By Alex Calvo


Now that we have left behind the year 2014, it is time to look back at some of the most significant events for Catalonia. Among them, public support for self-determination from a top US presidential aide. Faced between the ballot, and the bullet, the leader of the post-war liberal order did not hesitate, sending a powerful message. While the battle is not over, and US warnings are not a waterproof guarantee (in 1982 Galtieri ignored Reagan’s personal call and went on to use force against the principle of self-determination), it was a major step forward for Catalonia to see her democratic credentials receive public support from Washington.

When the ballot confronts the bullet, when a regime’s only response to a people’s legitimate aspirations is to issue threat after threat, when millions defy such threats and hold hands demanding the freedom their forebears lost by force of arms, neutrality is no longer possible. As so often in the history of humankind, what may at first seem as a local conflict soon takes a whole new meaning, becoming yet another chapter in the long struggle for freedom and democracy, a long struggle that has taken humankind from the ancient regime of absolute kings to the modern concept of government of the people, by the people, and for the people. When this happens, the Arsenal of Democracy cannot stay silent, the Free World’s leader cannot look the other way, neutrality is no longer possible.

And thus, it should not have come as a surprise, although it was indeed much welcome, to hear Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, say loud and clear, at an interview on Friday 31 January 2014, that “Sometimes autonomy works, sometimes peoples end up being independent states, sometimes there are unions, and so I think as a general matter we support there being a process for reviewing these issues in each country, but ultimately each country, each set of peoples is going to make their own determinations”. It was an excellent way to open the new year. The White House spoke, and no doubts remained, the United States of America supported the Catalan ballot, not the Spanish bullet. It was a shot across the bow for those labouring in some dark corner, refining their coup plans, preparing to use force against civilians, planning their war crimes, or at least tempted to do so. The warning came just in time, allowing them to discreetly take a step back. Actually, they could even use the latest rebuff from Washington as an excuse to shelve their evil plans without losing too much face.

By speaking out against a coup, the United States acted in accordance with her grave responsibilities as leader of the Free World and main pillar of peace and stability in the post-war order. Washington was following the principles already enunciated in the Atlantic Charter, issued by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, and later embodied in the UN Charter. Furthermore, the White House was engaging in preventive diplomacy. America has already shown, more than once, the resolve and the capabilities to deal with murderous regimes and to help advance the cause of freedom, with the help of key allies such as the United Kingdom. However, there is something still better than reacting to violence against civilians: preventing it. This may well have been in Ben Rhodes’ mind, sending a clear, unambiguous signal, which obviously would not have come out without the explicit support of the commander in chief.

To lend even more credence to his words, a US Navy warship visited Barcelona a few days before the 9 November vote. It was a coincidence, of course, a technical stop, as repeated ad nauseum by the US Consulate’s Twitter account. However, the more the Consulate insisted that this was just routine, the clearer it became that it was something more. It was a clear signal. “Gunboat diplomacy” may be an infamous term, but at least on this occasion it gained a rather different, and most positive meaning, perhaps we may call it “gunboat democracy”.

In looking back at 2014, let us thus once again welcome this renewed display of US leadership, thank America for yet again defending liberty in the Old Continent, while, however, steeling ourselves to face the worst, for unfortunately there is still no guarantee that Ben Rhodes’ call will be heeded. The battle between the ballot and the bullet is still ongoing, and the latter’s proponents may still be tempted to resort to it in a desperate bid to preserve what they gained by force of arms 300 years ago. This threat, however, should not deter the defenders of government of the people, by the people, and for the people, for history is on their side, and so is the Arsenal of Democracy.


Alex Calvo is an expert on Asian security and defence

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