The Libyan crisis offers, if nothing else, the opportunity to assess the breadth and depth of America’s understanding of contemporary Italian politics, or the lack thereof. In an interview to an Italian newspaper of 15 February, the Italian Defence Minister, Mrs. Pinotti, made an important assertion: “If we sent up to 5,000 men to Afghanistan, in a country like Libya, which is of much more concern to us and in which the risk of deteriorating [its present condition] is far more worrying for Italy, our missione [in this case, the word can be translated as “contingent” as much as “mission”] can be relevant and demanding, also in numbers.” The American Ambassador, Mr. John Phillips and the US administration have decided to interpret the Italian Defence Minister’s statement as a clearly worded military commitment and a publicly made promise. Ambassador Phillips, asked for his opinion in a recent interview to the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, has found all but natural to make reference to the number of 5,000 men as the likely size of the Italian contingent of troops available in the prospect of a military intervention in Libya. The Italian government has deemed his words particularly upsetting, an unacceptable pressure applied on the Italian decision-makers and and an inopportune interference in Italian matters.
PM Renzi himself made his point clear in an irritated public statement during an interview granted to a popular Sunday TV-show aired by the most important of Berlusconi’s innumerable TV-channels.
Mr. Phillips found himself in an awkward position, like a deer caught in the headlights. He is disconcerted by the pointed remarks of the Italian PM and his ministers, who are openly disavowing what the Americans have assumed was an agreed military commitment. This diplomatic mishap is possibly highlighting much more than a simple “cultural misunderstanding”.
The most obvious and yet striking feature of this dispute is the ability of Italian politicians to deny even their recorded statements, if their position can, as a result, be damaged. When the truth can be harmful to their career, even the most important ministers are ready to go to any lengths to protect themselves and place the blame on someone else’s shoulders. A misinterpretation of the minister’s words is thus the default explanation for any inconsistency or any unfortunate utterance. An exceedingly supple definition of what is true and what is not is probably the most practised ability – and one of the most critical to political survivability – in Italian politics. Any objection by a sensible observer who is not prepared to accept such a blatant denial of the most basic truths is easily dismissed as “pointless criticism”. Ambassador Phillips is now well aware of the practical implications of this “specific cultural trait” of his Italian interlocutors. Moreover, Italian diplomats are in no better position to make the dialogue between Rome and Washington easier: Renzi has no love for them, since he dislikes the ceremonies and rituals of “old-fashioned” diplomacy. Instead, he is persuaded, against so much evidence to the contrary, that Italian foreign relations with the United States can only be improved by his very personal touch.
The most troubling consequence is, however, a deepening of American doubts and concerns about the reliability of the Italian government. Decades of mainly friendly relations between the two countries, and a political bond made all the more strong by the fact that both nations share many common interests, cannot entirely dispel the fear that the new generation of Italian politicians is much more similar to the controversial and, by many, openly loathed Berlusconi than to the beloved Napolitano. The latter is an old – actually, very old – gentleman from Naples, a former Communist and yet an old friend of Henry Kissinger. He has been regarded – and still is – as the most dependable friend the US administration can count among the members of the Italian political elite. However, this is going to prove less an asset than a dangerous liability in the US-Italian relations. What is going to happen now that Napolitano has, understandably enough, officially retired from the political fray, and is no longer in a position – that of President of the Italian Republic – to offer himself to the US administration as the guarantor of the ultimate political compliance on the part of the Italian governments? Is it truly possible that one of the ten most advanced countries in the world, a close and important ally to the United States, a founding member of the NATO and the European Union, is so astonishingly short of political figures capable of talking (in reasonably fluent English) to the Americans and understand their viewpoint, arguing with them, if necessary, but ultimately being capable of reasserting mutual respect and collaboration?
The answer is far from obvious. The extent to which the personalisation of politics has asserted itself in Italy is, in some respects, broader than elsewhere, and the collapse of traditional party organisations more pronounced; furthermore, the rapport – a rather objectionable one – between the premier and the media is unhealthily tighter than in other European countries. This is inevitably increasing the importance of the personal qualities of Italian political leaders, particularly the premier. And here’s the rub. Ministers and other institutional top officials are selected, unsurprisingly enough, according to political considerations among which competence and effectiveness are not ranked as high as one might expect. To be true, Italy has long since embraced a peculiarly different philosophical approach, quite opposite to that officially adopted by the greatest part of western democracies, when it comes to the selection of the country’s state officials: competence is no longer regarded as a requisite one should already possess, at least in some reasonable measure, to be eligible for appointment, but as a sort of additional benefit that is somehow bestowed upon the chosen person after the appointment and as a consequence of it: the defence minister Pinotti, for instance, has become an expert in security matters after she was elected as chairperson of the House of Representatives’ Defence Committee in 2006, her previous field of expertise having been education and youth development. Likewise, the foreign minister Gentiloni has been an MP since 2001, his main expertise being the media policies; he has been member of the House of Representatives’ Transport Committee since then, and only in 2013 he has joined the Foreign Policy Committee, before he was selected to replace Federica Mogherini as foreign minister at the end of 2014. The selection of Italian defence ministers, in particular, seems to have especially favoured untried political exponents, and has frequently given Italian PMs the opportunity to show their distrust of competence in security matters: Berlusconi chose the chatty, boastful and larger-than-life attorney Ignazio La Russa, who strongly supported the deployment of Italian soldiers to stage armed patrolling of the Italian cities, being particularly fond of the public display of men in battledress and assault guns pacing the streets crowded with tourists, a sight more commonly enjoyed in the most violent towns of the developing countries. Those who succeeded him in the same office have not as yet seen it fit to disavow his notion of a militarised public order.
