[REPORT] Table for Two?: Italy and Other Upper-Middle Powers in Modern Global Affairs

[REPORT] Table for Two?: Italy and Other Upper-Middle Powers in Modern Global Affairs

Christopher Ynclán Jr

French President Emmanuel Macron embracing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Paris during Franco-German dinner which excluded Italy.

Source: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

This February, the world felt fatigue as the War in Ukraine entered its second year (Gressel, 2023). Those in the immediate neighborhood of Ukraine have felt the economic ramifications of the conflict, while states in other regions have felt the brunt of the war’s impact on global food security (Welsh, 2023). In the midst of this somber anniversary, the continued unity of the West regarding the allocation of aid to Ukraine has not only proved indispensable to the defense of Ukraine’s sovereignty, but also it is inseparable to the calculus that will dictate the length of the war (Gould-Davies, 2023). In the midst of this, an event as habitual and mundane to most seemed to have sewn division among the preeminent donor states to Ukraine.

The event in question is regarding a dinner held by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Élysée Palace in Paris (Reuters, 2023). While this may seem routine as Zelenskyy has and continues to meet with foreign dignitaries to garner support for the cause of Ukraine, there was the notable absence of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni whose predecessor had more cordial relations with his counterparts in Paris and Berlin through his contributions to a formal EU response to Russia’s attempted annexation of Eastern Ukrainian territory (Reuters, 2023b). Prior to dinner, the expected agenda of the meeting between Zelenskyy and the Franco-German delegation was to be on the subject of providing fighter jets to Ukraine in order to hedge against a Russian spring offensive (Caulcutt, 2023). While the defense of Ukraine seems like the logical foremost priority for Macron and Scholz, the details behind the meeting in Paris provide a deeper understanding as to the motivations to host the Ukrainian president. 

Prior to the dinner with Zelenskyy, it was reported that Macron and his wife had different plans for the day that dinner in question was to take place (Caulcutt, 2023b). The decision to invite Zelenskyy had apparently come after Macron saw his address to the British parliament which occurred during the Ukrainian president’s official state visit to meet King Charles III as well as British prime minister Rishi Sunak (Gallardo, 2023). During the brief time between the end of Zelenskyy’s engagements in the United Kingdom and the dinner in question, Macron had hoped to plan an arrangement with the Ukrainian leader to a monument that was militarily and symbolically important to France so that they could provide him with honors near the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. This would not come to fruition in the manner which he had hoped due to scheduling differences between Zelenskyy’s camp and that of Macron’s. 


French President Emmanuel Macron meeting with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak Source: Kin Cheung/AFP via Getty Images

The French president would ultimately provide his Ukrainian counterpart with honors and moreover, German chancellor Olaf Scholz also attended on short notice to also accompany the two European leaders. Taking these sentiments of the French into account when they were planning this seemingly impromptu meeting with Zelenskyy, the theme of symbolism becomes apparent. The event was an excellent opportunity for both Macron and Scholz to appear as strong European leaders through the political capital that meeting with the Ukrainian president provided to the English prior to the dinner in Paris. However, the disparity between symbolism and providing concrete material support were made clear when Macron did not immediately furnish the maximalist demands of Zelenskyy (France 24, 2023b).

Such a meeting may seem inconsequential to most observers, but this was not the case for Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni. Among her more prominent grievances for placing domestic considerations ahead of matters of European security. More telling was the response from Macron on the issue who declared that France and Germany have a special role in the matter given their previous history in trying to broker peace between the two warring states (Barigazzi, 2023). Although it is too early to judge the impact of this sudden engagement between three European leaders on current events, one may deduce certain realities that may be at play affecting continental policy. The first being that the self-imposed special role of France and Germany may extend beyond the current situation in Ukraine. Secondly, as with any modern republican  government, domestic politics are certainly taken into account by those in the position of governing. 

