“Italy’s Foreign Policy”



By Giuseppe Spatafora



In 2015, Italy celebrates the 70th anniversary of its admission to the United Nations. During his visit to the Parliament in October, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon praised Italy’s contribution to multilateralism, to peacekeeping, and to Mediterranean security. A few weeks earlier, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi argued that Italy should play a more active role in the campaign against Daesh in Iraq: newspaper articles explain “Why Italy cannot look to the other side” and why it is paramount “to face some risks in the name of the international community.” From these two episodes, it might be argued that Italy is a country committed to effective multilateralism, a typical feature of European foreign policy. However, there is more than altruism and sense of duty in Matteo Renzi’s words: the crises in Syria, Iraq and Libya represent a fundamental maturity test for his government and his search for international recognition. Italy, it could be said, is anxious to show the world what it is able to do and how important it is for the community. The government’s aim is to obtain diplomatic capital and spend it to enhance the country’s role over the stabilization of the Mediterranean.

These features are nothing new. Scholars and analysts have long recognized how different Italian governments can in fact be compared by “the anxious and nervous desire for an international status that was unfit for the country” (Mammarella, 2010, p. 1). Italy’s foreign policy is often characterized by inconsistencies and discontinuities, frequent improvised initiatives, as well as the absence of a clear, long-term strategic vision. These constant features have shaped Italy’s external image, and continue to influence its foreign policy up to today, when the country is trying to show the world how useful it can be at a regional level.

The question arises whether a systematic analysis of an apparently irrational foreign policy is possible. Several scholars like Carlo Maria Santoro, Giuseppe Mammarella and Paolo Cacace, Mark Gilbert and others have developed some criteria that can guide the analysis of foreign policy in the case of Italy. The aim of this research project is to test these theories by applying these criteria to the analysis of the evolution of Italy’s foreign policy. It is argued that the historical and geographic constants are a valid analytical tool to understand Italy’s foreign policy, both in the past and in the present. The first part of the work will therefore be dedicated to the description of the criteria of analysis; then, the development of Italian foreign policy will be sketched, focusing on the Liberal, Fascist, and First Republic periods. Finally, the analysis will turn to the post-Cold War context and particularly to the challenges the country is currently facing.

The Analytical Framework: Geography and Historical Constants

The first task that must be performed for a foreign-policy analysis is that of finding the criteria that will be used to interpret historical events and the decision-making process. The background to the analysis of Italian foreign policy is determined, first of all, by the adoption of one of the five approaches to foreign-policy analysis (historical/diplomatic, social/psychological, comparative, bureaucratic, and the longue durée). This paper will follow the longue durée (“long duration”) approach, as defined by Fernand Braudel in History and The Social Sciences: in the development of history, despite political cycles and structural crises, “Old attitudes of thought and action, resistant frameworks die hard, at times against all logic” (Braudel, 1958, p. 732). The longue durée theory applied to foreign policy combines long-term external/systemic factors with internal/domestic ones that shape a certain tendency, behavior or process. This relatively hybrid approach proves to be the most adequate to include the criteria that will be chosen to explain Italy’s foreign policy from 1861 to 2015.

The specific criteria that will guide the analysis are of three kinds: geographical, historical, and social/psychological. The first chapter of Santoro’s The Foreign Policy of a Middle Power, titled “The Constants”, sketches these criteria that shape Italy’s dilemma about its role in the world.

The first external criterion that shapes Italian foreign policy is geography. Italy suffers from a form of “geographic ambiguity” because of its position as a European peninsula projected to the sea: Italy might be described as the tongue of Europe in the Mediterranean. Santoro reckons that this geographical ambiguity has resulted in another ambiguity in terms of foreign policy: should Italy prioritize its central position in the Mediterranean network, or should it cling to the European continent, in which it could play an important role despite its location at the Southern limit? (Santoro, 1991, pp. 40-43). In addition, it must be borne in mind that Europe and the Mediterranean are geographically limited areas, and that the center of power, already in the 19th Century but especially in the 20th, had shifted to other continents, moving from Europe to Washington, Moscow and Beijing. As a result, we must include among the geographic factors the interaction with the Atlantic power: Italy had to maintain a good relationship with the United Kingdom in the 19th Century – Britain approved Italy’s Unification “foreseeing the role that the new state could have played to contain French influence in the Mediterranean” (Mammarella, 2010, p. 4) – and with the United States after the Second World War – as the United States fostered Italy’s recovery and regarded it as a useful strategic ally (Gilbert, 2010, p. 242).

As a result, it can be argued that the relationship with the Atlantic, European and Mediterranean areas are three fundamental constants of Italy’s foreign policy. Churchill’s metaphor of the “three circles” of British foreign policy can be adapted to the case of Italy: the three circles or the three pillars of Italian foreign policy are: Atlanticism, Europeanism, and Mediterraneanism. These three circles have shaped Italy’s foreign policy throughout its history, but each of them dominated over the other two depending on the geopolitical/systemic situation and changes. The Atlantic circle, that is the relationship with the United States, has been the latest to assume major importance, after the end of the Second World War, although it is true that Italy had, as previously stated, maintained a special relationship with Great Britain before the mid-20th Century. The European circle has been constantly present in Unitary Italy’s foreign policy, whereas the Mediterranean circle (a constant in place at least since the Punic Wars) “allowed Italy to develop an autonomous foreign policy” in the late Cold War and post-Cold War period (Carbone, 2008): this policy aimed at strengthening ties with the many Arab countries (especially Libya) and the Balkan states that have access to the Mediterranean basin and become therefore regional partners of Italy.

Scholars debate the hierarchy of these three circles within Italy’s external action. During the Cold War, Atlanticism and Europeanism dominated over the Mediterranean circle, for the very similar reason that foreign policy is subordinated to domestic politics: NATO and the EU ‘embodied’ the Western choice made by De Gasperi in the aftermaths of Fascism and WWII. However, the fact that Italy has been pursued its autonomous Mediterranean policy, especially in its moderate pro-Arab stance and its attempted influence in the Balkans, implies that Washington did not prevent Rome from doing so: thus, the Mediterranean circle is compatible with the Atlantic one (a foreign-policy feature that Santoro calls Neo-Atlanticism). It is more complicated to establish the hierarchy of Atlanticist and Europeanist tendencies of Italian foreign policy. Gilbert argues that “Italian foreign policy continued pro-Atlanticist and pro-European, but when these two twin pillars rubbed against one another, Italy tended to follow the US line” (2010, p. 241). This feature became more manifest during the 2003 Iraq War debate, when the Berlusconi government positioned itself with Bush against the Franco-German position (Gilbert, 2010, p. 253). However, until recent Euro-skeptic tendencies have risen, Italy had been regarded as the most enthusiast supporter of European integration, which is by definition a process to balance the overwhelming strength of the global superpowers. The two circles might be incompatible, but in Italy’s foreign policy they have coexisted without major contrasts most of the time. This inconsistency might be explained by looking at the historical constants that will be discussed in the following paragraphs.

