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Italy Steps Up: Janus in the New World

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Italy’s profile as a supporter of the EU and NATO has risen since the inauguration of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

In ancient Rome, Janus was revered as the two-faced god of beginnings and transitions. Hence comes the naming of the first month of the year, January. In modern Rome, the government of Giorgia Meloni has adopted a Janus-like stance as it encounters a new global environment. Her government’s foreign policy entails vigorous support of and closer alliance with the West. At home, illiberal, even harsh, rhetoric sets the tone on social issues and immigration.

At the time of Meloni’s inauguration in October 2022, the world was undergoing the most comprehensive and rapid changes since the end of the Cold War. Like its NATO and EU allies, the new government did not have the luxury of sticking to the status quo. This was not only because of the severe nature of the changes, including the war in Ukraine and a global pandemic, but also because Italy was now expected to take responsibility commensurate with its heightened place of power in an EU diminished by the loss of the UK.

Since 2019, Europe, the United States, and the world have seen several significant changes affecting the policies of all states, including Italy:

The Global Pandemic. In Europe, COVID hit first and worst in Italy, the country with the most vulnerable population in Europe. The economy and foreign trade slumped. What had been dynamic trade and investment growth between EU members and China dropped sharply. COVID especially damaged Italy’s view of China as Beijing rejected responsibility for the spread of the disease. Despite touting its aid packages, China largely left richer European countries out of itsCOVID diplomacy. Instead, Italy received billions of euros in COVID aid from the EU, and Western countries could respond and recover quickly, while China languished under a nationwide lockdown.

A Different EU. As of 2021, Italy became the bloc’s third-largest economy and second-most powerful military. The departure of the UK also left Italy as the third leading recipient of Chinese investment inside the EU (after Germany and France), a distinction made all the more important by the EU’s implementation in 2020 of a foreign investment screening mechanism. It is also the third leading customer for Chinese goods, which account for nearly 18 percent of Italy’s non-EU imports. At home, the Chinese community in Italy is the largest in Europe, accounting for more than 300,000 people.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin’s decision to invade his neighbor galvanized Western opposition to international aggression in a way that the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the creation of puppet states in eastern Ukraine had not. NATO was reinvigorated and enlarged. Against all expectations, the EU adopted and expanded trade and financial sanctions against Russia that have held. This led virtually all of Europe to radically reduce their imports of energy from Russia (especially natural gas) and shift to alternative suppliers like Algeria and the United States. Before the war, 40 percent of Italy’s gas imports came from Russia; a year later, this figure was less than half. Both NATO and the EU have gained stature and clout not seen since the days of the communist collapse in Eastern Europe. In contrast, Russia saw more than 1,000 multinational companies pull out, and one-half million of its most highly qualified citizens leave as a result of the country’s isolation and Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism.

The weakening of China. In the last decade, China’s once robust growth rates have fallen, a decline reinforced by COVID-19 and its aftermath. Both inward and outward direct investment have plummeted, with Chinese investment in Europefalling by more than 40 percent since its peak in 2018. Even before COVID, Beijing’s policies, such as favoring its own state-run enterprises, heavily skewed trade balances, and unfilled growth promises, didn’t favor China’s case. As Europe’s suspicion of predatory Chinese policies grew and Beijing’s relations with the United States soured, global firms grew wary and sought returns elsewhere. Chinese presence in the global market has fallen—exports were down nearly 5 percent in 2023—and shifted toward more compatible political allies, like Russia, where trade was up more than 26 percent.

Using nationalism as a substitute for weakening economic payoffs, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has reinforced Chinese military presence in the South China Sea and parroted Russia’s view of the causes of its war against Ukraine. Along with the shrinking and criticism of its centerpiece “Belt and Road Initiative,” China’s posture as a protector of national sovereignty has been severely eroded. Chinese rhetoric and actions have provoked more defensive security postures from Japan, Australia, NATO, and the EU, as well as unprecedented political and military cooperation in South Asia and the South Pacific. More directly, Beijing’s aping Moscow stimulated worries about China with a “Ukraine is the future of Taiwan” theme. In the current world of skewed multipolarity, Chinese influence and power are at their lowest point since the creation of the BRI.