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Brussels attending the European Council summit Source: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

This is especially true of parliamentary democracies in which chief executives must constantly perform diligently as well as being astute in managing coalitions to keep their mandate. Granted, when these underlying conditions are added to present external and internal political stimuli to the most important European states, it is more than likely that domestic considerations are taken within the decision-making calculus of both Macron and Scholz. In addition to this, any unnecessary strains on European unity will undoubtedly come at an inopportune time to the Ukrainian war effort as its plans to retake Kherson and other Russian occupied cities partially hinges on organizing the logistics of the lethal aid acquired from across a diverse array of Western partners (Preussen, 2023).

Policy Objectives of Paris and Berlin 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in His Nation’s Capital 

Source: Christian Mang / Reuters

To further understand the policy decisions made by the French president and the German chancellor, it is critical to look at the circumstances of how they came to power as well as the challenges that they face. French president Emmanuel Macron faced a challenge as an incumbent from populist candidate Marine Le Pen during the 2022 French presidential election. Any result of the contest for the ability to govern from Paris would be consequential as the victor would influence how France decides everything from the extent of its participation in multilateral institutions to fiscal policy (Matthijs, 2022). The election was one that was not one that was handed to Macron as no candidate acquired a clear majority in the first round. As a result, the leading candidates had to clearly define their position on issues to differentiate themselves within the runoff. 

Among the most consequential of these policy preferences that were pertinent to the current situation in Ukraine was the subject of French foreign policy. France has long been ambivalent towards the North Atlantic despite being one of the founding members of the organization. Among the first instances of a falling-out between France and NATO occurred in 1966 when Charles de Gaulle expressed his desire to withdraw his country from the alliance’s integrated military command until 2009 under Nicolas Sarkozy (Moran, 2008). One of the more recent disagreements on the matter of foreign affairs that occurred between France and its Western partners was over its disapproval of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States (Balfour, 2023). The connecting thread between these two events that occurred in different centuries is the French foreign policy tradition for autonomy in their strategic decision-making. Both Macron and Le Pen had fundamental disagreements on this issue but the framework in which they view how French foreign policy should be conducted is the degree of autonomy.

Le Pen’s stance on NATO mirrors that of de Gaulle as she hoped to withdraw France from NATO’s integrated command (Weber and Prochwicz-Jazowska, 2022). Macron viewed the issue as not of whether France should pull out of the institution’s integrated command, but as an aspiration of regional sovereignty (Moyer, 2022). Having said that, when France speaks of strategic autonomy for Europe, France knows that it cannot in theory escape its obligations as a signatory party of NATO. Paris might be of the opinion that due to the almost improbable chance of Article 5 being invoked in a modern setting, it is the armed forces equivalent to its nuclear stockpile which has a strong deterrence, but has limited practical use due to a number of external factors such as Russia perceiving the nuclear shield of the United States as the main deterrent for the alliance (Schumann, 2020). 

Right-Wing French politician Marine Le Pen delivering a speech to supporters Source: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images

Therefore, a more practical move in the eyes of Macron would be for Europe as a whole to develop their defense capabilities through French leadership to effectively deter malicious actors on its periphery. Strategic reforms are currently underway within the French armed forces to help with this objective from Paris (Dodson, 2023). Whether France could provide the effective direction necessary to achieve this policy is to be seen given the number of ongoing geopolitical developments in France’s immediate neighborhood. Within the realm of Europe, a prime example of this question being played out was a souring of Franco-Polish relations when Macron made comments seen as discrediting towards the unity and thus ultimately the effectiveness of the deterrence projected by the alliance as a whole (Baranowski, Quencez, and Techau 2020). In an age of an emerging multipolar order, the strength of America’s commitments abroad are brought into question by geopolitical observers. Although the U.S. has contingents of its armed forces stationed in the European theater, the bulk of its deterrence against malign actors within Europe has relied upon its nuclear arsenal.

