Carlos Westendorp: working for a transatlantic balance

Article published on July 24, 2006
community published
Article published on July 24, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Spanish ambassador to the United States and a staunch socialist, Carlos Westendrop has an innate understanding of diplomacy. Here he gives us an insight into transatlantic relations and the situation in the Balkans

Carlos Westendorp, ambassador and former Spanish minister of foreign affairs, greets me and invites me to follow him into his spacious office on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from the White House. Though he is a seasoned diplomat, Mr. Westendorp does not value protocol very highly. Quite contrary to my expectations of a diplomat, he seemed open and welcoming - the type of person who likes to go straight to the point. The simplicity and humanity of the Spanish ambassador does not correspond to the cliché of the strained, aristocratic diplomat.

The Atlantic air

Once my interviewee is comfortably seated in his armchair, I begin the discussion with the thorny issue of Iraq and the ambassador’s influence on transatlantic relations. But it was impossible to unnerve this grandson of a Dutch engineer who immigrated to Spain to work in the railroad company. “Transatlantic relations emerged from a common fight against the Soviet Union and some claim they have weakened since the end of the Cold War. But such an interpretation does not hold true. Our leaders have continued to work together to tackle present day issues of great importance. Unfortunately, the conflict in Iraq had led to a cooling of relations between the United States and much of Europe. Though the president of the United States does not offer any concessions in the Middle East, we have to overcome our differences to find a solution to the extremely violent crisis that threatens the region,’ explains Westendorp with a conciliatory tone rendered smooth by years of service.

Taking his time to answer my questions with great care, Westendorp shows that he does not want to rush me through the interview. When I ask him whether he believes NATO or the UE should be instrumental in bringing Europe and the United States together, he answers categorically: “The EU must develop a strong foreign policy if it wishes to relate to the US on equal terms.” It is also essential to “Radically reform NATO, to redefine its mission and to work towards establishing an efficient European Defence and Security Identity.” As a staunch supporter of the European idea, Westendorp is convinced that if “The member states of the EU at last managed to speak with one voice, they would be able to stand up to the US and improve the balance of power within the organisation.” Westendorp insists that decisions must be taken unanimously within NATO and that the US pre-eminence is only relative.

What did he think of the recent proposition by José-Maria Aznar and the Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio to create and promote a transatlantic market? “I sometimes have the impression that certain demagogues, and I include Aznar and Palacio in this list, are only just discovering the Mediterranean basin,” he says with a hint of irony in his voice. “But the idea is excellent,” he continues. “Not that it is a new idea – it has been a possibility since at least 1995. The major obstacle to the realisation of this project is that a number of sectors in America continue to be protected, this is not the case in Europe, aside from agriculture of course.”

Kosovo´s future

The discussion moved to the Balkans, an area where Westendorp has a great deal of expertise, having been the International High Commissioner in Bosnia before he became the Spanish ambassador in America.

“We have not lost hope in the Balkans, on the contrary” he remarks with optimism. “Today Bosnia is peaceful, even if it is the case that there are still international troops stationed in the country. That said, it is evident that the wounds left by the war will not vanish overnight. Nevertheless, the major problem the country must face is an economic crisis” Westendorp analyses. He then explains to me that he had been in charge of conceiving of the national symbols, like the flag and national hymn. “The country suffers badly from the absence of an enterprise culture. It is not the role of the United Nations to help develop this sector,” he concludes ironically. He also worries that to hold the Serbs at arms length from the Kosovan negotiating process would risk destabilising the entire region. Westendorp has his own perspective on the question. “I would just like to show that the independence of Kosovo would not, by any stretch of the imagination be a miracle cure for the region.”

The European constitution and the alliance of civilisations

Westendorp proudly shows me the cover of a recent Newsweek, which shows a picture of José Luis Zapatero with the title "Making Socialism Work". “I have put it on display in my office in such a position that I can be sure all my North American colleagues will be able to see” he tells me. Without Zapatero in power, there is a strong chance that the Spanish would not have voted massively in favour of the European Constitution. His influence has also been decisive in the creation of the Alliance of Civilisations. In terms of the Constitution Westendorp says: “Even if Europe has not stopped evolving, we would have liked to see it ratified. It would nevertheless have been difficult to have adopted all the measures in the constitution, especially if we think of the European social model and all the concessions that member states would have to make. Spain, for instance, would have had to renounce the power it had had conferred on it by the treaty of Nice in the European Council. There will now not be any major changes to the constitution until after the French presidential elections in 2007. It would be thus be premature to launch the debate again at this present moment,” he concludes.

Iran: “It is time for diplomacy”

I began to ask Westendorp about Iran. He responded immediately: “We will not necessarily be able to indefinitely avoid the recourse to force, because there is nobody who wants Iran to develop a military nuclear program. But we are not yet at this point. For the moment we must try to find a diplomatic answer to the crisis. We cannot affirm with certainty that Iran is looking to enrich uranium for military purposes.” With these words the ambassador finishes the interview. He will shortly fly to Boston, where he will give a series of lectures on transatlantic relations.