All in all, Renzi seems to be well in the wake of Berlusconi. Differences, nonetheless, are remarkable. As Berlusconi is a weak, and old businessman, who contents himself with boasting about his imaginary political achievements – he has been repeatedly claiming to be the mastermind behind the end of the Cold War between the United States and Russia as well as that of the Russian war against Georgia, and, more recently, he has persuaded himself he has somewhat solved the problem of the ozone hole (not kidding) – so Renzi is a young, ambitious politician, quite oblivious of the numerous binding agreements Italy has underwritten in the past. These same agreements, pacts, treaties and political bonds are as much an enabling factor that affords Italy to play a role more important than the resources the country devoted to its foreign policy would have allowed, as they are an inevitable confining condition, imposing a clearly defined limit to Italian room for manoeuvre in foreign policy. Ignoring the fact that the relationship between Italy and the United States is the most important of these bonds can only add to the growing number of difficulties that bedevil the Italian premier: he has come to power too fast and too soon, so much so that he has not yet found a way to carefully select an effective and reliable staff and, more generally, the core of a new political elite to replace the old and corrupt hands that still operate the machinery of Italian politics.
Furthermore, he has become premier without having ever been elected to Parliament: the day before he took his oath in front of Napolitano to become the new Italian prime minister, a little more than two years ago, he was still the mayor of Florence, a beautiful but politically quite unimportant city. The dwindling numbers of his parliamentary majority, now only secured through the defection of more and more Senators from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party to the coalition supporting Renzi’s administration in the Senate, are one of the reasons why he is more irritable with every passing day. MPs formerly belonging to Berlusconi’s legions are thus watering down the “leftist” profile of the Italian government, and while adding little to its political value, the untrustworthy newcomers are surely inspiring no confidence in their unwelcoming allies, and are prompting agitation and further internal strife within the premier’s party, swelling the ranks of his enemies. Any utterance of doubts and dissension about the government’s policies is met with the harshest response from Renzi’s quarrelsome coterie, and this may explain the unseemly overreaction to Ambassador Phillips’ statements. Renzi’s irascibility may be an indication that ruling Italy is proving itself a most challenging task, whose difficulty had not been entirely anticipated by the young premier. It is likely taking its toll on him and his ministers: strain, dissatisfaction and fatigue have long since taken the place of the enthusiasm and self-confidence of the early days, when the prospect of vast, ambitious reforms and a new, assertive and fast-paced personal style in managing government affairs raised so much expectation and inspired so much trust in so many distraught and disappointed Italians. Disillusion is now on the rise, once again.
There has been more than one occasion in the past twenty-four months, when Renzi has handled critically complex policy issues – the Greece crisis, the war between Russia and Ukraine, the European debate over the mass immigration to the Old Continent, and, finally, the Libyan crisis – in such a way as to give the impression to be utterly out of his depth.
Admittedly, he is in good company: Hollande, Cameron and Merkel all seem to be at their wits’ end over the most important problems troubling the European continent. The lot of the four main European leaders might well be given the sobriquet Obama has recently attributed to just the French and the British among them: the (Ineffectual Company of the) Free Riders.
Jokes apart, the deepening distrust that is thoroughly affecting the American attitude towards Italy is going to become a problem far more serious than we think, and surely it will not be confined to the US-Italian relationship stricto sensu. It prevents the United States from lending some of their political weight and influence to Italy in order for Rome to strengthen its position in Libya, for instance, and thereby thrash out a compromise agreement with the local factions and the regional and European players. If Italy is as weak and unreliable as it undoubtedly is, the Italian contribution to the solution of a large number of problems in the Mediterranean region is, at best, negligible. This, in turn, is going force the United States to directly intervene even when and where no relevant American interest is at stake. This is not just a less than optimal allocation of already thinned-out resources, it will also stir up hostility and resentment to what many are ready to label as “America imperialism”. A direct US involvement is thus a not inexpensive proposition already doomed from the outset. These are, among other factors, the far-reaching consequences of a dysfunctional and politically ineffectual relationship between Washington and Rome. The next president of the United States will have to deal with this problem, among so many others. Unfortunately, there is presently no sign that he or she will find a serious and trustworthy interlocutor in Rome anytime soon.
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