest in Belarus and its recent interference in the Western Balkans, have placed NATO and Washington on alert. On the other, Washington and Brussels, mirroring the sentiment in many European capitals, have been grappling for some time now with the challenge posed by disinformation and interference in Western political systems emanating from Russia. Attacks against the Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny have led the EU and the US to impose sanctions on Moscow, the first example of the two powers working together for a long time. One consequence of the growing European and US pressure on the Kremlin has been the strengthening of the relationship between Russia and China as a common front against the West. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, both countries have sought to use their vaccines as part of a strategy of propaganda and geopolitical confrontation with the West.

Biden’s calls to revitalise NATO are in keeping with the NATO 2030 report, produced by a group of experts appointed by the Secretary General and published in December 2020.20 The report highlights the political dimension of the alliance (as a community of values), advocates a more global strategic focus (going beyond the Euro-Atlantic region) and appeals to the need for a common allied strategy in the face of disruptive emergent technologies. The emphasis on the ‘political’ and ‘global’ dimensions of NATO and on disruptive technologies plants the seeds for a more active role for the alliance in addressing the challenge posed by China, a strategic priority for the US and one of the areas identified in the NATO 2030 report.

However, this would not be the first time that promises of a more political and global NATO have failed to materialise.21 A number of European allies would prefer the organisation to focus on its primary mission as a deterrent and defence mechanism for the European continent. They have also questioned the added value of the alliance when it comes to China. This is one of the key issues to be addressed in giving a new strategic impetus to the alliance. Here, it is worth mentioning the importance of NATO-EU cooperation, arguably of particular relevance in the context of China, since, as NATO’s Secretary General has recently observed, neither of the two institutions have all the tools needed to confront the growth and expansion of the Asian giant.22

Finally, the new US Administration also appears to be attaching greater importance to the Sahel, where ISIS has strengthened its presence.23 In this context, especially given the US preference for the measured deployment of force, an increased role for NATO may be welcome. This could also align with the alliance’s growing interest in the Sahel and its commitment to strengthening cooperation with Mauritania or the G5 in this area.24

The role of Spain

The transatlantic relationship and the EU are the two primary vectors of Spanish foreign policy, meaning any strengthening of the US-EU and NATO relationships and any expansion of transatlantic relations into new areas (such as technology and the digital economy) and regions (beyond Europe) bring significant opportunities for Spain. Here, Madrid should look to contribute to rebuilding trust in transatlantic relations over the coming months, laying the foundations for a successful relaunch. The recent decision to freeze tariffs as a result of the dispute between Airbus and Boeing is a step in the right direction. Libya and Iran also offer short-term opportunities for the US and EU to find common ground. However, beyond contributing to the more general relaunching of the transatlantic relationship in terms of the EU and NATO, the bilateral dimension is fundamental for ensuring that the direction of travel in multilateral dialogues reflects the interests and priorities of Spain and for advancing issues that concern the country’s specific interests.

Taken together, technology and the digital economy are arguably one of the most important issues in the transatlantic relationship, as well as being key to the debate on increased transatlantic coordination to tackle China.25 The US and Europe have pursued different approaches to the digital transition, the former based on the premise that the rules of the traditional economy can also be applied to the digital one, without the need for additional regulation, while the EU believes the digital economy requires specific regulations. This has given rise to a major policy dispute between the two powers. The EU is wary of the dominance of US technology giants and their lack of commitment on data privacy and tax issues. A feeling of impotence in the face of US multinationals has fuelled the debate on the need for European technology champions and ‘European technology sovereignty’.26

Biden’s time in the White House may herald opportunities for greater convergence between the EU and the US when it comes to the digital economy, particularly in four key areas: (1) data protection and privacy; (2) anti-monopoly laws; (3) the responsibility of intermediaries and the moderation of content; and (4) digital taxes.27 In specific terms, there is speculation among some EU circles over a ‘grand bargain’ that would see the US move closer to European positions on data privacy and digital tax in exchange for the EU’s implicit acceptance of the so-called ‘technological decoupling’ from China. There are, however, doubts regarding the willingness or ability of Biden to rein in US big tech28 and the EU’s willingness to accept –even if only tacitly– the idea of a technological decoupling from China. Nonetheless, any such grand bargain would give a framework for both parties for dealing with technology.

