Italy is a strategic country refusing to assume such a role. After over a century and a half, our united country remains a geopolitical adolescent, a puer aeternus, fragile and perpetually incomplete, consigned to choices made by others. It is the Peter Pan of the international stage, fleeing from itself, “because I heard father and mother talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” Italy still yearns for the unrepeatable liturgies of orderly times, when the Cold War’s Cartesian axis assigned us a place at the table, sparing us the task of choosing one, or dreamy harmonious Europes in which we could serenely melt into a neighbourly brotherhood.
Between being and not being, this country prefers having been. It is prepared to break rather than bend to the need to participate in the strategic power market on the basis of its own interests. Anything is better than making a decision.
Paradoxically, subjective inconsistency increases Italy’s objective importance. There are, in fact, three ways of counting in geopolitics; if one is a power, if one is useful to one or more powers and if one can inflict damage on sizable powers. Between the end of the 18th century and the mid-20th century, we Italians catastrophically experienced the impossibility of subscribing to the first archetype. In the bipolar decades that followed, we transformed value-in-use to the United States into geopolitical revenue, paying homage to the second paradigm. Nowadays we are priced on the basis of the sum of all that remains of that revenue and the damage our statehood frailty can cause to Euro-Atlantic organisations. Tertium datur: the power of impotence.
We are a loose cannon. In the event of an explosion the shock wave would not only affect our own surroundings, but also upset global order and equilibria. This would be caused by the peninsula’s critical mass determined by its geographical position, by economic and demographic dimensions and, not last, by the fact that it hosts the centre of a religion with a universal vocation.
Five factors determine Italy’s importance and the impact of its (mis)fortunes on the leading players of the global stage. In order of importance they are:
- It is here that the future of the euro will be decided. We are the marginal quantity that in the event of failure can determine the collapse of the “single currency”. This is a decisive factor in Germany’s, France’s and other euro-members’ interest in the fate of Italians, but also in America’s vigilance, seeing the effects a Eurozone collapse would have on the planet’s geopolitics and economy.
- It is through Italy that the main migratory flows from young Africa to old Europe seep, affecting the security, stability and the very identity of our continent. It is for this reason too that in Berlin and surrounding areas we are under special surveillance.
- As a logistics platform in the Mediterranean, we remain relevant to Washington, as witnessed by the rising presence of American troops and bases – depots for atomic weapons and intelligence centres included – albeit after the expiry of the Soviet threat that initially legitimised this.
- We are simultaneously useful to Moscow, America’s enemy of choice, if nothing else because of our insuppressible cultural and commercial Russophilia, which is felt across all political ideologies. Seen from the Kremlin, we are, to say the least, a likable grain of sand in the Atlantic mechanism. For the White House instead, we are a partner that must be supervised, especially because we behave as if we were spontaneously happy, nor do we demand anything in exchange for so much love. The geopolitics of giving is an exclusively Italian specialty. We should not be surprised if others – mistakenly – catch a glimpse of Machiavellian ancestry in this.
- Finally, Italy attracts China’s attention because it is at the centre of the Mediterranean, making it the potential candidate for the first useful port locations for Asia-Europe maritime traffic. This is the ideal position in the storyline of the new silk roads, hence of “Chinese globalisation” nowadays expressed in the form of trade, tomorrow perhaps in fully geopolitical terms. This position-related advantage could become reality if Italy were at last to choose a port acceptable to the Chinese in which to base Sino-European exchanges, moving the barycentre towards the south. A remote hypothesis (see Peter Pan Syndrome).
Germany, France, the United States, Russia, China; the catalogue of powers interested in us and that we can influence is enviable. However, in order to collect takings, in the geopolitical marketplace it is necessary to raise value in use to value in exchange. This means knowing how to evaluate one’s strategic assets, both material and immaterial, in relation to how they are perceived by the most powerful players. One should then spend part of these assets to advance one’s own interests in the permanent negotiations that define international relations, especially when the stakes are higher and reciprocal obligations more binding – such as in the Eurozone and NATO. These are operations that presume an ability to define one’s own point of view. This in turn is the result of that national maturity we so desperately avoid. This without that albeit minimum, variable framework of alliances, based on convergent interests, needed to be able to hold one’s own when compared to countries of a similar or even inferior size, but capable of affiliating others to strengthen their standing.
