Foreign Policy

   Italy’s foreign policy has generally had clear, but unassertive, objectives. Before unification, the lack of cohesion among ministates and principalities under Austrian, Spanish, or Pontifical jurisdiction made unrealizable any territorial ambitions on the part of those few states that were autonomous. Moreover, a paucity of industrial raw materials and the vulnerability of two long coastlines warranted a certain modesty. After the peninsula’s unification, however, the aim became to establish Italy’s credentials as a power by pursuing a colonial policy in Ethiopia and in Libya. Successive governments also negotiated the so-called Triple Alliance, tying Italy to Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, Italy increasingly chafed at the limitations of the Triple Alliance. Calculating that Italy’s security required control over the mountain passes to its north and the absence of a rival power on the Adriatic, the Italian government competed for influence with Austria in the Balkans. It was calculated that Austria would see no reason to share either mountain passes or seas with the Italians in the case of a joint victory in a European war. On the other hand, a victorious Anglo-French alliance would surely have no objection to parceling out formerly Austrian holdings to an Italian ally.
   These considerations combined with resurgent nationalism in the spring of 1915 and led to Italy entering the war on the side of Great Britain, France, and Russia, rather than Austria and Germany. Italy’s trust in the Allies proved misplaced, however. Italy gained the Brenner frontier with Austria (and thus absorbed a large German-speaking minority), but its other territorial gains were meager. Disillusionment with Italy’s treatment contributed greatly to the public mood that made Fascism possible.
   Under Fascism, similar objectives prevailed. Benito Mussolini sought to project Italy as a power convincingly enough to make it not only respected but actively feared. Boldness and initiative led Mussolini’s Italy to be the first state to recognize the Soviet government (1924), to establish good relations with Yugoslavia and expand Italian influence in the Danubian basin, to shell the island of Corfu, and gradually to absorb Albania. On the other hand, Mussolini was a valued member of the European elite and was much courted by Britain and France. Mussolini signed the 1925 Locarno Pact guaranteeing Belgian and French frontiers (while remaining silent about Germany’s eastern frontiers, to which the guarantees did not extend). In March 1933, Italy signed the Four Power Pact with France, Germany, and Great Britain. The Duce hoped thereby to ensure Italy’s place among the European Great Powers, which would reduce the influence of small powers in the League of Nations. At Stresa in April 1934, Mussolini signed a Treaty with Britain and France in response to Germany’s repudiation of the Locarno Treaties and of the disarmament clauses of the Treaty of Versailles. Italy mobilized troops during the attempted Nazi coup in Austria in 1934.
   Mussolini’s ambitions grew steadily, and the refusal of British and French public opinion to allow him a free hand in Ethiopia gradually caused him to move into Adolf Hitler’s camp. Both Italy and Germany backed General Francisco Franco’s insurrection in Spain. In September 1936, Hitler invited Mussolini to Germany for a state visit and to watch German army maneuvers, hoping to convince the Duce that Germany would certainly triumph in any European war. The visit took place just three months after the opening of hostilities in Spain and just six months after Germany had reoccupied the Rhineland, contrary to both the Versailles and Locarno Treaties. Hitler succeeded so completely in flattering his guest’s vanity that within a month the Rome-Berlin Axis had been formed (25 October 1936).
   By March 1938, Italy was so deeply committed to a Fascist victory in Spain that Mussolini could not oppose the German absorption of Austria, a fact that at one stroke erased Italy’s only concrete gain from its participation in World War I. In place of the Austrian rump state and its weak successors beyond the mountains ringing Italy, there was a new Germanic empire far more powerful and more expansionist than the Habsburgs had been. However, Mussolini’s admiration of Germany’s might led him to accept the Pact of Steel (May 1939), which bound Italy to Germany by military obligations that Italy was in no position to honor. Moreover, even a victorious Germany would be unlikely to satisfy what Mussolini defined as Italy’s needs, and any German defeat must necessarily bring Italy down as well. In short, the Pact of Steel was Mussolini’s undoing. He delayed Italian entrance into the war until he thought that victory was near but then embroiled Italy in a parallel war in Greece and North Africa that bankrupted the nation and exposed fascism’s empty boast of military might.
   Since 1945, Italy’s policies have consistently aimed at identifying Italy as an Atlantic power and hence a loyal member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Italy still hosts several major NATO bases and during the Cold War was one of the United States’ most reliable allies—so much so, indeed, that Italy was nicknamed “NATO’s Bulgaria.” The extent of Italian subservience to the United States can be exaggerated, however. Italy’s “Mediterranean vocation” (and need for oil and gas) has led it to seek good relations with the Arab states to its south; during the 1950s, Italy was one of the first Western European states to establish good relations with the Soviet Union, and Italy’s Europeanism has been even more central than Atlanticism in its foreign policy. Italy’s aim is to become one of the motors of the integration of Europe. It has consistently supported increased powers for the institutions of the European Community, even when this meant making economic sacrifices. The 1958 treaty establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) was proposed at Messina (Sicily) in June 1955, drafted by the foreign ministers of the six member states at Venice in May 1956, and signed in Rome in March 1957. The Democrazia Cristiana/Christian Democracy party (DC) was a stalwart backer of the European project. From the 1970s onward, the tacit approval of the Partito Comunista Italiano/Italian Communist Party (PCI) was also given to Italy’s membership in the Community, although the PCI was initially a stern critic of both NATO and European unity. In recent years, Italy has become one of the United Nations’(UN) most active member states in peacekeeping missions around the globe; more than 9,000 Italian troops were employed in such missions at the end of 2006. Italian troops and service personnel were deployed in Albania in 1997 with the goal of preventing a collapse of that country. Italy also made a substantial contribution to the postwar reconstruction of Iraq in 2003. In September 2006, Italy contributed over 2,000 soldiers and several warships to the international force deployed in southern Lebanon to police the ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah. As one of the few countries enjoying good relations with both the Arab world and Israel, Italy was uniquely placed to broker a peace deal between Israel and Lebanon. Italy’s high profile in peacekeeping is not solely motivated by humanitarian goals; it openly aspires to a permanent place on an enlarged UN Security Council.

Historical Dictionary of Modern Italy. . 2007.

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