Italy, the West, and the Test

27 July 2004

Italy, the West, and the Test

1. The national interest

A country’s foreign policy revolves around its national interest. In Italy this is still difficult for many politicians and people to grasp. One reason is historical. Fascism transformed the national interest into nationalism, and nationalism produced the tragedies of dictatorship and war. Another reason is cultural. Until the fall of the Berlin Wall, Italy’s foreign policy has essentially been a field of dispute between a Marxist, anti-American and essentially pro-Soviet or neutralist view, and a Catholic, pro-European and Atlanticist view, strongly dependant on the Franco-German axis.

Not surprisingly, during that period Italy’s voice and role was weak and inconsistent with its economic and political weight. The very Euro-Atlantic option, a constant feature of Italy’s post-war foreign policy, was seldom elaborated and proclaimed as a matter of national interest. Quite simply, that concept had to be either abolished or hidden.
Although things are changing, this tendency still holds. When the leaders of the center-left coalition say that, if elected, they would change Italy’s foreign and European policy, they appear reasonable; but when they say that they would change Italy’s stance on Iraq if Presidential candidate J. F. Kerry beats George W. Bush in November, they reveal that for some, national interest comes second to partisan political interest.
For those who think differently one preliminary remark is essential. If the national interest is to be the benchmark of foreign policy, then it takes national cohesion and political stability to pursue it. The former has increased considerably: even in the most difficult moments, such as the deaths of soldiers and the seizing of hostages in Iraq, Italy has given proof of national unity and identity. The latter is still at risk. Renewed tensions between the ruling coalition parties might once again compromise Italy’s image and role. How can a country be reliable if it once again becomes politically unstable? What weight can it possibly have, if its work and its players on the international stage can be constantly challenged, as has always been the case since the Second World War? Consolidating political stability and the bipolar system is another way of protecting the national interest.

2. The West wrong-footed

Here I will focus on three points, which I take to be essential to Italy’s foreign policy. The first, as I call it, is the West wrong-footed.
When the Berlin Wall fell the Western world was experiencing something like the late 19th century Excelsior dance. America was celebrating its victory and new opportunities, Europe its re-unification, Democracy its expansion, and the market its globalisation. Many people thought that with the collapse of the Wall, all walls would fall and democracy would spread all over the world. Some even predicted the “end of history”.
Things did not turn out like that. From the end of the Cold War on one front we have moved on to the beginning of a real war on others. No longer ideological, the new tensions and conflicts are ethnic, religious, cultural. As Samuel Huntington predicted, the risk today is a “clash of civilisations”. Being ill-prepared for this clash, the West has been caught on the wrong foot: while it was planning to expand it has become the target of terrorist attacks.
The question is: is the Western world aware that Islamic terrorism is a real all-out global threat that could set the world ablaze, beginning with that part of the Arab world that is seeking a positive relationship with the West? My answer is that the West, particularly the European West, is barely aware of it at all.
Affected by cultural relativism, by superficial pacifism, by multiculturalism conceived in terms of passive tolerance rather than active integration, and by misgivings about its own principles and values, not mentioning the fear of facing the cost of having to defend them, the European West is condemning itself to endure the initiatives of those who want to fight against it. The divisions over the war in Iraq or the doubts about the greater Middle East initiative are but two examples.
In the first case, it is not a matter of adopting a theory of a Dr Strangelove-style pre-emptive war, which no one has ever seriously advocated. It is rather a matter of weighing up the present costs of political, diplomatic and also military inertia, faced with the future risks of instability and conflict. In the second case, it is not a matter of imposing western institutions, models and customs on the Arab and Islamic world, but of knowing whether the West, which believes in freedom and democracy, should not be asking those countries to carry out – or be given concrete help to carry out – the kind of reforms that will introduce freedom and democracy, without which human rights are not respected, citizens are not emancipated, civil society cannot grow, markets cannot develop, and hence the chances of peace cannot increase.