So as to cross the shadow line we must free ourselves of the idea that our national interest consists in not having one, to then subscribe to the one (among those of others) that seems best suited to us. In Italy there is the curious axiom according to which we cannot enjoy the luxury of developing a strategy because we are not sufficiently powerful. The opposite is true; it is the great powers that can afford a few distractions, immersing themselves in periods of planning apnoea, running on automatic pilot. We who do not have their resources are obliged to have strategies, to think and rethink our position in the world.
If we do not, then the absurd may happen; the use of national resources against national interests. This was the case of missions carried out by our armed forces after the end of the Cold War in neighbouring countries we contributed to destabilise, to confirm to the Americans the certainty of our devotion. All this in exchange for nothing. We bombed Yugoslavia – including FIAT plants – and even Libya, contributing to a fragilisation of the Balkans and North Africa, hence those very regions that in our own official documents we elevate to the status of decisive for Italy’s security. And we have deployed thousands of soldiers all over the word, from the Indian Ocean to the Hindu Kush, on the basis of no criteria whatsoever except for the supposed allied interest in considering us reliable, because we ourselves were not too sure about that. Always free of charge. Or rather at taxpayers’ expense and that of the lives of some of our best soldiers.
History races ahead and does not wait for Italy. Waiting for mother America or father Germany to decide for us means bowing to their interests, which often do not coincide and at times even clash with our own. Or, alternatively, to their lack of attention, which abandons us to the consequences of our own irresponsibility. In the best case scenario, we would thereby cede to hopefully benevolent powers, the sovereignty assigned to the Italian people by Article 1 of the republican constitution.
If Washington and Berlin diverge, the skies above Rome darken. Nothing is taken for granted nor is it automatic any longer. We must set our course, conscious of the risks we run should we fail. But can we? Or are we prevented from doing so by some hypothetical fate?
Just like all organisms, not only geopolitical ones, Italy too is above all what it once was. In its self-consciousness, the historical and structural characteristics tend to impose themselves on mutations impressed by contingencies – net of wars and revolutions. The art of the strategist consists in seizing the few but decisive opportunities that the past’s burdens and the future’s uncertainty leave us in present times. Our reluctance to do so indicates that Italy remains unfinished.
The essence of a nation arises from its sensitivity to independence. The long-term view confirms that Italy has not distinguished itself in this sense nor does it do so today. We cannot even manage to agree on Italy’s origins. The nationalist oleograph, outfitted by Fascism around the axis of the Roman world, sets these origins in territorial reforms dating back to the age of Augustus – who reorganised the peninsula in eleven regions – in turn the result of the Roman-Italic integration process of the 2nd century B.C.. However, Rosario Romeo already stipulated that, “postulating a continuity of Italy’s later history with that of the Roman world cannot but appear to be little more than a rhetorical expedient.” The bipartition of the peninsula sanctioned by Charlemagne – the eponym hero of the communitarian European tendency – tracing a still broken fault line between northern marches intrinsic to the continent’s heartland and southern lands marked by oriental and Mediterranean influences, is more persuasive and topical. Just as this was followed between 951 and 962 by the elevation of Otto I to King of the Franks and the Italics and, together, their emperor. All this was to establish that nexus with the Germanic ecumene and with the Catholic Church that was to exalt our country’s both universalist and particularist vocation, thereby compromising its national essence.
It was within this ambiguous heritage that the roots of Risorgimento Italy we directly descend from, once germinated. Between the end of the 18th century and the mid-19th century, the first moderate patriots could not refer to a previous geopolitical entity, nor least of all could they invoke a geo-economic convenience in uniting the peninsula’s states and statelets. The reference to the Italy of the Risorgimento is the Renaissance, from the heights of which our 17th - 18th century decline precipitated, disconnecting us from areas of progress. The portrayal of past artistic and literary glory legitimised the new state as the container of a great civilisation.
For Italian patriots this meant redeeming the image of a picturesque “country of ruins”, the border nation between the Europe of progress, the backwards East and wild Africa. This was a negative stereotype emphasised by the spreading of proto-environmentalist theories by the Baron de Montesquieu, who in his The Spirit of the Laws (1748) considers climate as a criteria of civilisation, attributing all civil virtues to people in cold countries, distinct from lazy and servile southerners, Italians included. This was also addressed in Leopardi’s Discourse on the Present State of the Customs of the Italians written in 1824, a ruthless critical analysis of our atavistic vices – ranging from anti-socialness to cynicism – which lower our standards compared to people of the north, since “it appears that North’s time has come”. The echoes of this sentence have not ceased to torment us.
