Mr Ambassador and Mr Smith

Obama’s man in Madrid and his partner are bringing a breath of fresh air to US diplomacy in Spain

Costos and his partner, pictured in the US embassy.
Costos and his partner, pictured in the US embassy.James Rajotte

On June 15, Barack Obama telephoned Spain’s King Juan Carlos to bid him farewell and congratulate him on his reign. The US president was in California at the time, staying with his good friends James Costos and Michael Smith, respectively the US ambassador to Spain and his partner. Together from their official residence-cum-art gallery and meeting point in central Madrid, the former television industry executive and the interior decorator have brought a breath of fresh air to US diplomacy in Spain.

The reception area of the US ambassador's official residence in Madrid is dominated by four paintings: a six-meter-square work by Robert Rauschenberg; facing it is another large-format piece, by Roy Lichtenstein; off to the left is Screaming in Spanish, by another Pop Art doyen, Edward Ruscha; and opposite that is a delicate watercolor on rice paper by the reclusive Agnés Martin.

The choice of works is no coincidence, nor does it respond to some kind of decorative requirement. The paintings have been chosen very carefully, and should perhaps be seen as a kind of homage to cultural fusion; very much a declaration of intent by the two men who moved in here 10 months ago.

Costos is an atypical ambassador, not just because he is gay, vegetarian, and a vocal proponent of animal rights, but also because of his background: he is a former director of US cable channel HBO, responsible for global hits such as The Sopranos and Game of Thrones. Michael Smith, his partner of some 15 years, is an internationally renowned interior decorator.

When the president asks you to join his administration, in an official capacity, the only possible answer is yes”

Both men made significant financial contributions to Barack Obama’s election campaign, and both know just about everybody in Hollywood: Michael Smith has decorated Cindy Crawford and Steven Spielberg’s homes, while Michelle Obama tasked him with refurbishing the Oval Office in the White House. Since their arrival in the Spanish capital, an invite to their official residence has been much coveted by anybody who is anybody.

But don’t be deceived into thinking that either of the pair are in any way frivolous. Like all good Americans, Costos and Smith are cordial, unpretentious hosts. They form an efficient couple. The ambassador is a political sciences graduate, and Smith an art expert. They are both from the competitive and implacable world of high-level business, where annual results leave little room for frivolity. They both take their work very seriously.

“I never thought about being an ambassador,” explains Costos. “When the president asks you to join his administration, in an official capacity, the only possible answer is yes. That’s why I accepted: because he asked me. I had a fantastic career at HBO, and a wonderful life with Michael in California.”

There is a long-established tradition in US politics of presidents rewarding the people who help finance campaigns with ambassadorial posts. And according to The New York Times, Costos and Smith raised around $3.4 million for Obama. So what has the State Department’s response been to another outsider? “I think that it is precisely because of this mix of profiles that the system works so well. Career ambassadors do a fantastic job, they give their lives to their work. Michael and I are not from the world of diplomacy, but this task is also about attitude. It is about building relationships, about working together, and about reaching mutually beneficial agreements.”

Both know Spain well, and have visited several times in recent years. That said, Costos’ arrival came at a difficult time, shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the mass spying carried out by the National Security Agency (NSA). In October 2013, Costos was summoned to the Spanish Foreign Ministry to provide an explanation. Not an easy start for somebody with no formal diplomatic experience, I point out.

Everything one has experienced in life comes into play when one is an ambassador”

“I have to disagree with you about the lack of experience, because everything one has experienced in life comes into play when one is an ambassador. My whole life has been a preparation for this role. And when the scandal broke, I had to deal with it. Spain is an important partner, and we were able to handle things well,” says Costos, adding that he believes the two countries’ relationship was strengthened.

Behind Costos’ affable gaze there is a glint of steel, and it is easy to imagine him as an implacable negotiator. And when it comes to bilateral matters, he is very much on message. There clearly aren’t going to be any off-the-record comments or indiscretions during this conversation.

He insists that the NSA’s activities will not affect the upcoming Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations between the US and the European Union. “We are entering the fifth round of negotiations, and there will be another, perhaps two, before the end of the year. Everything is going very well in agriculture and energy. I am very optimistic.”

