National interest incorporates within it many things. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, events have shown us that Italy and many of its leaders and politicians have always found it difficult to opt for a particular direction in both internal as well as external affairs. Whilst fighting against the Hapsburg Empire for independence in the nineteenth century, various Italian politicians proposed several options and alternatives that Italy could take. All of this brought conflict of interests and ideas in Italy and no-one was sure which road Italy should follow. In the quest for independence, the Italians knew what to remove but not what to implement instead. In the twentieth century, national interest changed frequently and much of this depended on the leaders of the time and on external events. The fact that Italian governments have changed so frequently in the past century is a clear example of how Italian governments and politicians never agreed on where their national interests lied. This paper will focus on how hard the Italians have found it to agree on their national interests and the reasons behind such a statement. This paper will then analyse to what extent such a statement is true and whether agreements between the Italians and Italian politicians regarding the matter have been reached. Special focus will be given on Italy’s relationship with Europe and the US and certain domestic policies as well as on the Italians’ view on the Arab World and the Mediterranean.
Italy’s national interests
Italy has had a history of changing alliances at the opportune moment in order to suit its interests. This shows that the Italians were never certain on what they really wanted. In the First World War, Italy joined the Entente when it had been an ally of both Germany and Austria-Hungary for so long. On the other hand, in the run-up towards the Second World War, Italy was attracted to Germany and its way of thinking and, when Germany rearmed and was pictured by many as the current strongest power, Italy did not hesitate to join Hitler in an alliance  . When Mussolini came into power in the 1920s, national interest lied in that of expansion and ‘irredentismo’. Mussolini wanted to promote the grandeur of Italy by conquering territories in Northern Africa and in some parts of Europe. Such an expansionist foreign policy agenda changed abruptly with the fall of the fascist regime in Italy and a new direction of national interest became important. Italian national interest then changed again with the end of the war as the Italian population and government sought the help and friendship of the United States  .
The two main rival parties in the period were the Communists and the Christian Democrats and both had very diverse interests and foreign policy agendas. Immediately after the war, Italy promoted its interests in the international arena and this is seen in its quests for European Integration and in that of joining the North Atlantic Alliance yet such notions and ideas had to wait until the arrival of De Gasperi for them to become the new direction of Italy’s foreign policy:
“Italy under the leadership of Alcide De Gasperi became one of the founding countries
of European integration, when the European Community and NATO were the two main
pillars in postwar Italian foreign policy.  “
Putting these agendas aside, many argue that, during the First Italian Republic, national interest was not focused on the international context. This statement is quite correct especially when seeing how “the culture of national interests” did not reach its full potential due to the political elites’ interest in domestic rather than in foreign affairs. Due to certain issues occurring in Italy today it may seem as though the Italians are more concerned about their domestic affairs rather than their external ones  . The huge importance given to issues such as Silvio Berlusconi’s scandals and personal life is a clear example of this. Some newspapers are more focused on these particular affairs rather than what is happening abroad. The fact that domestic affairs was important then and is still so relevant now, brings to mind the thought that, in certain aspects, the Italians have managed to find a compromise between them.
Others will say otherwise especially after analyzing Italian foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century. Italy opted for an active foreign policy agenda as it tried to restore the honour it had lost as a result of The Second World War. Upon joining the European Union, Italy’s economy flourished considerably as can be witnessed in the 1960s. This was a result of increased industrial development and new economic reforms. When analyzing such issues, it could be said, therefore, that Italy’s national interests lay mostly in Europeanism as Italy became a strong and active member in European affairs and integration and it benefited a lot from its membership. Most political parties in Italy were and still are very pro-EU and Italy was always amongst the highest in Europe which had a strong public opinion with regards to the European integration process. Though the Communist party was quite anti-European in its policies, it changed attitude during the 1970s when it saw European integration as a means to promote its national interests. Hence, this led “to support for integration becoming nearly unanimous in Italy  “.
Many believe that Italian national identity was weakened because of the relations between the state and the church in Italy especially during the nation-building process  . The church has always maintained a strong role in Italy and this is mostly due to the reason that the Vatican City is the centre of Catholicism. Hence, the church has been very influential in events happening both at the national level as well as on the international level and in fact, since unification and even in issues such as Italian-Arab relations, the church has always expressed its views and opinion on what Italy’s approach to such matters should be.