On the one hand, increased convergence between the US and the EU on technology and the digital economy suits Spanish interests. In this respect, the EU’s leverage is critical for defending Spanish values and interests on data privacy and digital taxation.29 Specifically, convergence between the EU and the US would directly impact the digital tax implemented by Spain and other European partners, denounced by the previous US Administration as ‘discriminatory’.30 This is a clear example of how convergence between Europe and the US could favour the bilateral relationship between Spain and the EU.

On the other hand, US-EU convergence on the digital economy would not necessarily dispense entirely with European dependence on US technology (characterised by some in Brussels, Paris and Berlin as an ‘overdependence’). This dependence is clear in areas such as the cloud, email services, social media, some communications services and semiconductors. Indeed, the debate on European digital sovereignty has served to spotlight the dominance of US –not Chinese– technology. Similarly, the debate on what are often incorrectly branded European technology champions presents a major challenge for Spain in terms of mitigating any dependence on France and Germany. From a Spanish perspective, the distinction between the risk of technology dependence on the US, on the one hand, and France and Germany, on the other, is crucial. First, because the power differential with the US is much greater, considerably limiting Spanish influence on technology cooperation or joint initiatives with Washington. Secondly, because EU member states are better placed to guarantee the security of their critical infrastructure and of the privacy of their citizens if the country on which they are dependent falls under the same regulatory framework. This highlights the importance of using the EU framework as a point of reference for Spain when it comes to technology, without reducing Spanish technology strategy to the European framework.

The recent Franco-German initiative GAIA-X serves as a cautionary tale of the EU’s ability to offer up ‘Franco-German champions’. Consolidation of this model of development for European technology, centred on a Franco-German core, could simply see many European countries swapping their dependence on the US for dependence on these two powers instead. Countries like Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy and Poland see the US as a counterweight to Paris and Berlin. Spain and its industry appear more inclined towards the Franco-German axis, including on matters of defence. This trend appears to have been reinforced by the COVID-19 crisis, which saw renewed calls to control, nationalise or ‘Europeanise’ parts of supply chains.31 However, maintaining a connection with the US on technology, both in terms of new forms of cooperation and attracting investment in Spain for next-generation technology (including defence), remains important to mitigate or counterbalance any dependence on France and Germany, or at least to strengthen Spain’s negotiating position and the role it plays in Franco-German-led European value chains. In this respect, the possibility of more convergence between the US and the EU on technology and NATO’s growing interest in innovation are in keeping with the Spanish interest of maintaining a presence on both sides and emphasising their compatibility.

At the same time, rapprochement between Brussels and Washington in respect of China could present Spain with a challenge. The country has not been among the critical voices when it comes to Beijing’s record on human rights and has been more accommodating to the Asian giant on technology (given its increased dependence). Furthermore, the strengthening of multilateralism advocated by the Spanish government would require the active participation of the Middle Kingdom. Spain must be sensitive to the Biden Administration’s references to ‘extreme competition’ with China and its systematic denouncements of the country’s political situation and human rights. It must also carefully monitor the escalation of European and US sanctions against the Asian giant. If the transatlantic relationship does take the path of a more robust approach to China on human rights –although it remains too early to tell if the decoupling agenda is making progress– this must be carefully debated in Spain.

Alongside other European players like France and Germany, Spain would appear to harbour significant reservations regarding attempts to frame the rise of China as a threat to security in the context of NATO. Spanish perceptions of a Chinese military threat in the Euro-Mediterranean region are extremely limited, hence the country’s reluctance for NATO to embrace this as a priority. Spain would prefer instead to address the challenge in the context of the EU and EU-US relations. Once again, Spain must remain alert as the issue of China appears to be gaining traction in the debate on NATO’s future strategic direction. The alliance clearly recognises the limited nature of the Chinese military threat in the Euro-Atlantic region, except for its offensive cyberwarfare capacity (given its ubiquity) and its growing fleet of intercontinental missiles. However, the expected emphasis on the global and political dimension of the alliance, its interests in the sphere of technological innovation (with a civil-military component) and a desire to strengthen ties with global partners like Japan and Australia all point to China becoming increasingly important for the alliance. An informal EU-US-NATO forum could provide a way to reconcile the Spanish priority of involving the EU and the US-EU relationship with the increasing attention paid to China by NATO, while also reinforcing the idea that any response to the rise of the Asian power cannot be compartmentalised. Moreover, the tendency of NATO and the EU to strengthen links with US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific (especially Japan and Australia but also South Korea and India) gives Spain the opportunity to expand its reach in an area of growing geostrategic and economic importance.