At the same time, military cooperation is moving ahead with the arrival of a rapid-response unit of US Marines at Morón Air Base, near Seville, in early May, ready to deal with limited crises within the Mediterranean and North Africa. Four destroyers will be stationed at Rota naval base near Cádiz as part of the NATO anti-missile shield. The ships are fitted with the Aegis combat system, able to locate and destroy missiles. Two of the vessels are already here, and the other two will arrive next year. “I am surprised that there isn’t more talk in the media about this. This should be a source of pride. This is not some bilateral agreement between the United States and Spain, this is a NATO issue. Spain is responsible for the security of all its allies.”

The ambassador highlights the economic benefits that the arrival of US troops will bring to local communities, as well as the opportunity for technology and information exchange. He also points out the joint progress made in combating piracy in the Horn of Africa, in which Spain has played a major role.

In the same way Obama opened up the White House, we wanted to open up the embassy”

Costos is also concerned about what he calls digital piracy. His post at HBO was vice-president of global licensing and retail consumer marketing. And like most in the US entertainment industry he believes that successive Spanish governments have been lax in dealing with intellectual-property violations. In 2008, the United States included Spain in its notorious Special 301 Report, which highlights potential trade barriers to US companies in countries that do not respect intellectual property legislation, and that could face sanctions as a result. Pressure from the United States led the previous administration to pass the so-called Sinde Law aimed at cracking down on peer-to-peer websites, named after Spain’s culture minister of the time. “This is one of my main priorities. I have talked about this with Prime Minister Rajoy and other members of the cabinet. Important steps are being taken. There has been a certain vagueness in the legal language being used, but I hope that the laws being revised will typify the offenses adequately.”

But the ambassador feels that more still needs to be done. “One of the things that I would like to see is an information campaign about piracy, which has become acceptable in this country. People have to understand that if you steal this content, you are preventing somebody from earning a living. I don’t think that this is properly understood by the public.”

As Michael Smith points out, Costos’ appointment is clearly an attempt by the Obama administration to take a new approach to diplomacy.

“You were asking earlier about bilateral relations, which is a somewhat pompous term, but I’d like to add something about professionalism,” he says. “James has always immersed himself in the culture where he finds himself, to the extent that work has become a prolongation of his life and family experience. And it’s the same here, not just with the embassy team, but as regards the relationship between Spain and the United States. Everything we do is related to that goal. We want to improve relations, bring people together, and look for opportunities and synergies. We’ve both done that throughout our careers, and it’s what we did for Obama, because we are friends, and we believe in him, and that is what we’re doing now. It’s an organic approach. We don’t know how to do things any other way. It’s not about sitting down and saying: ‘Okay, this is the agenda.’ It is much more about instinct. It’s about what kind of person the ambassador is, not just professionally, but personally. James’ career is built on his huge curiosity and the interest he has in what he does. This isn’t work, it is an extension of him; it’s part of his life.”

We’re not here on a mission. It turns out I am an ambassador, and also gay. This sends out a message of normality”

Costos has decided to use his official residence as an unofficial embassy. “It’s a platform,” he explains. “In the same way that the White House opened up with the arrival of Obama, we have wanted to open up this house to our team in the embassy, as well as to others. The idea is turn it into a meeting point for Spaniards and Americans from different fields to meet, to enjoy art and conversation, to work together.”

Take the question of illegal internet downloads. Costos meets with members of the Spanish government in his official capacity to defend what he sees as the interests of US entertainment companies. At the same time, he organized the premier of the most recent Spider-Man film in his official residence, and brought Ridley Scott to film Exodus in Almería and the Canary Islands. Similarly, he helped convince Game of Thrones to scout for locations in Andalusia ahead of filming the next series in 2015. In short, he believes in taking a practical approach to promoting and protecting the arts and entertainment.

Another aspect of the couple’s alternative approach to diplomacy is promoting entrepreneurism. “As I’m sure you know, this is part of the American way of life,” says Costos with a smile, to which I reply that Spain’s civil servants could take a leaf out of his book. “A lot of people I talk to here resist taking the initiative because they are afraid of failing,” says the ambassador. “But I really do believe that there is a significant entrepreneurial spirit in this country.”

