international analysis and commentary

Spend less, count more: squaring the circle


Following in the footsteps of Lucia Annunziata in La Stampa, Angelo Panebianco began his editorial in yesterday’s edition of Corriere della Sera with a significant comment:  “You can decide not to take an interest in foreign policy if you wish, but it is going to catch up with you and take an interest in you in the end.”  On the day our country evinces its solidarity with the family of Franco Lamolinara, slain by terrorists in Nigeria, that remark underscores Italy’s objective fragility in the international arena today.

Panebianco uses it to argue that a government devoid of an explicit electoral mandate might not have the same interest in handling non-economic financial crises as a fully political government.  His theory may provide political scientists with an interesting theme to explore in greater depth, but it ignores one crucial issue:  Italy has been cutting back for decades now on the tools that would allow it to best respond to crises.

Allow me first to clarify two points of context.  First, Italy’s weaknesses in the face of today’s widespread risks are same weaknesses as those of France, of Spain, or of any other country in an exposed geopolitical position with many nationals involved in international work.  All of the European countries in a similar position have been the target of abductions, have explored a variety of alternative methods for rescuing their hostages, and have unfortunately suffered casualties.  We have a terrible national habit of feeling that we are always worse than others, whatever the circumstances.  It is a kind of dispirited, pessimistic mirror image of US “exceptionalism,” in reverse.  The truth of the matter is that piracy and abduction are hitting Italy in exactly the same way as they are hitting the vast majority of European countries.  And it is pure fiction that Italy has its “own way” of securing its hostages’ release.  On the contrary, the exception to the rule is that the Anglo-Saxons occasionally attempt a military strike to achieve that end.  Sometimes they are successful, other times (as, unfortunately, on this occasion) they fail and their compatriot also ends up losing his or her life.

Second, it is always a mistake to use international difficulties in an attempt to chalk up domestic politicalcapital because it increases a country’s vulnerability at the very moment when it needs to be strong.  Naturally, it is only right and meet that a government should explain its international conduct, should report to parliament, and should question its intelligence services.  The Rome government is both right and duty-bound to demand from London every clarification necessary regarding the delay in communications in Nigeria… and to consider its own responsibility in the affair.  But it is a mistake, in the sense that it increases the harm done to the country as a whole, to turn an international crisis into a matter for domestic bickering regardless of specific circumstances.  Our national interest lies in the opposite direction, and it shows excessive haste to decide that everything is due to our mistakes regardless.  Another terrible national habit we have consists of oscillating between moaning that “it’s nothing to do with us” and saying that “it’s all our fault.”

This brings me to the basic issue in the debate that has been raging over the past few days, an issue which I absolutely do not intend to dodge:  Do our difficulties in India plus the tragedy in Nigeria add up to prove that Italy has lost international clout?  Yes, they do, but this relative loss of influence does not depend on political ineptitude; it is the product of two factors, one external and the other “subjective.”

We are all familiar with the external factor, namely the “spread” of economic and political power toward new countries such as India, and toward a number of new players, most of whom are rivals of the West.  In a world of this kind (which US historian Charlie Kupchan calls “no one’s world”), a country such as Italy is inevitably going to be cut down to size. 

The subjective factor — and here I agree with Panebianco, with Annunziata, and with many others — is that even after the advantages passively accruing to Italy from its geographic position in the aftermath of World War II came to end, Italy has continued to kid itself that it can afford not to take care of its own security.  One has but to look at the series of cuts that all of our country’s tools for foreign action have suffered over the past 10 years, from the Farnesina’s [Italian Foreign Ministry] budget, to investment in defense, and to the brutal cut in development cooperation.

That is the real debate on which we should focus.  If setting our accounts straight increases our standing in Europe but lowers our standing in the world, what other options do we have left?  One possible answer lies in economies of scale:  We could use the credibility that we have won back in Europe to finally push for something new and more genuine in Europe’s foreign and security policy.  The India and Nigeria affairs show in their different ways that we are not even close to achieving that, while we are very close, on the other hand, to the point at which it is going to become impossible to square the circle.  Managing crises while hacking away at the tools for doing is a tough call whoever is in the driver’s seat.


A version of this article appeared in the daily La Stampa on March 12, 2012