 As a founding member of NATO as well as an important actor within the EU, the word of France carries weight into the calculus of malign actors to upend European security architecture. For the Russians, a disunited transatlantic alliance would provide the pathway  Moreover, Macron’s diplomatic engagement with the Russian Federation prior to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had proved a source of contention for states on NATO’s Eastern flank whose security primarily relies upon said projection (Caulcutt, 2022). The Russians in any attempt to disrupt the post-war order in Europe, would incur a response from other prominent European powers through yielding aid to Russia’s adversaries in order to salvage the prior balance of power (Rumer and Sokolsky, 2022). The window for Russia to achieve their policy objectives before the involvement of other powers largely depended upon a swift capture of Kyiv that is reminiscent of the war plans made by Austria-Hungary against Serbia over a century ago (Armstrong, 1927). Not doing so would allow for the Ukrainian armed forces to be sustained by lethal aid from abroad and thus a protracted conflict would be bound to occur against Russia’s favor. Outside of Europe, Macron faced the same issue of smaller states being affected by the sentiments and policy preferences of larger powers in the Indo-Pacific. On a visit to Beijing, Macron downplayed the importance of Taiwan’s continued ability to govern its own affairs due to his belief that Europe shouldn’t be involved in matters concerning superpowers (The Economist, 2023). 

Within a short span of time, the Chinese diplomat to Paris made a comment that seemed to bring into question the legitimacy of ex-Soviet states, which is of particular concern to Europe since the Baltic states are members of critical European institutions (Zimmermann, 2023). Although the Chinese diplomat walked back his statement, contradictions still lie within the heart of the conduct of foreign affairs under Macron. One of the primary instigators of the Russo-Ukrainian War has been the line of thought that places greater importance upon the aims of larger powers than the fundamental existence as well as the sovereignty of smaller nations. Perhaps the most blatant contradiction of Macron’s aims are to pursue unilateral policy preference through the instrument of centrally multilateral institutions. 

The Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Lithuania Source: Valda Kalnina/EPA, via Shutterstock

Though Macron’s comment over Taiwan has been framed as a diplomatic blunder adding to a string of misfires, especially in the Indo-Pacific, there may be something larger at play within the international system (Julienne, 2023). The exact change could be the extent to which states that are not superpowers can meaningfully engage in diplomacy with their near hegemonic counterparts without multilateral organizations with a strong consensus. While not the primary guarantor of security in East Asia, France has a nuclear arsenal and the equipment to forwardly position their stockpile should in a drastic event the need to do so (Vincent, 2022). Yet, it has not changed the minds of either the Russian federation or China on matters which they see as fundamental to their interests. This newfound era of great-power competition may have broken the monotony of solely covering American foreign policy, but superpowers, especially the policymakers within are very attentive to how they are perceived by academia and in the media.

Although the political economy of contemporary Europe was developed in a unipolar moment, the institutions which allowed for a common monetary policy were the multilateral institutions established in an era of great power competition (Masters, 2023). It is understandable for European policymakers to throw around the idea of pursuing a more pragmatic foreign policy in a more competitive global environment, especially in the shadow of the European debt crisis (Dadush, 2010). However, doing so could possibly compromise the long held values of the EU in the midst of enlargement of important European organizations and slow the momentum of the reinvigoration within these organizations brought on by the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Lavikainen, Särkkä, and Pesu 2023). In the worst case of the pursuit of such a policy, the rules-based international order from which the region has greatly benefitted, may be harmed in the long-term as they would acquiesce to norms that are in opposition to ones that are Fnecessary to its function (Scott, 2020). 

On the domestic front, the most pressing internal issue for Macron has been a grassroots protest movement surrounding unpopular pension reforms within France (France 24, 2023a). Popular movements from the French public to express their discontent with their discontent in matters of policy such as these are not new to Paris, but have been an integral thread to modern France’s political development since its tradition away from monarchical rule. As one of the most notable French leaders since not only François Mitterrand but also those who wore an imperial crown within France, his “reign” has not been without incident (de Weck, 2022). One of the most notable incidents to occur under his tenure as the French president was the Yellow Vest protests that erupted five years ago (Cigainero, 2018). The yellow vest protests started as a result of discontent with the economic conditions within the country (Dodman, 2022). What has made the present pension reforms so controversial within French society was that Macron implemented his rarely used constitutional powers bypassing parliament (RFI, 2023). When viewing his approach to issues foreign and domestic, one can assume that if Macron had the bureaucratic authority to push forth what he sees as the direction of Europe, he would do so over the objections of smaller states with less of a say within the EU.

