Distrust undermines alliances

03.12.10 Publication:

The good news about the latest Wikileaks disclosures of American diplomatic reports on Silvio Berlusconi is that they take the focus away from the president of the council’s parties and “relaxing” private life. Many Italians, especially supporters of the centre-right government, have long lamented the excessive international attention on sex scandals. The bad news, however, is that these disclosures will now focus that attention on where it always should have been: on the relationship between business and government, and especially personal business interests and the practice of foreign policy.

The disclosures, which are essentially reports of allegations circulating in Rome and inside Berlusconi’s own party, should not be surprising to any international observer who has been watching Italian politics closely since 2001. Nor, of course, can they be considered as necessarily accurate: they are allegations and suspicions, not proven fact. But such allegations gain an extra power when they come from American diplomatic messages, from the knowledge that these beliefs made a difference to the attitudes and intelligence-seeking policies of the world’s superpower, indeed a key Italian ally. Moreover, they should remind us of something else that is crucial in international relations.

That extra, crucial something is trust. Normally, between long-standing allies and especially between allies that are democracies, trust in foreign affairs is established over many years by deepening knowledge of the underlying interests and motivations of each country. Regarding Russia, it is for example well known that Germany has a different view of that country than does Britain or the United States, because of its closer geographical proximity, because of deep business ties and because of energy dependence.

Such knowledge was complicated, a little, by the swift movement of Gerhard Schroeder into a well-paid job as chairman of the Russian-German gas pipeline, shortly after he left office as Germany’s chancellor. Given that he had campaigned publicly for the pipeline deal when he was chancellor, many critics felt his acceptance of the job was inappropriate, even outrageous—and they were surely right. But this offence did not undermine trust in German policy towards Russia, for the deal had been transparent and was in line with what had become Germany’s consistent policy since the end of the Cold War.

The importance of the allegations about Berlusconi and Putin is that, unlike in the German case, they seem to have undermined American trust in the motivations surrounding Italian foreign policy towards Russia, and they raised doubts about the consistency of that policy from the past. While clearly valuing the support provided by Italy, under both the 2001-06 Berlusconi government and under that of Romano Prodi in 2006-08, for the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the signs from these diplomatic cables are that America grew exasperated, mistrusting and even bitter about the course of Italian policy towards Russia, in a period when Russian behaviour was causing special new concern in Washington.

The essence of the mistrust, it is important to repeat and thus to emphasise, is not based on an argument about what is the right policy: such an argument could be had in public, quite openly, with a democratic ally such as Italy. No, the essence of the mistrust seems to have arisen from a belief that Italian policy had become personal and not national, and the suspicion that business interests—again, personal and not national—were lying behind it.

All governments, and all government leaders, relish the idea that close personal relationships between leaders can be helpful in international relations. The warmth between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, for instance, seems to have been considered an asset by both America and Britain. The issue in these disclosures is not about that: normally, it would be an advantage for one or more European leaders to enjoy some sort of trusting relationship with the Russian leader. George W. Bush, after all, claimed to have “looked into Putin’s soul” when the two men first met. These allegations, however, go beyond personal chemistry.

At their heart, they inevitably return me to the notorious cover published by The Economist in 2001 when I was that magazine’s editor-in-chief: we declared Silvio Berlusconi to be “unfit” to govern Italy. This had nothing to do with sex scandals. It had something to do with trials and legal accusations. But mainly, our motivation and our concern was about the dangers in a democracy of having too close a relationship between a powerful businessman and the institutions of government. Suspicions that government policies are being turned towards the business interests of the individual or of his associates were bound to arise. And such suspicions and accusations are deeply corrosive of trust in government and indeed faith in capitalism itself.

Now, from these Wikileaks disclosures, we can see that such suspicions are corrosive of trust between allies in foreign policy, too. That corrosion has been going on for a long time. But bringing it into the public domain is now likely to make the mistrust even deeper, and more widespread.