Santoro argues that “the analysis of Italy’s foreign policy from the Unification to now has allowed to recognize five ‘historical constants’ that have characterized the subsequence of events in many occasions, determining the elite’s political orientation” (Santoro, 1991, p. 72). The presence of historical constants is definitely compatible with the longue durée foreign-policy approach that was adopted at the beginning. Therefore, in addition to the geographical constraints, Italy’s foreign policy is characterized by the following five constants: ruolo/rango (role/rank); sicurezza e modello di alleanza (security and alliance model); subordinazione dei fini della politica estera a quelli della politica interna (subordination of foreign policy goals to internal goals); dispersione degli obiettivi (dispersion of the objectives); metodo reattivo e opportunistico (reactive and opportunistic method).

The first historical constant is determined by the problem of positioning Italy in the hierarchy of power. Italy’s “role” depends on the amount of power it possesses and on the costs/benefits that it can incur/gain: Italy’s role has usually been that of “the least of the big powers” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 237) or of a middle power. The “rank” of Italy deals instead with its reputation: the formal recognition of its status given by the international community. A famous interpretation of Italy’s rank was given by Dino Grandi, Minister of Foreign Affairs under Mussolini (1929-32), when he formulated the theory of the “determinant weight”:

We are not the protagonists of Europe yet, but the protagonists cannot act without us. Italy is called, and it will be even more when its military power will be maximized, to determine either victory or defeat. Italy’s policy is the policy of the peso determinante. (qtd. in Mammarella, 2010, p.100)

With “peso determinante” (determinant weight), Grandi meant that while Italy lacked the  military power of the leading countries (its “role” was subordinated), but the country had the potential to balance between Liberal democracies (Fascist Italy conserved many traits of the Liberal period) and the totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany. Fascist Italy’s foreign policy could be that of the “determinant weight” which kept European equilibrium in peace or broke it towards war. In different contexts, Italy has often wanted to act as determinant weight: between Europe and the Balkans, between the West and the Arab Mediterranean countries, between France and Germany.

The second historical constant concerns the Italian notion of security and its consequent alliance need. For a middle power like Italy to feel secure, the system must be under safe control of big powers. A fundamental feature in Italy’s foreign policy has been its constant fear of isolation: Italy not only needs a stable system, it also wants to be aligned with the biggest power, as it fears to be left out of important caucuses. Francesco Crispi claimed that Italy should be “always independent, but never isolated” (qtd. in Santoro, 1991, p. 123). The immediate consequence of the fear of isolation is a high alliance need, as Snyder pointed out (1990, p 115), which has led Italy to join forces with a stronger state. This is the typical behavior of middle powers, called bandwagoning and described by Santoro as “the systemic protection of [Italy’s] vital interests by aligning itself with a much stronger ally… in the hope to ensure overall protection without totally compromising its regional or sub-regional autonomy” (1991, p. 77).

Bandwagoning is present in most periods of Italy’s foreign-policy history. Traditionally, once Italy minimized its fear of isolation by joining in an alliance with a big power, it would suffer from a high fear of entrapment (Snyder, 1990, p. 119), with the consequence that it would re-align itself with another, often opposed, coalition. The typical bandwagon-and-realign process was usually between France and Germany, as demonstrated by the events of 1882, 1914/15, 1935/36: Chabod argues that “Italy’s foreign policy until 1943 was dominated by the continuous oscillation between Francophile and Germanophile positions” (qtd. in Santoro, 1991, p. 77). Italy chose bandwagoning when the geopolitical/historical context suggested that one state (either France or Germany) was the most powerful or the most convenient partner: these bandwagoning decisions often triggered the other pole of the alliance security dilemma, the “fear of entrapment.” Eventually, Italy committed the “crime of abandonment” and ended up allying with the previous ally’s enemy, the most famous case being the entrance in the Great War with the Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance which Italy was a member of since 1882. However, since it lastly bandwagoned to the United Sates, Italy’s tendency to realign has faded, of it has limited to intra-European affairs.

A third historical feature of Italy’s foreign policy is the subordination of foreign affairs to domestic politics. Santoro points out that “Since the end of the Second World War, among the 47 governments of the First Republic only one (the first Craxi government in October 1985) fell because of foreign policy issues, that is the Sigonella crisis with the United States” (1991, p. 89). This statistic shows that Italy’s political elite, unlike in the United States, Britain and France, seems to care less about foreign policy than about internal issues. In the post-1945 world, one possible explanation for this tendency was the “penetration” (according to Rosenau’s terminology) of the geopolitical context into its political system: “Italy’s foreign policy [was] a copy of the bipolar USA/USSR system: opposed political forces that were focused on passing unpopular internal legislation and justifying it as necessary in terms of international politics.” (Santoro, 1991, p. 91).

In addition, the ideological divisions between parties, the lack of party discipline and the overall weakness of governments have been major factors in lowering the effectiveness of Italian foreign policy. The First Italian Republic was governed for over 40 years by a large coalition government with always one dominant party, Democrazia Cristiana (DC), which combined with Centrist and sometimes Socialists parties. Yet these governments were always short-lived and with a low-profile in foreign-policy matters. Getting internal support for foreign-policy decisions was more complicated by the presence of Western Europe’s biggest Communist Party (initially pro-USSR, then more neutral and supporter of a third-way, Euro-Communism) and of a variegated Catholic front (the Catholic Church is still very influential on an electorate with very heterogeneous backgrounds). The Socialist and Catholic groups have never been cohesive enough to engage in bold foreign-policy decisions: the latest example is the decision by the Berlusconi government in 2003 to support but not to join Operation Iraqi Freedom due to internal opposition and lack of bipartisan support.

The fourth constant is labeled “Dispersion of the objectives”: the main feature is Italy’s inability to concentrate its resources on one, clear strategic objective to be pursued consistently. Rather, Italy has usually allocated its resources into several fronts without being able to choose “a corpus of national interests which it could refer to in a consistent way” (Santoro, 1991, p. 87). The reasons for this behavior range from its geographic ambiguity to the lack of strong-power resources, to the question of role/rank and to the subordination of foreign policy to other interests.

The incoherence of Italy’s foreign policy distinguishes it from France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and other great powers that possess a set of national priorities in terms of foreign policy. Throughout its unitary history, Italy has focused on the Maghreb first; then, following French occupation of Tunisia in 1881, it shifted its interests to North-East Africa, namely Libya and the Horn. Italian interests in the Balkans were constrained during the years of the Triple Alliance, but they came to the center of attention from 1914 to WWII. Then in 1946 Italy’s attention was set to the Euro-Atlantic region, with the Mediterranean circle gaining importance again only in the 1970s. Perhaps the best example of the dispersion of the objectives is Mussolini’s policy during the Second World War: Italy entered with the aim to wage a “parallel war”, autonomous from Nazi Germany. Mussolini attempted to attack Egypt from Libya, then Greece from Albania, and after that Yugoslavia from the north: none of the campaigns was successful at first, but instead of allocating more resources to one objective, Mussolini decided to open other fronts in the hope that they could yield more success. Italy’s resources were however very limited, and the dispersion of them among different fronts multiplied the negative effects: German troops were thus forced to intervene to bail out the Italians in Africa and the Balkans.

The final historical constant identified by Santoro regards the “method” of foreign policy that has been adopted by policy-makers throughout the Liberal, Fascist, and Republican periods: the two criteria that have always inspired Italian foreign policy are “reactivity” and “opportunism”.

