Ever since former HBO executive James Costos moved into the official US ambassador’s residence in 2013, he and his partner, Michael Smith, have been doing their best to update standard diplomatic practice. From the well-attended events held in their home to high-profile visits by US artists and film directors, all the while trying to push the boundaries of stuffy protocol, the first-time ambassador is determined to make an impact.
“President Obama told me to just be myself,” says Costos from a plush sofa in the main lounge. “We arrived at a very good time for Spain; the economy was moving in the right direction, which gave us an opportunity to do things a little differently.”
Costos hit the ground running, getting to know the capital with regular jogs through the suburbs and parks and exploring the rest of the country with three-day trips to each of Spain’s 17 regions in the first 14 months.
However, after crisscrossing the country to meet government leaders, big business heads and younger entrepreneurs, the ambassador became concerned that he still wasn’t getting a real gauge on “new Spain”. To celebrate his first anniversary he decided to shake things up with a 250-strong guest list of young Spanish creatives and entrepreneurs who ended the night joining the ambassador and Smith in a spontaneous swirl of “dance-floor diplomacy”.
“There’s a lightness to that term but also a seriousness; these are parties with a purpose,” he says. “Michael and I have worked hard to turn the embassy and residence into a platform for engagement across the country.” Since then the embassy has increased efforts to connect and inspire a young generation of Spaniards with high-profile visitors, including Google’s Eric Schmidt, Disney’s president of production Sean Bailey and astronaut Mark Kelly.
“The biggest power I have is the power to convene,” he says. “I’m told that I’m one of the ambassadors that spends more time back at home trying to convince investors to come to Spain.” His Hollywood clout is believed to have paved the way for production of the fifth and sixth seasons of Game of Thrones in Andalucía and Catalonia and to bring a delegation of top studio chiefs and location scouts to the Canary Islands. “Nobody gets out of my clutches – an investment banker, the head of an equity firm, a studio head – anybody that I can entice and talk to about the incredible opportunity here.”
Built in 1955 along with the adjoining residence, the vast compound has seen an impressive upgrade at the hands of Michael Smith (whose CV includes redecorating the Oval Office for the Obamas). Expanding on the State Department’s Art in Embassies programme, Costos called upon high-profile galleries to loan additional pieces.
Approximately 130 Americans and 220 locally engaged staff provide some consular services while also working on an active public-diplomacy programme. It involves promoting investment and liaising with the Spanish Armed Forces and Nato on security concerns and strengthening the US military presence in Spain.
Costos will have to establish good relations with a new batch of party leaders before upcoming national elections deliver a parliament that is expected to be fractured. The prospect of Catalonian secession is also a thorny issue on the domestic front.
Tom Fletcher is the outgoing British ambassador to Lebanon where he was well known for his evangelical approach to social media and digital diplomacy. He talked to MONOCLE about keeping connected.
What does being an ambassador in today’s world mean to you?
Ambassadors have always been about connecting with people – we’ve just found a new way of doing it. Social media allows us a reach we would never have had before. It’s completely revolutionised the way that we collect information but also the way that we actually engage with people and – if we use it right – the way that we can actually influence people as well.
Has there ever been any pushback against your aggressive pro-digital diplomacy stance?
Just recently an article was written in a newspaper saying we’ve got to stop all these ambassadors from blogging and tweeting, that this isn’t the way it’s done. Well, tough: it is actually now the way it’s done. The argument for whether you should use these tools and reach out is won.
Do you think more diplomats should be using social media in the way you do?
Ultimately it’s not the tool that matters as much as the message behind it and all of us are going to try and use different new ways of communicating. We have people out there working with Periscope [a live video-streaming app] now, we’ve got people trying to use Snapchat and lots of people on WhatsApp. We’re always looking for the next way to get our message across in a meaningful, authentic and hopefully engaging way.