Italy: the Three Circles Approach of Foreign Policy

Italy’s foreign policy has always been characterized by marked inconsistency due to the strong influence of its domestic politics. Despite the fact that the country has repeatedly sought a balance among the three spheres of influence in which it is involved, maintaining coherence has always proven to be a hard task. The repeated turnover between left and right governments has harmed the country’s capability to obtain a high-profile at an international level. Nevertheless, through the Second Lebanon War Italy has been capable of showing the ability of reasserting its leadership, regaining credibility and attributing to the Mediterranean Circle a new meaning, which has subsequently been questioned by the advent of the Arab Spring.

As Carlo Maria Santoro already stated 25 years ago, Italy’s status is uncertain and ambivalent. It has wavered between that of the “least of the great powers” or the “largest of the smaller powers” (quoted in Andreatta, 2008). This position is a result of the national and international dynamics that have mutated throughout the years. For example, the end of the Cold War unleashed new economic and political forces, and new forms of regionalism emerged. Hence, in the last three decades, the country has experienced a challenging reconstruction of its role within the international arena. Since the 60s, at a “high politics” level, Italy made virtue out of necessity: through NATO and the EC membership, in fact, the country managed to regain sovereignty at an international rank. Since the mid 60s, when the primary goal was by and large achieved, the same low profile served mainly a domestic purpose: that of preventing a further deepening of the political divide while anchoring the country more firmly in the Western security and economic community (Manner, Whitman, 2000). In a context of already marked divisions between the centrist majority and the left-wing opposition, playing the role of the honest and obliging actor was necessary to prevent deeper internal political strife. For the very same reason, the government at first sought to structure foreign policy decisions in a way to reduce the influence of the extremely polarized national political system, to then shift to balancing its presence in different scenarios. This allowed Italy to enjoy benefits from tight and peaceful relations with the major global players, anchoring the nation in the Western security and the economic community, while maintaining its strategic presence in the Mediterranean region. A balance was sought between three circles, or spheres of international relations — Atlantic, European and Mediterranean — which gradually fostered the construction of a generalized consensus in which Italy’s close relationship with the USA was balanced by its equally strong relations with European partners and, increasingly, with various Arab countries (Andreatta, 2008). Therefore, Italy’s geopolitical positioning can be best described through the so-called “Three Circles Approach”, a theory according to which Italian foreign policy is shaped by its involvement in the three different spheres of interest. The Atlantic Circle consists of a tight, stable and reliable relationship between Italy and the United States. It dates back to the beginning of the 20th century but the watershed occurred in 1949, when the Italian State was included in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Despite many would argue that a great amount of mental elasticity was needed to consider Italy physically part of the Atlantic Ocean, the decision was motivated by the US Secretary of State’s assumption that “geopolitical imperatives can shape geographical imagination”. Not Atlantic, not a member of the United Nations, militarily weak, and punished because of its unreliability, Italy was also politically unstable and highly disposed to move over to the enemy camp, given the presence of the strongest pro-Soviet Communist Party of the (soon to be) Western world (Del Pero, 2015).

