A few weeks after his appointment and the G7 meeting, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte flew to Washington to reaffirm the strong relationship between Italy and United States. Not a British-style special relationship, but a quite unusual relationship nevertheless. Prime Minister Conte, a respected Civil Law Professor with no political background whatsoever, is leading, more formally than substantially, the first populist coalition inside the European Union. He conquered the feelings of President Trump while his European colleagues are still trying to catch up with the strategy behind the new Italian government.
In a situation of restricted space of maneuver, after weeks of French-Italian clashes on the migration crisis, Rome decided to play the American card to gain, on one hand, personal and international legitimacy for the Prime Minister and, on the other one, a leverage to use within the EU. That is not a bold new trend for the Italian foreign policy, but the confirmation of what Ambassador Roberto Ducci said in 1963 after De Gaulle vetoed the English application to join the EEC and signed the Elysee Treaty: “[… with] Italy unable to be independent and Europe unable to proceed with a real integration, then the richest and most distant master is always the best”.
Italian foreign policy has always been described with the geometry of the triangle or as three concentric circles: Atlanticism, Europeanism, Mediterranean. These geometrical descriptions are nothing more than the conceptualization – as Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti used to call it – of a geographical Machiavellianism due to the dual nature of Italy: Continental (from the Alps to the Po Valley) and Mediterranean (from beneath the Gothic Line to Sicily). These two opposing thrusts had to be balanced and from 1861 to 1914 Italy tried to do so positioning himself with the Central Empires on the Continent, especially Germany, and with the United Kingdom in the Mediterranean. The purpose was to gain a safe-zone in which Italy could seek the greatest possible space of autonomy to satisfy ambitions and to protect the unity of the country. Dino Grandi, Foreign Minister during the Fascist period, indeed believed that it was possible to exploit this international position to be the decisive weight in the European disputes. The prestige bulimia of Mussolini eventually led Italy into the defeat of the Second World War.
In the post-war period, a wide neutralist approach took the lead among several parties and sector of the public opinion. Catholics as Dossetti, La Pira, Gronchi, socialists as Nenni, communists, republicans, liberals, most of them thought that it was possible for the post-war democratic Italy to cut a neutral space in between the Western bloc and the Eastern bloc. But neutrality requires both capacity of self-defense and independent choices. Italy had none of them. Indeed, the disaster of 1943 persuaded the new Italian policymakers that the country would remain in a fragile condition for a long time and that a power politics would no longer be a key element of its foreign policy. The result
was a newly born Republic suffering of two main problems: the need for security and reconstruction and a deep inferiority complex. It soon became clear that a close relation with the United States could have been a cure for the disease; since the Americans did not regard Italy as a traditional enemy, and American policymakers could not afford to neglect the feelings of the Italian-American community, the US were willing to move on and forget the war. Therefore, a strong relationship with Washington was a goal that the Italian foreign policy started to pursue before the dawn of the Cold War. Soviet expansionism and the fear for internal revolution lead by the Italian Communist Party strengthened the need of US but did not create it. Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi and his Foreign Minister, Carlo Sforza, decided that insofar the Americans were willing to procure them with the two goods they need the most – security and reconstruction – the choice was made. A reasoning like the one that led Italy inside the Triple Alliance under Agostino Depretis in 1882. Besides, the interest of US for a European integration, due to the presence of the Soviet Union in Germany, fits the design of the Italian policymakers to overcome their sense of inferiority and gain parity of status again. Refusing the game of power politics and promoting a supranational entity would have had the advantage to make every European country counting the same.
Everytime the old European powers clashes with the United States, Italy faced the painful dilemma of choosing between two side of its triangular foreign policy. However, Rome has always shown reluctance to follow the French ambitions and a more Atlanticist posture, such as during the Suez Crisis in 1956 or the Iraqi Crisis in 2003. This does not mean, as many might think, that Italy does not have a foreign and security policy at all. Exploiting divergences between his allies and plying the relationship with Washington, Italy has tried to tailor its own spaces of autonomy promoting a more assertive policy in the Mediterranean and in the Middle East, a reinterpretation of the decisive weight doctrine or, as Prime Minister Amintore Fanfani and President Giovanni Gronchi thought, a sort of small-scale Gaullism. Some, as Giulio Andreotti and Aldo Moro, had preferred a less nationalistic and more ecumenic approach to foreign policy, believing that Italy’s task consists in maintaining the indispensable balance of peace and diplomatic cooperation in the Mediterranean region. The crucial goal was not the solution of a crisis per se, but rather to delay as far as possible the inevitable conflicts. A thought influenced by some sort of Catholic pessimism. Nevertheless, even if friction arose when this research for a more autonomous role risked redirecting Italy in a neutralist direction or clashed with US interests, a close relationship with Washington remained the safest route for the Italian political leaders. The Italian case shows that the United States truly is an Empire by invitation, as Lundestad’s clever definition says. The 1992 institutional crisis, known as Mani Pulite, was often described by some as an American vendetta for the Sigonella crisis against Craxi and Andreotti, while it is quite clear that the old Cold War-parties collapsed because of the absence of the United States.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, Italy lost his geopolitical value and Washington had no more interest in the fate of the old parties and in the enigmatic Italian political life – Henry Kissinger himself said that Italian politics was too complicated for him. For Rome that was not the case, since the roots of his Atlanticism, as we saw before, preceded the Cold War so it is no surprise that it survived the 1989 as the backbone of Italian foreign policy. Today, the European integration, which for Italy is still the means, despite all the skepticism, to achieve and maintain the parity of status, is connected yet to the framework of NATO and United States still are a guarantee for its functioning. Moreover, for the Italian policymakers the American card gives multiple advantages, as it often allowed them to pursue the country’s national interest, stabilize domestic politics, enhance their personal career. Amintore Fanfani, Bettino Craxi, Silvio Berlusconi, Matteo Renzi, Giuseppe Conte, they all played the same game for similar reasons. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has met the need of President Donald Trump to find someone inside the European Union that could be a spur for the French-German axis and a shore for the United States. Recognizing the primacy of Italy over the Libyan crisis, a theater where Washington has no interests at stake, is a clear message against the activism of France in North Africa. Trump is now clashing with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel on Russia, Syria, climate change and protectionist economic policies that are deepening the distance between the two shore of the Atlantic. Indeed, a weakened and divided Europe is functional both to Washington and Moscow.
In the split, Italy is clearly used by the US, but it might achieve some credit for its own interests, while the Prime Minister can earn the legitimation and prestige that he is looking for. “The richest and most distant master is always the best”. Being of usable value means to have exchange value, means having a negative power inside the Transatlantic pillar of the West international system. Indeed, at the same time, the interest that US has for Italy is strictly connected to his capacity to influence the European mechanism. Giving more importance to the Atlantic side of the triangle means to gain leverage on the short-run but losing the grip on the core of the European system in the long-run. And if Italy lose grip on the EU, it loses also the appeal it has for the United States. Balancing the thrusts of the triangle it is the only way to not lose the compass and becoming a useful idiot for Washington and Moscow or, on the other hand, a subordinate of the French-German axis. The lodestar should not be the relation with US, France or Germany per se, since they are more a means to an end, but rather what Italy can do with those relationships to defining and pursue its national interest.