Though Italy’s activity in European processes and activities was always present, it still wasn’t recognized as a major power in the EU but was seen “as a large member state among small ones, but incapable of taking its place among the big ones in the Union  “. Italy’s inability to implement certain European legal norms, as can be witnessed in certain aspects such as that of freedom of expression, has reduced its credibility in the European context and even resulted in Italy’s less influential role when it comes to decision-making. Italy, however did try to promote its ‘Europeanism’ especially in issues such as that of a European Monetary Union to which Italy gave much support. It was during Romano Prodi’s Italian Premiership when Italy became more credible as a result of its joining of the Euro-zone. This credibility was then again lessened with the arrival of Silvio Berlusconi who had a “more ‘Euro-skeptical’ attitude” in his foreign policy. Many scholars and analysts believe that this attitude was a main reason of why national interest was seen as unstable and unclear. Until the 1990s, Italy was quite pro-European, however, when Berlusconi became Prime Minister, this changed. In fact, Berlusconi conflicted quite often with other heads of European states especially with the French President and German Chancellor. Further proof of this ‘erosion’ of ‘Europeanism’ can be witnessed in the resignation of Italy’s foreign affairs minister, Renato Ruggiero, who was a pro-European  . Berlusconi, apart from being Prime Minister, had been minister of foreign affairs and his motives and interests were clearly seen in his policies. Berlusconi preferred to maintain good relations with American President George W. Bush rather than focusing his strength on maintaining excellent EU relations. He wanted the American administration to see Italy as its closest European partner after Britain and that is why, Italy gave America its full support in many issues and crises.
Italy’s conflicting interests between ‘Europeanism’ and ‘Atlanticism’ did not start with Berlusconi. Sergio Romano comments on how the Italians believed that the Second World War was not lost by the nation but rather by the fascist government and this explains why, after overthrowing Mussolini’s regime, Italy was still willing to seek cooperation with other states. As from the late 1940s Italy’s cooperation with the US grew especially due to the Marshall Plan which, according to Romano, “ebbe maggiore influenza sul profile internazionale del paese e sul sistema politico italiano negli anni seguenti  “. In the meantime, Italy was very confident in the fact that it could play an important role in European as well as in Mediterranean affairs. The world order after World War II was very different than that prior to the war. Not only did countries like Italy lose certain territories such as Istria, Libya, Eritrea and Ethiopia but, now, there was the rise of communism and nation states such as Italy had to respond to such crises. The Marshall Plan wasn’t only implemented for the restructuring of Europe, but also to combat the communist threat of the Soviet Union. The plan was also aimed to bring unity in Europe and this influenced the policies of Italian politicians and how they behaved at the international level  . National interest, in a few years, had changed radically from one being aimed to promote Italy and its grandeur to one which promoted Italy’s activeness and participation in an international community. After 1947, Italy’s policies started reflecting those of the United States of America. Hence, not only was it interested in economic development and restructuring, but was also intrigued by implementing a democratic government, rights and freedoms as well as having an anti-communist task force. Because Italy followed these concepts, it was also interested in having a united Europe and, as explained above, was among the first to promote cooperation among European states. Italy’s national interest was always divided between that of ‘Europeanism’ and that of maintaining excellent cordial relations with the US and such a phenomenon may still be said to be going on today.
Many countries were against Italy joining the Atlantic Alliance and the Italian government was particularly keen on changing the negative assumptions that these countries had about it. Such countries believed that:
“Se fosse stata ammessa avrebbe costretto l’Alleanza a difendere non soltanto l’Atlantico del Nord ma buona parte del mediterraneo, avrebbe dato un contributo insignificante alla difesa commune, e avrebbe probabilmente approfittato della sua partecipazione per avanzare una volta querule richieste coloniali.  “
De Gasperi and Sforza saw that these ideas had to change as Italy needed to develop economically as well as improve its security. Without the help of foreign powers it couldn’t do much. Even if other countries had no faith in Italy, the latter knew that it could count on the US to provide for Italy’s needs. The USA was, and still is, considered as a super power and could provide for the security of others apart from itself. The transition that Italian national interest was taking clearly shows how Italian leaders realised that Italy should not be overconfident in its approaches and be as ambitious as it was in the time of Mussolini. Even nowadays, Italy is trying to maintain the best of relations with the US as the former knows that America can provide Italy with financial aid and security. Apart from this, by maintaining a relationship with the world’s superpower, Italy and Italian opinion could become more credible and attractive in the international arena.
De Gasperi and Sforza’s opposition and criticisms which were coming from within the mainland clearly proves how national interest differed from one party to another. Apart from being criticized by the national liberals, both statesmen found opposition in the ‘Catholics of the left’, the socialists and in the communists all of which had considerable influence in Italy  . Hence, national interest varied in Italy as some opted for expansion and the regaining of national prestige, others for the weakening of the Western front whilst others were willing to make Italy a determining power in international affairs. Nonetheless, both De Gasperi and Sforza tried to establish strong positions not only in the US, especially after joining NATO in 1949, but also in Europe and this is evident when analyzing the relationship Italy had with countries like France. Since the time of de Gaulle, and especially under Georges Bidault, France considered Italy as an important ally and friend. In this issue another phenomenon regarding national interest is evident. This is Italy’s interest in safeguarding the Mediterranean and Italy, since Mussolini’s rule up until today, was one of the major players when it comes to security in the Mediterranean. France, who had interests in Northern Africa, agreed to help Italy in this task and, since EU membership, Italian statesmen, ministers and politicians have promoted the idea of Mediterranean security even more  . Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, as did many others, maintained good relations with Mediterranean countries including Malta so as to maintain a stable and secure Mediterranean region.
