Perhaps it all began with the Third Italian War of Independence, known elsewhere as the Prussia-Austria War. Italy and Prussia attacked Austria, which was still a colonial Power in the Peninsula. Italy lost miserably both the land campaign and the naval battle of Lissa, but Prussia won. Therefore Italy, pursuant to the agreements with Berlin, was entitled to get Veneto. Just to snub Italy, Austria ceded Veneto to France, which in turn ceded it to Italy.
Then in 1896 came the battle of Adwa. Italy, a late entry in the colonial race, tried to annex Ethiopia (known in Italy as Abyssinia). Rome sent less than 20,000 men. The Emperor of Ethiopia sent more than 100,000, armed not with spears but with firearms. The Italian expeditionary corps, unsurprisingly, was massacred. Rome was forced to plead for peace and recognize Ethiopian independence. It was the first ever defeat of an European Power by an African one.
Italy entered both World Wars after a bunch of diplomatic intrigue and changes of front. In 1940, the declaration of war to an already defeated France was internationally perceived as a coward stab in the back. In the subsequent war Italy feared badly due to incredibly poor planning. It had nothing of what was required by a modern war: no real tanks, few planes and no aircraft carriers. The 1943 change of front, while useful to the Allies, was considered yet another sign of unreliability.
The Cold War led to a change of tune, with a strict adherence to the Western bloc. Apparently, however, the change was too extreme, and Italy was nicknamed “NATO’s Bulgaria”.
In 2014, we have two Italian marines held in India under accusation of terrorism. The only serious (and clumsy) attempt to take them back led to the Italian Ambassador being threatened with prosecution. In the meantime an Italian entrepreneur, Mr Francesco Berardi, has languished for nearly a year in a cell in Equatorial Guinea where he is routinely subject to torture, including flogging.
So one can’t help but ask: what’s the matter with Italian international relations ? How can a country with so much soft power have no hard power at all, despite still being a member of the G8 ?
Looking back at the Italian debacles, a mixture of overconfidence and incompetence is evident. But what’s the source of these faults in an European Power with such a rich history and political culture ?
You can formulate many theories, of course, but a factor could be what in Italy is called “provincialism” (“provincialismo”). An obsessive attention on local affairs without caring about the broader picture, with a further tendency to consider hostile whatever is not in you backyard (“campanilismo“).
After the fall of Western Roman Empire, Italy remained understandably attached to its memory, which was preserved also by the Church as the former State religion of the Empire. Therefore, the idea of Nation-State as opposed to a quasi-universal Empire was accepted in Italy only very lately, in XIX century. In the meantime, Italy remained faithful to a Middle Ages political model according to which every Municipality was a de facto independent State, making laws, peace, war and treaties.
The competition between such city-States was harsh but, coupled with the Roman and Christian heritage, it allowed them to flourish splendidly. Some maritime city-States like Genoa and Venice became real superpowers, able to dominate the Mediterranean Sea and challenge the huge Ottoman Empire.
The Roman Empire and the city-States were the zenith of Italian history. After that came foreign colonization by Spain, French and Austria, followed by the birth of a Nation-State which was destined to live in the shadow of bigger Powers like Britain, France, Germany and ultimately the United States.
Therefore, for the average Italian nothing is better and sweeter than his own backyard, be it a city (more frequently a city district), a town or a swathe of countryside. Whatever is outside – be it Italian or foreign – is second-rate material, that doesn’t deserve too much time or attention.
This explains at the same time the Italian lack of national identity and the difficulty of the country in moving on the international stage.