However, several factors drove both sides of the Atlantic to accept Italy into the Alliance. First and foremost, the US and its Western Allies seized the opportunity to expand their sphere of influence beyond the Atlantic region to Europe’s southern borders in the Mediterranean. The two powers immediately operated to satisfy their initial intentions, reciprocally obtaining their goals. Italy took advantage of the power and prosperity of the US to focus on its internal issues, while exploiting economic and military support in order to overcome its fear of abandonment and isolation. The US, instead, managed to establish an incredibly large number of military bases within the Italian borders, counting on its strategic location within Europe and its proximity with the MENA region, as the Mediterranean Sea was acquiring increasing importance for international geopolitical equilibria. Throughout the decades that followed the birth of NATO, many scenarios evolved, the Cold War took the center of the stage and Italy experienced different parties in power along the left-right continuum. This repeated turnover of parties in power did not help Italy to build a good international reputation given the leftist inclination toward the European sphere and the rightist proclivity for a marked Atlanticism. As a consequence, the Americans grew skeptical of the Italian attitude in particular after many destabilizing episodes such as the so-called “Affare Maltese”, the Ustica Massacre in 1980, the Sigonella Crisis in 1985 and the subsequent open confrontation between the Italian PM Bettino Craxy and the US President Raegan. Yet, the lines drastically changed when Berlusconi became Italy’s Prime Minister in 1994. Berlusconi’s strategy during his four mandates was very straightforward: he aimed at tightening the relations with the US to turn the Atlantic circle into Italy’s priority. The watershed came in 2001, when Berlusconi was elected for the second time and George. W. Bush became the new president of the U.S.A. The 9/11 attacks provided Berlusconi with the right pretext that he needed to justify the renewed Italian shift toward the Atlantic, at the expenses of the fruitful relations with the other European countries. Italy decided to align with the American allies and to militarly support them in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, this Atlanticism was destined to end soon. Soon after Prodi won the election bid in 2006, the troops from Iraq were withdrawn but those involved in the antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan remained active in the field, as the prime minister sought to rebalance an equilibrium in Italy’s international evolvement. With a clearly weakened US power, an ineffective NATO and a complete lack of cohesion at a European level, the 2006 Lebanon War provided Italy with the perfect occasion to finally assert that leadership that sought since the end of the Second World War. In parallel Italy developed its relations within the European circle. Soon after the end of the Second World War, the European dimension proved particularly appealing, especially for the Leftist opposition, who supported the necessity of having an autonomous identity within a strong regional power. Being a founding member of the Union and one of the “Big Four” alongside Germany, France, and the United Kingdom was vital: it would provide the country the sense of community and democracy strongly undermined under the dictatorship. By the same token, it would boost economic prosperity and prevent the greatly feared isolation of Italy. However, the Italian presence in Europe was always ambivalent. Its marked support for the creation and evolution of the European Union and its willingness to maintain its stance as one of the four most important members, was often contrasted by its latent unreliability. This was mainly due to the fact that, as in the case of the Italian role within NATO, each party in power had a different opinion about what Italy’s international focus should have been. However, as the years went by, Italy supported the Union’s enlargement and simultaneously fostered its role in both the European Circle and the Atlantic Circle up until when it became explicitly evident that this dual involvement was a worthless attempt to balance an asymmetric involvement. Finally, the Italian role within the Mare Nostrum and its relations with the neighboring countries of the Northern African and Middle East region constitutes the Mediterranean Circle. Despite the general assumption that the two contextual circles had a preponderant influence, Italy’s historical heritage and the ongoing needs of the country never let the Mediterranean drift away. This happened because of three main reasons. First, the geostrategic nature of the country. Located at a crossing point of civilizations and continents, the Italian collocation within the Mediterranean was pivotal not only for the prosperity of the country but also for the development of trade routes. In fact, the privileged position made possible for Italy the exploitation of the most important connections offered by the Mediterranean Sea both with the coastal countries and with the countries situated on the communication routes. Second, national aspirations. Recently unified and manifestly unreliable, in the wake of the two world conflicts, Italy was pressured by the desire of gaining international recognition and assuring prosperity and economic expansion to its society. Lacking natural and economic resources and close relations with the European countries, Italy perceived in the Mediterranean and Middle East countries possible partners with whom fostering cooperation and developing fruitful businesses, while gaining relevance from the perspective of the Atlantic and European allies. Third, the impelling need of strategic security. Heart of the Mare Nostrum, Italy would have been extremely unwise if it had ignored its proximity to the MENA region. Since the very first steps, whether the decision of turning to the Mediterranean was carried out because of fears or interests, or a combination of the two elements, it’s hardly definable and doesn’t change the outcome in any eventuality. By preventing itself from playing a dominant role in the Mediterranean region, Italy would have proved its weakness by allowing the other countries to take over the sea and fulfil their expansionist aims. So, Italy made virtue of its necessities and actively engaged in political and economic agreements with MENA countries. Despite the fact that the Mediterranean Circle had previously been considered on a side with respect to the other two, the increasing number of constraints coming for the Atlantic and European circles, relighted the Mediterranean question. 