A session of France’s National Assembly becomes heated as members of left-wing parties leave the chamber Source:  Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Though Macron may have his attention directed toward the medium of what Europe can provide French interests, his German counterpart is concerned with the integrity of the medium as well as domestic issues within the Federal Republic of Germany. Moreover, while Macron may be likened to For those unfamiliar with the German language, there are abstract concepts that are expressed within the language that are often not expressed in others, as any language has. These words have had a profound impact on several fields such as psychology and philosophy (Leary, 1980). One such concept derived from German Idealism that is not only relevant to philosophy, but to developments in global affairs is the word ‘Weltanschauung,’ meaning a worldview (Naugle, 1998). The Russian invasion of Ukraine challenged the historically pacifist worldview of Germany and provided the motivation for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to announce a ‘Zeitenwende,’ roughly meaning a watershed moment (Tausendfreund, 2022). 

Such a fundamental shift in posture surrounding the country’s foreign policy has sparked concern both within Germany and externally provided the past of the country. In contrast to his French counterpart whose significance has been the result of his electoral success in line with French politicians of note, Scholz is significant due to presiding over Germany during a time of great change in its policy posture. Though his mind may be preoccupied with the legacy of the previous chancellor, his tenure bears resemblance to Helmut Kohl whose time in office was marked by him being thrust upon a historic event without having prior knowledge of what they would face as chancellor (Stelzenmüller, 2017). The noun is like the Weltanschauung, something that is all encompassing of not only the external material conditions surrounding the state one finds themselves in, but also how and why they may respond to these conditions. 

As with any philosophical concept, worldviews are open to interpretation by individuals and those within the halls of power who have the ability to mold a neutral concept into tangible practice. Although the field of German behavioral sciences no longer has the influence it once had, nefarious actors have interpreted concepts from the field to their own ends (Yablon, 2003). Furthermore, the ecosystem for concepts from this field to emulate into other spheres of civic life still exists within the country and such concepts remain significant in their potential to have influence.

Therefore, Scholz wanted to explicitly define what Germany would pursue under the profound changes occurring not only within Europe but the international system as a whole (Tallis 2023). The policy changes that the German chancellor has made under this new framework span everything from foreign affairs to energy security (Leoni, Ryan, and Weber 2023). The progress made to ensure these changes are made concrete have been mixed, with Germany having the most success in energy security. German security policy has attempted to meet the newfound challenges it faces by pledging to meet the quota set by NATO for defense spending, but has not outlined a course of action to enlarge their overall defense budget (Fuhrhop, 2023). In addition, there has been a lack of a cohesive doctrine surrounding several key areas of interest to Europe such as how Germany would approach great-power competition. The specter of the ‘Zeitenwende’ has also expanded beyond Germany, namely in how great powers such as China have changed considerably in recent years as Xi Jinping has consolidated his power (McGregor, 2018).

These changes have not gone unnoticed as German Foreign Minister Baerbock described her visit to the East Asian power as ‘shocking’ (Deutsche Welle, 2023). There also may be eroding rules of engagement between the three foremost powers with Russia using NATO enlargement as a pretense for their invasion of Ukraine and China describing its defense policy as ‘defensive in nature,’ but within the same policy it describes it will construct infrastructure to secure its controversial territorial claims (Pifer, 2022). These states are likely to use a slow implementation of a mix of diplomacy and operations other than war against one another until flashpoints inevitably arise (Siebens and Lucas, 2022). Regardless of the debate surrounding NATO expansion even though the admission process is multilateral, other great powers are pursuing unilateral action in a multipolar environment. Furthermore, while European leaders have an aversion to the emerging competition in the Indo-Pacific, as one of the most important economic blocs globally they have the potential to lessen the intensity of unilateral action by the world’s superpowers.