Italy’s foreign policy is usually “reactive” because it does not follow a given set of national interests, as demonstrated in the previous paragraph, but it acts in “reaction” to external stimuli and to initiatives undertaken by other actors: Italy decided to enter (or not to enter immediately) WWI, WWII, the Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and other conflicts after examining the actions of France, Germany, the United States: Italy never started the conflict or took the initiative in the first place. One could challenge this theory by claiming that it was Italy to re-launch the process of European integration after the EDC fiasco and to be the most enthusiastic supporter of a unified Europe. This is true, but even this process can be thought of as a reaction to the French decision to vote against the EDC treaty: thus, this episode does not necessarily contradict the “reactive method” theory. Two corollaries follow from the “reactive method”: Italy’s foreign policy is also “cumulative” because it is made up of a succession of episodes in reaction to external actors’ decisions, thus lacking creative imagination; Italian foreign policy is also “adaptive” because it can easily be re-shaped and modified according to a mutating geo-political context.

The second feature of the fifth constant is “opportunism”, that is, taking advantage of a change in external circumstances to modify the balance of relative power in its own favor. An opportunistic foreign policy is not necessarily typical of a middle power: hegemons like the USSR in the 1970s have exploited geopolitical or strategic situations in their own favor. The main feature of an opportunistic middle power like Italy, however, is “the implementation of opportunism without a strategic, long-term horizon” (Santoro, 1991, p. 95). The shift between Francophile and Germanophile positions in 1882, as well as the anachronistic campaign in Ethiopia in 1935 and the participation to the two World Wars, demonstrate the “improvised, cumulative, opportunistic” character of its foreign policy.

The geographical constraints and historical constants constitute the framework in which Italy’s foreign policy can be analyzed. Before sketching the evolution of Italy’s foreign affairs from the Unification to the present, two further variables should be introduced. One variable is given by the social-psychological approach to foreign policy analysis: the geographical origin of leaders, as well as their social status and educational background, very often determine their decisions and their perception of Italy’s role in the world. Cavour’s approach to foreign policy, for example, was very different from Francesco Crispi’s one: the two leaders were different in terms of social classes (landed aristocracy vs. revolutionary bourgeoisie), geographical origin (Savoy and Sicily) and political trajectory/context. Their differences led the two leaders to adopt two separate leadership styles and two opposed foreign policies – adhering one to Francophile and the other to Germanophile positions. This variable should be taken into account when discussing Italy’s position vis-à-vis the three circles: some policy-makers may regard Italy as more European than Mediterranean because of their geographical origin or background, and vice versa.

The other variable, the distinction between “milieu” and “possession” goals, should be integrated in the historical constants. Gilbert quotes Wolfers’s essay The Goals of Foreign Policy to distinguish one state’s foreign-policy objectives between “possession goals” (“To secure the enhancement or preservation of one or more of the things to which it attaches value”), for which nations compete, and “milieu goals”: “When a nation directs its foreign policy to the attainment of milieu goals, it is seeking to improve the environment in which it lives” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 245). Gilbert challenges the definition of Italy’s foreign policy as inconsistent by claiming that “in the postwar period Italy was exceptionally committed to the construction of a better milieu” (2010, p. 245): the country has been among the most enthusiast supporters of European integration and expansion, as previously stated, but it has also fostered the strengthening of NATO and the approval of out-of-area operations, starting from the Balkans. In addition, Italy’s membership and enthusiastic participation in NATO and the EU can be interpreted as a post-1945 “transfiguration” of the national interest. Due to the shame of Fascism and the military defeat suffered, Italy had institutionalized its key aims, making them coincide with the milieu’s objectives – a feature that Italy shares with Germany and Japan. Thus, Italy has been consistent in fighting for the institutionalization of European security and social-economic institutions. “The contrast with Britain”, Gilbert comments, “which begins every European negotiation with a narrowly defined set of red lines, or with France, whose gloire is not negotiable, is very striking” (2010, p. 245). A possible counter-argument to Gilbert’s thesis is that Italy has been able to defend European institutions because of the lack of a set of national objectives (constant n. 4) and because only a united Europe would allow Italy to have a say at the global level – this attitude sounding like the attainment of possession goals. Nevertheless, Italy’s constant support of the process of institutionalization provides an element of continuity and consistency that may improve its foreign-policy reputation.

Italy’s Foreign Policy from the Risorgimento to the end of the Cold War

The focus will now turn to the historical development of Italian foreign policy. The purpose of this section is not to provide a detailed account of Italy’s diplomatic history: it is, rather, to highlight how the geographical constraints, historical constants and the personality of leaders have emerged in the flow of events and how they have shaped the foreign policy of the Italian state in the long run. The most important features of the Liberal, Fascist and Republican periods will serve as necessary background to understand Italy’s behavior in the post-Cold War world and its future ambitions.

  1. Liberal Italy’s foreign policy

The period ranging from the Risorgimento to the end of the Great War (1861-1920) is called the Liberal Age because of the predominance of the Liberal bourgeois political class in the framework of the Constitutional Monarchy. The post-Risorgimento Liberal elite, divided into Historical Left and Historical Right, had the following objective in mind: “The newborn Italy had to stop representing an element of international turmoil, as it had been during the Unification years, and demonstrate its role as internationally responsible actor” (Santoro, 1991, p. 106). Italy wanted to present itself to the international system as a valuable element that can contribute to stability, the key feature of the crumbling Metternich’s system. The willingness to be accepted into the post-1848 version of Concert of Europe also shows one of Italy’s five historical constants: the fear of abandonment and isolation. In order not to feel isolated, Prime Minister Camillo Benso di Cavour maintained and reinforced his alliance with Napoleon III’s France, Europe’s hegemon in the 1860s. Italy’s Unification took place under French acquiescence, which Cavour had gained at the Plombiers conference (1858), and the Historical Right’s government continued on the Francophile tradition of its Piedmontese leader even after his death. However, Italy’s tendency to bandwagon did not awake too late: Italy took immediate advantage of the Austro-Prussian war (1866) to attack the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the South, and despite two debacles at Lissa and Custoza it gained control of the Veneto. Italy’s opportunism manifested itself again in 1870 with the conquest of Rome, immediately after France (which guaranteed the Papal State’s independence) was defeated at Sedan. Finally, Italy’s bandwagoning to the Prussian power was completed in 1882, when the Historical Left was in power, with its adherence to the Triple Alliance with Austria and Germany (in response to the establishment of a French protectorate in Tunisia, which Italy claimed to be in its own sphere of influence).

