Robert Riley: "It is necessary that the debate is based on facts and not on disinformation"

7 min
Robert Riley

Robert Riley is a lawyer and member of the US foreign service. He has been consul of his country in Barcelona since August 2018 and in a few months he will go to Geneva to resume the multilateral policy of the new US diplomacy. He was previously in Belarus, Hungary, El Salvador, Colombia and Honduras. On September 11, 2001, he was working in the White House Emergency Room for George W. Bush.

You are about to leave Barcelona. They have not been easy years...

— No, they have been unique years for everyone. As a diplomat I have been able to do my job with the difficulties of the moment, however, even so, we have achieved a lot because of the good relationship we have with the government of Spain and also with the government of Catalonia.

You came from Belarus, how would you define Russian strategy in the world at the moment?

— It is no secret that we have had difficult relations with Russia for many years, and a lot of this is based on how the Russian government has handled itself in Ukraine. The difficulties also affect our European partners and we need to strengthen our alliances.

You were a political-military attaché at the embassy in Madrid. Bases have been the bilateral issue for many years. Now it is Islamism or telecommunications?

— Bases have always been very important, but also trade relations, a mutual commitment to human rights and promoting prosperity for Americans as well as Spaniards and Europeans. There are other issues that have entered the stage, such as 5G and competition with China fighting the pandemic and facing important phenomena such as disinformation and extremism. But we have a long history of good relations.

You lived through the Atocha bombing in Madrid and arrived in Barcelona after 17-A. Has terrorism been a central issue?

— In any embassy or consulate where I have worked, we are always very focused on issues of terrorism and public security, because it has affected us all, in Spain, in France, in Belgium, in England. We have a very good relationship with all the police forces here in Catalonia and throughout Spain to make sure we have the most up-to-date information. It is an important part of our job to keep up to date on the security situation, especially on terrorism.

How has police and political cooperation been?

— It has been excellent. It has been a pleasure for me and for my work the collaboration we have had with the Mossos, with the Guardia Urbana, with the National Police and with the Guardia Civil, because we have issues that we use together with our friends in the embassy in Madrid and also with our police forces in Washington. I couldn't be happier.

From your CV I was struck by your presence as a senior duty officer in the White House emergency room. Thanks to fiction, we have all seen that room...

— I joined just in August 2001 and I was there for a year, and that means I arrived a month before 9/11, under the presidency of Bush Jr.

What do you remember?

— The first two months are a blur in my memory because it all happened so fast.... From home in Washington we heard the attack on the Pentagon. I had the day off but I immediately took off on my bicycle because everyone was leaving the city. When I got to the White House I had a police escort because obviously everybody was watching the activity around the White House. Everybody worked in a very professional manner, there was a lot of activity and it was very difficult as we saw the harshness of what was going on. I think we came out stronger, more determined in the fight against terrorism.

Let's talk about soft power. Has it been more difficult to act diplomatically in the Trump presidency?

— Well, President Trump was different, wasn't he? Unique, a unique president in several ways. Mainly, his way of communicating was different, as we all know. He liked to use Twitter very frequently and he had a tone of his own. As former Secretary of State Tillerson said, the president was his own best spokesman. As a career diplomat I'm very committed to representing all presidents, all administrations, I've worked with Republican presidents, Democratic presidents, and this is what I did with President Trump. But you know what? I'll be very honest: it's always bothered me when we talk about President Trump's style and the America first. For 25 years I've been working for America first and so have my colleagues, and here in this country you should be demanding that diplomats also work for Spain first, or in France, France first. My job is not to work to promote the interests of Canada or Mexico or Germany, but what we can do, for me, is to work much more together because we all win, by collaborating more, by speaking in a more polite way. As a lawyer and as a diplomat I have learned that we never gain anything by insulting the other person, by humiliating another person, by minimizing another person, by damaging the dignity of the other person, and, in fact, there is always the cost in the long run. I think that's why in his first days President Biden told us government employees that he will not tolerate disrespect or disrespect for each other, and I think that was a very important statement on his part.

One of President Biden's first phrases was "America and diplomacy are back", and you just happen to be going to Geneva, to the UN. Will you be one of the protagonists of the return to multilateralism?