That may be a result of the ongoing crisis. “When President Obama asked me to take over this position, a year and nine months ago, the news from Spain was very different to what it is today. I consider myself fortunate to have arrived at a moment when we can begin to celebrate, and to attract investors from the United States. There is a sense of hope and optimism. Prime Minister Rajoy and his government have done an excellent job with the reforms, and President Obama has congratulated him on this. There has been enormous progress, but we can’t ignore the fact that unemployment is still at 26 percent, and it is higher among young people: this is one of our greatest concerns.” In response, the US embassy has organized round tables with entrepreneurs to analyze the challenges and opportunities, as well as organizing meetings between younger people and established talents, particularly in the arts world. Every painter, actor, or movie director they know who comes to Madrid has to do their bit: “We kidnap them, even if only for a few hours,” says Smith.

Every painter, actor or director who comes to Madrid has to do their bit: “We kidnap them, even if only for a few hours”

The couple have also thrown their weight behind the US State Department’s Art in Embassies program, whereby museums and foundations lend works by US artists they have in storage to embassies. Costos and Smith have gone a step further by borrowing from friends and museums, as well as their own collection, converting the US ambassador’s official residence into an extraordinary gallery of contemporary art. Many of these are only just arriving, some have a Spanish connection, others a more personal meaning. All have their own story, says Smith.

He is particularly proud of five oil paintings in yellow tones by Josef Albers on display around a spiral staircase, three of which are on loan from the Albers Foundation, which has contributed to an exhibition of the Bauhaus teacher’s work at the Juan March Foundation in Madrid. The other two have been lent by the Albers Museum in Germany. “I learned from his books. It is amazing to be able to have them all together,” says Smith.

Other works on show are by Julian Schnabel, Catherine Opie, Philip Taafe, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. There are also pieces by Spanish artists such as Javier Romero and Esteban Vicente. There is a fountain by Cristina Iglesias.

Greco, a mixed breed dog, accompanies us on the tour. Costos adopted him from Spanish animal charity Asociación Nacional de Amigos de los Animales. “We named him in honor of the 400th anniversary of El Greco, and in honor of my Greek roots.”

The nicest pieces are in the dining room, an enormous area dominated by a huge table. “This room is very important to us. We have brought together three works by Afro-American artists who are also friends. They are a delight for any collector,” says Smith. The first is a canvas painted in tar by Theaster Gates and his father. Gates is active in helping poor neighborhoods in his native Chicago. “It reminds me a little of some of Goya’s Black Paintings,” says Smith. “It is much more than a work of art. It is a homage to the man who was able to send his children to school because of the sacrifices he made.” An enormous canvas by Julie Mehretu and a neon sculpture by Glenn Ligon, entitled Double America, finish the set. The two artists have become voices for their generation, exploring race, identity and sexuality through their work, says Smith: “Julie has a wife and two children, and an extraordinary sense of the family.”

Obama told me, ‘Be yourself. If you try to act like you think an ambassador should act, you’ll get it wrong’”

Costos and Smith consider themselves fortunate. Smith grew up in a liberal environment, and the couple never felt that they had to hide their relationship: their families accepted them and they never had problems at work because of their sexual orientation. “It’s not the story in much of the United States, or parts of Spain for that matter, where there are people who have had terrible experiences, and not just for being gay,” says Smith.

Costos adds: “But things are improving for the LGBT community,” pointing out that under the Obama administration 17 states have made same-sex marriage legal. “That’s 19 in total, so we’re headed in the right direction, but there is still much to be done.”

On May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, James Costos flew the rainbow flag alongside the stars and stripes in the residence’s garden. But he is not comfortable being tagged as a gay activist, preferring to see his fight as part of a broader human rights struggle. “We’re not here on some kind of mission, to promote anything. It turns out that I am an ambassador, and also gay. This sends out a message of normality. It may not be on the agenda, but it makes a difference to people’s lives.”

The couple have had no problems with protocol as a result of their relationship. “They are changing all the time,” says Smith. “They usually put Mr. Ambassador and Mr. Smith on the invitations. Everybody has been very friendly,” says Smith.

Costos interrupts: “Do you know something? Just before we came to Spain, Michael and I met with President Obama. I asked him for some advice. ‘You have to be yourself,’ he told me. ‘Because if you try to act like you think an ambassador should act, you’ll get it wrong. I only know you as you are, and that is the person that you have to be.’ And we are being who we are. It turns out that we are in Spain, and we work with some great people.”

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