Several factors might explain this turn from Francophile to Germanophile positions, but perhaps the most interesting one concerns the social, geographical and political differences between the two leaders of Historical Right and Left, respectively Camillo di Cavour and Francesco Crispi. Cavour was a member of the Piedmontese landed aristocracy who supported the moderate, Savoy-led Risorgimento. He lived and operated geographically close to France in a period of French geopolitical predominance. In addition, Cavour experienced the early-19th-Century diplomacy modeled by Metternich: the world order was decided by the aristocratic conservative elites in order to reduce the pace of change. The natural outcome of Cavour’s experience was its alignment with Napoleon III as the guardian of stability for Europe and the new Italy. Francesco Crispi differed from Cavour in many aspects: born a Sicilian bourgeois, he joined Garibaldi’s Thousand expedition and experienced the democratic-Jacobin model of national revolution. In addition, during Crispi’s years as Prime Minister (1887-1896) Italy was witnessing industrialization – though territorially heterogeneous –, and consequently looked at the leading industrializing power of the period, Bismarck’s Germany. Crispi admired authoritarian but charismatic figures such as Garibaldi and Bismarck, and took the latter as model for his power politics. The result was Italy’s realignment to Germany, the leading power and the political model, even though the price to pay was the alliance with Austria and the temporary renounce to claims over Trento and Trieste.

Having to reorient its national interests on another objective (the “dispersion of objectives”), Crispi’s Italy turned to the Mediterranean and Africa, and found in the Abyssinia campaign a possibility to bury the memory of its military weakness. Italy however  found a strong resistance by the Ethiopian Negus and Crispi’s ambitions were sunk with the defeat at Adwa (1896): as Mammarella notes, “The Adwa disaster signed for many years the eclipse of Italian expansionism, provoked the crisis of the Crispi government and the end of the Sicilian politician’s career” (2010, p. 43). The shockwave of the colonial adventure had side effects also on Italy’s management of alliances and relations with the European partners: the Triple Alliance had proven useless in fostering Italy’s interests in Africa, and the post-Bismarck German foreign policy, much more aggressive and expansionist, enhanced Italy’s fear of entrapment (Snyder, 1991). The rise to the throne of Victor Emmanuel III (who had the ultimate authority in foreign-policy issues according to Article 5 of the Statuto Albertino) and of a non strongly Germanophile group of politicians led by Giovanni Giolitti pushed Italy’s foreign policy back to Francophile positions: the Mediterranean agreements between Italy, Britain and France (1901/1902) divided the sea into more defined spheres of influence, which gave Italy the green light to establish control over Libya and the Dodecanese, finally gaining a colony that could satisfy its great-power ambitions.

Italy’s foreign policy in the Liberal period showed most of its peculiar traits during WWI. Unlike the other powers that were engaged in the pre-war system of alliances, Italy declared its neutrality, claiming that the Triple Alliance was a defensive pact that did not bind Italy to intervene in the circumstances of the 1914 Austrian attack on Serbia. This decision manifested “Italy’s policy of detachment from the Triple Alliance which had been pursued since the turn of the century” (Santoro, 1991, p. 134). In addition, it showed Italy’s relative marginality vis-à-vis European powers: while all other states immediately complied with their obligations to the allies, Italy was able to step aside, a sign of uncertainty and ambiguity, not of autonomy.  The year-long Italian neutrality was characterized by the internal debate between pacifists (Catholics, “Giolittiani” and Socialists) and interventionists, the latter subdivided into Francophile and Germanophile positions, which corresponded to a process of redefinition of Italy’s objectives towards the North-East. The generous promises set in the London Pact of April 1915, the latest of an early 20th-century secret-diplomacy trend, persuaded Prime Minister Salandra and Foreign Minister Sonnino to commit “the crime of abandonment” and to sideline with France and Britain against its ‘natural enemy’ since the Risorgimento, Austria.

Italy’s contribution to the war (plus its choice to stand with the winning side) allowed it a place at the Versailles Peace Conference as a great power, fulfilling its ambitions, but its role was subordinated to that of France, Britain and the United States: Mammarella notes, more precisely, that “the economic and military weaknesses showed in the conflict confirmed Italy’s position in a special and perhaps unique role as intermediate power between first- and second-rank states” (2010, p. 76). Consequently, Italy did not play a primary role in the negotiations, and did not possess the bargaining power to get all the territories that had been promised in the London Pact. Italian diplomats kept requesting that all the 1915 agreements be respected, and they obtained Trento, Trieste and Istria: Dalmatia’s annexation to Italy was instead incompatible with the principles of national self-determination set forth in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Italy’s discontent with the Peace Treaty and its intolerance to being treated as the “least of the great powers” fomented the myth of the vittoria mutilata (“mutilated victory”), a hyper-nationalist claim that would be adopted as slogan by the Fascist movement.

To conclude this analysis of the Liberal period, it can be concluded that the new-born Italy displayed its middle-power anxieties, the inability to clearly define its objectives, and the tendency to bandwagon. The structural uncertainties of Italy’s foreign policy made the great powers suspicious of the country’s commitment and reliability: as a result, they were not too generous in terms of territorial compensations and recognition of Italy’s status. The Liberal elite was discredited both abroad and domestically: together with other social, economic and political factors, the external crisis caused the collapse of the Italian constitutional system. In 1922, a new political figure came to power with the purpose of delivering Italy the anxiously sought international role that the previous political group had not obtained.

  1. Fascist Italy’s foreign policy

That figure was Benito Mussolini, who would rule over Italy from 1922 to 1943, constituting an independent chapter in the history of Italian politics, and also in foreign affairs. The Fascist “Ventennio” has been regarded as a substantial revolution in Italy’s foreign policy: with a government having absolute control on internal politics and on the opposition, Italy would be expected to have a stronger and more assertive voice. Let down in its post-war aspirations by the mutilated victory, the country was going to show its muscles and show its importance to the world. The regime’s rhetoric stressed the following foreign-policy objective: to re-build the Roman Empire, make Italy the hegemon in the Mediterranean, and become a full colonial power. For this reason, foreign policy became much more important during Mussolini’s time than in the Liberal Age, in contrast to the historical constant claiming that Italian foreign policy has been subordinated to domestic needs.

Nevertheless, Santoro and Mammarella on the fact that after a more detailed analysis “Fascist foreign policy shows elements of structural continuity with the Liberal period” (Mammarella, 2010, p. 89) despite “the massive internal transformations” (Santoro, 1991, p. 160). The same foreign policy traditions, it is argued, can be applied to a different external context (the League of Nations framework, the rebirth of German militarism and the rise of National Socialism, the crisis of 1929) and to the internal change from a Liberal constitutional monarchy to a dictatorial regime. It must also be borne in mind that the monarchy remained in place throughout the dictatorship, maintaining its supervision over the Duce – Mussolini was named Prime Minister by Victor Emmanuel III in 1922, gave him the title of Emperor in 1936, and was dismissed by him in July 1943 – and keeping also the final word in matters of foreign policy as for the Statuto Albertino Article 5. Given this background, we will analyze the evolution of Fascist foreign policy by dividing it into two periods: the first ten years (1924-1934) when Italy protects the post-Versailles international system, and the second decade (1935-1943) in which “force prevails over diplomacy” (Santoro, 1991, p. 164).

