Foreign Policy – Italy: the Eternal Adolescent. Is Geography to Blame?

Posted on September 14, 2011

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The Mediterranean Sea as depicted on the Tabula Rogeriana (1154). This is an upside down version, as the original has inverted poles.

While working on my dissertation (on Italian colonialism) I have thought at length about Italy’s struggles to find a strong and coherent foreign policy since 1861. Paradoxically, Italy’s problem may well be its geographic position, which simultaneously touches the heart of Europe and plunges into the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, some others may have reached the same conclusion before, but I thought I would share mine, regardless.

One does not need to be an expert in global politics to assess Italy’s important location on the global stage in terms of geography. It enjoys a unique position: it lays at the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, shares a sea with the eastern coast of the Balkan peninsula (the Adriatic) and touches central Europe thanks to its northern borders. As a result of this pivotal position,  Italy’s interests have spread out in all directions since unification, focusing (at times simultaneously) on the Red Sea, central Europe, Africa, and the Middle-East. And yet, this Mediterranean nation has always failed to become a major power in any of those stages, as it still does today.

Britain and France have deep-rooted skills in the matter of foreign policy while Germany can count on its economic and industrial powerhouse to make global affairs shift in its favour, when needed. The Italian ruling class has never agreed on which stage of the map the country should focus on. Italy’s central position between various geo-political realities is certainly a reason for this struggle along with its relatively recent unification.

Northern Italians had traditionally been rather keen on reuniting under the Italian flag those territories that were controlled by Austria-Hungary and France; on the other hand, in the South there was an interest in solving the overpopulation problem and in the annexation of Tunis (due to its large Italian/Sicilian community). Unified Italy, like an adolescent that has not yet found a role or an identity in society, had to find its place in the world. Soon after 1861 the country had to come to terms with the lack of national unity, a challenging geographical location and a broad range of interests, though it was to undertake this enterprise with little natural resources and little to none experience concerning international affairs. Like an adolescent it found security in imitation: it looked at and mimicked older role models in the form of France and Britain or even a young yet self-secure Germany.

It is therefore unsurprising that the Italian ruling class and the people found it almost impossible to balance the Nation’s numerous interests on the international stage until the start of the cold war. It is paradoxical that rather than an advantage, Italy’s geography turned out to be the cause for its major existential dilemmas within global politics.

Perhaps the more recent post Cold War insecurities displayed by Italy on the global stage are the legacy of older issues?

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Posted in: Opinion