Spain’s success as a democracy was not preordained.
How does a country become a democracy? How does a previously isolated country decide either to join the liberal international order or to stay out of it? These big questions remain relevant, even in this moment of democracy recession, in which the liberal international order is being challenged. Right now, these questions are being contested in Myanmar. Someday soon, these questions will be contested in Belarus, Cuba, and Iran. Democracy requires activists, intellectuals, organizers, and politicians to take personal risks — to their careers and even their lives — to make the case for it.
These questions came up as I read Looking Back Without Anger, by Javier Rupérez — the memoir of a man who helped Spain become a democracy and a full-fledged member of the liberal international order. The book reminds us that Spain’s success and the success of democracy elsewhere is not preordained.
Rupérez grew up in an upper-middle class family in Madrid. His family was on the winning side of the Spanish Civil War. However, he opposed authoritarianism. He became active early in the underground, center-right Christian democratic movement. He was a founder of an influential conservative magazine (think National Review for Spaniards), which launched a number of political careers.
He came of age in the mid-1960s, when General Francisco Franco was still dictator of Spain. Rupérez joined the Spanish Diplomatic Corps. He describes the fine line he had to walk and the complex emotions he felt representing a government with which he did not fully agree. When democracy emerged in 1977, Ruperez joined the transition government and shortly thereafter ran for parliament.
As a member of parliament, Rupérez pushed for Spain to join NATO. At the time, there were strong anti-American feelings in Spain and the most popular party in the country, the Socialist party, has decided to actively oppose NATO membership. Spain’s popular transitional president, Adolfo Suárez, was not enthusiastic about joining NATO and flirted with Spain joining the Non-Aligned Movement — a bloc of states that were not aligned with the Soviets or the Americans. Through a series of lucky breaks, NATO membership for Spain won in a referendum, largely due to the active campaigning of politicians like Rupérez who stood up for an unpopular but important principle.
Along with his role in his political party, Rupérez was also tasked with creating ties between Spain and the rest of the world. He helped create the Ibero-American Christian democratic movement. Rupérez was in the process of hosting the inaugural Madrid meeting when Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), a Basque separatist terrorist group, kidnapped him. Over 30 years, ETA killed hundreds, and most people who the group kidnapped were killed. However, due to massive international pressure, Rupérez’s life was miraculously spared.
As a member of parliament, Rupérez was present for the nearly catastrophic coup attempt in 1982. The infamous Colonel Antonio Tejero entered with other members of the Guardia Civil and shot several bullets into the ceiling. During this hostage drama, Rupérez considered seeking asylum at the American or Dutch embassies. Luckily, King Juan Carlos I donned his commander-in-chief military uniform and commanded the coup plotters to stand down.
The transition government began to unravel, and Rupérez joined a small center right party, then called the People’s Alliance, which eventually became the Partido Popular, or People’s Party, the current governing party of Spain. Rupérez was tasked with using his international network to enable the People’s Alliance to become a member of the Christian Democrats of Europe.
Rupérez also had a parallel career as a “political” diplomat. He served as ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He briefly served as ambassador to NATO. When José María Aznar won re-election as prime minister in 2000, Ruperez was named ambassador to the United States.
The memoir is a fascinating journey along the trajectory Spain took from the 1970s to the 1990s. It shows that the journey was not pre-ordained, but rather required the efforts and sacrifice of politicians and activists to nudge Spain along the path to democracy.
Likewise, joining the liberal international order today is not pre-ordained for those states that are not already full-fledged members. It will require domestic champions.
Yet the memoir shows why the goal is worthy of such champions — because “outsiders” like Rupérez can see the benefits of fully joining the liberal international order. Joining is the fastest way to become more prosperous. Participating in the global trading and financial system and in the miracles of global progress, such as science and medicine, make joiners better off than those who take a different path. Of course, membership comes with responsibilities as well as privileges. Membership means that a country is willing to share the burdens of global problems. But on balance, the benefits far exceed the burdens. The liberal international order has had competitors — such as the Non-Aligned Movement or the commodity-based vassal state system China apparently wants to build — yet it still remains the proven, superior way.
The lessons of this book remain relevant for many countries on the path to joining the liberal international order. The book also contains a useful lesson for those countries already in the club: Freedom is not free, so we have to work with our potential friends and allies when they need us.
article published in foreignpolicy.com on April 6, 2017.