During the first half of the Fascist dictatorship, Mussolini was primarily interested in strengthening his power domestically, changing the Italian Kingdom from a multi-party parliamentary system into a one-party dictatorship. At the same time, the very ideology of Fascism was being shaped in order to include as many elements as possible and to rise consensus among the Italian population. Mussolini could be compared to Crispi because they both started their career in the radical revolutionary Left – Mussolini was originally the head of the Maximalist wing of the Socialists. However, during the following two years Mussolini’s movement came to include also the support of the conservative agrarian proprietors – who wanted their land to be protected from revolts – and of the industrial elites. When the leader of the heterogeneous PNF (Fascist National Party) was chosen by the king to restore order in Italy, he started to enhance his powers by ruling through decrees. He also needed to gain the sympathy of the Catholic population, which he did in 1929 by signing the Lateran Pacts with the Church. Given this primary attention to the building of consensus, “The foreign policy of the first decade was marked by a non-definition of strategic aims and priorities” (Santoro, 1991, p. 165). Italy tended to keep its alliance with the winners of WWI and to ensure compliance with the Versailles settlement: despite its inner revolution and its dissatisfaction with the 1919 Treaty, Italy was a status-quo power.

Italy started his foreign-policy actions by settling the border disputes with Yugoslavia: the Treaty of Rapallo and the following Treaty of Rome (1924) ensured Italy’s control over the city of Fiume, which had been fought for by the Arditi movement led by poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Then, Italy participated to multilateral conferences in which the Weimar Republic was re-integrated in the circle of great powers. Parties to the Locarno Conference (1924) recognized the frontiers established in Versailles and guaranteed compliance. European countries stated their “rejection of war as instrument to solve political disputes” in the Kellogg-Briand pact of 1928: despite the regime’s cult of militarism, Italy was ready to endorse the Pact – in order to reassure the allies of its peaceful intentions as well as to avoid remaining isolated. In spite of the apparent pacifism in Europe, hyper-nationalism was rising in the late 1920s – the economic Depression accelerated the process – and many newly established democracies were turning into authoritarian states. During that period, Foreign Minister Dino Grandi exposed his theory of Italy’s role as ‘determinant weight’: Italy could become a necessary tool for Western powers that were willing to maintain peace with the expanding authoritarian/totalitarian regimes.

When Hitler gained power in 1933, Italy started to fear a German military comeback. Mussolini responded by threatening the use of force – troops were sent to the Brennero area in order to dissuade Germany from a possible Anschluss in 1934 – and by further strengthening the alliance with France and Britain. In 1935, France, Britain and Italy declared at the Stresa Conference to be “ready to oppose any unilateral violation of international treaties in Europe with all possible means” (Mammarella, 2010, p. 106). The “Stresa Front” was the last attempt to form a pro-peace European directory in which Italy was a fundamental member. However, things started to change by mid-1935: Britain made a separate deal with Nazi Germany allowing its naval rearmament, and Italy took advantage of the phrasing “violation of international treaties in Europe” to legitimize its renovated interest for Africa and colonial expansion.

With the campaign in Ethiopia (October 1935-May 1936), Fascist foreign policy moved to a second phase: Mussolini decided to rely more on force than on diplomacy, showing once again the difficulty of Italian foreign policy to be consistent in the long term. By acting unilaterally, Italy lost its role as determinant weight and turned its former allies into enemies. Another feature was that during the campaign “Germany had become favorable to Italian expansionism, and it was the first government to recognize the annexation of Ethiopia” (Mammarella, 2010, p. 112). During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Italy and Germany found themselves together in supporting General Franco: the role of the Corpo di Truppe Volontarie and of Italian navy in collaboration with the German Condor division increased the partnership between the two countries and enhanced their image as the protectors of Europe from Communism. Italy completed its bandwagoning policy by signing the Axis Pact in 1936 and the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1937. Mussolini maintained some ‘determinant-weight’ role by signing agreements with Britain over Mediterranean stability and by acting as mediator at the Munich Conference in 1938 (which he portrayed as his greatest diplomatic success), but the Iron Pact of 1939 “transformed Italy into a satellite of Nazi Germany”, triggering its alliance security dilemma. Italy in 1939 experienced the same fear of entrapment of 1914: the reaction to the German invasion of Poland was similar, with Italy not intervening but coining the term “non belligeranza” to express its promise to help Nazi Germany in the future.“The non belligeranza symbolized Italy’s political marginality and of the lack of awareness of its objectives”, Santoro explains (1991, p. 170).

When Mussolini eventually entered the war in order to sit at the peace meeting on the side of the victors – perhaps the worst strategic decision in Italian history – it also demonstrated to lack a clear military focus. Italy tried to wage a ‘parallel war’ to show its autonomy from Germany: the fronts opened in Africa, Greece and Yugoslavia, however, overstretched the already weak Italian military apparatus. Foreign and military policy caused the collapse of Mussolini’s government in 1943, but the new Italian authorities proved to be incompetent and coward, leaving a country torn apart, occupied by foreign troops (Anglo-Americans and Germans) and devastated by a civil war. The Italian Republic was then built out of the ashes of the discredited monarchy.

  1. The First Republic’s foreign policy

At the beginning of the post-WWII period, Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi considered that “Italy should attempt to reassert herself as a middle-rank, regional power fully inserted into the broader international system” (qtd. in Gilbert, 2010, p. 235). This sentence summarizes the situation the country was witnessing in 1946, when the Republic was chosen over the Monarchy as new form of government: Italy had been devastated by the war, its international reputation was at the nadir, and therefore had to find a new place among countries, giving up its great-power ambitions that had caused a disastrous defeat. At the peace conference, Italy’s new political elite presented the country as a victim, not as an accomplice of Fascist dictatorship: but while such arguments “found some sympathetic ears among US policymakers, they cut no ice whatsoever among the British, the French, the Ethiopians, the Greeks, the Soviets, or the Yugoslavians” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 237). De Gasperi, then the head of a national unity government, accepted therefore to sign a peace treaty that treated Italy as a defeated state, depriving it of all colonies and some territories, with the Yugoslavs taking over Istria up to Trieste. Italy humbly accepted it as just price for peace and readmissions.

The next task for Italy was to enter the new political order, characterized by the growing US-USSR confrontation. The Iron Curtain, running “from Stetlin to Trieste”, put Italy at the frontier between the two blocs, and not few political and social groups – under Catholic influence – called for Italian neutrality. The main parties guiding the country, the Christian Democrats (DC), the Socialist Party (PSI) and the Communist Party (PCI) were split between supporters of the West (DC) and of the USSR (PCI): if the national unity government was to last, then Italy might have opted for neutrality. But in the Cold War system there were no neutrals, and if Italy wanted to be readmitted, it had to choose a side. The Communist Party was decisive in that circumstance: despite his pro-USSR stance, Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti understood the geopolitical impossibility for Italy to enter the Eastern bloc, and accepted the choice to join the West – having nevertheless to leave the national unity government. As a result, Italy signed the constitutive treaty of the Council of Europe, accepted the Marshall Pact (1948) and entered the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (1949) under the invitation of the only other Latin-speaking country, France. At the same time, De Gasperi won the 1948 elections, and for the following 35 years the DC would always be the main party of the government coalitions, with the PCI representing a considerable opposition.

