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Journal of Cold War Studies 4.3 (2002) 5-35

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Ike and Italy:
The Eisenhower Administration and Italy's "Neo-Atlanticist" Agenda

Alessandro Brogi

Recent scholarship has confirmed that the major West European countries played a vital role in shaping the international system after World War II. Even the diplomacy of the much berated French Fourth Republic has now been redeemed. 1 This article examines the extent to which Italy sought to improve its international position during a crucial phase of the Cold War. It also considers how the United States exploited Italy's international political ambitions.

Conventional wisdom holds that Italian leaders after World War II surrendered almost all of their leeway in foreign policy to Italy's European and Atlantic partners. Italy's humiliating defeat in the war, the task of economic reconstruction, the country's deep political divisions, and the long record of Italy's subordination to the great powers in Europe all posed formidable obstacles to any dream of diplomatic prominence. Even after an economic recovery took hold in the 1950s, Italy's influence in world politics was less than its demographic and economic size would have implied. Italy's faction-ridden political elites, the traditional argument goes, ensured that the country always subordinated its foreign policy to domestic concerns. As an American political analyst, Norman Kogan, put it in 1957, "the key objective of Italian Foreign Policy is to protect the domestic social structure from internal dangers." This tendency allegedly induced Italian leaders to defer to the United States, which they regarded as the best guardian of their country's internal stability and perhaps even of their own political ambitions. In short, traditional accounts portray Italy as the quintessential client state. 2 [End Page 5]

A historical lack of self-assertion or initiative does not mean, however, that the Italian people and their leaders have not cared about their country's international position. As Frederic Spotts and Theodor Wieser have observed, "Italians have a keen sense of national pride and are extremely sensitive about the status accorded their country by others." But the gap between this obsession with rank and the capacity or willingness to assume a commensurate role has been wider in Italy than in other West European countries. Rome's pursuit of prestige has thus appeared an end in itself, a hollow claim to be present at great-power summits, without having to make any relevant contributions to those summits. Former U.S. national security adviser and secretary of state Henry Kissinger has described this phenomenon with biting sarcasm in his memoirs. Each official visit to Italy, he wrote,

left me with the impression that its primary purpose was fulfilled by our arrival at the airport. This symbolized that the United States took Italy seriously; it produced photographic evidence that Italian leaders were being consulted. . . . One sometimes could not avoid the impression that to discuss international affairs with their foreign minister was to risk boring him. 3

This anecdote reflects only a half-truth. Despite the Italian government's care for appearances, its preoccupation with domestic concerns, and its staunch loyalty to American leadership, Italy has not been as fatalistically submissive as often portrayed. At crucial times during the Cold War, Rome set its own agenda in international affairs, and its manipulation of American leadership sometimes bordered on dissent. Recent scholarship has indeed begun to restore Italy to the narrative of Cold War history. The country's success in achieving—and, as some would say, in actively pursuing—strategic and economic interests through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European integration has been reevaluated. Yet most accounts continue to privilege the "hard power" dimension of that narrative, leaving the impression that Italy's influence at the great-power level remained quite negligible. 4 [End Page 6]

It remains to be determined how much the elements of "soft power" helped improve Italy's international position. A country's "soft power," as Joseph Nye characterizes it, is "the ability to achieve goals through attraction rather than coercion." Soft power...