The European powers


Being unified late in the 19th century it was difficult for Italy to establish itself amongst the other European powers. Therefore, one can view the indecisiveness of the Italians on where their national interests lie, as an act of opportunism because since its unification Italy had no particular loyalty to any group of powers except that group from which it could benefit most. This assignment gives prominence to this factor and also delves into detail in Italy’s policy during the Cold War (mainly resting on two main pillars: NATO and the EU). The Post Cold War period is also covered with special emphasis on the governments of Berlusconi and Romano Prodi.


In 1858-9 the Kingdom of Piedmont was allied with France against Austria in order to achieve Lombardy. Seven years later it fought side by side with Bismarck’s Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War. Four years later it stayed neutral in the Franco-Prussian War which was eventually won by Prussia. The road to Italian Unification in itself shows that the Italians had no particular loyalty to any power. The shifts in alliances were quite common for Italians as long as they were sure that they were getting the maximum benefit from them[1].

In the course of the Risorgimento the keystone of Piedmontese foreign policy had been friendship with France and Britain. When France was defeated by Prussia after 1870 it was not useful anymore. In fact, the Italians started even regarding it as a hostile country especially after the French conquered Tunisia in 1881 (a country which the Italians had been aiming to conquer themselves)[2]. Although they had claims on Austrian Territories such as South Tyrol, Istria and Dalmatia; the Italians still joined the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria in 1882. Joining an arch-rival like Austria-Hungary was certainly a piece of real politick. In fact this move wasn’t really popular with many Italian nationalists who preferred having France rather than Austria-Hungary in an alliance. In fact, after the fall of the anti-French Crispi, Italian foreign policy started moving closer towards France[3].

In WW1, Italy did a remarkable piece of political opportunism when it first concluded an agreement with France in 1914, and then joined France and Britain in the war, thus betraying the Triple Alliance of which it had been part of for more than a generation[4].

The end of WW1 brought a lot of dissatisfaction amongst the Italians. The Versailles Settlement barely gave any territory which the Italians had hoped for. This was one of the main factors which led to the rise of Mussolini who advocated a revisionist policy towards this settlement. Mussolini’s active foreign policy proved to be a headache for France and Britain which had their own empires to take care of. Mussolini regarded the Mediterranean as ‘Mare Nostrum’ (while both France and Britain had interest in it) and was for expansion in the Balkans and Africa, despite Woodrow Wilson’s insistence on self-determination[5].

Mussolini’s ambitions did not stop France, Britain and Italy to sign the Stresa Pact mainly aimed against Germany (1935). Yet, when in the Abyssinian crisis France and Britain imposed sanctions on Italy, Mussolini immediately made a U-turn in Italian foreign policy and joined Hitler in what is famously known as the Pact of Steel (1939)[6]. This eventually led to Italy joining Germany in WW2.

The Years of the Cold War

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War it was clear that the allied forces’ presence in Italy would have a great effect on Italian Politics; they would not think twice to intervene in cases of serious civil disorder[7]. The uninterrupted predominance of the Christian Democratic Party after the war made Italy an ‘original and unquestioned member of NATO and the EC[8]’. Another important field of interest on the international scene were those areas involving a geopolitical and economic interest; like the Balkans, the Mediterranean and certain Arab countries. Yet, Italy was in a very difficult position in this period of time because it was regarded as a defeated state. Its foreign policy had to practically start from scratch[9].

Italy was one of the first countries to ask and benefit from Marshall Aid to avoid the rising power of the communists. In fact, when the government formed in 1947, the Socialists and the Communists were excluded. Marshall Aid was one step forward towards a completely original aspect in Italy’s foreign policy history: a closer relationship to America. This relationship was sealed in 1949 when Italy joined NATO, therefore achieving an international warranty for De Gasperi’s government leadership[10]. According to Sergio Romano: ‘L’Italia non era nella NATO per prepararsi con gli alleati all’eventualita` di una Guerra possible, ma per due obiettivi con cui aveva dimestichezza sin dagli anni della Triplice Alleanza: evitare i rischi dell’isolamento e sfruttare lo stallo per intrattenere con l’avversario i migliori rapport possible[11]’.

