Italy’s Foreign Policy: The Middle Power in Between the United States and Russia

On July 4, 2019, Vladimir Putin paid an official visit to Italy. This visit once again confirmed that the Moscow-Rome dialogue is active and developing, and the parties have something to discuss. At the same time, it is extremely important for Russia not to overestimate the role of Italy in the European Union and its intentions towards Russia. In this regard, an understanding of the national interests of Italy and its domestic political situation is essential for Russia to understand. 

Italy’s foreign policy interests are defined historically, geopolitically, and economically: the process of the formation of the Italian state and the status quo that developed after World War II; its geopolitical location in the Mediterranean (“the gateway to Europe”); as well as the social and economic-production structure of the country.

For Italy, a founding member of the EEC and original member of NATO, the European project and Transatlantic security architecture represent the two pillars of its foreign policy. Rome has traditionally structured its foreign policy priorities in terms of three geographical areas: the Mediterranean, the Transatlantic partnership and Europe. These national priorities are immutable and enduring, even in the context of political instability.

Italy is a regional power. At the same time, Italy is an economic power with global ambitions, interested in open markets. For Italy, which has developed industries and produces goods with high added value, these conditions are extremely important in that they guarantee the competitiveness of the economy through production and ensure the employment of the population. Finally, Italy is a cultural superpower with significant soft power. The interaction of politics, economics, scientific achievement, and its artistic and historical heritage yield a synergistic effect.

Italy, despite its global interests and ambitions, is a medium power with limited resources, which are insufficient to allow it to pursue its own objectives in the Mediterranean or effectively manage scenarios in a conflict-ridden, multipolar world. In this regard, Italian foreign policy cannot be conducted independently of support from the EU and NATO.

The concept of Italy as a medium power largely explains the country’s position in relation to Russia. Due to various limitations on its resources, such a state can usually only achieve its foreign policy goals by building up influence in international organisations, as well as through bilateral relations with other, more influential powers. Russia, within the framework of this strategy, is considered one of these powers, and maintaining stable political and economic contact can contribute to the realisation of Italy’s national interests.

In a modern world political context, Russia, having significant resources in the international arena, is an important dialogue partner for Italy. Maintaining regular contact on the main issues of the international agenda allows Italy, as an average power, to realise more fully its interests in accordance with the important principle of multilateralism, not limited to interaction with NATO and the EU partners.

Initially, Italy’s entry into NATO and the EU was viewed as a policy of authority delegation – when, by giving a portion of its sovereignty, a country can concentrate on resolving domestic issues. Previously, Italian foreign policy had not been so controversial and so subordinated to the internal parties’ interests – during the period of the First Republic, there was a difficult party struggle, but on the whole, the foreign policy vision was unified.

In the so-called government agreement between the two ruling Italian political parties, Lega and the Five Stars movement, the country’s foreign policy guidelines are confrontational. Thus, on the one hand the “government of changes” tries to adhere to a firm and unchanged line of continuity with respect to the US and Transatlantic values ​​(as a privileged partnership), and on the other hand, it seems to take an innovative approach by advocating the abolition of anti-Russian sanctions and expressing a desire to more actively engage Russia in decision-making regarding regional crises.

During his election campaign, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio announced to voters his intention to call for the immediate withdrawal of Italian troops from Afghanistan (without informing the United States of this plan), and his promise was replaced by a slow and gradual reduction of the number of troops. Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini promised Moscow that Italy would lift the European sanctions within a year, but so far this hasn’t happened at all.

Today, the foreign policy issues and decision-making processes have been concentrated in the hands of two leaders – Salvini and Di Maio – who resemble competitors rather than partners in the government coalition. In such a situation, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, as head of the Council of Ministers, resembles a mediator between his two deputies.

At the same time, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the head of government are forced to listen to Salvini and Di Maio defending Italy’s national interests, which were clothed in the rhetoric of the election campaigns.

Thus, we can conclude that never before has Italy’s foreign policy been so dependent on domestic political preferences and tastes. Given these conditions of internal political dynamism, we can expect new turns in Italy’s foreign policy agenda.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.