You don't often hear a traditionally educated diplomat making hard bets on politics. But James Costos, the U.S. Ambassador to Spain who was appointed six months ago, represents another type of diplomacy.
By appointing Costos, President Obama followed Reagan's tradition of “rewarding” big donors with foreign posts. It were Costos' friendship with the president and his financial contributions to Obama’s reelection campaign that prompted Obama to appoint the businessman and former president at HBO. Costos, therefore, had no qualms about backing Hillary Clinton as a possible Democratic candidate and Obama's successor in 2016. “If she decides to run, I have no doubts that Hillary Clinton will be the next U.S. president.”
The ambassador has just started to tweet -- @JamesCostos, he has 317 followers -- and, since he came to Madrid, he posts both personal and official images of his new life in Spain on Instagram as @TheSerranoPost (e.g., his dog Greco, adopted in a shelter). What could sound like heresy for top-notch diplomats Costos considers an example of modern diplomacy, a concept he is an ardent supporter of. “I’m an ambassador 24 hours a day. The president asked this when he offered me the post: go out in the streets, travel, talk to the Spaniards, listen to them.”
In only six months, Ambassador Costos has already seen two important diplomatic milestones: he was recalled for consultations when the NSA’s massive wiretapping in Spain was revealed, and he got Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy the first interview with Obama in Washington. Spanish diplomatic sources acknowledged that Costos played a crucial role in finally opening the doors of the Oval Office to the Spanish prime minister, more than two years after his inauguration. That is precisely one of Costos’ secret weapons: “I have a direct line with Obama. It’s a crucial link. And I can put Spain in the spotlight,” he assures HuffPost Spain in one of the renovated rooms of the embassy. A direct line with the East Wing, the private area where the Obama family lives and which his partner, Michael Smith, redecorated at the request of the first lady Michelle. It is where they had dinner upon their last visit; two weeks after the presidential couple had visited their mansion in Mirage Valley, California.
This is the same mansion where the ambassador hosted Prince Felipe and Princess Letizia during their official trip to the U.S. last November. “Prince Felipe is the best ambassador for Spain: I have already told Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, minister of foreign affairs, that the prince should travel to the U.S. more often. And I would also love Princess Letizia to come and speak to school children, especially in California, where it’s important for Hispanic children to know the impact of their mother tongue.” Costos is taking Spanish classes -- only conversational, no grammar -- and says that he already understands much more than he speaks.
About the meeting between Obama and Rajoy, Costos says: “It was a clear signal for Americans that Spain had overcome the crisis, that’s it’s headed in the right direction. And President Obama wanted to congratulate Rajoy for his reforms while warning of the great challenge poised by high unemployment and the lack of credit access to secure the recovery.” Costos adds that he has noticed the growing interest of American investors in Spain. And his role in Madrid is precisely to turn this interest and opportunities into reality. “This is the moment,” he says.
I ask him if there is any concern surrounding Catalonia’s independence movement and whether investment fund managers, often averse to political uncertainty, have asked him about it. “It’s an internal affair. And it’s the companies that have to make strategic decisions. But I am convinced that I think it is the right moment, and I’m optimistic.”
Just like there’s no way to gauge Costos' position on Catalonia -- he met Artur Mas in December, and he attended Barcelona’s Food Fair this week -- the ambassador also won’t comment on Judge Pedraz’s decision to keep proceedings open in the death of Tele 5 cameraman José Couso, where three U.S. soldiers are being tried. I ask him whether he’s aware that this is one of those open wounds that feed anti-American feelings within parts of the population.
“I know that feeling exists, but I have never felt it in my travels in Spain, neither as an ambassador nor before.” Costos also doesn't want to risk new clashes if Edward Snowden, as warned, publishes more documents on U.S. spying on its allies. “The fact is that we share information to protect the security of both countries. We have met and discussed it, and we’ll continue to do it, for we have a sound relationship.”
Beyond its soundness, military collaboration between Spain and the U.S. is going through some good times. The USS Donald Cook, the first of four destroyers to be deployed in Rota with the Aegis combat system (part of NATO’s antimissile shield) is already in the base. In addition, the U.S. got permission to extend and increase the Rapid Reaction Force -- 500 marines -- stationed at the Morón air force base.
“After Benghazi [the Libyan crisis], the president needed a place where our marines could be available to act in North Africa. And it has been vital, strategic, for us that Spain has accepted to have that Rapid Intervention force in Morón,” says Costos.
He reiterates that his government places special value in Madrid’s support in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis: “The government has been very clear about it, and we value especially that a strategic partner such as Spain is on our side.” Evidence of that harmonious relationship was Rajoy’s visit to the military cemetery in Arlington to pay tribute to fallen soldiers before his interview in the White House. “President Obama was moved by that gesture,” he says. Costos, the son of a marine who served in Camp David under president Truman, may have been moved, as well.
Costos has also increased cultural exchanges, attracting more sponsors for Fulbright scholarships or turning the embassy into an art gallery, with a collection of almost 60 American paintings and art pieces that the ambassador’s partner is gathering; or promoting student workshops to prevent bullying, especially for gay children. The ambassador knows how hard it is for kids who feel different to come out of the closet -- he didn’t tell his family that he was gay until he was 25 -- which is why he tries to vindicate gay leaders so that they may be role models.
The designation of Costos and of the ambassadors of Denmark, Australia, the Dominican Republic and the OSCE has been Obama’s most striking move in support of the gay community. “I am not a career ambassador, but I feel that all I have done throughout my life has prepared me for this moment,” he says before rushing to his desk, which stands under a painting by Catalan painter Antoni Tàpies. An intense agenda awaits him, including his first trip to Andorra; he’s also the ambassador to the Princedom.
When the ambassador and his partner decided to adopt a dog -- they have three others, all of them rescued from streets -- they contacted the National Association of Friends of Animals (ANAA) and paid them a visit. They were interested in greyhounds and podencos, which are particularly abused in Spain. They immediately liked Greco, the last of his litter to be adopted. Greco is a mutt who was born in the street. His mother had been abandoned and then rescued with her litter in a road near a village in Ciudad Real. He was named him in honor of Costos' background (his four grandparents migrated to the U.S. from Greece) and and of the the Spanish painter whose 400-year death anniversary is commemorated this year. Greco is less than one-year old.
This post was translated from Spanish and was published on HuffPost Spain.