Even if Russia is not a direct priority for Spain, it nonetheless perceives a recalcitrant Kremlin as a threat to the European security architecture. The growing pressure on Moscow, the controversial visit by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, to Russia and the tensions in Ukraine fuelled by recent Russian military manoeuvres all show the importance of Spain reaffirming its commitment to the European and transatlantic agenda to check Russian revisionism. The Spanish military contribution to the NATO deterrent in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea should not be ignored, or the prominent role played by the country in the alliance’s missile defence system, with four US destroyers stationed at Rota (Cádiz). Using these contributions as a point of departure, Spain must be strategically pragmatic and understand that playing an active role in the new era of geopolitical rivalry with Moscow will provide an opportunity both to show its value to the US and NATO and to adopt a more competitive strategic mentality. Active participation in allied initiatives will help reinforce Spain’s capacity in key areas like deterrence and defence, technological and military modernisation and resilience to ‘hybrid’ threats, all of which are potentially relevant to the country beyond Russia. In this respect, the Spanish government recently issued a robust reaffirmation of its contribution to the stability of Eastern Europe, strengthening its ties with the Baltic States32 while insisting on the requirement for NATO’s vigilance of its southern neighbourhood.

The Biden Administration appears to attach less strategic emphasis to Europe’s southern neighbourhood (the Middle East, North Africa and the Sahel) compared to Europe or the Indo-Pacific, and as such may expect more from its European allies.33 This southern neighbourhood is crucial for Spain and provides an opportunity for Europe to restore some of the credibility it has lost in recent years.34 A key long-term concern of the US when it comes to Europe’s southern neighbourhood is countering Chinese and Russian influence in the region, an objective that has been raised in the NATO 2030 report. Furthermore, the revival of the Iranian nuclear deal, the stabilisation of Libya and the Sahel, and the positioning of Turkey are all major challenges for the transatlantic relationship that are particularly relevant to Spain.

In the case of Iran, the Biden Administration’s decision to return to the negotiating table is good news for both Europe and Spain. While the latter may not play the leading role of other European countries in the negotiations, the EU will play a fundamental role in relaunching the agreement and provides an umbrella for Spanish interests (in this case, curtailing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and preventing an arms race in the Middle East). Libya also provides an opportunity for Europe to show leadership, helping bring stability to an area that is of interest to Spain, even if the country may take a back seat to other member states like France and Italy.

It is arguably in the Sahel –Libya’s ‘backyard’– that Spain plays its most important role and is being called to step up. The US seems to be relatively satisfied with France taking the strategic and operational initiative in the region, with the EU providing key reinforcement. Similarly, for Spain, the bilateral relationships with France and the EU provide two different contexts for its actions in the Sahel, complementing its own bilateral relations and initiatives in the region. Nonetheless, the Biden Administration’s renewed interest in the Sahel creates an opportunity for Spain, not least on account of the significant US contribution to the war on terror but also because it provides an additional vector of action (over and above France), reinforcing diplomatic room for manoeuvre in this key zone. Spain should look to strengthen its bilateral dialogue with the US on the Sahel and capitalise on the growing US interest of expanding NATO’s role in building capability in the region, while bearing in mind the capacity for absorption of the countries and organisations on the receiving end.

Finally, Turkey’s changing relationship with the West and the need to re-examine Ankara’s position in NATO may give Spain the chance to take the diplomatic initiative in a key area of transatlantic relations. Spain has strong ties with Ankara and the US has always appreciated Madrid maintaining the deployment of a battery of Patriot missiles in Turkey despite the challenging context. Furthermore, EU loyalties in disputes between Greece and Turkey and in the Western Mediterranean limit Brussels’ diplomatic elbow room with Ankara, allowing Spain to act as a diplomatic and strategic bridge.

The importance of the bilateral dimension

Having considered Spanish interests in the EU and NATO, it is equally important to address how Spain’s bilateral relationship with the US can complement these two dimensions. The bilateral channel can allow it to exert greater influence both in debates on the future of the US-EU relationship and NATO and in addressing challenges that do not receive sufficient priority or coverage in these organisations, as well as specific national problems.

