King Juan Carlos is Spain’s best king since Carlos III of the eighteenth century and one of the most consequential statesmen of the twentieth century. He is overlooked in the United States because Spain’s success is taken for granted and because his life has been chronicled in Spanish. He is far more appreciated in Latin America than in the United States. His reign tinged with sacrifice and tragedy, he succeeded General Francisco Franco, orchestrated Spain’s transition to democracy, faced down a major coup attempt in 1981, drove Spain’s full return to the West, and built bridges to Latin America and the Middle East.
With his active support, Spain became largely prosperous, a net provider of security as a member of NATO, and even became a significant donor of foreign aid. Spain’s transition to democracy is seen as the “textbook” case. The historic transition placed far higher responsibilities on Juan Carlos than almost any other twentieth-century European monarch.
The king returns to Washington, D.C., this week to open the Kennedy Center’s Iberian Suite Arts Festival, but he will long be remembered for his historic visit to Washington in June 1976, less than nine months after Franco’s death, when he addressed both Houses of Congress. He purposely chose to address the U.S. Congress—the legislature of one of history’s most successful democracies—about Spain’s commitment to its democracy.
As Franco got along in years and sought a successor, he passed over Juan Carlos’s father. Instead Franco, seeking regime continuity, invited Juan Carlos to return to Spain, where he began his schooling under Franco’s watchful eye. Juan Carlos and later Queen Sofia had to endure a 20-year probationary period, where any missteps would have risked their disqualification for leadership. Juan Carlos also had to manage the awkwardness of the fact that Franco skipped over Juan Carlos’s father. In 1977, the father, in an act of great selflessness, withdrew his claims to the throne in favor of Juan Carlos.
In 1981, a dramatic coup was attempted with armed officers entering the Spanish Parliament. When pistols were fired into the ceiling of the parliament, all but Suarez and two other parliamentarians, including the leader of the Communist Party, hit the floor. Juan Carlos, as commander in chief, donned his army uniform and went on national television calling for an end to the coup. The coup was put down and the transition was saved. With this bold action, Juan Carlos’s legitimacy was cemented with a grateful Spanish public.
After 1982, King Juan Carlos took a back seat with the election of a new Socialist prime minister. Instead, Juan Carlos became Spain’s best ambassador and its best salesman. He helped build bridges to Latin America and the Middle East. As a major figure in Spain and in Europe, he had strong relations with every major leader in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. He has been friendly with all U.S. presidents since Gerald Ford but had notably good relations with Bill Clinton.
Under King Juan Carlos, ties to the United States deepened, with expanded trade relations, greater people-to-people connections, and increased cooperation on terrorism, security, and other challenges. A foreign aid recipient up until the 1970s, Spain’s economy broadly caught up with the rest of Western Europe under his reign. Unfortunately, Spain along with much of the rest of Europe suffered from the financial crisis beginning in 2008 and is only now returning to growth—with growth rates faster than the rest of Europe.
In 2014, an embattled Juan Carlos abdicated after enduring a series of scandals in the royal household. Some of these scandals were self-inflicted and could not have come at a worse time in the face of an economic crisis and other political problems in Spain. His brand at home and internationally took a beating. Always keeping the above history in mind, he wisely stepped down in favor of his well-prepared son, Felipe, to save the legitimacy of the monarchy. Over time the scandals will fade, and his accomplishments as one of the world’s greatest living statesmen will be remembered.
Article Published in Forbes.com on March 2, 2015.