Perhaps the most striking consequence of post-WWII Italian foreign policy was the tenacity with which Italy’s leaders pursued their original choice: instead of playing off Moscow against Washington for the sake of short-term gains (feature of the post-Risorgimento foreign policy), Italy was labeled “NATO’s Bulgaria” because of its new, constant commitment. However, it must be remembered that alliances in a bipolar world are much more rigid, as Waltz argues: Italy could not switch sides as easily as it had in the previous multi-polar system. In addition, the US-Italy version of the transatlantic bargain was instrumental to this consistency: the Atlantic circle was created in the immediate post-war years, with the US supported the argument of Italy being victim of Fascism, and strongly supported its recovery. Italy, on its side, allowed the US to deploy missiles and troops on its territory: in 1979, for instance, the Socialist reformist Bettino Craxi accepted the new theater nuclear missiles in Italian territory, the first European country to do so. In exchange for this commitment, the US  allowed Italy to reassert itself as a regional power, consistently with De Gasperi’s original goal: in the 1960s, DC leaders Aldo Moro and Amintore Fanfani could “open to the Left” (including the PSI in the government coalition) without strong American opposition. Gilbert (2010, p. 241) comments that such a foreign policy might seem unheroic: “Yet what was Italy to do? The grandstanding of a Charles De Gaulle was not an option for Italy in the 1960s. […] Italy was a follower, not a leader, a consumer of security, not a provider.”

Another feature of Italy’s foreign policy during the Cold War was its role in the European integration process. Since the Hague Conference of 1948, De Gasperi became one of the most enthusiastic promoters of European political convergence, advocating the creation of a European federal state. As Tommaso Padoa-Schioppa, minister during the Second Republic, claimed, “Italy has never lost sight of the final goal: the creation of a politically united Europe based upon supranational powers” (qtd. in Gilbert, 2010, p. 241). This objective is also consistent with Gilbert’s claim that post-war Italy foreign policy focused on milieu rather than possession goals, as previously explained. In the early 1950s, Italy supported the project of the European Defense Community (EDC), and meanwhile it joined the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Italy benefited from the spectacular failure of the EDC in the French National Assembly in 1954: the United States allowed Italy to enter the Western European Union (together with Germany), and the year after Italy was admitted in the United Nations. However, Italian Europeanists did not abandon the process of integration: “The relance began at Messina in 1955, pushed ahead in Venice, and the EURATOM and ECC treaties were signed in Rome in March 1957” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 240). Some decades later, Italian diplomatic efforts set the ground for the signature of the Single European Act (1987). Italy’s role in the process was thus less visible than France’s and Germany’s, but not secondary. Padoa-Schioppa maintains that Italy’s contribution to European integration was both intellectual and practical: “Italy acted as the conscience of Europe: its political thinkers exercised a profound influence on the formulation of the ideology that guided European integration” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 244). Among the individuals to be given credit for that are Gaetano Martino – who drafted the “Report of the Three Wise Men on Political Consultation” together with Lange and Pearson –, Luigi Einaudi, Altiero Spinelli, Mario Albertini.

While it is true that Italy contributed to the development of a European political identity, it should also be borne in mind that Italy still suffered from the anxieties and ambitions typical of a middle power. The country feared being left out of the circle of Europe’s great powers: when in 1975 French President Giscard D’Estaing invited the United States, Britain, West Germany and Japan to discuss world economic affairs, Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti rushed to the meeting and “secured permanent Italian inclusion in what, following Canada’s adhesion, became the G-7” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 242). A different outcome took place four years later, when Italy was not invited to a meeting in Guadalupe to discuss the installation of Peshing missiles in Western Europe – “a slap in the face, an uncalled-for humiliation that seemed to underline Italy’s growing international marginalization” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 242).

A further feature of Italian foreign policy during the Cold War was its autonomous policy vis-à-vis the East, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, as a result of post-1945 “Neo-Atlanticism.” Italy opened diplomatic relations with the USSR on the late 1950s – while the Eisenhower administration applied the strategy of massive retaliation and the Hallstein doctrine was implemented in Europe – and in 1975 it signed the Treaty of Osimo with Yugoslavia, during the period of détente. Because of its geographical dualism, Italy’s milieu includes both Europe and the Mediterranean, and in the 1950s and 1960s, most states in the Arab world achieved independence and adopted a Nasserist, anti-Western stance. However, Italy strived to maintain diplomatic relations with important partners for energy supply such as Lybia and Iran, even after Ghaddafi’s takeover and the 1979 Revolution. Politicians like Andreotti and Craxi fostered therefore a moderate pro-Arab policy, which the government also maintained in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1974, Italy recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and in 1984 Craxi visited Yasser Arafat at the PLO headquarters in Tunis.

This position was inconsistent with the American, pro-Israel stance, and tensions among the two countries reached the lowest point in 1985, after the terrorist attack on the Achille Lauro ship: Italian forces refused to hand over to the American military Abu Abbas and the hijackers who had been guaranteed immunity and had landed in the Sigonella military base (Mammarella, 2010, p. 165). Craxi’s opposition to Reagan, sold domestically as David challenging Goliath but cost the fall of his government, represented the occasional inconsistencies of a middle power that, despite its willing subordination to the superpower, is willing and anxious to pursue an autonomous foreign policy. Despite the transformations of the post-WWII period, it can be seen how the long-term features of Italy’s foreign policy are still in place.


Italy’s post-Cold-War and present foreign policy

In order to understand the evolution of Italian foreign policy in the contemporary world and establish whether the geographical-historical constants are still a valid analytical tool, both external and internal transformations of Italian politics in the early 1990s must be taken into account. The most important international events were the end of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The unexpected downfall of the long-standing enemy revolutionized European security, posing fundamental questions about the role of NATO, its members and its former opponents. A second important event with paramount regional consequences was the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union and lay down the foundations for a European single currency. Since the 1990s, Italy’s foreign-policy-makers had to deal with new foreign and security issues: NATO expansion and cooperation with the East and the establishment of the European Union as a supranational economic – and increasingly political – actor.

The internal transformation that has deeply influenced Italy’s post-Cold-War foreign policy is the collapse of the First Republic: in the years between 1992 and 1994, the Mani Pulite judicial enquiry led to the conviction of hundreds of politicians in corruption cases – Mammarella comments that “The judiciary finally took its revenge over politics” (2010, p. 244) – and caused the collapse of the First-Republic parties, the DC and the PSI in primis. The result was the establishment of a bipolar system (instead of the uni-polar, DC-dominated one) that would ideally guarantee the alternation to power, and the rise of new parties from both the left and the right. Gilbert (2010, p. 250) briefly sketched the evolution of the new parties, which we can extend up to today: the Lega Nord (Northern League), originally separatist, now advocates for federalism and Euro-skepticism; the neo-Fascist MSI became AN (Alleanza Nazionale, today Fratelli d’Italia) and wanted to establish itself as a modern European right-wing party; the Italian right has gathered around the popular entrepreneurial figure of Silvio Berlusconi and his party Forza Italia for about 20 years; the PCI has split into a radical wing (Rifondazione Comunista, currently a minor force) and a more moderate Social-Democratic wing (Democratici di Sinistra) which then converged into the center-left coalitions of L’Ulivo (1996-2006) and eventually into the Partito Democratico (PD). The new parties not only had to enhance their electoral base domestically: they also had to find political legitimacy and acceptance from the major allies – this last factor being particularly important for AN and the DS.

