Italy: which deal with Trump?

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 Following the first phone call between Donald Trump and Paolo Gentiloni, we now know that the US President will be attending Italy's G-7 summit in Taormina. That is all very well, but we would be well advised also to discuss how to shape our approach to relations with a revolutionary President. In an age of bilateral "deals", Rome cannot afford to take for granted the old golden rule of its own diplomacy whereby pro-Atlanticism and pro-Europeanism mutually propped each other up; or indeed the old subrule whereby Washington's support has always served to strengthen Italy's negotiating power with Europe's leading countries.

So if we are going to let bygones be bygones, we now have to conduct a neutral, nonideological assessment of both the costs and the benefits of a relationship with a US Administration that seems bent (verbally for now; in the future, who can say?) on imparting a fresh boost to its relationship with the United Kingdom as it gets set to leave the EU, to back sovereignist political forces over pro-European forces, and to consider Germany a problem rather than the solution to the problem.

Let us take a brief look at the potential costs.

First of all, a particularly sensitive issue for Italy is the topic of burden-sharing within NATO.  For a country such as Italy with its huge public debt, with anemic growth and already encountering serious difficulty in complying with European constraints, it is difficult to envision any rapid increase in defense spending to achieve the 2 percent of GDP goal (Italy's military spending is still slightly over the 1% mark despite the pledges that we have made at the NATO table).

The potential costs column includes also the consideration that if a protectionistic tendency realy were to prevail in Washington, it would create problems not only for Germany but also for an export-driven country such as Italy, which has major economic interests both in the European internal market and in the the US market. In general, as we saw in the troubled debate on the TTIP – the trade and investment agreement between the Atlantic's two shores that has been tossed in the trash can – Italy invariably stands to lose from an explicit rift between Berlin and Washington. Yet that is a scenario that we cannot rule out as things stand today. Any serious economic confrontation between the Us and Germany would make Italy's position difficult - even if the Us' position could in the end lead Germany to reduce her trade surpluses, which is one fundamental unbalance in the euro-area.

In addition to the economic cost, there is a potential political cost for our current government due to the fact that Italy's "neo-sovereignist" parties may consider themselves to be stronger for Trump's election, as well as for Putin's policies.  Rightly or wrongly – we shall see after the presidential election in France – our own anti-Europeans think that they can now count on a far more favorable context.

But let us a take a look also at the potential benefits. US detente with Russia (with a view to potential cooperation over Syria and in the struggle against the ISIS) is a step in a direction long advocated by Italian governments, in this instance with substantive bipartisan support and with clear interest on the part of the business community. Yet it is by no means a foregone conclusion that Trump's overtures to Putin really will work. Without casting itself in any excessive role, Italy could facilitate dialogue with Russia in such a way that it does not take place completely over Europe's head.

The second potential benefit – although we shall have to wait and see how it translates into practice – is US backing (which Trump confirmed to Gentiloni) for Italy's drive to stabilize Libya, including the recent agreement between Rome and Tripoli to stem the migrant tide across the Mediterranean. In terms of relations between Italy and the United States, the Libya issue is actually more complex than it looks. It is common knowledge that Italy backs Prime Minister Fayiz al-Saraj, who has been in office in Tripoli since March last year, and that it is the only European country to have reopened its Embassy in Libya. But all of this is taking place in a context of ongoing weakness on the part of the Al-Saraj government in a country still strongly marked by internecine strife among factions and by the rising power in Cyrenaica of General Khalifa Haftar, who is backed by Egypt, by Moscow, and, less overtly, by France.

The external players are thus facing a crossroads: Either they can back the prospect of Libya splitting definitively in two, or else they can work with Rome to foster reconciliation between Tripoli and Tobruk. Washington's new choices, after the prop that former Secretary of State John Kerry offered Rome, are going to be of considerable importance. It is in Italy's strategic interest for any agreement between the United States and Russia on the Mediterranean front not to push in the direction of a de facto split in Libya but in the opposite direction. Both our priorities in connection with the migrant issue and our energy priorities (defense of the oil terminals in Libya and development of the Zohr gas field in Egypt, in which Italy has sold a stake to Rosneft) demand this.

The broader issue of ties with Islam is more problematic for Italy. A boost to the US commitment against ISIS and an agreement between the United States and Russia pointing in the same direction reflect our own security interets; but Italy, with its military bases and its geographic overexposure, is going to have to debate the modalities involved. On the other hand, Rome has leveled criticism (albeit of a restrained kind) at Trump's temporary ban on refugees from Syria and from seven Muslim countries, including Libya and Iran. Apart from any consideration of principle, the new administration's stance is having a negative impact on something that Italy has been attempting to achieve for years, namely international and European accords for managing the migrant influx in the Mediterranean.

The Trump revolution has swept away the old givens on which Italy's position on the international stage has been based since 1945, but at the same time it is forcing our country to shake off its old mental laziness in order to think (at long last) along cost/benefit lines. Seen from that angle, the relationship that has just begun with the Trump administration is more ambivalent than it seems. And it is going to have to be shaped very carefully by a country such as ours which is cumbersome and fragile in its economy, unstable and divided in its politics, and yet with a geopolitical position of paramount importance on the Mediterranean front. Italy's stability is going to be crucial for post-Brexit Europe, and the European Union's resilience (with reforms now appearing essential, including the multispeed Europe that Angela Merkel has recently been talking about) is going to be crucial for Italy, which is too vulnerable to be able to afford to go it alone.

In the context of Trump's "deal-making" rationale, Rome is going to have to make it extremely clear that the benefits deriving from a relationship with Washington cannot entail costs on the European side. It is crucial for our national interests that the new US Administration take that into account – for the sake of pragmatism if not out of conviction. 

The Italian version of this article.