Italy’s interest in the Mediterranean may be a reason why the country is so keen on maintaining stable relations with the Arab world. Since the era of Fanfani and Moro, and even before that, up till today, Italian relations with Arab countries have been quite positive. This can be seen in Italy’s involvement in the Suez Crisis and in the Six-Days War and also in the fact that Italy always expressed its opinion with regards to the Middle-East conflict and offered means to aid the people affected by the war  . Many say that “Italy has boosted its market-share and maintained a high political profile” in the Arab world and in the Persian-Gulf and this is evident in countries like Qatar, UAE, Oman, Kuwait and many others. Embassies have been set up in these countries, exports increased and relations with them have improved due to the issuing of new contracts. Also, with regards to some states, Italy is the only remaining European trading partner as can be seen in the case of Iran  .
Many believe that, though Italy has had a strong pro-European perspective, European enthusiasm has fallen considerably in the past years. According to a survey last year, only a small percentage of the Italian population actually believed that Italy was benefiting from its relationship with the EU. Italy has indeed fought for the strengthening and widening of the European Union, however, with the acceptance of the Constitutional Treaty, the introduction of the Euro and with the incorporation of many new pacts and treaties allowing greater EU say in decision making, Italians are starting to question what role has the national sphere left to play. From the period 2001 till 2006 the European Union was rarely consulted and called upon when Italy discussed matters of policy and foreign affairs. Even though Prodi was a pro-European, the two years he spent as Italian Prime Minister following 2006 weren’t enough to change the European outlook towards Italy. It seemed that Italy was changing from being one of the most active and respected members in Europe into a country which acted as an obstacle to the European Union. Events such as Italy’s exclusion from key talks on important issues suggest that the above statement is true and that Europe and the European Union had lost faith in Italy  .
In Italy there was always a diverging of interests between the centre-left and the centre-right parties. The issue of multilateralism in this context becomes important. Under Berlusconi’s centre-right government this process was threatened especially due to the fact that the Prime Minister had little faith in such a process. Berlusconi, always projected as being so Euro-skeptic, has always preferred to maintain bilateral relations with countries such as the US and with certain countries in Europe rather than having many relations on a multilateral level. This statement is clearly supported by the fact that international organizations have never regarded Italy under Berlusconi as an important asset especially since the centre-right participated mostly in multilateral agreements and in international organizations only if there was something to gain from them. Centre-left parties, on the other hand have always taken a different approach and have always preferred to maintain strong multilateral bonds especially with the European Union and its institutions. On the other hand the centre-left was then skeptic on the relationship with the US and this is evident in the centre-left parties’ criticisms towards the US and some of its policies  .
The fact that so many different governments were set up after 1945 and the phenomenon that only nowadays is an Italian political party managing to stay in government a full term is a clear reason on the state of agreement on national interests is in Italy. The huge number of fragmented parties in Italy means that it is difficult for Italy to come to a consensus on both domestic affairs as well as on international affairs. All the parties have different national interests and this may be the cause of why many believe that the statement that there hasn’t been agreement on where Italy’s national interests lied was and still is the reality of Italy. Even the events of 2008 when Romano Prodi’s government collapsed is a sign on how the Italians are still struggling to find an agreement on where their national interests lie.
“Never before in the post-World War II history of Italy, had a government been unsupported by its own majority because of disagreement (within that same majority) on how to run the country’s foreign policy.  “
Such an event, however, will not change the real aims of Italy’s foreign policy and will not affect the reasons of why Italy has acted the way it did in the international arena in the past years. Italian politics in the last decades has always been directed towards achieving a more peaceful world. What Italy has done in the Middle-East and in Europe was done to strengthen unity as well as to bring stability in societies. On this matter, national interest is quite concrete and everyone, starting from Italy’s political elite moving down to the lowest classes of society, has had the same ideology and “realm of interests” with regards to having peace in the world. Though this is a huge contrast to the Italy prior to the war, it shows how, though national interest in Italy does tend to change rapidly, the Italian population may find agreement on certain issues especially on matters which are considered important and vital to the international sphere.
Hence, it can be concluded that the statement that “the Italians have never agreed on where their national interests lie” isn’t entirely true. Though Italian national interest did change quite frequently along the years, there were times when it was stable and followed a clear path. The fact that Berlusconi was elected for the third time has resulted in national interest to become clearer. Before the end of the cold war, the diverging national interest between that of a pro-European and a pro-American agenda was more evident. Now, with Berlusconi as Prime Minister, it seems that the divide isn’t as evident especially with Berlusconi’s close relationship with the US and his lack of faith in Europe. Agreement on national interest, however, was never entirely present in Italy and may still be seen like that nowadays. It is unclear if Italian politicians are more interested in domestic rather than in international affairs and. Apart from this, Italy still maintains good relations with Mediterranean countries as well as with the Arab world and is always keen in intervening wherever there is an issue abroad and this further confuses scholars and analysts trying to come out with where Italian national interest really lies.