Less Ambiguous Italian-U.S. Relations during the Biden Administration?

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This analysis is produced in the framework of the IAI-GMF Fellowship on Italian foreign and defence policy. 

This analysis is produced in the framework of the IAI-GMF Fellowship on Italian foreign and defence policy. 

In September 2019, Italy’s once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) agreed to enter a governing alliance with the Democratic Party as well as the smaller centrist Italia Viva and leftist Liberi e Uguali (Free and Equal). By establishing a coalition government with what was considered its political nemesis, M5S managed to remain in office and to avoid early parliamentary elections. However, its influence has gradually weakened, as shown by its poor performance in local elections this year.

M5S’s declining political fortunes and the changing composition of the government have a significant foreign policy dimension, especially with regard to relations with the United States. The Democratic Party is considered as solidly Atlanticist. M5S, despite its evolution towards greater pragmatism over the years, is still perceived as the most pro-China actor in the political landscape and its approach to foreign policy is characterized by some ambiguity.

This partial contradiction will be even more notable with the new incoming administration of Joe Biden. The profound connection existing with the Italian Democratic Party and its U.S. namesake will likely reinforce further its role as crucial interlocutor of Washington, putting the foreign policy inconsistency of the M5S into the spotlight even more.  

Alarm Over Italy and the BRI

In the previous coalition government, M5S and the right-wing, anti-migrant Lega party, foreign policy came from the opposition and they had repeatedly expressed support for positions that appeared to contradict Italy’s traditional policy orientation, for instance on the EU and NATO. However, little concrete change was implemented during their 14-months in power.

Yet, certain of their actions did give Italy’s allies the impression that Rome’s policy was shifting. The most significant—and, for many allies, alarming—development came when Italy became the first G7 country to endorse the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), signing a controversial memorandum of understanding with China in March 2019. U.S. politicians and media did not hide their concern.

In Italy, the memorandum of understanding was never seen as an attempt to shift traditional alliances but rather as a way to open a new channel with a major economic player, in line with Rome’s traditionally versatile approach to foreign policy. The optics were different, however. China quickly began presenting this as a ground-breaking deal, the beginning of a process of Italy’s gradual detachment from its traditional alliances.

M5S—and especially the then deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economic Development Luigi Di Maio—was perceived as having been decisive in pushing through the memorandum of understanding, thus exacerbating concerns that the party might drive a shift in foreign policy. This ambiguity, and some contradictions, inevitably came into the spotlight when Di Maio was appointed foreign affairs minister in the subsequent coalition government with the Democratic Party.

Italy’s Democratic Party as the Transatlantic Pillar

The new government immediately faced an unprecedented number of foreign policy challenges: mounting tensions in Iraq and the Gulf region, deteriorating conditions in Libya, and the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The killing of Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps by a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in January brought the region on the brink of war. For Italy—the Western country with the most extensive troop presence in Iraq after that of the United States—this triggered a heated domestic debate. For example, Lucia Annunziata, the former editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Italia, and a journalist with in-depth knowledge of the United States, called for Di Maio’s resignation after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had phoned officials worldwide but not Italy’s after the Soleimani killing.

M5S responded that Pompeo had only called the other countries that had negotiated the Iran nuclear deal: China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom. However, Pompeo later also reached out to other countries: India, Israel, Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirate all received calls, but phone lines in Rome again remained silent.

The first official contact between the two governments over Iraq only happened later when Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper called his Italian counterpart, Lorenzo Guerini. The dominant perception in Washington was that Esper’s outreach to a minister from the Democratic Party conveyed the message that the United States still did not fully trust M5S.

The U.S. establishment rightly assumes the Democratic Party to be reliably Atlanticist. Its positions in the coalition government have lived up to U.S. expectations, from the push on tightening rules on 5G, driven by the defense ministry counter to M5S views, to the commitment to international missions and F-35 acquisitions as well as criticism of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Conte, Di Maio, and the M5S: Diverging Paths

While it is undeniable that M5S and its foreign policy have drastically evolved, in Washington many still perceive its approach as being characterized by incoherent statements and dependent more on personal views and ideas than on a structured, consistent, and predictable approach. The BRI memorandum of understanding represented, and still represents, a significant burden in this sense. Moreover, during the past year, several of Foreign Minister Di Maio’s positions have raised eyebrows abroad; for instance, the initial non-interference approach over Hong Kong or stressing how the decision to sign onto China’s BRI had paid off as the coronavirus crisis was raging.

The evolution of the positions and ideas expressed by the Italian foreign minister over the past few months did not go unnoticed in Washington. Yet, looking at the party as a whole, U.S. policymakers still perceive M5S’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance as questionable. Its recent cacophony over Hong Kong and China, the fact that M5S members abstained from a European Parliament resolution blaming the Russian government for its alleged involvement in the poisoning of dissident Alexei Navalny, and the party’s many shifting positions on other issues have not helped to counter this perception.

The positions of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the other main government figure from M5S, have done little to alleviate these broader concerns. His Atlanticist views have become more pronounced as of late, but he has never been perceived to be fully representative of M5S, and even more so since his behavior has become more independent in the coronavirus crisis.

Conte’s evolution has also been seen more as the result of his direct relationship with President Donald Trump, whose Twitter endorsement reinforced Italy’s prime minister at the time of the governmental crisis in August 2019. Unsurprisingly, Italian media made a fuss about the fact that Conte was the last G7 leader to congratulate Joe Biden for his election win in November.

What Next with the Biden Administration?

Some observers have noted that Biden’s staff “did not forget the endorsement” Conte received from Trump. However, in Washington, his belated call was not seen as a major issue, and the relationship with the outgoing administration is not considered as something that can damage Italy’s relations with the new one.

Yet, there will be some adjustments. The Democratic Party will be even more central than it has been so far in shaping relations with the United States, not only because of common views and a shared political culture, but also due to the closeness of personal ties between its figures and U.S. Democrats.

At the same time, even if toned down, the anti-establishment ethos of M5S that reemerges every now and then is still seen as antithetical to the more traditionalist approach to foreign policy the incoming U.S. administration is likely to adopt. This can represent an element of friction and mistrust that needs to be addressed to avoid creating problems in the relationship.

The perception in Washington is that Di Maio and Conte are not actually representative of M5S. Their growing Atlanticism is seen more as the outcome of personal choices rather than the result of a structured M5S shift. It has defused fears of ambiguity on the part of Italy’s government in the short term, but not the concerns regarding the broader M5S positions concerning China and other issues.

How Italy will handle its relations with China will remain central in the U.S. perception, even during the Biden administration. The United States will measure Italy’s commitment to the alliance against the decisions that its major political actors will take vis-à-vis China. For the U.S. establishment, the BRI memorandum of understanding came as a shock and it remains a concern, even if its impact in deepening political and economic ties between Italy and China has been limited so far.

The U.S. reaction to the memorandum of understanding and the assertive role that China played in Italy during the coronavirus pandemic are rumblings of what Italy and its policymakers might expect in the future. Since the Biden administration is likely to be as tough or tougher than Trump’s on China, this issue will remain the crucial theme in shaping the Italian-U.S. relationship in the coming years.

Dario Cristiani is IAI/GMF Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC and Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome. This Transatlantic Take is published in the framework of the 2019–2020 IAI/GMF Fellowship on Italian foreign and defense policy. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author.