How to Improve U.S.-Italy Relations and Why They Matter

Federiga Bindi
Federiga Bindi Former Brookings Expert

February 26, 2009

This opinion originally appeared in L’Occidentale (Italy), in Italian.

Tomorrow the Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini will meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Frattini arrives at the end of the second weeks meeting with the Europeans. Obama’s visit to Europe during the primaries was a first sign of that, and the situation has not significantly improved since. During her hearing at the Senate, Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton stated how the US would work closely with their European allies – the UK, France, Germany and the Eastern Europeans; Italy was noticeably absent. Does this mean Italy matters less than before in DC? No, but it is a sign that some retuning – on both sides – would be beneficial.

The American administration acknowledges the important role that Italy plays in many crucial areas of the world from Afghanistan to Lebanon and beyond. Yet, a sense of (polite) lack of consideration can be felt in the air, to the detriment of both parties. Why is that? What can be done to revitalize US-Italy relations?

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is a need to redefine the core objectives of Italian-US relations. Transatlantic relations were and remain a priority in Italian foreign policy, but what does that mean today? The old way of doing business – a time in which the US offered security in change of loyalty and even submission – is a thing of the past. Military security is less of an issue today, not least because security cannot be granted anymore, as the post 9-11 world well knows. So the questions today are: What does the US want out of its relations with Italy and vice-versa? What are the key areas of common interest? What can Italy offer to the US that other allies cannot?

Italy is aware that it is not a superpower and that other European countries – the UK, France, Germany – may matter most to the US. After all, both the UK and France have historical relations with the US that Italy may not have. Germany, on the other hand, is the major European economic power. That being said, Italy is contributing greatly to the international community – and specifically to the reaching of US foreign policy goals – both in concrete means and in discrete actions. There are economic ties as well – of which the deal between Fiat and Chrysler is just the most recent example of a fruitful interchange. Nevertheless, this does not seem to be properly recognized by the US.

Yet, when there is a special need, the Americans are always keen on asking for Italy’s help. In Iraq, for instance, where Italy is still present with training programs, the decision to take part in the war was not based on a critical, direct national interest, rather on the decision to share the burden of US interests and action. During the Georgian crisis, if Sarkozy was the primary actor, the US administration was grateful for the discreet but positive role Italy played.

The US’s requests in terms of taking Guantanamo inmates are quite substantive and Italy’s reaction has been far more positive than most of the other European states, many of whom are now hiding behind the need to coordinate at the EU level. Italy is also one of the most important contributors to the UN, both financially and in terms of people taking part in peacekeeping operations.

Rome has a strong appeal on parts of the world with which the new US administration is hoping to reconnect – as seen with the meeting organized in Rome on February 5 regarding UN Security Council and attended by 70 countries for a total of some 50 foreign ministers.

Last but not least, Italy can also be of help to the new administration in easing relations with both Russia and Iran, thus responding to Obama’s offer in the inaugural speech to Tehran (“we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”) and to Vice President Joe Biden’s openings to Moscow at the Verkunde in Munich. The new US administration will in fact have a difficult with Russia and Italy’s diplomatic efforts can prove a useful asset.

The US has in the last years seen NATO as a tool for “reaching out” to Eurasia. The Russians, on the other hand, perceive NATO as an aggressive tool and claim that the US reneged on Bill Clinton’s promise to Boris Yeltsin that NATO would not enlarge to include their former borders. Surely, Russia’s current schizophrenic foreign policy is not helping much. Yet, from counterterrorism to nuclear disarmament to Iran to the Middle East – all issues of great interest both to the US and to Italy – no major foreign policy problem can be solved without the Russians.

The relations with Moscow will thus lie at the heart of transatlantic relations. Because and thanks to long standing economic and political ties – even during the Cold War, the domestic situation in Italy demanded that special attention was given to relations with the USSR, resulting in a better understanding of Russia and closer cultural gap – Italy could be of great help to the new administration. With Iran, too, Italy has long term economic and political ties and it is not felt as an antagonist – like are for instance France and the UK, as the recent forced closing of the British Council in Iran reminds us. Not having being part of the 5+1 is in a way an asset; too, as Italy would be in a better position to re-engage in dialogue with Teheran, for instance about regional issues, in order to reestablish the minimum level of confidence needed to restart dialogue on the nuclear question. In other words, Italy can be a precious intermediary for the US on a number of difficult issues.

If all this is true, why is that that the US often seems at times to push aside Italy? It is certainly not a question of the color of the political party in power, being it a chronic problem at least since the end of the Cold War. A cultural gap might be here at the heart of the matter. In a country that stresses the virtue – at all levels – of competition, self promotion and excellence, the Italian approach may have difficulties in commanding respect. Italy thus needs to communicate in a different way, which is to say to promote itself and its achievements in a more insistent – and at the same time more consistent – way.

Americans are always keen in defining their national interests and in acting accordingly. They are also careful about sparing resources. Why, thus, invest in Italy if Italy will be on their side regardless?

Without forgetting the gratitude Italians owe to the US for saving them twice, for allowing them to develop a decent welfare while the Americans were taking care of their security, it is time for Italy to ask for its contribution to be politically acknowledged before it gives more. Likewise, if the US wants to keep getting Italian support even when it does not constitute an Italian national priority per se, they will have to support their partner when relevant Italian national interests are at stake – be it mineral water or the reform of the UN Security Council.