It’s not a laughing matter. In Italy, hilarity involving government figures has been around long before the comedian Grillo went into politics. Take, for instance, Ms. Casellati, the current President of the Senate, who, while Berlusconi was in government, would argue at length for the wild theory that Ruby, the underage belly dancer involved in the Berlusconi scandals, was actually Mubarak’s niece. While this had everyone on the opposite shore of the Mediterranean in stitches, things took a less funny turn when in 2011, under Prime Minister Berlusconi and President Napolitano, Italy bombed Gaddhafi, its major ally in the Mediterranean, with whom just six months earlier it had signed deals approved by 98% of Parliament, from the right to the left.
Let us try to imagine Conte’s foreign policy agenda, using the recent past as a model. First of all, in terms of the relationship with the United States. Trump’s tweeted endorsement of “Giuseppi” was reported more in the foreign press than in Italy, and went mostly unmentioned by our parties.
There are simple reasons for that. The right is too embarrassed to criticize the US president, to whom Salvini has clung like a wet blanket (e.g. on Iran and NATO). The Democratic Party, for its part, is so committed to the Atlantic Alliance and the war industry which is its driving force that it remains willfully oblivious to what is right in front of it. While they believe Trump is a symbol of the world’s most regressive right, the Democratic Party has not uttered a word against him, in order to not create any embarrassment in the negotiations with the M5S. And Conte, for whom no one has ever voted and whose name nobody knew until a year ago, and to whom Trump gave the run-around with promises of being in the mythical “control room” in Libya, speaks to the world with such authority as if he were Alcide De Gasperi. It’s enough to listen to his closing speech at the Conference of Ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry in July, in which the Atlantic commitments and the US were called the “guiding light of our foreign policy,” a notion echoed on the same occasion by Moavero Milanesi, the ghostly Foreign Affairs minister.
Of course, he failed to mention the cost of the military bases, the spending on F-35 fighters (that deal is still on) and the US nuclear warheads that we are hosting on our territory. The M5S-Lega government was similarly silent on the historic INF Treaty on intermediate nuclear weapons ripped up by Trump.
Given this background, the second Conte government, in terms of foreign policy—of which there was not even a hint among the points of the government program offered for the approval of the Rousseau platform—runs the risk of not being very different from the first Conte government. Conte himself, in addition to not saying a word against Salvini, who used to decide the foreign policy of his government from the Interior Ministry—together with most everything else—has said nothing about the reckless move made by Moavero, who, wanting to curry favor with the very pro-Netanyahu Lega, went to Warsaw this year to an anti-Iran summit, which the foreign ministers of France and Germany did not even deign to attend.
Furthermore, why has Conte never said a word about Israel’s air raids in the Middle East and the increasingly uncertain fate of the Palestinian Occupied Territories? His travels abroad were characterized by keeping a low profile, and purposefully so, in order not to disturb the Lega and the Five Stars. Conte’s foreign policy agenda was always prefaced by the warning in big block letters, “Do not disturb the driver of the vehicle,” i.e. the United States, to whom, moreover, the Five Stars wholeheartedly turned when the American ambassador to Rome, Lewis Eisenberg (a Trump financier) wanted to understand a little more about the Russiagate scandal involving Salvini’s Lega.
If we are to be a bit unkind, the man who calls himself “the Italians’ lawyer” risks ending up in actual fact as “the Americans’ mouthpiece,” as he accepted without question Trump’s tall tales about Italy being in the “control room” in Libya, the allegedly “safe place” for migrants, where a vicious civil war, which never truly ended in the first place, has broken out again.
And it’s not just that the US doesn’t listen: like the French, they’re mocking us in supporting General Khalifa Haftar against the Tripoli government backed by the Italians. Things look better with regard to the European Union, where Conte has garnered the applause of the major European chancelleries for his support of the candidacy of the German Van der Leyen for President of the EU Commission, which was the dress rehearsal for the PD-M5S dialogue.
Going forward, Iran, Russia and China will also be topics of debate. This is because the first Conte government was characterized by different attitudes coming from the Lega and the Five Stars, for instance in the matter of the crisis in Venezuela and the institutional coup of self-proclaimed “President” Guaidó.
In the Middle East, Salvini sided decisively with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, to the point of jeopardizing the Italian troops in Lebanon (just a few days ago, the Israeli air force bombed the Bekaa Valley), calling Hezbollah “terrorists” during his visit to Jerusalem (who are in government in Lebanon, and who fought ISIS in Syria together with the Iranians and Russians), and then fully supporting the US position on the historic nuclear deal with Iran signed by Obama, which Trump unilaterally exited.
Even just that would be enough for us to be happy that Salvini was kicked to the curb, something to which, moreover, Putin has made a great contribution with the Metropole recordings, for which the Italian Embassy, the secret services and Berlusconi should be thankful. It was an encouragement for the Five Stars to switch loyalties. It was the Five Stars—not Conte, who never had any say in this matter—who sent the President of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Vito Petrocelli, to visit both Tehran and Moscow. Petrocelli explained to the Iranians that the Lega’s anti-Tehran position was not shared by the Five Stars, and even less so by the Italian economic establishment. It remains true that in practice, the previous government has done little, and has sheepishly refrained from buying even one drop of Iranian oil during the six-month suspension of sanctions agreed by the United States.
Then we come to the rapprochement with Moscow, where Conte went for a visit. The most significant position was taken once more by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate: in the report delivered after Petrocelli’s trip (June 16-19), it is stated that “Italy is keen, especially in the present political situation, to position itself as equidistant between the United States and Russia, while not reneging on its membership in the European Union and NATO.” Afterwards, Conte backed Trump’s request before the G-7 to reinstate Putin’s Russia, which is now trying to break free from its sovereignist allegiances and is showing signs of opening up towards the battered Franco-German axis, beginning to truly negotiate on Ukraine—“the Donbass must have an internal solution,” “it is not like Crimea”—also thanks to Poroshenko’s ousting and the new Ukrainian leadership under Zelensky.
As regards China, Italy signed the MoU on the New Silk Road project started by Xi Jinping. We don’t know what will come of this protocol, but, most importantly, our adherence to this project seemed focused exclusively on the business side, forgetting the necessary policy contents in terms of human and social rights (and workers’ rights in particular). The era we are living in is marked by the tariff wars that the sovereignist-isolationist “America First” is unleashing, and which are reshaping strategies and alliances in the world.
Trump is the enemy of European unity: he has pushed for Brexit and is now supporting the “coup” by Boris Johnson. Putin doesn’t like the strength of the EU either—also due to the fact that it often acts as a surrogate for NATO, which is directing its foreign policy and deploying troops and missiles on its border—but the tariff war and the economic and social internal crisis are pushing him to connect with the Franco-German axis. China, the number one enemy target for Trump’s economic raids, is making efforts to ally with everybody, reshaping the political nature of Asia.
But will all of this lead to a change in Italian foreign policy? We don’t have much to go on except for Conte’s tactical positioning to establish himself outside of Italy. His real international credibility appeared only when he got rid of Salvini after depending on him for 14 months. It will take more than that for him to truly have “stature,” and to avoid being remembered as just the guy who Trump described as the “very respected Giuseppi.”