On closer inspection, this frustration also originates in the Risorgimento, because the moderate patriots’ original project was not the unification of the whole of Italy, but to build “a new wealthy Belgium in the Po Valley” connected to northern nations. Cavour wanted to integrate northern Italy to connect it to northern Europe in order to hook his sub-Alpine carriage onto the convoy of civilisation and progress led by the northern powers. This kingdom was to be created through aggregation around Piedmont. Before Garibaldi obliged Victor Emanuel to annex the south, Italian unity was conceived in Turin and as Luciano Cafagna observed, “a political unification above the ‘Gothic Line’”. In the eyes of Piedmont’s officials and soldiers arriving there with a colonial attitude, the south was alien. “This is not Italy! This is Africa. Compared to these oafs the Bedouins are highly civilised,” wrote the Lieutenant General of the Neapolitan provinces, Luigi Carlo Farini, in a letter to Cavour on October 27th, 1860. This sentiment was made famous in literature by the Leopard, when the Squire Aimone Chevalley di Monterzuolo, sent to Sicily to persuade the Prince of Salina to accept the laticlave of the Senate of the Kingdom, discovers he is a foreigner in a land of brigands. “The inscription ‘Corso Vittorio Emanuele’, whose blue letters on a white ground adorned the half-ruined house opposite him, was not enough to convince him that he was in a place which was, after all, part of his own nation.”
This quick visit to contemporary Italy’s proto-history allows one to observe the logical-geopolitical chain that limits our strategic horizon and presses us to become the province of others.
Geopolitical and economic divergence along the North/South axis is a normal occurrence at an Italian and a European level. It is worth lingering on this double difference since it contains the reasons that have, until today, prevented us from establishing our national interest.
“In my opinion there is a mental Gothic Line that cuts Italy into two. I live astride of it. The spiritual dilemmas, those of the soul, are projected onto geography (…) Rome is my being, Milan what I must be. I dream of a third city uniting them (…)” wrote Ottiero Ottieri as a young man in 1948, born a Roman (“sun, disorder”), but Milanese by adoption (“fog, precision”). South and North; two polarised universes between which the Olivetti-inspired Ottieri was torn, “hoping there will not come a time in which I am torn apart”. Almost seventy years later, this intimist metaphor of a non-conformist intellectual still preserves its meaningfulness. The “third city” remains a dream.
The rift that accentuates the original separateness between Italy’s North and South is in parallel caused by anthropological-cultural perceptions and socio-economic dynamics, by the impotence of politics – futile, aphasic – and the fragility of the institutional context, undermined by systemic corruption of which organised crime and other informal powers take advantage. These are all factors that converge in infecting the Italian geopolitical landscape.
The Northern issue no longer only consists in the self-assessed civilised and productive, vocationally impolitic North’s diffidence regards to the inefficient administrative class encysted in the capital and the slothful South. It is no longer just the offspring of the Lombard temperament that “has neither the time nor the desire to devote itself to politics, it deals with business and not gossip”, understood in the fifties by Guido Piovene. It is the assertion of an unsurpassable anthropological diversity compared to the South, which corresponds to a latent and not greatly reciprocated affinity with the Germanic world or perhaps with impolitical, cantonal Swiss federalism. In its highest version, this theory reminding one of Montesquieu’s geo-climatic postulates, was formulated in 1993 for Limes by Gianfranco Miglio, who came from Como but aspired to be Swiss. “The civilised word is in temperate areas; if one moves to where it is very cold one comes across dullard Slavs; if one aims for the south one comes across people dazed by the heat, rather like those Mexicans dozing beneath their sombreros. If I were to move to Sicily with my family, within two generations we would be Sicilianised.”
During those same years, especially Naples, Sicily and Sardinia – the Souths equipped with a “national” tradition – started to oppose this thesis, laying claim to their own proud identity, characterised in extreme cases by neo-Bourbon separatist or independentist traits.
The economy confirms the exacerbation of Italian dualism, especially starting with the crisis of the last decade. Between 2007 and 2015, the south’s GDP fell almost double that of the Centre North (-12.3% compared to -7.1%). In terms of pro capita GDP, that of the south is worth a little less than half of that of the centre-north, while a fall in consumption in acute stages of the recession, between 2008 and 2014, was two and half times that of the rest of the country and employment multiplied by six (-9% compared to -1.4%). In order to measure the irredeemability of the gap, one should consider that in order to eliminate it, assuming annual growth in the South amounted to 0.4% higher than that of the centre-north, one would have to wait until 2243.
