In these times of turmoil for US foreign policy, which is constantly being shaken by President Donald Trump’s provocative remarks, a handful of career diplomats are trying to keep the world’s biggest power on course. Thomas Shannon (Minneapolis, 1958) has served as a high-ranking foreign affairs official under George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Donald Trump. Highly knowledgeable about the subtleties of Latin American policy, he has arrived in Madrid in the middle of a storm over Trump’s latest inflammatory comments: according to a Democratic senator, the president recently referred to Haiti as “a shithole country.” Trump himself has denied this claim on Twitter. After meeting with Spanish government representatives, Shannon met with a group of reporters at the US Embassy in Madrid.
Question. Did you discuss the threat of Russian online interference with the Spanish government?
Answer. We shared our experience about Russian activities in European elections and their attempts at taking advantage of their online ability to influence opinion, and above all, to sow confusion during democratic processes.
Q. This is a crucial election year in Mexico, Brazil and Colombia. Is Russian meddling in those countries also a matter of concern to you?
A. We’ve already seen it in the US. It is important to speak in public about this problem and to prepare countries and populations for this type of interference, because what we’ve learned from Europe, especially in Germany and France, is that when election officials, the media and the people understand what’s going on, the impact of this interference is very small.
Q. Do you foresee any reprisals over the US government’s decision to force Russian news organizations to register as foreign agents?
Q. The Russians have responded in kind by doing the same to some American media organizations in Russia. The difference is that the requirement to register as an agent for these Russian organizations does not affect their ability to do their work. By contrast, Russia has banned certain US news organizations from accessing several state agencies.
Q. There was a lot of satisfaction within the Spanish government over Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s visit to Washington in September. Are there any plans for Trump to visit Madrid?
Q. Visits are generally reciprocal. We would be anticipating something like that.
Q. Do you feel comfortable working with a president who makes inflammatory remarks such as “shithole countries”?
A. The president has just tweeted that he did not use that expression. But as a career official, I have sworn to protect and respect the US Constitution and the democratic institutions and processes enshrined by our Constitution, and part of the commitment among elected officials and career diplomats and other members of the American government is that we have pledged to respect the will of the American people as expressed through elections and our institutions. I respect the decision of the American people and I respect the president.
Q. Don’t you feel that terms like those have a negative effect on America’s image and policy, especially immigration policy?
A. If he did not say those words, then I cannot answer that question. With regard to immigration, up to a certain extent there is going to be an image of toughness, because the president has made it clear that he wants to review our immigration practices in order to understand their goal and ensure that they are well understood by the American people. In this sense, I think that the president is involved in a necessary debate with Congress about the immigration process from within the US.
Q. And what are the current US priorities in foreign policy?
A. President Trump’s election into office signals much more than a change of administration; it is part of a process of very meaningful political change in the US. For our foreign policy, this means that the American people are asking their leaders, their Armed Forces and their diplomats for an explanation about our role in the world, and why we act the way we do, what we’re trying to win and trying to do. And to a certain extent, the president is trying to build a nation that will answer those questions by the American people.
Q. Regarding Venezuela, have you made any progress in your meetings with the Spanish government?
A. We are coordinating our diplomatic actions to create a network of sanctions against the government of Venezuela, and particularly against individuals or members of the government who have participated in violence against the people of Venezuela or against the democratic process, to facilitate the possibilities of dialogue between the government and the opposition. But we are also very interested in Spain’s work to apply sanctions within the European Union. Spain has played a leading role in this process and I think that this is a very, very important role.
Q. There is currently another round of contacts in Santo Domingo between the Venezuelan government and the opposition. Do you believe this dialogue is going anywhere, and what other options are there besides sanctions?
A. Dialogue is a very complicated and difficult thing at this time, above all due to the behavior of the Venezuelan government. We are very grateful for the work of the facilitators, especially [former Spanish prime minister] José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. But there is still a lot of work to do. From our point of view, sanctions are part of the strength to convince the government that the way out of the crisis gripping Venezuela today depends on a successful negotiation.
Q. On the subject of climate change, there is enormous concern in Europe over Trump’s measures. In the past you have clearly manifested support for measures against climate change. Is the US as committed as it was a year ago on this matter?
A. What we’ve recorded to date is out intention to exit the Paris Agreement, above all because, as the president has clearly explained, we don’t want to limit our economic activity in a multilateral agreement, but this does not directly affect our commitment to climate change.
English version by Susana Urra.