Together with to the external and internal transformations, a debate arose in the security, defense and diplomatic elites about the future directives of Italy’s foreign policy: it was the debate between milieu and possession goals. According to a school of thought led by the Italian magazine Limes and by General Carlo Jean, “the time ha[d] come for Italy to adopt a more assertive foreign policy with the aim of promoting its national interest” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 245). According to the other school of thought, headed by Professor Andreatta, there was instead “no need to change Italy’s traditional support for multilateralism and the development of European institutions” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 245). This latter opinion has been typically held by the Bologna school, whose most important political exponent was the twice-Prime Minister and European Commissioner Romano Prodi. Although the tendency to strengthen the milieu has remained the main feature of Italy’s foreign policy in the last 25 years, a more assertive foreign-policy activity, especially in the Mediterranean, can also be observed: the two policies, incompatible by definition, have coexisted in the “reactive”, “opportunistic” and “cumulative” features of Italy’s foreign policy in the long run.

The systemic transformations of 1989 had deep effects on Italian geostrategic position: the fall of the Communist bloc meant that Italy was no longer at the frontier with the East. Despite losing its strategic importance, Italy felt it could take advantage of the post-1989 transformations to enhance its role in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans, expanding the Neo-Atlantic tendencies of its Cold-War policy: “Mediterraneanism continued to be a valid pillar of Italy’s foreign policy, though the circle was widened to include the Balkans” (Carbone, 2010). The implosion of Yugoslavia and the rise of ethnic violence in the region further persuaded Italy to assume a leading role in the stabilization of the Balkans: in the 1990s, the country seemed willing to change its behavior and turn from a consumer into a producer of security. Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema declared with reference to NATO’s intervention in the Balkan wars that “Italy [was] feeling compelled to fulfill the  task that the new NATO has assigned to it” (Mammarella, 2010, p. 260). However, we could interpret this statement not only as a state’s sense of duty vis-à-vis the international community: D’Alema’s position manifests the need of the first, and so far unique, post-Communist Prime Minister to show his commitment to the cause of Western Liberalism and to its institutions.

Thus, the new interventionism in Balkans was the first of several international missions Italy took part in. The country put much effort in the NATO-led missions in Serbia (IFOR, SFOR) and in Kosovo (KFOR). In 1997, Italy led a UN-approved peacekeeping mission in Albania, known as Operazione Alba. This operation was in response to a government crisis in the former Socialist state and the effects of the war in the neighboring Kosovo region caused a massive inflow of migrants to Puglia’s shores, one of the first immigration crises that Italy suffered since the 1980s, when “with a dramatic U-turn, Italy transformed from immigration to an emigration country” (Caponio, 2008, p. 445). In the 1990s, Italy started to deal with large inflows of migrants and understood that, in order to keep the flow under control, it would need stable partners on the other Mediterranean shores – which explains the 21st century accords with Gaddafi’s Libya. Italy would also support NATO’s out-of-area expansion, participating mainly in peacekeeping and state-building missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The most important tool that Italy has offered to the international community for these missions is the Carabinieri peacekeeping force: given their experience in performing both military and civil-police tasks, the Carabinieri have often been deployed in state- and governance-building situations, in which they  maintain a positive relationship with local public order forces and civilians. As a result, the Carabinieri have suffered comparatively fewer attacks, the most famous case being the suicide bombing of the Nassirya base in Southern Iraq. Italy’s commitment to peacekeeping mission has had, overall, the ultimate goal to demonstrate the role that the state can play at the international level and to avoid being disregarded: thus, it can be thought of as the latest attempt by Italy to fit in the international system as a valuable and not isolated ally, an objective that underpins Italian foreign policy since 1861.

Another fundamental feature of Italy’s Post-Cold-War foreign policy has been the continuation of its pro-EU stance. It has already been argued that Italy has been the most fervid supporter of the European integration process. In 1992, when the Treaty of Maastricht moved the process forward by establishing a political union (European Union), an economic union, and a single currency, “the conscience of Europe” could not risk being left out of the process: in addition to the economic disadvantages of remaining out of the system, Italy’s constant fear of isolation pushed most of its diplomats and foreign-policy-makers to enter the European Union. Italy’s balance account of the early 1990s shows evident cuts in public spending and increasing privatization in order to reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio and the inflation rate: however, “Italy entered the European Monetary Union although it failed by far to fit the Maastricht criteria” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 252). In the 1999-2001 period, Italy abandoned the Lira to adopt the Euro, under the strong pressure by Romano Prodi, at the time President of European Commission, and of President of the Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. Having been accepted notwithstanding this weaknesses, Italy has maintained an inclusive approach to the EU’s enlargement policy – and of the contemporary NATO expansion –, supporting the candidacies of ‘weak countries’ (Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey) despite their poor record in meeting the economic and political requirements. A rare case for Italy, “this support has been bipartisan, representing the convergence of a progressive approach favoring underprivileged countries, and a conservative one, to protect Italy’s interest” (Carbone, 2008). Italy’s contribution to the process of expansion and extra-EU multilateral dialogue has been rewarded by the nomination of Mrs. Federica Mogherini as High Representative of the Union for Foreign and Security Policy, the most important European figure in terms of foreign policy.

In addition to other post-Cold-War factors, the foreign-policy changes that took place during the 2001/06 and 2008/11 Berlusconi governments need to be taken into account. Silvio Berlusconi has been the most relevant and well-known politician of the Second Republic – in great part because of his extravagant and libertine attitude – and Forza Italia (after merging with AN into the Popolo delle Libertà, before splitting again) is still the main center-right party.  In terms of foreign policy, the aforementioned decade has been called The Berlusconi Revolution. It has been debated whether the Berlusconi years constituted a rupture with the past or if the media entrepreneur “operate[d] within Italy’s foreign policy traditions” (Miller, 2009, p. 15).

The claim that Berlusconi’s presidency represented a turning point in Italian foreign policy is based on three policies adopted by that government vis-à-vis Europe, the United States and the Middle East.  Berlusconi has been labeled as “the least European, the most Atlanticist of Italian prime ministers” (Gilbert, 2010, p. 257). The claim about his Euro-skepticism is based on the Ruggiero resignation case of 2002: when Berlusconi unexpectedly decided to withdraw from the EU’s project to build a pan-European defense aircraft, his Europeanist foreign minister Ruggiero resigned in protest, claiming that the decision was “a potentially lethal attack on the newborn European Security and Defense Identity” (Mammarella, 2010, p. 289).

During the Italian semester of European Presidency the new foreign minister Franco Frattini attempted to re-stimulate European multilateralism by campaigning for the European Constitution’s adoption, which however failed to pass the popular approval. But the Berlusconi government stroke a second blow to Italy’s traditional Europeanism: in 2003, Berlusconi sidelined with Bush and defended the necessity and the legitimacy of the Iraq War, standing in opposition to the Chirac-Schroeder front. Italy seemed to turn to a more “a la carte approach to the EU” in the place of its traditional commitment (Miller, 2009, p. 17).