Furthermore, north of the Gothic Line, most of Italy’s industrial system is integrated into the German value chain. Exchanges between the North and Germany amounted to 87 billion euros in 2016 compared to the Centre’s 15 billion euros and the South’s 7 billion.
What remains between the North and the Centre is a widespread fabric of medium to small sized companies, of which some are world class. Light quality capitalism, thanks to which we boast the title of the second European manufacturing power. However, in geopolitics the identical volume turned over by a large company, by ten medium-sized businesses or one hundred small ones, carries a different specific weight. The “national champions” do not only serve the economy, but they strengthen the geopolitical and often the cultural influence of their country of origin.
Italy is out of step with Europe’s geopolitical heart, while its North, attempting to stay in touch albeit in a subordinated position, no longer tows the country. Seen from Berlin and the Nordic “ants”, we are a state on the verge of failure.
While Germanic Europe moves away and the trench marked by the Gothic Line becomes deeper, Africa comes closer. The flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean is 80% aimed at Italy after the Merkel-Erdoğan pact dried up the Turkish-Greek-Balkan route – a masterpiece of the German method that passes off as European its own national initiatives. Between January and April this year, almost 37,000 people fleeing poverty and war left what was once Libya to land in Italy, coming mainly from Nigeria and other West African countries, with one-tenth of these migrants coming from as far away as Bangladesh, 25% more than during the same period in 2016. By the end of this year arrivals in Italy could amount to over 200,000, the red line beyond which a hard-to-manage social and public order emergency could arise according to the Italian government.
Of the three geopolitical drifts affecting the country, this is the most structural and less governable, as events causing migrants to risk their lives in trans-Mediterranean exoduses are in great measure fuelled by climatic and demographic factors, which over the short and medium term are insensitive to any policy. In particular, a delayed demographic transition – the absence of a fall in women’s fecundity is expected to follow a decrease in mortality – has in various sub-Saharan African countries, such as Nigeria and Niger, resulted in a surplus in young populations determined to emigrate at all costs.
Ferocious competition to unload on neighbours what is perceived as an existential threat to their wellbeing, social cohesion and even national identity, has now appeared between European countries, unprepared for this shock and rendered neurotic by jihadist terrorism. So Italy finds itself crushed between the migratory flow from the south and the decision to tighten border controls made by our northern neighbours – France, Switzerland, Austria, all backed by Germany. The result is that 90% of those landing in Italy remain here.
Once again the decisive match is played between Italy and Germany. On the northern front, it is above all in Berlin that the possibility of relaxing the Dublin Agreement is contemplated, thus the treaty on the basis of which it is the first EU state entered (see Italy and far less Greece) that is responsible for managing asylum requests. On the Southern front, unlike France and Great Britain, and with the United States remaining indifferent, Germany is the only Euro-Atlantic power involved in the containment of the Libyan chaos. This with almost non-existence results. It is here that Rome makes the greatest efforts with the fewest results, to the point of summoning to the Interior Ministry a varied delegation of local leaders from the Fezzan – the deep Libyan south – to induce them with compensation, also guaranteed also EU funds, to become the guardians of the desert, filtering migratory routes originating in the Sahel. It is, however, a desperate feat to identify anyone prepared to do the dirty work once guaranteed by Gheddafi in what is now the Libyan chaos.
According to central-northern Europe, Italy should appoint itself to take a stand as the last barrier in a system of dams created to obstruct or at least deviate migratory pressure coming from Africa. Berlin had obtained from the Turks what Italy has asked leaders in the Fezzan to do and now expects Italians to do the same. The probabilities that Rome can persuade the Sahara’s tribal leaders or perhaps some Tripolitanian militias to behave in a manner similar to what Merkel persuaded Erdoğan to do, seem slim. Not even a revision of the Dublin Regulation in a way more favourable to us, about which we are negotiating with EU members, looks easy. One cannot exclude that, caught in the north-south vice, Italy may dare jump the gun and move on to the active rejection of those attempting to cross the Sicilian Channel, to the extent of deploying troops to Tripolitania. The outcome of such an adventure is a given; we would manage to bring together against us all Libyan factions, starting with those we would like to have working for us.
Italy must come to terms with reality and establish itself as a geopolitical player, which like all others, large or small, protects its own interests in competition and compromise with those of others. There is nothing extraordinary in this; it is the norm of international relations. Claiming to be a state to then have oneself directed by other states, correctly pursuing their own priorities, is instead indeed an exceptional feat.