— Yes, and it's true that it's very exciting. It's a key moment to strengthen alliances and also our participation in very important organizations like the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, and others. President Biden has emphasized the importance of working together, the effort to use our partnerships and to work very closely with these partners because we have so many global challenges, and we can gain so much more by working together, by collaborating, rather than trying to do things alone. We can't defend American interests alone, we need our friends, we need our European friends especially. That is why I will be in Geneva.

Can Europe be confident in the climate change commitment?

— It's been a week since we officially returned to the Paris Agreement group, and the appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry is a very important sign of the president's commitment to it. We can be much more effective together than we can be on our own.

Is there a point of no return on stopping globalization?

— It's a supremely complicated issue and there are many different definitions. The world has become much smaller, technology is here forever and ever, for my work, for yours, and it's true that it's brought us a lot of opportunities. But what the United States will do together with our partners is to try to promote prosperity for all in this context, because globalization is also about the movement of jobs and who makes what kind of work more effective. We will not do it alone, we will do it with our European friends, we make up a third of the world trade and therefore we have to cooperate, we have to work together.

Does disinformation endanger democracy?

— I think so, but there is also hope. First of all, because of the work that you and your colleagues do in professional journalism, fighting disinformation, which is everywhere and is a danger. We have initiated several programs to promote media education and to combat disinformation, precisely because it has to do with polarization here and everywhere, in my own country. Political debate is important, deep debate is important, but we need the debate to be based on facts, not disinformation, and there are extremists all over the world taking advantage of disinformation with tools to promote their own agendas based on lies, not facts.

How do you make society literate regarding information?

— You have to start early, in schools, with students, I see it in my own children. You can't just read and believe something because it makes you feel good, because it plays with your emotions. We have to teach them to use tools to detect misinformation and to be more attentive. It's extremely important to take our own decisions, and the combination of politics and emotion is very strong. We have to teach them from a young age to detect, understand and contrast information. I am very optimistic, the same tools used by those who are promoting disinformation are available to us.

And when it is the elites who promote disinformation?

— We have to fight this too. No one has a monopoly on disinformation.

What did you feel when the assault on the Capitol?

— Outrage, mostly outrage. It was a very difficult day for Americans, a clear attack on democracy, and not only in the U.S., because that building for us and for many others represents democracy. The best thing is that congressmen went back the same day and finished the job. It reminds us that we have to defend democracy everywhere, every day, everyone. We have to protect it, defend it and nurture it.

Did the president instigate that act?

— That will be taken care of by the judicial system. We have a very solid legal system. After four years of difficulties we have seen that the institutions are strong and have done their job.

In the next few years, will there be a decline in polarization in the U.S., or does it have important roots in demographic, political, supremacist issues?

— President Biden has begun the process of healing the wounds, however, as you just said, this was not born overnight. We have to look not only at the flames but also at what's underneath them. I think there are a lot of people who feel ignored and unheard, and if there is a group of people who feel that way, it's up to us to listen, it's not always up to us to agree, or to do what they want, but it's up to us to listen. To some extent I think we have lost the talent of listening. We have to listen and involve everyone in the solutions, even regarding polarization.

Was the severity of the coronavirus in the U.S. accepted too late?

— The data is getting much better because of the vaccine. We face the same challenges in the US as we do here. Our system, which is very decentralized among the states, had challenges, but the good part is that now with the vaccine we are getting better and with the new administration we are back to working internationally. President Biden announced four billion dollars for the Covax organization, to distribute the vaccine equitably in the poorest countries, and I think we'll see more collaboration on health issues.

You obviously maintain the diplomatic version on Catalonia: internal affair, united Spain... But have you managed to explain the complexity of the problem to the State Department?

— I want to believe so. It is difficult, because it is a complex problem, very complex, with many years of history. Sometimes we have to do more diplomacy with our colleagues in the State Department than with our counterparts in the country where we are posted. We support a strong and united Spain, and in order to resolve the situation you have a strong and in-depth debate here. As long as this debate, as on other issues, is civic, I believe that you will reach a solution. Sometimes I think that outsiders have more confidence in the ability of the people here to solve their difficulties than the citizens here have for themselves. The same thing happens in my country.

Have you ever been surprised by the level of civility of the debate in Catalonia?

— Insulting and scorning never adds up. It may make you feel better for a moment, but in the long term there is always a cost, and as citizens we have a responsibility to demand a civic debate from our politicians, we have elected them. We need to blame politicians less and think more about our vote and make it an intelligent and civic one.