In reality, according to many analysts, Berlusconi is not a revolutionary. It can be agreed that Berlusconi re-evoked those features of improvisation and opportunism that are constant in the country’s foreign policy. Miller comments: “He is a very pro-American politician… [but] he follows a long rooted tendency to overvalue the ‘American girl friend’ and correspondingly to undervalue the ‘European wife’ in assessing Italian needs” (2009, p. 15). The tendency to prioritize the Transatlantic relationship over the European one is a feature of post-WWII Italian foreign-policy behavior, and Berlusconi is a remarkable example of that. Despite the strong internal opposition to the Iraq War – to which eventually Berlusconi did not participate, because of the widespread pacifism of Catholic-Socialist origin – Italy’s Prime Minister survived politically, the only one among all pro-Bush European leaders (Blair, Barroso, Aznar): a possible explanation might be that a pro-American stance was tolerated by Italian electors.

Be it regarded as revolutionary or not, Berlusconi’s foreign policy was very innovative in some issues. He displayed a form of “personal diplomacy”, in the view that his strong, personal contacts could help reinforce the country’s image and position. The Prime Minister acted as an important ally of Russia in the Western block, continuing his personal friendship with Vladimir Putin at the head-of-state level. Italy was very influential, for example, in the establishment of the NATO-Russia Council, signed in Rome in 2002. He also strengthened the partnership with Muhammad Gaddafi, enhancing cooperation the fields of energy supply and sea patrolling to control immigration. Gaddafi’s repression of protests in 2011 led to the NATO bombing campaign on Libya, to which Berlusconi’s Italy participated, offering its military facilities in Sicily as departure points for missions. Italy’s participation might be regarded as a hypocritical action against a long-standing ally, but it was dictated by the Atlantic organization which Italy has constantly shown to be committed to: Italy bandwagons to the stronger side, and the sudden break-up of relations is a typical feature of its foreign policy.

Perhaps the most important turning point was the change in Italy’s policy towards the Middle East, and the abandonment of its moderate pro-Arab policy. While in the previous decades Italy had maintained a “formal and cold friendship with Israel” (Marzano, 2008, p. 81). Things started to change in 1999 (with D’Alema hosting Ariel Sharon in official visit), but it was surprising when the Berlusconi administration rapidly implemented several pro-Israel initiatives: it started criticizing UN resolutions condemning Israel, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Jewish State, pushed to include Hamas in the EU list of terrorist groups, and was reluctant to send an official delegation to Arafat’s funeral. In 2003, Italy was labeled “Israel’s best friend in Europe” (qtd. in Marzano, 2008, p. 80).

Marzano explains this change in attitude by focusing on both external and domestic factors. Internationally, Berlusconi’s foreign policy was driven by his pro-Atlantic attitude and by “the idea of increasing the EU role in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process […] by balancing its biased anti-Israel stance” (2008, p. 90). At the domestic level, two important factors were the presence in the government of Alleanza Nazionale, which in order to be recognized as a modern right-wing party had to manifestly reject its anti-Semitic past by adopting a pro-Israel stance, as well as the development of an “Islamophobic milieu” – a consequence of the increasing immigration – that generated a pro-Israel discourse in Italian politics (2008, p. 92-95).

The Berlusconi government, therefore, shares elements of both continuity and change in terms of foreign policy. Contemporary foreign-policy decisions must also be analyzed against this background. The second Prodi government’s foreign policy, for instance, did not undergo any major changes vis-à-vis the previous executive “even if the political rhetoric used to sell it domestically to the radical left parties of the government coalition might occasionally have suggested the opposite” (Croci, 2008, p. 294). During the Prodi government, however, Italy’s post-Cold-War commitment to multilateralism at the UN level reached its peak, as Italy led the UNIFIL II peacekeeping mission in Lebanon (Mammarella, 2010, p. 289). In addition, the government strived to re-strengthen its ties with European institution, under the influence of President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano – a former PCI member like D’Alema. After the second Berlusconi government, during which the Lisbon Treaty was signed and the mission in  Libya was carried out, a technocratic government led by Professor Mario Monti was established. Monti’s main task was to deal with the effects of the 2008 financial crisis over Italy’s economy through austerity measures: foreign policy was, therefore, left aside and subject to European decisions. The same trend continued under Prime Minister Enrico Letta, at the head of a broad but weak coalition government.


The stabilization of Libya, the increase in immigration inflows, the economic relations with Iran after the Nuclear deal, energy security issues and the behavior of Russia, the threat posed by terrorism: these are the major challenges that Italy faces in 2015. Matteo Renzi’s government is trying to enhance Italy’s role in the world, like many other leaders (Crispi, Mussolini, De Gasperi, Prodi, Berlusconi) have attempted in the past with variable outcomes. The next moves of Italian foreign policy are hard to predict because of its structural inconsistency; however, the criteria that have been analyzed in this paper might be a valid tool for future predictions.

Italy is definitely a middle power. It tries to demonstrate its importance in the region, but it is very sensitive to great powers’ actions and to the possibility of remaining isolated. Its foreign policy is shaped by a geographic dichotomy and by different perspectives over its role; it lacks creative imagination and moves in reaction to others’ decisions. Italy is committed to multilateralism and to European federalism, yet it has often privileged the alliance with the United States, and sometimes it takes some autonomous, unilateral decisions. It would be interesting to compare Italy’s foreign policy to that of other middle powers that either experience the same milieu (such as Spain or Germany) or are located in different geopolitical contexts (for example, South Korea). The hope is that future research could shade light on the question. To conclude with a positive remark, it can be argued that Italy can be an asset for the international system: the evolution of its foreign policy demonstrates that under directions and assurances from great powers, despite the inconsistencies and anxieties, Italy gives a valuable, precious commitment to multilateral action.



Braudel, F. (1958). Histoire et Sciences Sociales: la Longue Durée (History and Social Sciences: the Long Term). Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales 13.4, pp. 725–753.

Caponio, T. (2008) (Im)Migration Research in Italy: a European Comparative Perspective. The Sociological Quarterly 49.3, pp. 445-464.

Carbone, M. (Ed.) (2008). Italian Foreign Policy and the Mediterranean. Modern Italy 13.2.

Croci, O. (2008). The Second Prodi Government and Italian Foreign Policy: New and Improved or the Same Wrapped Up Differently? Modern Italy 13.3, pp. 291-303.

Gilbert, M. (2009). Italy: the Astuteness and Anxieties of a Second-Rank Power. European Foreign Policies: Does Europe Still Matter? (Ed. Tiersky, R., and Van Oudenaren, J.), pp. 235–259.

Mammarella, G. and Cacace, P. (2010). La Politica Estera dell’Italia: dallo Stato Unitario ai Giorni Nostri (Italy’s Foreign Policy: from the Unitary State to Today). Rome: Editori Laterza.

Marzano, A. (2007) Italian Foreign Policy towards Israel: the Turning Point of the Berlusconi Government (2001-2006). Israel Studies 16.1, pp.79-103.

Miller, J. E. (2009). Silvio Berlusconi and the Traditions of Italian Foreign Policy: a Comment on Ambassador Romano’s Presentation. Journal of Modern Italian Studies 14.1, pp. 15-20.

Santoro, C. M. (1991). La Politica Estera di una Media Potenza: l’Italia dall’Unità ad Oggi (The Foreign Policy of a Middle Power: Italy from Unification to Today). Bologna: il Mulino.

Snyder, G. (1990). Alliance Theory: a Neorealist First Cut. Journal of International Affairs 44.1, pp. 103-123.


One thought on ““Italy’s Foreign Policy”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s