The Case for Italian ‘Isolationism’

As reported two weeks ago, the Italian mission in Iraq, Antica Babilonia, will last until late 2006. At that time, Minister of Defense Antonio Martino maintained during a parliamentary hearing, all Italian troops will be withdrawn from Iraq, since the aim of this operation is “the gradual conveyance of tasks from the contingent to Iraqi police and army and, consequently, the progressive reduction of the Italian military component." This is good news, but it is not enough. As a matter of fact, Italy suffers from a dramatic policy problem: a high rate of foreign interventionism, associated, quite obviously, with a high rate of domestic interventionism. Italy is a typical welfare-warfare state. Currently, there are more than 9,000 Italian soldiers [.pdf] engaged in 29 missions in 20 different countries all over the world. Italian troops have been stationed for many years in Kosovo, for the KFOR “peacekeeping” operation; in Afghanistan, for the ISAF mission; and in Bosnia, as part of the Joint Forge operations.

Now, contrast this figure with the number of soldiers of other nations participating in peacekeeping missions: 11,000 for France, 10,000 for Germany, 1,500 for Australia, 1,400 for Canada, and around 2,000 for the UK. At 5,200, Italy’s troop contribution to NATO is the second largest, after Germany’s. Furthermore, Italy is the sixth largest contributor to the United Nations, at $68 million, after only the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, and the UK.

There is a historical explanation for this. Italy is not a “nation," as Alberto Mingardi wrote, but “a complex of different local communities artificially united by an arrogant monarchy such as the House of Savoy was." The Risorgimento did not manage to win popular favor, so this historical process was mainly led by political elites. As Massimo d’Azeglio, prime minister of the Reign of Sardinia from 1849 to 1852, stated, “Italians had to be made." Therefore, his every following foreign policy decision was inspired by the necessity of creating a patriotic cult, a “religion of the State." This was achieved by initiating various wars, which turned into a chain of failures: at the dawn of Italian colonialism in Abyssinia (Ethiopia), in January 1887, 500 Italian troops were massacred near Dogali. In 1896, around 16,000 Italian soldiers were defeated by Abyssinian troops at Adowa; h alf of the Italian contingent was exterminated. In 1911, the Italian government under Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti deployed 100,000 troops in the war against the Turkish empire: the objective was the conquest of Libya. In October 1912, the peace treaty of Losanna was signed, with the Turkish empire ceding control of Libya to Italy. However, the costs of war for Italy were huge, and Libya’s natural resources were scarce to nonexistent (oil had not yet been discovered there). Moreover, we cannot forget the First and Second World Wars, conflicts in which Italian governments took part in order to strengthen national unity. The Fascist doctrine was synthesized by Benito Mussolini in 1920: “We work promptly to turn Mazzini’s aspiration into facts: giving Italians ‘the religious concept of nation.’"

Italian participation in international peacekeeping missions can be interpreted in light of this history. Of course, there are many other reasons for taking part in these operations, but one of them is the pursuit of the national unification policy. None of these reasons make much sense for Italy, though. "Patriotic pride" is a notion that many Italians still reject in favor of federalism and regional autonomy. Furthermore, UN peace missions have substantially failed: it would be sufficient to mention the Rwandan genocide, or to recall that, after five years NATO forces in Kosovo, tensions have not decreased. Besides its uselessness, peacekeeping is expensive: Italy spends 1.2 billion euros every year on these operations. This means more and more taxes extorted from taxpayers, to the exclusive advantage of politicians and bureaucrats. I do not think that the safety of the East Timorese is of much concern to most Italians. The foreign-policy model Italy should follow instead is the Swiss one: noninterventionist, independent from international organizations, and pro-free market. This policy would allow Italy to cut taxes, reduce the burden of the state, and, above all, restore the only legitimate task of a national army: the protection of the nation’s citizens. Will the Italian government ever learn this simple lesson?