While the War in Ukraine Is Taking Countless Lives, Italy’s PM remains stubbornly committed to technocratic phlegm.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s speech on Ukraine at the Chamber of Deputies on February the 25th sounded, as usual phlegmatic, slightly robotic, and vaguely empathetic, more focused on energy, rather than on the impact of the Russian invasion and the plight of Ukrainian civilians.
While Draghi’s government stance on international affairs is complicated, given the broad coalition nature of its government, from the Democratic Party’s centre-left to the League’s far-right, Italian foreign policy has been, to adapt the title of author Luigi Pirandello’s famous play, “in search of an author” for a long time.
The Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, ruled by the House of Savoy engaged in a proactive, and aggressive European foreign policy to unify Italy under its rule, by joining the war effort in the Crimean War (on the side of Napoleon III) and securing a military alliance against Austria with Otto Von Bismarck’s Prussia.
Unification was not the only motivation for the recently established Kingdom though, as the country was eager to sit at the colonizers’ table.
Following centuries of conflict between city-states and European powers’ rule, the Kingdom of Italy joined the 1884-1885 Berlin conference where the Scramble of Africa was formalised and Italy’s shameful colonial history, which started in 1869, led to the brutal crimes committed by both Liberal and Fascist Italy in Lybia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, as well as in the Balkans.
At the end of World War II, Italy’s colonial empire was disgregated, with its crimes are conveniently forgotten (also thanks to the United Kingdom’s efforts) but the country maintained a trace of its colonial influence, in the shape of a mandate in Somalia until 1960.
In the postwar Italian political arena, the Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democracy) was the strongest and major political party, with a clear pro-Washington stance, economically, ideologically, and also on the military front, while the second-largest party, the Italian Communist Party (also the largest Communist party outside of the Soviet Union) had strong ties with Moscow and was opposed to the Atlantic alliance.
However, in the Italian First Republic, despite the different international ideologies and allegiances, a very dynamic and diverse foreign policy was pursued by different governments; an important relationship with Israel was cultivated alongside a pro-Arab foreign policy and support for the Palestinians’ rights to self-determination, not to mention the role of the Eni’s chairman Enrico Mattei, whose not-exploitative approach towards Middle East countries benefitted Italy, while putting him at odds with the international oil cartel of the “Seven Sisters”.
This foreign policy owed a lot to the country’s strategic location between West and East, at the centre of the Mediterranean and capable educated Prime Ministers, with the likes of Aldo Moro, Giulio Andreotti, and Bettino Craxi, with similarly capable and educated opposition figures like Communist leader Enrico Berlinguer; what happened then to that foreign policy?
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the political corruption revealed by the Mani Pulite investigation changed everything for Italy, internationally and domestically, especially with the following rise of Silvio Berlusconi.
The foreign policy of the four Berlusconi governments was marked by his infinite narcissism; international relations turned out to be hyperpersonal and problematic, especially with authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and dictators like Muammar Gaddafi.
Berlusconi’s government decision of joining the U.S, U.K, and Spain’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, thus violating Art.11 of the country’s Constitution and bypassing the UN, can also be inserted in this framework.
Some key elements have not changed in the Second Republic, like the ties to Washington, while, when it comes to the foreign policy with fellow Mediterranean countries, the balance has shifted increasingly from the pro-Arab approach to a pro-Israeli one, particularly exemplified by the Berlusconi and Renzi governments.
One of the greatest past advantages for the Italian foreign policy is linked with the original sin that is colonialism, or rather its amnesia of it; the fact that the country’s colonial history was cast aside for decades, just like the rest of its Fascist history, differently from Germany, allowed Rome to relate with non-aligned countries as an equal.
While relations with the Arab world remain present, these often condone human rights violations, like the agreements with Lybia to stop migrants in the Mediterranean or the support for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who rules the country with an iron fist and whose regime agents are responsible for the brutal murder of Giulio Regeni.
Mario Draghi has shifted the country’s foreign policy back to Atlantic positions and away from the closer relations with Beijing and Moscow developed under former PM Giuseppe Conte
The proximity of the League to Putin is proving problematic for Draghi now, as Matteo Salvini vocally opposes the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT payment system, given his admiration for the “strongman” and the investigation on Russian funds for the party.
When it comes to Draghi specifically, technocrats, like it was also seen with Monti, solely lack the necessary approach and stance that can help them in navigating a growingly disorientating global stage, while, even in the European context, as this crisis has proved, the country is not as influential as it could be.
Italy’s soft power can be exercised on the global stage, but in a multipolar world, it is crucial to embrace a balance between three elements: a renewed and improved class of statesmen and stateswomen, a focus on the country’s strategic, energetic and economical interests, as well as one on human rights, in order to play an honest and active role in international crises, not by acclaiming tyrants, as former PM Matteo Renzi did in Saudi Arabia.
As Ukraine is under attack, the amateur hour has passed: in a more confusing world than ever, foreign policy is too important to be left in the hands of technocrats or far-right sympathisers of authoritarian leaders and Italy cannot afford to find itself unprepared in the future.
Angelo Boccato is a London-based freelance journalist and co-host of the podcast Post Brexit News Explosion. He tweets @Ang_Bok.