National interest on the wayside

By Piero Ignazi (for Safe Democracy)

Piero Ignazi writes on the divisive nature of foreign policy within the Italian government. Despite the appearance of unity that Italy‘s rhetorical tradition of active participation in NATO and the EU might suggest, the center-right and center-left have been fiercely divided over Italian involvement in Lebanon and Afghanistan over recent months. The center-left has seen the rise of radical pacifism within its ranks, while the center-right has instituted highly contradictory policies of military intervention, ignoring risks in some cases and not in others. In Ignazi‘s opinion, foreign policy should be based on a country’s national interests and not on internal political conflict.

Piero Ignazi is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Bologna. He is graduated at the University of Bologna and attended graduated studies at the European University Institute in Florence, and at the MIT. He is the Director of the Master in International Relations, University of Bologna. His field of research concerns mainly the party and party system all over Europe with particular emphasis on the right-extremist parties.

FOREIGN POLICY IS CURRENTLY UNDER HOT DEBATE WITHIN THE ITALIAN GOVERNMENT. For decades, the cornerstone of Italian foreign policy has been the active support of the European Union and NATO. Even under Berlusconi, whose administration reduced Italian involvement in the EU in favor of more active support of the United States, the government was careful to frame its foreign policy under the guise of continuity and fidelity to the Italian tradition. Berlusconi gone, new Prime Minister Prodi has vowed to uphold the same glorified tradition.

But beyond the rhetoric, foreign policy in Italy is turning out to be highly divisive. The present, most controversial issue under debate concerns the Italian military mission in Afghanistan.

Italian participation in Afghanistan is up to 2,000 soldiers purposefully stationed as peacekeepers in some of the less dangerous zones of the country. Yet, within the government a rising radical pacifist movement has begun to challenge military intervention and expenditures of any kind. This radical faction, composed of the Green Party, the Communist Refoundation Party, and the Italian Communist Party, eventually gave into governmental pressure and accepted the majority position in support of Italian action abroad. Yet, a small portion of these radical pacifists continues to oppose the current government policy in Afghanistan.

Last month, two of these radicals managed to block Prodi’s government in passing some critical pieces of foreign policy legislation. They were immediately expelled by their respective parties (the Communist Refoundation Party and the Italian Communist Party), yet the symbolic significance of their actions should not go by unnoticed.

The center-left in Italy is having the same problem that the German Greens experienced on the eve of the War in Kosovo: can intervention be justified if the cause is just? Many more radical pacifists would answer in the negative. Yet, others would be more careful in crafting their response. The idea of a just war to many center-leftists is highly subjective, weakening the possibility of a broad center-left consensus on the issue.

The center-right, meanwhile, has taken advantage of the internal struggle of the center-left to insist on its weakness and provoke its collapse. Yet, the center-right itself has not been consistent in its advocacy of the use of military might. During this past summer’s War in Lebanon, the center-right strongly opposed Italian involvement in the Unifil mission because of the unaccounted high risks that the Italian mission would have to face. This reluctance to enter into Lebanon is hard to explain, however, given the center-right’s vehement support for sending an Italian contingent into Afghanistan. In this second case, government officials kept any talk of the unaccounted high risks that Italian soldiers would have to confront in their struggle against the Taliban silent.

Yet, the main victim of this internal division in Italian government is the national interest itself.

With the sharp political confrontation between the left and the right, and the internal weakness of the center-left in its reluctance to advocate war, there has been hardly any attention paid to what is in the best interests of the Italian nation. Foreign policy should be made according to national interests, not internal political conflict.

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