Barack Obama's New Best Friend

During his annual September pilgrimage to the shrines of global governance at the United Nations in New York, Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero boasted that Spain's per capita GDP has now surpassed that of Italy. "This depresses Berlusconi," he joked of the Italian prime minister, adding that Spain was on target to overtake France "within three to four years."

Considering Zapatero's triumphalism, Spaniards are asking themselves why it has taken three humiliating weeks of begging and pleading to get their prime minister invited to a global financial summit in Washington on November 15.

The "Summit on Financial Markets and the World Economy" is being organized by members of the G-7 to discuss the turmoil on world financial markets. Also invited to the meeting are the leaders of the industrialized and developing countries that belong to the G-20. Unfortunately for Zapatero, Spain, which is the world's eighth-largest economy in terms of GDP (the World Bank ranks it eleventh in terms of purchasing power parity), is not a member of either of the two groups. What's worse, U.S. President George W. Bush is hosting the meeting and Zapatero has been persona non grata in Washington since he unilaterally pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq in 2004.

Facing a mountain of criticism (and an avalanche of ridicule) at home, a visibly embarrassed Zapatero launched a diplomatic offensive unprecedented in the annals of modern Spanish history to ensure that Spain gets invited to the summit. Zapatero and his bumbling foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, pounded the pavement for weeks crying "We will be in Washington!" and pleading with anyone who would listen to intercede on Spain's behalf. Countries like Argentina, Brazil and China were recruited for the cause and French President Nicolas Sarkozy even offered Zapatero one of the two seats that France had been offered at the meeting.

In the end, however, it was Bush who had the final say. And Bush, who has been vilified as the personification of evil by Zapatero and his anti-American Socialist acolytes for more than four years, decided to give the hapless Spanish prime minister a break. Zapatero will now be coming to Washington after all.

What does Zapatero hope to achieve with his newfound status as persona grata? He seems to want to bite the hand that feeds him. Like an Energizer Bunny that just keeps going and going, Zapatero has missed not a beat in reiterating his pathological dislike of American-style capitalism.

"Now it has been demonstrated" that "neo-liberal" ideology does not serve "either economically or socially," Zapatero proclaimed. He has assured Spanish voters that he will be going to Washington to enact "changes in the order of global priorities," to eradicate "poverty and hunger," so that "peace and security, the fight against the violent" are the "fruit of a large multilateral concert in which the United Nations will have a central role." It's "time to change, to take sides with the planet" and "respect nature."

Zapatero + Obama = White House Visit

Zapatero's high-minded post-modern rhetoric brings to mind another would-be messiah. Indeed, the big news splattered across headlines all over Spain recently has been that, with the election victory of Barack Obama, Zapatero may now finally get his long-awaited invitation to the White House.

Zapatero has tried, and failed, for more than four years to get some one-on-one face-time with the American president. Zapatero, who is arguably the most anti-American leader in Europe today, is (unsurprisingly) one of the only such Europeans never to have been invited to the White House.

But in the logic of Spanish politics, that elusive visit to the Oval Office (to see an American president who up until now has been broadly despised by most Spaniards) also happens to be the main litmus test by which Spanish voters will judge whether Zapatero gets promoted from provincial politician to international "statesman" during his second term.

Not surprisingly, Zapatero's permanent non-relationship with the most powerful leader in the free world has become something of a media obsession in Spain, with the issue generating many miles of ink in newspapers across the country. During the last four years, Bush and Zapatero have exchanged a grand total of 18 words, each of which have been meticulously scrutinized by the Spanish media for possible indications of an impending rapprochement.

But Zapatero now sees light at the end of the tunnel. The Spanish prime minister sent Obama a congratulatory letter on November 5. Four days later, at exactly 11pm local Spanish time (all the details have been carefully analyzed by the Spanish press, who are dubbing the event Spain's D-Day because Spain now matters in the world), Obama perfunctorily returned Zapatero's favor and the two had a ten-minute telephone conversation.

Obama is now Zapatero's new best friend. The two were born the same day, albeit one year apart; the two are parents of two daughters; and their favorite sport is basketball. As far as matters of state are concerned, they discussed how Spain might help solve the international financial crisis (Spain is in an economic free-fall), and ways in which the two countries can cooperate in fighting climate change (Spain is the source of the biggest increase in so-called greenhouse gas emissions in Europe since 1990). Then, before hanging up the phone, Zapatero told Obama: "Hey, just call me José Luis."

Economic Power ≠ Global Influence

Zapatero says his visit to Washington will guarantee that Spain forms part of the "global elite." But the events of the past few weeks suggest otherwise. Spaniards have been reminded, painfully, that Zapatero has not been able to translate his country's economic ranking into increased geopolitical influence. Indeed, Spanish influence, both in Europe and elsewhere, has waned precipitously during the four-and-a-half years that Zapatero has been in power.

Why doesn't Spain command more respect on the global stage? Analysts inside and outside of Spain have spent a considerable amount of time documenting Zapatero's foreign policy foibles, which when taken together, leave no doubt as to why Spain has lost clout around the world. But another, far more important factor, is at play.

A big part of Spain's problem lies with Zapatero's post-modern worldview, which rejects the concept of the nation state as an outmoded remnant of modernity. The confused logic that underpins such thinking renders moot the idea of a "national interest." As a result, Zapatero has not been able to define what Spain is and where its interests lie. (A recent survey shows that when most people think about Spain, the first thing that comes to mind is bullfighting.)

Couple this with Zapatero's naïve fixation with the United Nations as the end-all-to-be-all (for example, Zapatero recently called for NATO to be merged with the United Nations); his dislike of capitalism (in 2006 he rejected the idea that Spain should join the G-7 because of his ideological opposition to neo-liberalism); and his knee-jerk anti-Americanism (which has unnecessarily undermined Spain's credibility in capitals around the world).

As Mr Zapatero goes to Washington, a healthy dose of good old-fashioned common sense could go a long way towards helping Spain attain the international stature it so much craves. But many Spaniards are asking if their prime minister is up to the task.