Second term of office and foreign affairs

Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo. Director. Master in International Relations. IE School of Arts and Humanities

6 May 2008

International relations are the Achilles’ heel of many a president when they first come to power, and their first reaction is to place it in the hands of a professional. But everything changes when it comes to re-election.

North American political commentators have coined the term "second term blues" to refer to the problems that usually affect the presidents of the United States during their second term of office. Often it is said that they are a combination of tiredness and arrogance that comes from power exercised over a long time. The experience of Spanish democracy has still not given rise to this type of problem, but certain trends in second terms of office can be identified in the field of international relations. It is particularly interesting to analyse successive appointments to the post of minister of foreign affairs.

Ministers of foreign affairs have always enjoyed special prestige in democracies. In North America, the world fame of the secretary of state has, on exceptional occasions, rivalled that of the president himself. This occurred with Henry Kissinger during the last stage of Nixon´s office and during the presidency of Gerald Ford. Whatever the case, only the secretaries of state (and not all of them) appear next to the presidents in the photos and memories of an era. For example, the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower are inseparable from the figures of Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles, respectively.

The lesser political weight that has corresponded to the large European countries during the last 60 years has reduced the international stature of the ministers of foreign affairs. However, here also, if anyone accompanies presidents and prime ministers on the road to posterity, it is usually a minister of foreign affairs. Accordingly, the history of the Federal Republic of Germany can be summarised in the list of chancellors coupled with Hans-Dietrich Genscher, liberal leader and influential minister of foreign affairs for many years.

In democratic Spain, the minister of foreign affairs began his office with a healthy outlook. Indeed, the most brilliant result of that indecisive first half of 1976 was probably the international projection of the new and promising monarchy by José María de Areilza. Since then, the heads of the Spanish diplomatic corps have more than held their own, and the Palace of Santa Cruz has generally been protected from the ups and downs of other ministerial departments.

As I was saying earlier, our ministers of foreign affairs can be classified according to whether the president of the government that appointed them was beginning his first or second term of office. The appointments made during the first term of office have gone to professionals in international relations: Marcelino Oreja, Fernando Morán, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, professional diplomats; Abel Matutes, with a lengthy career as European Commissioner. However, those appointed during the second (or subsequent) term of office have, above all, been up-and-coming figures in the governing party of the day: José Pedro Pérez-Llorca, Javier Solana, Josep Piqué. The classification is not perfect (one of them could be in both sub-units) or all-encompassing, but it shows the different state of mind with which the presidents of the government have approached international relations depending on whether they were novices or veterans.

It is true that, other than only a few exceptions, the presidents of the government have reached La Moncloa with no foreign experience or international vocation. However, the passing of time and success in Spanish politics made them interested in approaching great issues affecting Europe and the planet as a whole. In the era of Adolfo Suárez, people spoke of the "Ormuz Straits syndrome" to refer to the interest in the Middle East the president started to develop after winning the 1979 elections. It might be said that, after the second term of office, presidents feel a greater desire to enter international areas and less need to have a professional in the ministry of foreign affairs.

What will happen in this term of office? The facts seem to deny the thesis put forward here. Moratinos is still in his post; and the photo of the president of the government at the recent NATO summit in Bucharest could not be more expressive: nothing to say, no desire to say it, no language in which to say it. However, believe me, there is so much pomp and seduction in this world that it will finally have its effect, and foreign affairs will again fall in with the pattern of "second term blues".

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