A pervasive issue with Italian politicians — but in all fairness perhaps not just with them — is the aspiration to appropriate US politics and somehow present themselves to the local public as a projection of an entirely American phenomenon. This can be seen in repeated attempts from both the right and the left to assimilate anglosaxon terminology, in Berlusconi’s attempts to align himself with George W. Bush, and in the unfortunate embrace of the neo-conservative mantle by some Italian pseudo-intellectuals.
The center-left has not been exempted from this cultural cringe, as it initially focused on adopting the trappings of blairism as a more modern and ‘respectable’ form of social-democracy. Through the years progressive also sought to emulate more directly American trends with the ultimate creation of the half-baked Democratic Party, which since the very beginning tried to present itself as the Italian spinoff of the American Democrats, implicitly rejecting European social-democratic traditions. This superficial Americanization has recently reached new levels even in today’s political lexicon with the integration of terms such as ‘election day’, ‘jobs act’, and even ‘vaccination day’ after COVID-19.
Consequently, it is not surprising that Biden’s victory in the recent US election, besides bringing well-earned relief, has pushed sections of the Italian political elite into a frenzy of self-congratulation. The posting of a flurry of social media content showcased the US president elect almost as a native son, amplyfing his messages to give the Italian public hope of a new beginning during the dark days of the pandemic. More importantly, the American vote symbolically clipped the wings of right-wing populism in Europe and poured a cold shower on Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni. Yet, it cannot be taken for granted that some of Biden’s greatest fans will necessarily be immediate beneficiaries.
The US has indeed come out weakened and divided from the Trump presidency and, while it is keen to relaunch the transatlantic relationship and cooperate with European countries including Italy, it is less likely to suffer fools and give-out favors for free. With the risk of a protracted cultural and social conflict, of which the storming of the Capitol might just be a foreshadowing, Washington’s resolve to play a strong role abroad and its willingness to solve the problems of others might become much more limited. While Biden does appreciate the value of the European project perhaps to a greater extent than Obama did — maybe partly motivated due to his Irish roots — and is sincerely invested in its continued existence post-Brexit, his administration won’t be able to support it as much as it would have been the case in 2016 had the Democrats won.
Despite this, the role of the US must not be underestimated. Neither Italy nor the EU should think that they can do much without it, given the American continuous economic and military heft and especially considering the many potential benefits to be had from the incoming Biden administration. With any talk of a European strategic autonomy still being mostly a joke, the EU may have to make the most of the new Biden administration and work with it to extract what it can on foreign policy (e.g. Iran deal), trade (e.g. WTO reform) and green issues (e.g. Paris agreement and Green new deals), from a temporarily but hopefully not permanently weakened United States. However, it is naïve to hope that any US support will be forthcoming and unconditional, or that somehow Italy may become a privileged interlocutors for the US in the EU from January 21, despite any historical, emotive and economic links — or even Jill Biden’s Sicilian ancestry.
First of all, the US diplomatic establishment has not forgotten the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding by the previous Italian government with their Chinese geopolitical rivals. This included provisions for the roll-out of 5G infrastructure and therefore direct competition from Huawei, as well as other frowned upon aspects like Italy’s participation to the Belt and Road strategy. Given Biden’s renewed focus on building a front to contain Chinese influence, Italy will not be able to have it both ways and will have to pick a side in order to gain the favor of the new administration, limiting its exposure to Beijing. However, given the election of Armin Laschet as leader of the German CDU, which might represent the survival of Merkelism for the foreseeable future, tensions might continue to arise between the US and the EU because of Germany’s continuous pragmatic and China-friendly solutions. This would provide a chance for Italy to enter in the US’ ‘good books’ and gradually become a privileged and influential interlocutor by leading an anti-China charge within the EU. Any Italian government would thus have to be more vocal on issues such as Chinese state repression on Honk Kong, Inner Mongolia, the Uyghurs and Tibet.
Moreover, in the difficult period following the Covid recession, the Biden administration might expect the EU and Italy to abstain from accepting Chinese strategic investment — a bitter choice for cash-strapped economies but one which reflects the current geopolitical realities. This means that Italy would have to resist the siren calls of a new investment treaty with China or the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) which the German industry is salivating after and which the EU has suspiciously accepted in principle with lightning speed a few weeks before the installation of the Biden administration. This would require Italy, to play a role in creating a coalition between like-minded Member States and MEPs in the European Parliament to thwart this damaging deal — a role that cannot be taken by Italy alone and an endeavor which Conte might not be even willing to partake under the fear to incur the wrath of German political and business elites (and even because some of the Five Star Movement’s own pro-China inclinations).
This highlights the fact that the only way for the Italy to benefit from both trans-Atlantic relations and the new administration would be making itself useful for example by pushing forward a green agenda, but other countries are likely to take that mantel as well. Therefore the only way forward would be to align itself with some of Washington’s most pressing geopolitical goals.
Another way to do this would be for Italy to invest more in defence over the coming years. At around 1.3% of GDP expenditure, Italy remains well below its NATO commitments (2%) and consequently its ability to have any sort of say in the alliance is very much compromised. With an American public that is justifiably tired of footing the bill for Europe’s defence, any additional ownership that Italy takes over its own defence matters will be appreciated by the incoming administration. Beyond military expenditure, there are few other premises for Italy to build any special relationship with Biden but, having proven to be an ineffective partner at every opportunity, unable to pursue its own interests on Libya, Egypt and unlikely to be of any use against China, why would the President afford any special favors to a country missing any strategic direction or influence?
With a comatose Conte government that has lost a sound majority and is likely to replace it with a shaky one at best, the Italian political instability is unlikely to turn into a strong, reliable partner in Europe for the US, even if it wanted to. Indeed Italy itself is fragile, and the strongest opposition parties are clearly not aligned with the values of the new Biden administration, something which would make it difficult for it to bet on Italy, especially given that its moderate and internationalist forces are on the cusp of losing power at any time. In addition, Italy’s long-term economic stability is also under strain, as few governments have successfully tried to tackle some of its chronic ills which may well be the source of its ultimate demise: low educational outcomes compared to other western countries; low salaries; low domestic spending; low productivity; low innovation levels; inefficient tax collection; and embarrassingly high levels of political corruption.
Any hope that a Biden presidency will alleviate our real problems is a fool’s hope. Italy’s progressives and moderates will stand little to gain by only cheering President Biden unless they earn the confidence of the new administration. They would do better to focus a bit more on the type of nation-building at home, to use a formulation from the Obama days, putting Italy in a position to at least aspire to become a relevant diplomatic actor again.
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