Even though Scholz hoped to explicitly define what this new age would mean for German policy, the inadequacies present in achieving their policy preferences leave space for others to interpret outside of the context of security. This however, is not unique to Germany as many other NATO members face hurdles toward meeting the level of military spending that they have publicly committed to (Fonfria and González-Regueral, 2023). While this is understandable provided economic conditions surrounding Europe, the states that have the ability to make the necessary level of funding to project out deterrence will have a greater voice in European affairs for they will have a greater degree of political independence. This imbalance among NATO members and the continued gulf in defense spending will fail to prevent actions against European interests unless they can produce the methods for a cohesion among the diverse array of the region’s armed forces (Chihaia, 2023). 

Olaf Scholz giving announcing his Zeitenwende policy  Source: picture alliance / Flashpic | Jens Krick ©

Due to inheriting a Germany that is a leader in European affairs, many dimensions of domestic policy have been viewed through a lens that views its ability to maintain the ability of Germany to continue in its position. To accomplish this, Scholz needed a policy framework from which he could secure German leadership. Early in his chancellorship, he had sought to use the political and economic decisions of his predecessor as a foundation for his proposed continuation of Germany’s policy posture (Gehrke, 2021). However, the Russo-Ukrainian War had altered the whole adoption of his predecessor’s policies because the environment of which they originally stood no longer existed or made sense for them to continue. Among the first of these policies to go was the previously implemented energy regime that sought to bring Germans affordable gas and to bring Russia closer to the European Union in hopes that Russia’s norms would be more in line with Europe (Stelzenmüller, 2022). 

With Russia’s weaponization of German dependence on their gas, Scholz sought to secure different suppliers of liquefied natural gas from states such as the United Arab Emirates (Braun, 2023). The hopes of Russia in this action was to force Europe into accepting their policy objectives in Ukraine without resistance as resistance against Russia would coincide with a steep economic price. Worryingly, Russia’s alleged actions of destroying the Kakhovka dam may not only be a continuation of their weaponization of energy but potentially a glimpse of what environmental warfare could look like in the 21st century (Mitchell, 2023) . Tactics in this realm adversely affect civilians and have little legal precedent regarding its prosecution. One more issue that could hinder Germany’s ability to be a leader within Europe is the continued financial health of the region. With the precedent set during the Greek debt crisis, Germany is seen as one of the fiscal pillars of which the EU leans on (Council on Foreign Relations, n.d.). 

If intervention in the economic affairs of Greece serves as a precedent, Germany will try to avoid a similar situation in the near future with other EU states. This issue contains many dimensions for Berlin as it pertains to its foreign policy. A financial crisis in the same vein of the Eurozone Crisis, would not only upend the ability of EU states to aid Ukraine and sow division among eurozone participants who still have a vivid memory of the issues brought by austerity (Steinberg and Tamames, 2022). In a domestic context, German citizens could once again be apprehensive about footing the bill for the European project and become more eurosceptic in voting (Rathbun, Powers, and Anders 2019). Although the current focus of the EU is directed toward whether to provide Ukraine a security guarantee to Ukraine, they must remember that the event which spiraled into the current conflict stemmed from a desire on the Ukrainians to one day be considered for closer ties to Europe (Toygür and Bergmann, 2023). Considering this, it is a very real possibility that the future behavior of Ukraine and the union’s frontier will depend on the effort they put in the integration of Ukraine into the European project. Moreover, with America supporting defense increases in countries with formerly pacifist postures such as Germany and Japan, European states will not only have to navigate a world of multipolar competition, but also to reign in formerly aggressive regional powers within their neighborhood (Giltner, 2023).

Rome Has Policy Objectives Outside the European Union

A Migrant Arrives in Italy From a Rescue Ship Source: Darrin Zammit Lupi/REUTERS

Before Meloni entered office, there were concerns from the European Union and from what a potential Meloni tenure as prime minister would mean in terms of policy. One of the most immediate concerns held by some was that Italy could go down a path of illiberal democracy like other states governed by far-right parties within Europe (Bastasin, 2022). Other such fears of a Meloni-lead Italy were a worry that more far-right parties would make electoral gains across Europe and be soft on Russia in the backdrop of the Russo-Ukrainian War (Dessì and Ntousas, 2022). Further adding to the uncertainty of Brussels toward Meloni was that she was following the administration of someone who made a declaration to do whatever it would take to save the Euro at one of the European Union’s most pivotal moments (Lachman, 2021).

