Image source: ArezzoCasa

Like it or not, some countries are inevitably more popular than others, and Italy tends to rank pretty highly in these country popularity lists. It’s one of the world’s premier tourist destinations, and has been since the 1700s, when travel first opened up as a viable opportunity for the upper classes. Immensely satisfying food, a garrulous attitude, an easygoing way of life, mild weather, a rich history, peerless artwork, picturesque scenery… Italy has a lot to recommend it. But just because it’s high on tourist itineraries doesn’t necessarily make it a crucial player in international, or even regional, politics.

Why does Italy consistently punch below its weight? It’s a tough question to answer (I’m not sure if I answered this question with Canada to my satisfaction). But let me give it a shot anyway.

Italy definitely has a rich history, and you need a book (or 2) to adequately summarize it. It burst onto the pages of history as the seat of Rome, one of the most important empires in world history and the wellspring of Europe. By the beginning of the Common Era (AD), Italy governed, directly or indirectly, the whole Mediterranean basin, plus Western Europe up to Scotland. Its military tactics and organization were way more than most other people could handle, its infrastructure and engineering ability are still extremely impressive, and it brought peace, good government, and a decent standard of living by ancient standards for a good 200 years or so.

Then came The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a slow but steady process that eroded most of these achievements. By the time the Roman Empire had died off, Italy was a much poorer and less populous place than it used to be, but its central location in the Mediterranean and long coastline made it a crucial area still. Throughout the Middle Ages its trading heritage, commercial prowess, and geography continued to make it one of the most important parts of Europe, although the Muslim conquest of North Africa cut back some of its trade and the unity Rome had imposed collapsed, leaving the peninsula a collection of mostly small city-states &#8212 plus a belt of territory in the middle controlled by the pope in Rome.

The Renaissance saw Italy’s fortunes revive again. Learning made a comeback thanks to universities in Bologna (in the north) and Salerno (in the south). Coastal city-states, especially Genoa (in the west) and Venice (in the east), grew rich from trade and from the Crusades. Modern European literature and art developed here; a refined courtly culture put the rough-edged militaristic attitudes up north to shame; and governments and the Church funneled their wealth into amazing public works and monuments.

Yet once again, Italy fell into decline. Partly this is a result of the repeated invasions from the north that Italy suffered during the Renaissance; French, Spanish and German armies treated Italy as a cockpit for their own squabbles and tried to grab territory while they were at it. Partly this is because the Mediterranean declined as an important geopolitical area; Islam had cut off Africa from Europe, and now the Age of Exploration had made the Atlantic way more important since it linked to the Americas and the rest of Africa. In the long run, Italy failed to develop the military and political power to compete with the rest of Europe (it’s hard to do when you’re fragmented), and its mostly rural economy made it a few steps behind the industrial giants in the north.

Most of these problems don’t have easy answers. The easiest one to fix was probably disunity. As a result, Italians made a concerted effort in the 1800s to unite. Through the concerted efforts of Piedmont-Sardinia (a kingdom in the northwest), some idealistic nationalists, and France (which was eager to weaken its rival Austria), it did so, first uniting the small city-states in the north, then toppling the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” (never mind the name) in the south, and then finally crushing the Papal States in the middle. Rome became Italy’s capital again, and Italians looked forward to a new future as a Great Power.

But Italy was usually considered the least of the Great Powers. It had little overseas influence and no colonies. Its military was smaller than Britain’s or Germany’s. Almost 2/3 of its people were illiterate. There wasn’t much of an industrial base. Agriculture was dominated by smallholdings; transport infrastructure was decrepit; it was dependent on imported coal for energy. Opera was in vogue around Europe, but its cultural influence had waned since the glory days of the 1500s. Italy made a determined effort to catch up, building railroads, fostering a steel and manufacturing industry, building up its navy with modern warships, and grabbing colonies in Libya and Somalia. Yet it remained an afterthought in the confusing tangle that was European power politics at the turn of the century, and its performance in World War I wasn’t anything great (by the standards of that war, at least).

So Italy tried something a little bit different after the war: Fascism. This political philosophy originated in Italy and was spawned from the postwar malaise and sense of inferiority it felt. It mostly involved a lot of pompous posturing, a militarized reworking of society, and aggressive imperialism in the Mediterranean (Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, hoped to rebuild a Roman Empire). Italy also made economic advances and modernized its military (especially the navy and air force), and for a time Fascism was in vogue around Europe and Latin America. But Fascism also led Italy into another world war, where its military record was basically laughable. Mussolini’s ambitions were exposed as a farce, and Italy was first occupied by its ally Germany and then by the victorious Allied Powers.

Like other parts of war-torn Europe, Italy in 1945 was devastated and its ruling class badly discredited. The Piedmontese monarchy that had ruled over it since unification was wiped out. The local Communist party fed off of discontent and Soviet support to gain acceptance among the population. But again like other parts of war-torn Europe, Italy rebuilt itself as a modern, democratic nation with lots of help from America. GDP doubled between 1950 and 1962; farmers migrated to the cities en masse; unemployment and inflation receded. The ill will it had generated during the Fascist years evaporated, thanks to Germany’s far worse crimes and Italy’s switching sides in 1943.