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For Paolo Tripodi, the first pillar of Italian foreign policy during the cold war was the USA[12]. In fact, till late 1980s Italy always followed NATO faithfully. However, one must not forget the other fundamental aspect of Italian international affairs: Europe. In fact, Italy had a shared vision internationally which pointed to a mutual reinforcement of the two guidelines: ‘The more the Atlantic link was emphasized, the more European integration would have progressed and vice-versa[13]’. The Marshall Aid was not enough to sustain Italy; it needed a wider market to consolidate its economy. Here one can also mention the federalism of Altiero Spinelli, whose figure was an indicator of the great Europeanism fervour that existed in the Peninsula at the time[14].

At this point the left wing parties too accepted NATO and EEC membership. Being part of the EEC (and later the EU) undoubtedly helped to ‘transform the country from peasant backwardness into industrial dynamism, a transformation in which it overtook Britain in terms of income per person and could proudly take its seat at the G7 table of rich economies[15]’. Until the beginning of the 1980s the membership of the EC was considered as complimentary to the alliance with the USA and to NATO. This perception wasn’t always accurate and in the 1960s, Italy moved away from Gaullist France as it regarded a breach of harmony in the Transatlantic Relationship as a threat to the foundation of Italian foreign policy[16].

After 1945, Italy kept a low profile foreign policy in the Mediterranean since they didn’t want to cause tension with the other powers in the region (including the USA which had the biggest fleet in the sea). It only started making its first real moves after the 1973 oil crisis where it established relations with Libya and Algeria. In the 1980s, Italy also established relations with the PLO and other 3rd World Countries[17].

This section of the assignment showed that Italy had a new dilemma in its foreign policy. USA and the EU might have been allied, but their interests didn’t always intertwine and this became very evident in the post Cold War period. In my opinion, although it had quite a fundamental role in European affairs, Italy tended to give its relationship with USA more importance than Europe. This scenario comes out more clearly in recent years under the Berlusconi leadership and even to a certain extent under Romano Prodi.

The Post Cold War Policy

The end of the Cold War meant that the geopolitical importance of Italy was now limited in NATO. The new international situation required a greater Italian engagement especially in the military department. However, Italy needed stability within its domestic affairs to carry out a more active foreign policy. The 1990s were far from stable; it was only in the beginning of the 21st century that domestic stability was achieved under Berlusconi[18].

The term “continuity” was used for the foreign policy of Italy during the Cold War because it rarely took independent bold action and usually followed the EU and NATO faithfully. Since the end of the Cold War, Italy began to take a more active approach in its foreign and security policy which it ‘conceptualised and upheld in terms of pursuit of national interests[19]’. This indicates that during the Cold War Italy gave more importance to NATO sometimes even above its national interests. This can be due to fear of offending the U.S. which was its main ally against a hostile communist east.

The end of the Cold War meant that Italy had to reconsider its role within NATO. This is because first of all NATO’s role automatically weakened with the fall of the USSR. Another factor was that disagreements within the alliance would be more likely to arise; and the third factor was that in case of major disagreement between USA and the EU Allies, the latter wouldn’t have the ability to act on its own[20].

Professor Osvaldo Croci explains how Italy revised its traditional role as a ‘security consuming’ country and embarked on an effort to become a ‘security producing’ country as well[21]. Italian governments in the 1990s and even in 2000s pursued a number of policies aimed at ‘reinforcing and functionally linking the different multilateral organizations’ of which the country was member of: primarily the UN, the EU and NATO[22]. For example Italy fully supported the development of a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) but, unlike France, it regarded its development as complimentary and not as an alternative to NATO.

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The victory of the centre-right coalition (Casa Della Liberta`) in 2001 made EU members apprehensive about the foreign policy this government was expected to adopt. This political faction was known for the lukewarm attitude it had towards the EU. In fact, as The Economist rightly pointed out, the EU still had plenty to offer to Italy but both the EU and Italy had changed and what was good for the EU was not always good for Italy. That was what the new centre-right coalition set out to do in 2001: to question some EU policies and to assert Italy’s national interest more forcefully[23].