Due to a disconnect between Brussels and Meloni, Rome has pursued a foreign policy that is often misunderstood by the EU but is clearly fulfilling the policies set out by Meloni. European worries over Italian domestic policy can be over something as simple as protecting the native language of Italy (Reuters, 2023c). This policy could be easily misconstrued as an action against the plurality of multilateral institutions such as the EU and the use of multiple official languages in these types of organizations as far back as the foundation of the League of Nations. At the same time, Italy was at the heart of some of the worst rates of Covid-19 casualties among its older population on the continent and promoting one’s language over another is something that French have been doing since 1994 (French Ministry of Culture, n.d.). 


An Italian nursing home heavily impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic Source: Chiara Goia for The Washington Post

Furthermore, the issue of European unity in the face of a war in Europe that could have been a disconnect over policy between Italy and the EU has not come to a breaking point. This has not been easy for Meloni as she faced comments that could have been seen as sympathetic to the Russians from Matteo Salvini and the late Silvio Berlusconi (Roberts, 2022). In addition, she has also taken a tough stance on China by signaling that she may leave the Belt and Road Initiative (Tocci, 2023). Perhaps the issue that Meloni has pursued with the most vigor has been the issue of migration. This has been a long sore issue between Italy and its peers as spats between the two have resulted in canceled trips on the part of Italy to discuss migration policy (Leali, 2023). In the backdrop of this era of sour relations, the United Kingdom and France hammered out a deal in order to tackle cross-channel migration (Le Monde with, A. F. P. 2023). Such sidelining of Italian interests while more influential European states accomplish their policy directives can be traced as far back as the 1915 Treaty of London where promises were not kept to Italy in the aftermath of the Great War (Albrecht-Carrié, 1939). It would not be until late June would there be a thaw in Italo-French relations for them to resume cooperation surrounding European migration (Corbet and Charlton, 2023). 

Beyond the issue of migration, Italy has sought to extend its influence beyond Europe. This can be seen in the diplomatic initiatives it has undertaken in the Mediterranean and the Middle East where they have sought to not only secure new sources of energy but to foster long standing ties (Sassi, 2023). Middle powers such as Italy and its peers have also made efforts to be more visible in the Indo-Pacific as geopolitical rivalry has increased in that region (Crabtree, 2023). While there have been recent attempts to define middle powers by others, one could make the argument that nations like Italy that are making diplomatic and security initiatives in multiple regions beyond its borders belong to a class above what are considered middle powers but not great powers (Moeini et al., 2022). Understanding this exact dynamic can help Europe better understand Italian actions and can provide a path for greater cooperation in other realms. 

Meloni has many challenges ahead of her such as navigating her coalition beyond the death of Berlusconi (Zalewski, 2023). Though her tenure as Italian prime minister has been an anomaly among her peers on the far-right, the European Union should keep a watchful eye on Italy. There can be a wide range of reasons for her rather tame policy decisions in comparison to her more illiberal counterparts such as the magnitude of funding that the country has received from the EU (Loguercio, 2023). However, what is important is that Meloni seeks to cooperate with the rest of Europe as opposed to not doing so. Although a wide range of topics were discussed from German philosophy to the individuals who shape Europe today, the predicament which Europe finds itself in today is best summed up by a quote from a Spanish philosopher. Jose Ortega y Gasset once stated, “Civilization is nothing else but the attempt to reduce force to being the last resort” (Ortega y Gasset, n.d.). Choosing not to cooperate with Italy and other states within Europe with one another will result directly in the erosion in their ability to reduce force as a matter of last resort.


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[REPORT] Table for Two?: …

by Christopher Ynclán Jr time to read: 26 min