Italy is doing well. It joined the European Economic Community (which later became the EU) at the very beginning in 1957 and was also present at NATO’s birth in 1949. Its politics has been dominated by “Christian Democracy,” a moderate, uncontroversial blend of social democracy and Catholic values, much like what Germany is used to. It has been a member of the G-7/G-8, the most powerful Western democracies (plus Japan), since its inception in 1975. Its population is pretty much equal to Britain’s and France’s. In most ways it is an integral part of modern Europe and one of its (and the world’s) biggest economies.

And yet… in a way Italians are familiar with, Italy is still not quiiiite considered in the same league as Britain, France, and Germany, the “big boys” who shape European politics and international affairs.

Mussolini’s dream of reviving the Roman Empire and making Italy a regional hegemon is dead. Although Italy is indisputably the key country in the Mediterranean (except perhaps Turkey), its independent ambitions have been sapped. Partly this is because it’s in the EU, which restrains dreams of individual glory among its member states. Partly it’s a result of pure lack of interest among the Italians; Italy isn’t a particularly martial culture, and despite its sizeable military, it hasn’t exerted much force overseas. The only time it’s led a military operation since World War 2 was Operation Alba, when it intervened in Albania in 1997 to ensure peace when that country (a former Italian puppet) briefly fell into chaos. It supported the intervention in Libya (its former colony) in 2011 and continues to press for more European involvement there, but it’s largely shrugged off involvement in foreign entanglements.

Italian politics — to put it mildly — is a bit of a mess. It’s had 63 governments in the 71 years since World War II. Its politics have involved fractious coalition-building and chronic instability. Its main political figure since the collapse of Christian Democracy in 1994, Silvio Berlusconi, was not taken seriously internationally due to his easygoing, party-loving, and sleazy attitude. (He once interrupted a tense euro crisis meeting to suggest talking about soccer instead.) The second-largest political party, the Five Star Movement, was founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian (who’s now gone back to stand-up) whose claim to fame was organizing “Vaffanculo Day” (F**k Off Day) to ridicule the many politicians with criminal records. To be fair, though, the current government, headed by Matteo Renzi, the former mayor of Florence, is capable and serious about pushing through reforms.

These reforms are much-needed. Italy’s civil service sector is bloated and overly bureaucratic. Regulations impede start-ups and make it hard for businesses to fire their employees. The public debt, thanks to generous pensions and social spending in general, is 130% of GDP (worse than any other EU country besides Greece). An overly balanced parliament stifles reform by allowing laws to shuffle back and forth without getting passed. He’s staking his political career on passing a constitutional referendum that will reduce the Senate’s powers, but most of his reforms have faced serious resistance from Italy’s vested interests and sclerotic public sector.

Italy has become an industrial power and boasts a number of world-famous firms: Ferrari, Maserati, Gucci, Prada. Milan, the engine of the north, is a bustling, industrious city and one of the world’s fashion capitals. Italian design and craftsmanship is widely admired. Italy sets the standard in coffee brewing and pasta. But Italy lacks an effective work ethic, and rules are constantly broken. It joined the eurozone mostly because of its popularity among the EU’s leaders; in 2011, it briefly threatened to collapse the whole thing when its borrowing costs almost reached the point beyond which it couldn’t pay off its debt. The economy grew by a mere .8% last year. With unemployment at 11.4%, Italian youth often head elsewhere for good jobs.

Italy also has a chronic and deep-rooted regional divide. The south — the former 2 Sicilies — is a lot poorer than the rest of the country. All of the big firms listed above are based in the north. The south (often poetically called the “Mezzogiorno,” or “Mid-day”) remains mostly agricultural and parochial. Old semi-feudal patronage networks dominate southern society, most famously organized crime groups like the Cosa Nostra in Sicily and the Camorra in Naples. Government is ineffectual and usually corrupt. Prolonged financial attention from the capital in Rome hasn’t produced many results; in exasperation, a group called the Northern League called for northern Italy to declare independence in 1996 as “Padania.” Like much else in Italy, their platform ended up being show without substance, and the party is now a right-wing party hostile to the EU, but its significant support shows how disillusioned northerners are with their laggard southern cousins.

Italy’s regional divide is a good metaphor for the country’s various contradictions. On one side, it has a fundamentally strong economy with proud institutions and close ties to the rest of Europe. Its current government, at least, is proudly committed to the EU ideal. It has a staunchly nationalist attitude without being obnoxious about it. It continues to make great contributions to the arts and culture thanks to figures like Paolo Sorrentino and the late Umberto Eco. But on the other side, the economy is beset with chronic weaknesses; its people remain self-focused (often on their native cities, not even the country per se); its international voice is often weak, distracted, or inconsequential; and its fixation with the past makes it seem antiquated and last millennium’s news.

Italy is far from Europe’s most problematic country. As mentioned before, it still dominates the Mediterranean; Spain, Greece and Portugal have much more severe economic crises and fragile banks. Eastern Europe still lags behind (except maybe the Mezzogiorno). But as a Great Power, Italy was lumped in with the powerhouses of western and northern Europe, and it still struggles to be taken seriously in that context. Despite an Italian (Federica Mogherini) serving as the EU’s foreign minister and despite Renzi’s popularity in Brussels (the EU capital), France and Germany, Italy’s ongoing political volatility and its timid foreign policy mean it will keep getting overlooked. At present it’s hard to consider Italy anything more than a Middle Power.

But there are worse things than being a Middle Power. Italy could act as a bridge between the EU’s inner core and the indebted periphery in its south and east. And as the historical background section shows, Italy has had its epochs of glory in the past. It is a land with great potential, and one always worth keeping an eye on.


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