It is probably safe to say that champagne did not start flowing at the White House as the Italian election results started to become clear late last night. For several years now the Bush administration has sought evidence to refute the thesis that democratic leaders pay an electoral price for too close an association with the American president, and its hope that a Berlusconi victory would confirm this has now been dashed. The administration did not exactly endorse the outgoing Italian leader but its preferences were made clear – not least with the highly unusual platform given to Mr. Berlusconi, a speech to a joint session of Congress, when Berlusconi visited Washington less than six weeks before the election.
The administration’s preference was not just personal, but philosophical and political. Bush appreciated Berlusconi as a blunt speaking, tax-cutting Atlanticist who supported the Iraq war but sees Prodi as an intellectual, old-style leftist and European federalist. Prodi has made clear that his foreign policy priority is Europe, not America, and his public stance that Washington’s European partner should be Brussels – not the respective member states – is not the administration’s view, to say the least. Nor will a coalition with several communist parties and the Greens – or the pledges to withdraw from Iraq and build a more multipolar world – inspire much enthusiasm across the Atlantic.
When Bush’s friend José-Maria Aznar was ousted by the Spanish left two years ago in a somewhat analogous election, the result was an extended deep-freeze in the US-Spain relationship which has yet to thaw. The result with Italy need not be the same – indeed the new emphasis on diplomacy apparent in the second Bush term should provide an opportunity to avoid the worst. But no one should assume that the Prodi-Bush relationship will be natural. If Prodi’s European proclivities and coalition politics require him to distance himself from America, it’s going to be a long three years.