Historically, the Atlanticist and European facets of Spanish foreign policy have clashed when Washington’s priorities failed to coincide with those of Brussels or at least of certain member states. However, both should be compatible. Spanish Atlanticism is based on the premise that its security (and of Europe as a whole), the fight against terrorism, controlling risks in the Mediterranean and even Spanish interests in Latin America all require healthy relations with Washington and are manifest above all in Spain’s membership of NATO and its strong bilateral ties with the US. This is particularly true of military matters, as shown by the importance the US attributes to its bases in Spain. Nonetheless, the European dimension of Spanish foreign policy means it increasingly sees the US through a European lens and tends to align Spain-US relations with Brussels insofar as possible.35 This has led to Spain’s strong backing of multilateralism and a European approach to strengthening bilateral ties, despite Washington seeking to reach out to Madrid bilaterally on a number of occasions to encourage it to show leadership in Europe (something that could also be beneficial but has largely failed to materialise).

Without losing sight of the European and multilateral dimensions, one of the challenges for Spanish foreign policy is to identify the appropriate levers for a more intense bilateral relationship, ensuring it lives up to its enormous potential, despite the structural asymmetry. Here, the Biden Presidency gives Spain an opportunity to strengthen bilateral ties with the US, helping Madrid to project its influence in the EU and NATO. Despite the Trump Administration’s preference for bilateral relationships over multilateral ones, this outcome has not materialised, largely due to Madrid’s decision to use the protection of the European shield, something that has steered relations towards multilateral channels (tariffs, the Helms-Burton Act, which affects Spanish interests in Cuba, and NATO’s 2% target for defence spending).36 Notwithstanding the benefits the EU offers, allowing Brussels to act as a conduit for Spain-US relations does not do justice to Spain’s potential and could see key Spanish interests take a back seat due to their lack of urgency for the EU.

Spain is arguably one of the European countries with the largest gap in the potential and reality of US relations. Its size, geography (straddling the Atlantic, the European peninsula and the Mediterranean) and historic and cultural ties to the US mean Spain is well placed to become a key strategic partner for the US when it comes to its European policy. However, notwithstanding the growing importance of US military bases in Spain or the excellent relations with the Spanish armed forces, the country has limited influence in Washington compared with other European states and does not appear to rank high on its list of priorities. Moreover, it will not be easy to attract its attention given the current fierce diplomatic competition, with countries coveting a ‘special relationship’ with a Biden Administration that appears for now to favour Germany.

Spain must seize the initiative to raise the profile of its interests in Washington in the short and long term, showing clarity and determination and working towards a more strategic vision of the bilateral relationship.

In the specific case of defence, it is important to be wary of assuming that an agreement on military bases is enough to guarantee strong relations going forward, despite the extension of Navantia’s contract for maintenance of the destroyers and the Rota naval base through to 2028. A strategic framework is needed for the bilateral relationship in the area of defence, going beyond the exploitation of Spain as a US operational base through direct benefits from maintenance work or other contracts. The choice of Spain as the main axis for projecting US maritime, naval and amphibious power in the Euro-Mediterranean region provides a context for the country to strengthen its own naval, missile defence, amphibious and special operations capacity to become a key US partner not only in terms of bases (a passive model of relations) but also for the projection of military power in the Euro-Mediterranean.37

While defence may be central to the bilateral relationship, Spain’s ability to influence the US and take full advantage of this relationship to multiply its own influence in other spheres like the EU will ultimately depend on the strength of diplomatic and political ties with the US. One of the main shortcomings of relations between Spain and the US is arguably the tendency to focus on defence and the lack of a political and strategic ‘anchor’. This is in contrast to countries like the UK, France, Germany and even Italy and Poland, all of which, in addition to strong military ties with the US, invest significant financial and intellectual capital in cultivating the political dimension of their relations with the superpower. In addition to investing in its institutional relations with the US, Spain should also develop a strategy for influencing Washington, increasing contact at the institutional level (eg, diplomatic, parliamentary and business ties and exchanges, or in the intellectual sphere, for example by strengthening cooperation with major US think tanks), as well as in terms of cultural ties and civil society.38