Nevertheless, the two main pillars in Italy’s foreign policy remained NATO and the EU. The accusations that Italy had embarked on a Europe-sceptic path were exaggerated because Berlusconi only brought change in the tone and style of Italy’s foreign policy but not in its substance[24]. It was the resignation of foreign minister Mr Ruggiero, who was known for his pro-EU agenda that worried most EU Countries. Lega Nord leader Umberto Bossi showed no particular enthusiasm to the EU. He even referred to it as “the new Soviet Union. The EURO was even greeted with indifference by the Italian government[25]’.

As a successful tycoon, Berlusconi was both European and Internationalist in his outlook[26]. In his electoral victory speech he claimed: ‘We are proud to be part of Europe. We are proud of the special relationship we have with the United States. We will work attentively in the next few months and years to develop those relations even more[27].’ Berlusconi was practically stressing continuity in Italy’s foreign policy. According to Ignazi, the only announced change was a more ‘assertive international presence flanked by a new modus operandi’ centred round personal and direct contacts[28]. One such contact was certainly Russia’s Vladimir Putin. A meeting was carried out by the Italian government in Practica di Mare. The aim was to celebrate the partnership between NATO and Russia. This meeting showed the great respect Berlusconi had towards Russia. Berlusconi even went to the extent of defending Putin’s policy in Chechnya[29] (a policy which had raised international concern).

Under Berlusconi, the transatlantic relationship became the focal point of Italian foreign policy. The proof of this were the number of statements in support of the U.S.’ foreign policy, especially in Afghanistan and the Iraqi crisis[30]. Despite the domestic opposition to the Iraqi War, Berlusconi made sure that Italy participated actively even militarily. Sergio Romano points out that ‘l’opposozione e una parte della opinion pubblica hanno accusato il governo Berlusconi di essere succube degli americani[31]’.

Though in official declarations Italy always followed the Europhile line; when war in Iraq broke out and created a division between USA with UK against France and Germany. Berlusconi supported the U.S. Even though as pointed above the war was opposed by many influential groups including the Catholic Church, when war was formally declared Berlusconi sent troops, even if they marched under a humanitarian disguise[32]. Therefore America was preferred over maintaining the ‘preferential channel’ with Arab countries and also over the EU (keeping in mind the Franco-German opposition to the war)[33].

The newly elected Prodi Government in 2006 hoped to bring the country back onto the centre stage of EU politics. Berlusconi had never considered the EU a high priority and he preferred ‘flirting’ with other top international leaders instead. In his few years in office Prodi worked for a more ‘balanced’ transatlantic relationship coupled with a transformation of the EU into a fully autonomous international actor. This idea resembled Chirac’s idea of multipolarism[34].

Berlusconi was certainly in favour of enlargement; in fact, he went as far as to pronounce himself in favour of the accession of both Israel and Russia. This reflected his vision of the EU more as a common economic space than as a political entity. On the other hand Prodi sought to strengthen the EU institutions before the actual enlargement[35].

President Bush lost a great ally when Berlusconi lost the election in 2006. In fact, before the election Bush had made certain statements that came very close to ‘an open endorsement’ of Berlusconi’s re-election. These statements were regarded by a commentator as a ‘blatant interference in Italy’s domestic affairs[36]’. Yet, in reality Bush had little to worry from Prodi, as, once elected, Il Professore made it clear that he wished to enter into close dialogue and consultation with USA concerning Italy’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Prodi even defended Italy’s military presence in Afghanistan: ‘The goal of our presence in Afghanistan is to consolidate the country’s young democratic institutions… our soldiers bring a culture of dialogue and help, not of clashes’.[37]

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In 2008, Berlusconi was at Italy’s helm again. This time accusations of corruption and his attempts to silence criticism from the press, cast new doubts over Italy’s international credentials. Berlusconi is currently accused of taking a personal approach to Italy’s foreign relations. He strengthened certain aspects of Italian relations but weakened Italy’s EU credentials; even though Italy supported both the EU Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty vigorously. Berlusconi’s friendship with Russia and understanding with Libya can be regarded as a structural realist approach to Italy’s foreign relations[38].


