Interview with Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican Ambassador to the United States, and Catalan descendant
The Washington Diplomat is a monthly magazine that is distributed chiefly in Washington DC and as its name indicates, is very focused on the notable community of international civil servants that work in the city. It’s not quite a journalistic competitor to the omnipresent Washington Post bus instead is closely watched for its information about social events, the inside goings-on in the embassies and the federal government, and in general about the people involved there.
In November of 2007, the Diplomat interviewed Verónica Valencia, the wife of the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, Arturo Sarukhan. And towards the end of the interview, there was a detail that grabbed my attention. Valencia explained how her only child at the time, Laia, spoke several languages, among which was Catalan. And that was because her father, that is the Mexican Ambassador to the United States, spoke to her in that language.
The Mexican Embassy in the United States is exactly two blocks from the White House, right on Pennsylvania Avenue. Two small, old-fashioned Washington houses have been completely swallowed up by a modern building which sports the tricolor flag. The location is not inconsequential. Out of the many, many diplomatic missions that there are in the capital of the United States, the Mexican embassy is one of the most important, and the most respected. For obvious reasons. Mexico is not only a neighbor and prime partner of the United States, it is also the mother country of millions of United States citizens. It is not strange, then, that its ambassador should have access to the White House 24/7.
When the interview was held with Sarukhan’s wife, he had only been ambassador for a year, a position he held until early 2013. Before that he was the Consul in New York among other things, and his name came up often as a possible Minister of Foreign Affairs in Mexico. Sarukhan is an Armenian surname; his father had been rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. The ambassador’s second surname, however, is Casamitjana. His grandfather, a dues paying member of Esquerra Republicana, arrived in Mexico on the Ipanema, exiled after the war. His grandson continues to speak Catalan and has not forgotten his origins for a moment.
Today, Arturo Sarukhan is no longer the Mexican Ambassador to the United States but he has followed a distinguished career in international diplomacy. He directed the Global Solutions team at the Podesta Group, one of the most important lobbying firms in the United States, and is also an advisor to many countries and organizations. His voice is closely listened to not only for its experience and connections—it is widely circulated that he is a personal friend of Barack Obama—but also for his particular and innovative focus on how the international community works.
Last week, Arturo Sarukhan participated in a conference in Barcelona on digital diplomacy, organized by Catalonia’s Public Diplomacy Council, DiploCAT. Sarukhan was the first ambassador to have a Twitter account, which he described. He also spoke about how diplomats can use social networks but stressed that in the end, these tools need to be placed in context: “No matter how well you use these tools they don’t substitute traditional diplomacy, or bad policy.” After the conference, he agreed to speak to VilaWeb for a few minutes about his experience and about the situation in Catalonia (vídeo).
“Today power throughout the world is more diffuse and for that reason there are many more actors who are taking part in the international community. That doesn’t fundamentally change the way in which the nation-state acts but the Westphalian system—that notion that it is only the nation-state that acts on the international stage—has already changed.”
Could we say that states today have less control?
“In some sense yes, and we can see that in digital media and on the social networks that have permitted society to participate in politics in a way that wasn’t possible twenty years ago. But I still don’t think that we have gotten to a point in which we can say that these changes are superior to the power of the nation-state.”
How do you see, in this sense, the situation in Europe, which faces proposals like those of Catalonia or Scotland?
“Europe has been the most evolved paradigm of the international system, it was here that it was clear that a measured transfer of sovereignty in favor of the common good would advance the project. Now I believe that this model is starting to show signs of strain, first because of the financial crisis, then due to the tension between economic and social integration on the one hand, and the political limits that have been put in place. It’s in this context that phenomena like what we’re seeing in Scotland or Catalonia have appeared: where the citizenry reclaim new ways of becoming part of and interacting with the European experiment.”
What do you think of Catalonia’s efforts (beyond just political) at capturing the attention of the international community?
“I believe that countries that have a strong country brand have such because of their capacity of attraction, and Catalonia’s capacity of attraction comes from its culture, its cultural industries. Barça, Jordi Savall, Ferran Adrià, architecture, gastronomy… This heritage gives Catalonia the ability to explain itself and have a conversation. Because the world, perhaps outside the European context, understands very little about what is going on today in Catalonia. Culture is an important vehicle for getting people to understand what is happening and to form an opinion about this very important process of change.”
How are you, as a descendant of Catalans, experiencing the country’s current situation?
“Every process of social change is normal. Now the question is how to find a space that allows debate, the exchange of ideas, and to come to a decision for the common good.”
And diplomacy has a role to play there…
An insinuation to which Sarukhan, who had asked that the interview stay focused on the topics which brought him to Barcelona, does not answer. At least not with words, though perhaps indeed with his expression.