Nostalgia for a role in shaping order in the Mediterranean should not be interpreted as a desire to realise lingering imperial dreams. If anything, it is a sign of a weakness on the part of a state that has had to deal with consequences of instability in the region, writes Valdai Club expert Vincent Della Sala.
When one thinks of the Age of Empire, as the British historian Eric Hobsbawm called the decades prior to the start of World War One, Italy does not quickly come to mind. The newly unified country arrived late to the imperial banquet at the end of the nineteenth century, having to pick through what was left after European great and not so great powers had already ravaged Africa and Asia. While Italy never managed to build a colonial empire, the imperial impulse shaped its history in the first half of the twentieth century and continues to affect parts of the country’s domestic and foreign policies. The idea that the Mediterranean Sea is “mare nostrum” (“our sea”) is a central pillar of Italian foreign policy and even thinking about internal security.
Italy’s relatively late unification and state development does not mean that there is no imperial history for contemporary Italians to somehow see part of their own cultural heritage. Rome is still colloquially called the “Eternal City”, a term from the heyday of the Roman empire, and every Italian child is taught that at one time it was “Caput Mundi” (Capital of the World). From Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England to the Temple of Hercules in Jordan, signs that political power once rested in Rome remain standing throughout Europe and North Africa. Although formally not an Empire nor a political entity, the Catholic Church also provides another imperial legacy that emanated from Rome and any visitor to Venice is reminded that there was a third empire, the Venetian Republic, that once ruled over the Mediterranean from territory that is now Italy. Like all empires, these three brought back material and cultural treasures that are still visible in many parts of Italy.
Clearly, centuries had elapsed between when the Mediterranean and the Italian peninsula had been seats of political and economic power and Italian unification in 1860. Italy’s late arrival to the imperial chessboard meant that it had to either conquer foreign lands already under the control of European empires or engage in diplomatic manoeuvres to convince other states to cede parts of their colonies. Not having the military capacity to challenge European powers, Italy began to strike a series of agreements to acquire colonies in Africa or outposts in China, which ostensibly led to a series of obligations that conditioned Italy’s participation in World War One. For instance, it was France’s decision to take over Tunisia and not concede it to Italy that led it to join Germany and Austria in the Triple Entente in 1882.
Italy’s late nineteenth century ambitions brought as many nightmares as did the realisation of its imperial dreams. Desire to gain territory in Asia was largely extinguished by the other European powers and Italy had to settle for access to a city port in China rather than the coveted Borneo. A secret agreement with the British Empire gave it a presence in the Horn of Africa, leading to Italy’s control of Eritrea and Somalia. However, all would not go smoothly as planned. Italy had acquired control of Massawa in 1896, giving it a port on which to build its African colonial ambitions but also denying Ethiopia access to the Red Sea. This would be the first of many tensions that led to at least two major military confrontations in the Horn of Africa and a decisive defeat at Adwa in 1896.
The political consequences of military defeat at the hands of the Ethiopian forces had consequences for domestic politics and led in the early twentieth century to nationalist fervour that called for an expansion of Italian colonial territories. In 1911-12, Italy went to war with the Ottoman Empire and was able to gain as concessions most of what today is Libyan territory. Along with the Horn of Africa and Albania, also seized from the crumbling Ottoman Empire, these three areas constituted the expanse of Italy’s imperial holdings at the start of WWI.
Not surprisingly, Italy’s Fascist regime in the 1920s and 1930s harked back to a time when Rome was indeed Caput Mundi and sought to recreate an imperial power. Mussolini’s rise to power was in part fuelled by the “humiliation” of the post-war settlement that did not deliver the territories, especially in the Adriatic, that Italy believed were promised for its participation on the winning side. Fascist Italy revived dreams of the “mare nostrum”, looking to use it as the basis to become a major maritime power able to rival Britain and France. A short-lived occupation of Corfu was justified on the grounds that it had been part of the Venetian Republic for over 400 years.
Fascist Italy’s imperial dreams led to an invasion of Ethiopia in 1936, essentially bringing an end to the ineffective League of Nations. It was also an important part of the formal creation of the Italian Empire that same year. With the 1939 invasion of Albania, which Italy had ceded in 1920, the Fascist empire included what is now Libya, Eritrea and Ethiopia. It did not extend much further despite ambitions to annex large parts of the Dalmatian coast and as far as Romania. The Empire did not last very long as military defeats as early as 1940 saw its borders shrink and it came to an end, effectively by 1941. The post-war settlement stripped Italy of any its imperial claims although it continued to administer what was called Italian Somaliland under a UN mandate until 1960.
Italy’s short and not very extensive imperial experience did not produce the political, economic and even cultural windfall that the United Kingdom continues to draw upon with the Commonwealth, France with the Francophonie and even Spain with ongoing links with Latin America. Italian did not become a widely diffused language in Africa or Asia, nor did colonial links create privileged relations in newly formed states or developing economies. Its relations with former colonies has provided as many challenges as it has opportunities. This is especially the case in Libya, which has remained Italy’s beachhead in North Africa and the Middle East. Italy’s post-colonial relationship with Libya passed through a number of phases during the Ghaddafi regime. One of his first acts was to re-visit a treaty between the two countries and to nationalise Italian assets in 1970s and to demand wartime and colonial reparations.
Italy’s geography at the centre of the Mediterranean and the history of the peninsula ensure that the idea of “mare nostrum” and the reflex to intervene are never too far away. Even the newly formed government of Mario Draghi, supposedly more internationalist and Europeanist, felt it important to send both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to Libya to oversee talks to help re-establish order in the county (and secure Italian economic interests).
But nostalgia for a role in shaping order in the Mediterranean should not be interpreted as a desire to realise lingering imperial dreams. If anything, it is a sign of a weakness on the part of a state that has had to deal with consequences of instability in the region. Italy’s first experience with mass migration came in the wake of state failure and social instability in Albania in the early 1990s. This led to numerous efforts to secure internal borders by sending security forces to Albania and to help to modernise state structures. Libya has been the focal point for Italy’s most recent concern with migrants seeking refuge in Europe by crossing the Mediterranean. The collapse of the Libyan state after the fall of the Ghaddafi regime was precisely the outcome that had led the Italian government in 2011, led by Silvio Berlusconi, to oppose military intervention in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings spreading to that country.
Italy was the last and probable the least of the European empires. It never really developed an imperial strategy, largely as a result of not having the military capacity to change the imperial game. However, its strategic interests in the Balkans and in North Africa remain, thus occasionally invoking a call to assert greater influence over “mare nostrum”. But this is not an imperial reflex for two reasons. First, Italy’s imperial experience is not one that is celebrated or entrenched through instruments of institutional memory. Children are as likely to learn in school about military defeat in the colonies as they are about the glory of empire. It is associated with a time when Italy was struggling to find its place in the world and to become a “modern” European society. Second, there is no political party or movement that has an incentive to call for a return to a more imperial foreign policy. Italian politics remain largely inward-looking, more concerned with protecting its borders than in expanding them.