One could object that our statehood deficit prevents us from becoming normal. This is an alibi. It is true that Italian institutions are weak and not very legitimate. But the Italians exist, albeit in their multiple identities and as such are perceived by other peoples, far less attentive than we are to real or artificial regional varieties, to the dialectal declinations of national self-awareness. Those arguing against the national interest should prove that it would be best for Italians to dissolve their residual united institutions to then integrate with external dominions or become fragmented in “homogeneous” statelets. As such they would be extraneous to the rules of western liberal-democracies, founded at least formally on a heterogeneous national state. Would it really be best for the Lombards and/or the Venetians – called upon in the near future to vote in ambiguously autonomist referenda – to become emancipated from Italy to become the Ticinese of a Small Europe that appears to aggregate around Germany?
It would seem wiser to strengthen the republic while redefining its profile on the international stage and first and foremost in our continent. We indulge ourselves in complaining about the disintegration of the European Union, losing sight of the other side of the coin; reaggregation – informal today but perhaps tomorrow drawing new borders – in areas of influence established by cultural, geostrategic and economic affinities. At the centre is the German state, the semiconductor of power flows that format precarious European equilibria but also, for the moment, reluctant to equip itself with a strategy corresponding to its means and responsibilities. Too powerful to still accept being reduced to an American satellite as sanctioned by defeat in two World Wars and more or less happily accepted by the original and precisely Western Bundesrepublik. Too weak and introverted – thus non imperial – to federate the vast, non-homogeneous and unstable EU area.
If not corrected, the inertia of these dynamics will lead Berlin to be in conflict with Washington, to consequently draw closer to Moscow (an ancient geopolitical reflex) and establish as far south as possible the border with the Mediterranean, perceived as the source of risks – instability, difficult to integrate migrants, jihadist terrorism and war. Hence the recoupment of the Euronucleus (Kerneuropa) – Wolfgang Schäuble’s old battle horse when (1994) it was necessary to forestall the euro’s Mediterranean weakening, centring it on the German/French/Benelux triangle. This time it is seen as an accomplished geo-economic entity, extended to countries pertinent to its industrial value chain and fiscal culture; in the future perhaps fully geopolitical. A real and proper ‘Geuropa’. Such a perspective is incompatible with America’s historical priority – and for what it is worth with Great Britain’s – to ward off the birth of a pro-Russia (and pro-Chinese?) German power, capable of dominating Europe or even just speaking in its name.
We Italians are not sufficiently aware of the extent to which the tendency to create a Germanic sphere of influence – albeit still confused and not the result of a geometric general plan – and America’s reaction to such a scenario will affect our country. It may even break it up should the Po Valley macro-region join the old/new Euro-Germanic ensemble. Or it could make Italy the theatre of a clash between Americans and Germans, each with its respective associates, while a storm rages in the Mediterranean.
That is why Italy is needed.
 J. M. BARRIE, Peter Pan, New York, New York 2014, Puffin Books, p. 32: “It was because I heard father and mother”, he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man”.
 Cfr. R. ROMEO, Italy mille anni. Dall’età feudale all’Italy moderna ed europea, Florence 1981, Le Monnier, p. 7.
 G. LEOPARDI, Discorso sopra lo stato presente dei costumi degl’Italyni, Milan 2017, Feltrinelli, p. 74.
 This expression is that of the historian Adolfo Omodeo, quoted in L. CAFAGNA’s, Nord e Sud. Non fare a pezzi l’unità d’Italy, Venezia 1994, Marsilio, p. 19.
 Carteggi di Camillo di Cavour: La Liberazione del Mezzogiorno e la formazione del Regno d’Italy, vol. III (October-November 1860) Bologna 1952, Zanichelli, p. 208.
 G. TOMASI DI LAMPEDUSA, Il Gattopardo, Milan 1969, Feltrinelli, p. 155.
 O. OTTIERI, La linea gotica. Taccuino 1948-1958, Parma 2001, Guanda, p. 23.
 Ivi, p. 93.
 Ivi, p. 82.
 G. PIOVENE, Viaggio in Italy, Milan 2003, Baldini and Castoldi, p. 94.
 G. MIGLIO, “Ex uno plures”, Limes, n. 4/1993, “L’Europa senza l’Europa”, p. 178.
 Cfr. SVIMEZ, Rapporto sull’economia del Mezzogiorno, 2016
 Cfr. SVIMEZ, Rapporto sull’economia del Mezzogiorno, 2015.
 See endnote 13.