U.S.-China Tensions. Confrontational trade policies, begun under the volatile administration of Donald Trump, have continued under Joseph Biden and have primarily focused on limiting Chinese access to high-end technology. U.S.-China trade in 2023 fell by more than 13 percent, and Chinese investment in the United States has “all but disappeared,” according to AEI’s Global Investment Tracker.Military maneuvers, as well as rhetoric around Taiwan and its recent elections there, have increased the island’s salience to levels not seen since the Cold War. Real and proposed restrictions on Chinese investment and trade in the United States have been mirrored in Europe as the EU pursues a “de-risk” strategy to reduce its dependence on Chinese goods and money. As Xi Jinping has tightened his grip on power and continued repressive measures on groups such as the Uighurs, pressure has grown on Europeans to speak out, and members like Italy and the EU’s own institutions have done so.

War in the Middle East. The long and tense standoff between Israel and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip erupted into brutal violence with the terrorist attack on kibbutzniks, music festival attendees, and other civilians on October 7, 2023. That attack and Israel’s devastating response in Gaza meant that whatever “balance” had existed, allowing European states and the United States to pursue a slow and steady path toward “normalcy” in the region, was destroyed. Governments worldwide have been obliged to respond to this warfare and other regional consequences within the constraints of their alliances and complex societies.

The Rightward Election in Italy

Founded in 2012, Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) party was long on the sidelines of politics, achieving under 2 percent of the vote in the 2013 general election and under 5 percent in 2018. The fracturing in 2019 of the diverse coalition headed by the Five Star Movement led to two consecutive governments led by Giuseppe Conte, then a new coalition led by the former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, which lasted twenty months. Amid these shifting dynamics, Giorgia Meloni’s campaign in 2022 combined right-wing political and social positions with intensely personal postures. She promised to defend the Italian nation under the slogan “Pronti” (ready). Still, she showed a moderate position on geostrategic matters and a firm commitment to the EU, NATO, and the trans-Atlantic partnership. Meloni even dampened anti-EU rhetoric and offered fulsome support for Ukraine.

Looking inward, she pledged to reverse the country’s “economic, social and cultural decline,” promoting tax cuts for Italian companies and families, protection of Italian businesses and workers, and policies to increase birth rates. During the campaign, she portrayed herself as a hard-working unmarried mother living (at the time) with the father of her child. In the 2022 election, the Brothers of Italy placed first with 26 percent of the vote. They formed a coalition that included the nationalist Lega (League) led by Matteo Salvini and the center-right Forza Italia (Go Italy) led then by Silvio Berlusconi.

A year into her premiership and following the death of Silvio Berlusconi in June 2023, Meloni remains the most popular politician in the country with 44 percent approval ratings, while her party is supported by 30 percent. Though Meloni’s government represents the most right-leaning coalition in Italian republican history, fears that Meloni would take Italy down a radical-right path with disastrous consequences for the Western alliance have not materialized. At the same time, the government has followed a script of calculated attacks on cultural movements deemed dangerous for the country and its people. It promises to limit migration, especially from Africa. Utilizing executive decrees much more than her predecessors, Meloni’s numerous initiatives are more for show than impact, with proposals like the decree on selective acceptance of migrants and a ban on adult male migrants struck down as unconstitutional or watered-down in Parliament.

A Newly Muscular Partner

Domestic rhetoric notwithstanding, Meloni’s external policies and commitments to activism have been heartening to its Atlantic allies. Italy is now the most capable naval power in the Mediterranean. It is increasingly seen as the preferred partner there, as NATO ally Turkey clashes with Greece and appears unwilling to cut economic ties to Russia. While Ankara has been denied the sale of the most advanced F-35 fighters because it purchased a Russian anti-missile system, Italy’s highly skilled engineering sector plays a crucial role in producing and selling this fighter.