Hoover Institution (Stanford, CA) - Italy is not a superpower, but its location in the central Mediterranean Sea makes it an influential nation in critically important global challenges, including the mass migration of peoples, competition over energy resources, and conflicts involving more powerful state actors, argued Mariangela Zappia, Italy’s permanent representative to the United Nations (UN) in a conversation with Hoover Institution senior fellow H. R. McMaster.
Zappia was featured in the third episode of McMaster’s Battlegrounds video series, which aims to inform viewers about US foreign policy from the perspectives of America’s allies and strategic partners.
A career officer of Italy’s foreign service, Zappia has served at the UN since August 2018. Prior to this role, she was diplomatic advisor and G7-G20 sherpa to the prime minister (2016–18), Italy’s permanent representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels (2014–16), and head of the European Union delegation to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva (2011–14).
Zappia explained to McMaster that a hallmark for Italian foreign policy is to help establish peace and stability in the Mediterranean Sea region. To this end, Italy seeks to foster multilateral dialogue, establish a convergence of interests, and prevent zero-sum conflict.
She said that Italy remains deeply engaged in supporting the alliance and economic development of five countries in West Africa’s Sahel region: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The cooperation framework is intended to support economic development of the Sahel region and bolster the security of its population against violent extremism. Italy has also worked to find a peaceful solution to the nearly decade-long civil war in Libya and to the 20-year US-led fight against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, where Rome has deployed a significant amount of forces for NATO.
Zappia maintained that the need to address these security challenges stems in part from Italy’s exposure to the pressures of mass migration from Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Refugees fleeing war-torn and economically distressed regions face grave dangers to their health and safety in their journeys to Europe. Furthermore, their resettlement has sowed deep political divisions and fostered the growth of Eurosceptic and far-right political parties that threaten the cohesion of the European Union. She also advocated the importance of expanded legal immigration to Europe, especially in Italy, where fertility rates are sharply declining and the proportion of elderly citizens is the largest on the continent.
McMaster asked Zappia about Italy’s position on tensions that have arisen between two of NATO’s members, Greece and Turkey, over rights to oil and gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. She responded that Italy’s objective in this dispute is to push diplomacy and promote cooperation over competition in accessing these energy resources.
Zappia also discussed Italy’s perspective on the aggressive foreign policies of China and Russia. In regard to the former, she said that Italy works through the European Union for increased dialogue, demands for transparency on human rights issues, and greater reciprocity on trade as well as freedom to navigate vessels in China’s surrounding seas.
In approaching Russia, Zappia explained that Italy and other EU member states have established a dual-track strategy of sanctions and engagement. While the EU wants to prevent undue political influence from Moscow over the affairs of European democracies, it also recognizes that Russia cannot realistically be isolated, because it is a source of energy resources and shares a cultural heritage with the rest of the continent.
Zappia acknowledged growing negative attitudes in the United States about international institutions, especially regarding recent attention given to the World Health Organization’s monitoring and management of the coronavirus crisis. She also said that it was particularly disheartening that the UN Security Council delayed the establishment of a ceasefire in Libya, when it could have shifted its focus in dealing with the pandemic in its earlier stages.
“This should be a no-brainer. We are all hit very hard [by COVID-19], and we should all cooperate to fight it,” Zappia said.
She warned, however, that it would be a mistake for American leaders to disengage from the UN and other international organizations while allowing its competitors to fill the proverbial power vacuum. Instead, she encouraged the United States and other member nations to reform these organizations from within and press them to live up to their respective charters.
“If there is a moment that you need all of these [international organizations] it is now,” Zappia argued. “There are no national solutions. . . .The virus knows no borders. . . . We are all as strong as the one who is weakest.”
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