Foreign policy, unsurprisingly, has not occupied a central role in the campaign for the general elections of 24-25 February 2013. Relations with the European Union, including key Member States, have been discussed against Italy’s problems with fiscal austerity and economic development. One interesting exception is the debate over the vote in favour of granting Palestine observer status in the United Nations that the Monti government gave in December 2012, without a discussion in Parliament. In that context, the Popolo della Libertà denounced a substantial shift in Italy’s approach to the Middle East, which risked jeopardising its long-standing relations with Israel. By contrast, the secretary of the Democratic Party Pierluigi Bersani said that he, broadly in line with the tradition of the centre-left, was in favor of the Palestinian bid- whereas the other contender in the primaries Matteo Renzi declared that he would follow suit with the UK (which abstained) or the US (which voted against). While this episode may offer an indication of what foreign policy could look like after February 2013, to better appreciate Italy’s posture on the world stage three important issues must be taken into account.
The first issue relates to the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy. With the transition from a First to a Second Republic, Italy has been characterized by a highly fragmented and polarized political system. The search for consensus over foreign policy has been more difficult than anticipated and discontinuity, often proclaimed for mere opportunistic reasons, has become the normal state of affairs. This is not a shared conclusion (in fact, some scholars argue that differences are more in form than substance), but the centre-right and the centre-left have often projected two different views on Italy’s role on the world stage. The centre-right has advocated for a sort of re-nationalization of foreign policy, based on the cultivation of bilateral relationships with powerful states, which at times has meant questioning traditional alliances or established positions. The European Union, in this sense, has been perceived as an obstacle to Italy’s ambitious as an autonomous player in international politics and as a constraint that prevents higher growth and freedom. The centre-left coalition has favored a multilateral approach, which is reflected in the idealist view of the centrality of the United Nations and a stronger commitment to the EU, which has been supported but not uncritically.
The second matter concerns the status of Italy in the international arena. Italian politicians have manifested a sort of obsession with the issue of rank – sentences like ‘Italy must count more’ are frequently heard in public debates. This phenomenon takes us back to the First Republic, when most governments sought simply to be ‘present’, to seat at the main table. Since the end of the Cold War, to avoid the risks of marginalization, Italy has opted to participate in a number of international initiatives, most notably military and humanitarian missions. Another component of this approach is the effort to act as a mediator (pursued some times as a direct goal and other times simply to gain more visibility) or as a ‘bridge’ between some great powers or difficult states and the West. Yet, there may be differences of style between the two coalitions. The centre-left has used a sort of ‘quiet diplomacy’, which is based on low-profile initiatives and on the long-term returns that a state could receive. The centre-right has promoted a sort ‘catering diplomacy’, hosting major events without necessarily playing a central role in it.
The third issue is about resources. There is a continuous struggle to reconcile aspirations to play a significant role in international politics and the reality of extremely limited resources, both material and ideational, devoted to that purpose. For instance, Italy has suffered from limited capacity in security and defense policies and in development cooperation policy. More generally, political choices are made in the short term, and there is prevalence of opportunistic reasons rather than long term considerations, which is better known as ‘politics without policy’. An important role, thus, has been played by major economic groups, such as, for example, ENI and ENEL in the energy sector, Finmeccanica in the defense sector, and Fiat in the automobile sector. By contrast, civil society organizations do not seem to have the institutional capability to set effective foreign policy agendas. Probably, Italy would be able to punch above its weight (or at least not below it) if policy prevailed over politics, more resources were devoted to external actions, and the foreign policy community at large were able to produce new ideas and raise more interest within the general public.