The issues of technology and the digital economy are permeating all aspects of the bilateral relationship. This underscores the importance of identifying ways to strengthen technology cooperation and increase influence in Europe. The MAREA high-speed fibre-optic cable between Virginia and Bilbao, which was commissioned in 2017 by a consortium comprising Telxius (a subsidiary of Telefónica), Facebook and Microsoft is an example of the benefits of closer ties in the digital realm. Not only does the cable connect the US and Spain, it also links to an existing fibre-optic trunk in Europe and Spain’s geographic location gives it the potential to connect to other parts of the Mediterranean. The project shows how Spain can exploit its position as a transatlantic bridge to strengthen its relations with the US and consolidate its position in Europe.

A key issue for Spain-US bilateral relations is Morocco. At the end of 2020, Donald Trump recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the Sahara in a quid pro quo for the normalisation of relations between Morocco and Israel.39 This was a major diplomatic setback for Spain, forcing it to reflect on its position in the US-Spain-Morocco triangle. Moreover, strong diplomatic ties between Paris and Rabat mean that Spanish interests on such a fundamental issue are not fully represented under the EU umbrella. However, the new US Administration’s increased emphasis on human rights and democracy should work in Spain’s favour, since human rights are also a priority in its foreign policy. Regardless, Morocco has considerably increased its presence and influence in Washington as a result of the normalisation of diplomatic relations with Israel. Recent events in the Western Sahara form part of a broader trend of strengthening political and strategic ties between the US and the Alaouite dynasty. Morocco has been a key US partner and ally for some years now, achieving a high level of interoperability and signing a number of contracts for US defence materials. Despite the US rejecting Rabat’s attempt to poach the US naval base in Rota with its offer of Ksar es-Seghir, this nonetheless serves as a warning shot. Despite not being a zero-sum game, strengthening strategic ties between the two countries could have negative repercussions for Spain. In this respect, one of the risks to bear in mind is the fact that the US has come to perceive Morocco as being more useful than Spain for projecting its interest in the Mediterranean and African region. Once again, this underscores the importance of strengthening bilateral ties with the US, while also pursuing stronger political and economic ties with Morocco (including through the EU).

Latin America is another key item on the Spain-US bilateral agenda, despite remaining on the sidelines in multilateral spaces (US-EU and NATO) and thus having a modest impact on Spain’s influence in these spheres. Spain has a clear comparative advantage over EU countries and NATO in the region. However, the key point is whether closer ties with the US can serve Spanish interests in Latin America and, to a lesser extent, whether policies that complement –or at least do not contradict– Washington can help strengthen the relationship between the US and the EU. It should, however, be noted that the fragmentation and heterogeneity of Latin America hinders the adoption of general and regional policies, instead favouring bilateral arrangements and further limiting increased coordination between Madrid and Washington.

Nonetheless, this key aspect of bilateral Spain-US relations has the potential to bolster Spanish influence in the multilateral sphere. Latin America is currently turning to other models and partners beyond the West, above all China. The Asian giant has already displaced Europe as the region’s second-largest trade partner (second to the US) and in some countries it is now the largest. China has also strengthened its regional position in terms of technology and the digital economy. There have been calls for the US, Spain and Europe to join forces against China in Latin America, returning to the idea of triangulation in areas like democracy, security, drug trafficking and development cooperation.40 The new US Administration has committed to intensifying its efforts on these issues in Latin American countries and there is scope for Spain to pursue greater coordination in areas such as the region’s vaccine roll-out and its inclusion in plans in the area of technology. Latin America has all the ingredients to become a major setting for the technological and strategic competition between the US and China. Here, Spain could exploit its ties with the US, its position in the EU and its presence in the region to promote a ‘technological triangle’ of the US, Spain and Latin America, bringing the region closer to the West, while reinforcing Madrid’s influence on the US, the EU and this important region.

Conclusions

After four years of a US Administration defined by its zero-sum approach to foreign policy and its confrontational attitude towards Europe, Joe Biden’s arrival has been met with some relief on the Old Continent. While European euphoria may be exaggerated, the new administration appears to provide an opportunity to reposition NATO as a global actor and leverage the potential of the US-EU relationship in an increasingly competitive international environment. In this context, this analysis has provided a Spanish perspective on the emerging opportunities and challenges in the transatlantic agenda.