In a book he wrote, Italian foreign minister Frattini argued that ‘the present Italian foreign policy is grafted into a long tradition of continuity’ and that its only novelty is its ‘activism[39]’. In my opinion he couldn’t have hit the mark more accurately than that. Since 1861 Italian governments endeavoured to win recognition at the table of the Great Powers, searching for legitimization through various international coalitions and alliances. Since the end of the Cold War Italy’s international profile has been raised considerably; but do the Italians know where their national interests really lie? For years this question has echoed the Italian international policy. History shows that Italy tends to support anything that it thinks will benefit her (like it did in both World Wars). In recent times the dilemma has been more between the EU and the U.S. And in my opinion, the last decade has consolidated the factor that Italy tends to be closer to the U.S. than to the EU in its foreign policy.


  • Absalom Roger, Italy since 1800: A Nation in the Balance?, London, Longman Group Ltd, 1995.
  • Calvocoressi Peter, World Politics since 1945, England, Pearson Education Ltd, 2009
  • Croci Osvaldo (2002), The Second Berlusconi Government and Italian Foreign Policy, The International Spectator, available: (accessed: 20th December 2009).
  • Greco Ettore (2006), The Foreign Policy of the New Prodi Government, The Brookings Institution, available: (accessed 23rd December 2009).
  • Ignazi Piero , Italian foreign policy since 2001: a preliminary assessment, available: (accessed 20th December 2009).
  • Kissinger Henry, Diplomacy, New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1994.
  • Miller Stuart T., Mastering Modern European History, New York, Palgrave Master Series, 1997.
  • Morris Terry and Murphy Derrick, Europe 1870-1991, London, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, 2006, p. 262
  • Romano Sergio, Guida alla Politica Estera Italiana: Da Badoglio a Berlusconi, Milan, BUR Saggi, 2004.
  • Ratti Luca (2009), Italian Foreign Policy in the Second Republic: new wine in old bottles?, available: (accessed 20th December 2009).
  • The Economist (2002), Berlusconi strikes out, available: (accessed 20th December 2009).
  • Sanminiatelli Maria (2007), Prodi Defends Italy’s Foreign Policies, The Washington Post, available: (accessed 23rd December 2009).
  • Tripodi Paolo (1996), A half-century of Italian foreign policy, available: (accessed 13th December 2009)
  1. Stuart T Miller, Mastering Modern European History, New York, Palgrave Master Series, 1997, p. 50
  2. Terry Morris and Derrick Murphy, Europe 1870-1991, London, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd, 2006, p. 262
  3. Miller, op.cit., pp. 214-217
  4. Morris, op.cit., p. 263
  5. Ibid., p. 276
  6. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, New York, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1994, p. 299
  7. Roger Absalom, Italy since 1800: A Nation in the Balance?, London, Longman Group Ltd, 1995, pp. 161-165
  8. Peter Calvocoressi, World Politics since 1945, England, Pearson Education Ltd, 2009, p. 206
  9. Paolo Tripodi (1996), A half-century of Italian foreign policy, available: (accessed 13th December 2009)
  10. Ibid.
  11. Sergio Romano, Guida alla Politica Estera Italiana: Da Badoglio a Berlusconi, Milan, BUR Saggi, 2004, p. 240
  12. Tripodi, op.cit.
  13. Piero Ignazi, Italian foreign policy since 2001: a preliminary assessment, available: (accessed 20th December 2009)
  14. Tripodi, op.cit
  15. The Economist (2002), Berlusconi strikes out, available: (accessed 20th December 2009).
  16. Ignazi, op.cit.
  17. Tripodi, op.cit.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Osvaldo Croci (2002), The Second Berlusconi Government and Italian Foreign Policy, The International Spectator, available: (accessed: 20th December 2009).
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid.
  23. The Economist, op.cit.
  24. Croci, op.cit.
  25. Ignazi, op.cit.
  26. Calvocoressi, op.cit., p. 211
  27. Croci, op.cit.
  28. Ignazi, op.cit.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Romano, op.cit., p. 4
  32. Ignazi, op.cit.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ettore Greco (2006), The Foreign Policy of the New Prodi Government, The Brookings Institution, available: (accessed 23rd December 2009).
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Maria Sanminiatelli (2007), Prodi Defends Italy’s Foreign Policies, The Washington Post, available: (accessed 23rd December 2009).
  38. Luca Ratti (2009), Italian Foreign Policy in the Second Republic: new wine in old bottles?, available: (accessed 20th December 2009).
  39. Ignazi, op.cit.
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