As the Reagan administration's attention turns to Europe in preparation for next month's presidential tour, you will be hearing a good deal about the intractability of our Atlantic allies. So, in the interests of perspective and context, let's hear it for America's most undervalued and, in recent times, most constant Alliance partner: Italy.
In the mixed metaphor of two of America's favorite pastimes, a lot of people would rate Italy: good food, no hit. On the part of outsiders, there is a sense of, well, inefficiency. You could see it in the reaction to the rescue of U.S. Army Gen. James L. Dozier by Italian anti-terrorist forces: profound expressions of gratitude mingled with astonishment at the skill with which the operation was brought off.
Yet Italy's performance has been almost an Alliance role model. How come the discrepancy, then, between image and reality?
Some part of the explanation came through at a recent two-and-a-half-day seminar, under the auspices of the Aspen Institute, in West Berlin. Just listening to an articulate group of Italians trying to explain their domestic politics to a mixed bag of Americans, Germans, French and British is enough to make you wonder how Italy gets anything right in its dealings with the outside world.
"Italian political language is essentially unintelligible and untranslatable," said an Italian academic. A colleague suggested that an understanding of the system requires a perspective beginning with the Middle Ages. My own conclusion was that you would have to become Italian to know how it works--at which point you would have lost the capacity to explain it.
The point is that it does work, with almost one-third of the electorate voting communist, and unrepresented in the government; with one party, the Christian Democrats, predominant for most of the postwar years; with an entrenched bureaucracy running large industries as well as the government--a bureaucracy whose "inefficiency is what preserves our freedom," as one Italian put it.
If Italy's political system is odd, not to say unique, so is its station somewhere between the Third World and the fully industrialized West--not an underdeveloped country but a "late developing" country by Italian definition. Its logical role lies in the Mediterranean Third World (identified for the seminar's purpose as Team B). But just because this connotes second-class status and invites memories of its fascist past (Ethiopia, etc.), Italy is determined to prove itself a bona fide member of Europe and the Atlantic Alliance (Team A).
Hence Italy's Avis approach to the Alliance: trying harder. Italy was first in Europe to volunteer to participate in Egyptian-Israeli peacekeeping with naval forces. Its early acceptance of the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear weapons is vital, given West Germany's insistence that it would do so only if at least one other NATO member went along. Even Italy's Communist Party was tougher about Poland than some allied governments.
Italy's steadfastness on these and other issues is to be valued for its own sake. But that is not its only significance. The Italians say they derive from it a self-confidence that is actually leading them to increase foreign aid and diplomatic involvement in North Africa and the Mideast. "We are ready now to play on Team B because we know we can play on Team A," said one Italian government official.
With serious question marks of one sort or another overhanging Greece and Turkey as Alliance reliables in the Mediterranean, Italy's constancy takes on added importance. With some justice, the Italians find themselves wondering why this estimable quality seems to go largely uncelebrated.