It seems clear that the EU is the key defender of Spanish interests and values when it comes to technology and is leading the way in relations with its southern neighbourhood (North Africa and Sahel). Nonetheless, Spain also has a strategic interest in maintaining technology ties with the US in order to access cutting-edge technology and mitigate overdependence on other European partners. The country must also work with the US to strengthen its involvement in NATO in North Africa and the Sahel, complementing Spanish action in the context of the EU and bilateral relations with France.

If the trend of recent years continues, there is a risk that Spain will come to see the transatlantic relationship exclusively through the prism of multilateral institutions to the detriment of strong bilateral ties with the US. These ties are an asset when it comes to ensuring that US-EU relations and NATO progress in line with Spanish interests. Moreover, the bilateral dimension remains essential for addressing challenges that are not covered or prioritised in the multilateral arena.

Spain must capitalise on the impetus created by the arrival of the new US President, first to exert its influence on a multilateral and European agenda in the context of growing rivalry between the West and China (and to a lesser extent Russia), secondly to strengthen its commitments in the context of the EU and NATO, and last but not least to ensure bilateral relations finally advance Spanish interests on the other side of the Atlantic.

*About the authors:

  • Carlota García Encina, Analyst, Elcano Royal Institute | @EncinaCharlie
  • Luis Simón, Senior Analyst and Director of the Elcano Royal Institute’s Brussels Office | @LuisSimn

Source: This article was published by Elcano Royal Institute. Original version in Spanish: Biden y el futuro de las relaciones transatlánticas: una perspectiva española.


1 Luis Simón (2020), ‘Europe and Biden’s dilemmas’, War on the Rocks, 15/XII/2020.

2 See Julianne Smith, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Carisa Nietzsche & Ellison Laskowski (2020), ‘Charting a Transatlantic course to address China’, Center for a New American Security, 20/X/2020.

3 Daniel W. Drezner (2021), ‘Why Biden’s foreign policy must start at home’, The Washington Post, 25/I/2021.

4 Mario Esteban (2020), ‘Biden is unlike Trump, also as regards China’, ARI nr 136/2020 (English version), Elcano Royal Institute, 2/XII/2020.

5 Josh Boak & Tom Krisher (2021), ‘Biden to order a review of US supply chains for vital goods’, The Diplomat, 25/II/2021.

6 Luis Simón, Linde Desmaele & Jordan Becker (2021), ‘Europe as a secondary theater? Competition with China and the future of America’s European strategy’, Strategic Studies Quarterly, vol. 15, nr 1, p. 90-115.

7 Pierre Morcos (2020), ‘Toward a new “lost decade”? Covid-19 and defense spending in Europe’, CSIS Brief, 15/X/2020

8 Sven Biscop (2020), ‘Biden’s victory and Europe’s strategic autonomy’, Egmont Commentary, 24/XI/2020.

9 European Commission (2021), ‘Press statement by President von der Leyen and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’, 24/III/202.

10 European External Action Service (2021), ‘Joint press release on the meeting between High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell and the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’, 24/III/2021.

11 European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (2020), ‘Joint Communication to the European Parliament, the European Council and the Council. A new EU-US agenda for global change’, 2/XII/2020.

12 Karan Bhatia (2021), ‘The US and Europe should launch a trade and technology council’, Google Blog, 9/IV/2021.

13 Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (2020), ‘Why America must lead again: rescuing US foreign policy after Trump’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 99, nr 2, March/April.

14 Carlota G. Encina (2020), ‘EEUU-Alemania: razones para una retirada’, Blog Elcano, Elcano Royal Institute, 19/VI/2020,.

15 John Vandiver (2021), ‘US halts plans to move 12,000 troops out of Germany’, Stars and Stripes, 3/II/2021; Jim Garamone (2021), ‘Global posture review will tie strategy, defense policy to basing’, DOD News, 5/II/2021.

16 Heather Conley & Kathleen Hicks (2020), ‘Pentagon action to withdraw from Germany benefits our adversaries’, The Hill, 4/VIII/2020.

17 The White House (2021), ‘Interim National Security Strategic Guidance’, March.

18 AP (2021), ‘US-Russia ties nosedive after Biden-Putin tit-for-tat’, 18/III/2021.

19 Mira Milosevich (2021), ‘Rusia y EEUU: ¿una confrontación responsable?’, ARI nr 24/2021, Elcano Royal Institute, 23/III/2021.