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The watershed came in 2006 when the Second Lebanon War erupted, caused by an Israeli invasion of South Lebanon in response to the hostilities along the Israeli-Lebanese border between Lebanon’s Hezbollah paramilitary units and the Israeli Defense Force. “This is a new phase of Italian foreign policy, a phase of responsibility and credibility with a shared aim of helping the construction of peace in one of the most complicated regions of the world,” declared Prime Minister Prodi. Following this statement, and supported by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Massimo d’Alema, the leader of the center-left coalition decided to take the lead of the renewed United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), whose role had just been redefined by the UN Security Council Resolution 1701. The Resolution was the result of profound efforts by the Italian government, which hosted the constitutive conference in Rome. Through this successful mission, established nearly ten years ago and still present, Italy obtained unanimous support, recognition and appreciation from the international community. Prodi further declared that the success of this mission has been possible because of three main elements: the necessity to intervene; the speed of reaction and the crucial support of France. France played a vital role that ensured Italy’s success, not only because it never questioned the leadership of the mission but also because it gave Italy the possibility to count on its support to further involve other allied nations. According to Prodi the UNIFIL mission has represented the perfect occasion for the country to demonstrate its abilities and regain credibility at an international stage. The Mediterranean Circle acquired  new significance, positioning itself at the forefront of Italy’s interests. In particular, according to Prodi, the Mediterranean has acquired much more importance because of the rising number of conflicts taking place in its bordering countries and because of the ongoing race for natural resources, which Italy is lacking. Yet, Italy alone is not able to solve the entire range of issues in the Mediterranean region. Hence, Italy needs the Mediterranean to foster its prosperity as well as it needs to preserve its involvement both in the European and in the Atlantic spheres, principally because they serve as a vital support for the country’s diplomatic activism in the Mediterranean. The result is that Italy’s presence within each one of the circles has proven both self-reinforcing and mutually reinforcing, making it impossible for the country to survive without the simultaneous involvement in each of them. However, Prodi has insisted that the Mediterranean Circle has always been and will remain Italy’s Paradise and its condemnation to death. It will always waver between Italy’s safe heaven and the stage where Italy will need to prove its real nature. As a matter of fact,  the advent of the Arab Spring has thrown the country in a new time of unmanageable confusion which has made again of the Mediterranean Circle an unstable ground where the subsequnt Prime Ministers, namely Berlusconi, Monti, Letta and currently Renzi, have all adopted different strategies.

Maria Elena Amadori

MA in International Studies (John Hopkins University)


Personal interview with Professor and former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, conducted on April 1st, 2016, in Bologna, Italy.

Andreatta, Filippo. 2008. ‘Italian Foreign Policy: Domestic Politics, International Requirements And The European Dimension’. Journal Of European Integration 30 (1): 169-181. doi:10.1080/07036330801959564.

Calculli, Marina. 88 | 2014. National prerogatives in multilateral peacekeeping: Italy in Lebanese perception and Rome’s role within UNIFIL II. Cahiers de la Méditerranée

Del Pero, Mario, 2015. “Italy and the Atlantic Alliance.” In Erik Jones and Gianfranco Pasquino, Oxford Handbook of Italian Politics, 686 – 695.

Marrone, Alessandro, Michele Nones, Nicolò Sartori, and Alessandro Riccardo Ungaro. 2015. La Sicurezza Nel Mediterraneo E L’Italia. Quaderni IAI. Edizioni Nuova Cultura.

Newell, James, 2010. The politics of Italy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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