Italians: Sober but committed transatlanticists and Europeanists
ROME -- According to the newly-released Transatlantic Trends survey, Italy is the European country with the strongest perception of a deterioration of the transatlantic relationship over the last year. Nevertheless, Italians still largely approve (79%) of U.S. President Barack Obama’s handling of international affairs and believe in greater numbers than in past years that NATO remains essential (63% in 2011 from 54% in 2010). The NATO air campaign in Libya may have reinforced the latter view, although the poll was taken in early June when the rebels’ success was still largely unpredictable. For comparison, the number of Germans who maintain that NATO is essential to Western security has significantly dropped from 70% to 58% between 2004 and today. The survey does not directly explain the reasons causing Italians to be more pessimistic about transatlantic cooperation compared to recent years. Part of the reason may be that extensive media coverage of U.S. politics has Italians perceiving a weakening of Obama’s leadership and a loss of standing among Americans. As their optimism for the future of transatlantic relations in 2009-2010 was mostly fed by confidence in and admiration for Obama as the leader of a “new America” (Italy was among the countries in which the “Obama bounce” after Bush was most pronounced), the fading of Obama’s domestic and international popularity is almost directly translating into skepticism about the future of transatlantic cooperation. Another explanation may be that Italians are currently more worried than others in the European context about the state of the economy, and therefore they are also more sensitive to the lack of a transatlantic coordination on economic and financial issues – a theme that Italian media have also amply covered. Moreover, one should not underestimate the peculiar impact that the publication of documents by WikiLeaks at the end of 2010 had on Italian public opinion.
Attitudes toward Arab Spring
Despite domestic financial constraints and uncertainty about their economic future, Italians seem willing to extend economic aid to countries in transition in the MENA region and actually prefer economic aid over military support or engagement as a way to ensure that the Arab Spring leads to successful democratic transitions. Interestingly, together with the French, Italians are strongly in favor of democracy promotion in the Arab world even if this entailed the risk of greater short-term instability. Italians are considerably more supportive of a democracy agenda in the EU’s southern neighborhood than Americans or citizens of other EU member states. When it comes to Libya, a plurality of Italians approves of the NATO military operation (47%). However, a majority criticizes the Italian government’s handling of the crisis. The latter is most likely due to the flip-flopping of the government during the first months of the conflict, and to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s reluctance to ask Gaddafi to relinquish power. Italians declare themselves strongly in favor of a full demise of the Libyan leader, but their support stops short of sending arms to the rebels, let alone “putting boots on the ground.”
Afghanistan, Turkey, China
Also, if the majority of Italians remains strongly pessimistic about Afghanistan (61%), this trend is falling, probably thanks also to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, which occurred a few weeks before the poll was conducted. Unlike in the case of Libya, Italians seem supportive of the Italian government’s handling of Afghanistan. However, as with other European societies, they ask for a reduction, or outright withdrawal, of troops from the country within a certain timeline. On Turkey, a major subject of transatlantic debate in recent years, Italians display less favorable views about the Turkish people than even the French and the Germans, whose governments have made no mystery of their reservations about the country’s future accession to the EU. In fact, Italians seem relatively more positive about the prospect of integrating Turkey into Europe (which enjoys bipartisan support among the political elite) than they are about Turkey as a country, probably more for cultural diffidence than for political reasons. Among other things, they believe that Turkey’s EU membership would help the EU increase its leverage in the Middle East and would help stabilize Europe’s southern neighborhood. They are not particularly concerned about the risk of what some experts have called a “drift” of Turkey toward the Middle East. Italians are also not as cynical and pessimistic as other countries about the outcome of Turkey-EU negotiations, which many believe will be a full membership despite all the uncertainties and obstacles currently undermining the accession process. Opinions about China, which used to be mainly negative in the past, are improving and are now virtually the same as the views held by the American public. The number of those that look at China as an economic threat (47%) rather than an opportunity (37%) is still higher, but the trend has significantly changed in the last year.
Alignment with the United States
Italians approve of Obama’s Iranian and Russian policies – two areas in which the Democratic administration has wanted to mark a change from Bush. On Iran, Italians are significantly more worried about the risk of nuclearization than citizens of other EU states on average, and even than Americans. Nonetheless, Italians remain very reluctant to contemplate the use of military force to contain Iran’s ambitions. In fact, military spending and the use of force are key elements of difference between the Italian and American public views (the same is true when the larger European public view and the American one are compared) which are otherwise aligned in important ways. Most probably due to historical and cultural issues, most notably Italy’s defeat in World War II, Italians see the use of military force as generally unadvisable, even in a crisis situation. In this respect, they are very much in tune with German public opinion. Nonetheless, on a large majority of issues, from the fight against terrorism to attitudes toward the Arab Spring, Italians stand out as strong supporters of U.S. positions and confirm their transatlanticist orientation despite becoming more realistic about the actual prospect for transatlantic cooperation than some years ago. The fact that Italians’ support for transatlantic cooperation has remained high throughout the ten years of the Transatlantic Trends survey testifies to its rooting. Under both center-left and center-right governments, and largely irrespective of the opinions of their leaders, the Italian society remains as the one that looks toward the West and understands that the West has a clear and vital stake in the future of Europe. This is a significant fact and one that is often neglected in the frequent polemic commentary focusing on the vagaries of Italian leaders.
Emiliano Alessandri is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, and Raffaello Matarazzo is a Researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.