20 NATO (2020), ‘NATO 2030: united for new era: analysis of recommendations of the Reflection Group appointed by the NATO Secretary General’, 25/XI/2020.

21 On this debate see Michael Clarke (2009), ‘The Global NATO debate’, Politique Étrangère, nr 2009/5, p. 57-67.

22 NATO (2021), ‘Opening Remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the European Parliament’s committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) and sub-committee on Security and Defence (SEDE)’, 15/III/2021

23 Anthony Blinken (2020), ‘Video remarks to the G5 Sahel Summit’, US State Department, 16/II/2021. See also Colin P. Clarke & Jacob Zenn (2021), ‘ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Sub-Saharan affiliates are poised for growth in 2021’, Defense One, 26/II/2021.

24 NATO (2021), ‘Joint press conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani’, 14/I/2021.

25 Andrés Ortega Klein (2020), ‘The US-China race and the fate of Transatlantic Relations’, CSIS Report, 13/I/2020.

26 Mathias Bauer & Fredrik Erixon (2020), ‘Europe’s quest for technological sovereignty: opportunities and pitfalls’, ECIPE Occasional Paper, nr 2/2020.

27 ‘Technology policy in the Transatlantic Alliance, with Frances Burwell and Tyson Barker’, Brussels Sprouts podcast, CNAS, 2/IV/2021.

28 NPR (2021), ‘Biden Administration gears up showdown with Big Tech’, 10/III/2021.

29 See Miguel Otero & Elisa Lledó (2019), ‘Los intereses españoles en la agenda digital y la política industrial de la UE’, ARI nr 39/2019, Elcano Royal Institute, 5/IV/2019.

30 Office of the United States Trade Representative (2021), ‘Report on Spain’s Digital Services Tax’, 13/I/2021.

31 Carla Hobbs (Ed.) (2020), ‘Europe’s digital sovereignty: from rulemaker to superpower in the age of US-China rivalry’, ECFR, 30/VIII/2020.

32 Office of the Spanish Prime Minister (2021), ‘La ministra de Asuntos Exteriores inicia una gira por las Repúblicas Bálticas’, 5/IV/2021.

33 The White House (2021), ‘Interim National Security Strategic Guidance’, March.

34 Dario Cristiani (2021), ‘Europe should not delude itself on Libya’, GMFUS Blog, 1/IV/2021.

35 For a more in-depth look at bilateral relations, see Carlota García Encina & Charles Powell (Eds.) (2020), ‘Relaciones España-Estados Unidos’, Elcano Report, Elcano Royal Institute, June.

36 Carlota García Encina (2021), ‘Spain and the US, from Trump to Biden’, ARI nr 22/2021 (English version), Elcano Royal Institute, 19/II/2021.

37 Luis Simón (2017), ‘España, EEUU y la defensa: ¿de base operacional a socio estratégico?’, ARI nr 19/2017, Elcano Royal Institute, 13/II/2017.

38 Ibid. See also García Encina & Powell (Eds.) (2020), op. cit.

39 Haizam Amirah-Fernández & Isabelle Werenfels (2021), ‘Western Sahara: can a Trump tweet lead to unlocking the stalemate?’, ARI nr 43/2021, Elcano Royal Institute, 7/IV/2021.

40 Mario Esteban (Ed.) (2015), ‘China in Latin America: Repercussions for Spain’, WP nr 03/2015 (printed, English version), Elcano Royal Institute, October. See also Carlos Malamud (2018), ‘Informe Elcano 22. Why does Latin America matter?’, Elcano Report nr 22, Elcano Royal Institute.

Elcano Royal Institute

The Elcano Royal Institute (Real Instituto Elcano) is a private entity, independent of both the Public Administration and the companies that provide most of its funding. It was established, under the honorary presidency of HRH the Prince of Asturias, on 2 December 2001 as a forum for analysis and debate on international affairs and particularly on Spain’s international relations. Its output aims to be of use to Spain’s decision-makers, both public and private, active on the international scene. Its work should similarly promote the knowledge of Spain in the strategic scenarios in which the country’s interests are at stake.

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