3. A declining Europe

My second point is Europe in decline. As in the case of Huntington’s book, people were shocked by Kagan’s book on Europe-Venus and America-Mars. Kagan’s analysis was brutal and unpleasant. But where was it ungenerous? Where was it wrong? Do we have a united Europe that speaks with a single voice? Do we have European institutions that are strong in foreign policy, security and justice, but light and less invasive as far as the rest is concerned?
Unfortunately we do not. Europe is hesitant between two thorns. On the one hand, it has not yet matured the will to acquire a cohesive identity, as evidenced from the depressing polemics about its Judaeo-Christian roots. On the other hand, it has not yet laid the foundations to become a geopolitical area, as witnessed by the disagreements regarding Turkey’s accession to the Union. It sometimes harbours fantasies about becoming a “counterweight” to America, but when it comes to the crunch it is unwilling to give itself the strength it needs to do so and, above all, undertake to pay the costs.
Burdened down by so much uncertainty, Europe runs the risk of becoming irrelevant. When called to the war in Iraq, Europe split, and a substantial portion of it refused; when called to take part in post-war reconstruction, it split again; when called to make a positive contribution to the Road Map, it ended up by condemning Israel’s defence barrier; when called to combat terrorism, it found it difficult to draw up the list of terror groups; when called to contribute to the Greater Middle East initiative, it agreed but raised caveats; when called to defend its own civilisation and the lives of its citizens, it withdrew its troops; when asked to seek collective solutions to combat unbridled illegal immigration flows, it showed hesitation. How can one be surprised then if citizens nearly deserted the recent European polls?
The European Constitutional Treaty is much less than the ardent pro-Europeans expected, but it was a good thing it was signed before opposition to the integration process led to total paralysis. And it is to be hoped that the demand for ratification by referendum is not merely a cunning ploy being played out on the altar of a Europe controlled by new forms of “directoires”. In the same way, it is to be hoped that the search for a European identity is not pursued as an alternative, or worse still as antagonist, to the one based on the transatlantic link. There are strong parallels between the Atlantic cohesion that was then needed to face the ideological-military threat from the Soviet bloc, and the similar cohesion that is required today to combat terrorism.

4. The UN running out of steam

My third point is the United Nations running out of steam. We all agree the world needs international equilibrium, international law, as well as jointly agreed and democratic decisions. But today, the United Nations Security Council is not a world government, and neither is the General Assembly a world parliament. This is so because of lack of will, credibility and perhaps even feasibility. After all, states are not like individuals that meet together as peoples, and grant the use of force.
The effectiveness of international institutions in guaranteeing world governance cannot be measured in the abstract or in terms of principles, but by a shared desire to tackle the threats of the present risky environment. First and foremost, the threats to security: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, rogue states and failed states. The new wars, or the new shape of conflicts stem from them. This is precisely the starting point of the challenge that the United Nations must address.
But is this organisation, born in another age and for other purposes, doing this? Yes, but with much huffing and puffing, and a considerable lack of success. When an agreement is reached at the Security Council to deal with a crisis, the effect is a temporary “coalition of the willing”; when agreement cannot be reached, paralysis sets in. Neither can it be said that the resolutions of the General Assembly derive much legitimacy and strength from the nature of the groupings that prevail there.
The decision of the General Assembly to condemn the Israeli defence barrier is a sign of weakness, not of strength, because it fails to address the central issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it takes positions dating back decades. Such a decision succeeds in isolating Israel, but it fails to help anyone. Not the Palestinians, because it does nothing to drive them to undertake those internal reforms that are necessary to negotiate a lasting peace. Not the Arab countries, because it obliges them to reiterate hoary old positions which probably not even they believe in all that much any longer.
We all agree the United Nations needs reforming. But if that reform were merely to be a question of taking note that new powers have emerged, and if it merely leads to an enlargement of the Security Council, it would only produce other temporary coalitions of the willing, and yet more paralysis if the coalitions failed to materialise. Much more than that is needed.

5. Italy put to the test

The three points that I have just touched on are three issues of relevance to Italy, and three tests that affect her national interest. And on being put to the test, Italy is overcoming them thanks to a foreign policy based on sound decisions.
More than other countries, Italy has understood its responsibilities, and is bearing the burden. We have kept firmly on the Euro-Atlantic course, and we have demonstrated that we are aware of the risk that the West is running. Our military presence in the world, the sense of unity that has developed even in the tragedies that we have had to live through, the awareness that our Armed Forces are building peace because they are contributing to security, reconstruction and stability in crisis-stricken areas or to the rebirth of failed states – all these are strengths in our policy that we would like to see more widely shared.
The same applies to Italy’s European policy. Under difficult conditions, Italy remained hopeful that a more forceful Constitution would be adopted, preventing an irreparable break-down, in opposition to the emergence of directories that only hark back to anachronistic and ephemeral local hegemonies. We are advocating a more active role for NATO, and we have contributed to its enlargement, convinced as we are of the irreplaceable role of the transatlantic bond and of advocating a more active role for the Organization beyond its traditional borders. We have worked to create stable relations with Russia, because we believe it is useful to steer Russia out of her historical temptations to be a great power. We have fostered the Euro-Mediterranean dialogue. We have worked to bring Turkey closer to the European Union. And in many cases we have shown our skill at negotiating and mediating.
As far as the United Nations is concerned, we have long advocated a plan for reform that we consider to be reasonable, but we have recently been the target of attempts to penalise us. I do not consider any position to be promising, even if advanced by European partners, which penalises us, because like the countries that are demanding a permanent seat, Italy also has regional and global responsibilities. Proof of this is our commitment to the international military operations, our contribution to collective security in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
I believe that the time has come to demand our due, and to ask our allies to put aside their uncertainties and take up a position. This is where our national interest lies. Italy must pursue it. The other countries must acknowledge it.

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