Silvio Berlusconi’s re-election as Italy’s Prime Minister is more promising and more important for Italy and the United States, and for trans-Atlantic relations generally, than most commentators have admitted. Although the Bush Administration has just nine months left in office, significant progress is both possible and desirable in enhancing ties between America and Europe.
President Bush’s critics have been quick to assign him blame for weakened trans-Atlantic relations, particularly because of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They argue that public opinion polls show European popular sentiments turning against the United States. They gloat that two of Bush’s staunchest personal and political allies -- Prime Ministers Tony Blair in Britain and Jose Maria Aznar in Spain -- have left office, in large part because of dissatisfaction with their support for the Iraq war.
But look today at Europe’s political leadership: Nicolas Sarkozy in France has replaced the bitterly anti-American Jacques Chirac. In Germany, Angela Merkel has replaced the dyspeptic and anti-Iraq war Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Britain now once again speaks about the US-UK “special relationship.” And now, Berlusconi will soon return to the Chigi Palace. How times change.
Europe’s new political configuration has already partially manifested itself in NATO’s decision in Bucharest to support deployment of U.S. missile defense assets in Poland and the Czech Republic. Even the Bucharest Summit, however, reveals continuing problems, such as Europe’s reluctance to start Ukraine and Georgia on the path toward ultimate NATO membership. Pressed by Russia not to open up to these former Soviet republics, Europe bent its collective knee to Moscow. And in Afghanistan, NATO forces are divided between those daily facing difficult combat situations, and those like Italy’s and Germany’s posted in less dangerous parts of that embattled country.
America’s European critics repeatedly disparage its supposed unilateralism, contending that the United States should modify its policies to create a multilateral front against threats such as Iran’s nuclear weapons program. From the U.S. perspective, however, the problem is not American unilateralism, but Europe’s unwillingness to do much of anything to stand up to external threats, whether from Iran or from a newly resurgent Russia. That is why the NATO missile defense decision is so positive, representing as it does a clear, alliance-wide recognition of the Iranian threat. That is also why the decision on Ukraine and Georgia is so negative, reflecting a European unwillingness to resist Russia’s new leverage.
Preventing Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability could be a decisive test both of trans-Atlantic relations and of Berlusconi’s leadership. For more than five years, European diplomacy by Britain, France and Germany (“the EU-3”), supported by the United States, has failed to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. One principal reason for this failure has been Europe’s collective unwillingness to impose meaningful -- i.e., stringent -- economic sanctions against Iran. Italy, with its large trade relations with Iran, Germany and several others have opposed strong sanctions, and, as a consequence, Iran continues toward a deliverable nuclear weapons capability. In fact, diplomatic efforts to stop Iran now unfortunately seem to be at a dead end.
Berlusconi will thus face a difficult decision, since the imposition today of even very stringent sanctions will likely be too little too late to disrupt Iran’s progress. Moreover, Romano Prodi’s outgoing administration has left Berlusconi a weakened Italian economy, which only makes the incoming Prime Minister’s choices more complex. Unfortunately, however, weak sanctions -- “sanctions without pain” -- which have long been Europe’s preference, are in reality worse than no sanctions at all. Weak sanctions give the appearance of action, while in fact concealing the reality that they have no effect whatever.
The unmistakable signal that such a policy sends to rogue states like Iran is that they can continue their progress on weapons of mass destruction with impunity. That is precisely what they have been doing. For both America and Europe’s leading nations, therefore, the diplomatic chances of preventing Iran from achieving its objectives are rapidly diminishing. Although tough sanctions are at this point almost certainly too late, they would at least demonstrate that Italy and other Europeans are preparing for the even more difficult step that may be required, namely changing the regime in Tehran, or, as a last resort, the targeted use of military force against Iran’s nuclear program.
Of course, the United States faces its own election in November, and the outcome could well result in a change in America’s own direction on Iran. But under the U.S. constitutional system, a President retains full executive power until the moment he leaves office. Moreover, Bush may well be succeeded by John McCain, who takes an even harder line on Iran than Bush does. Mrs. Clinton, no Republican unilateralist, said just before the Pennsylvania primary that she would “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel. The argument to delay decisive action, therefore, misses the critical point that delay works in Iran’s favor, as it continues to overcome the scientific and technical challenges in its path to nuclear weapons. Delay almost always works in favor of the proliferators, and that is abundantly clear in Iran’s case.
What will Berlusconi do when he takes office? One way to pull Italy out of its current malaise is to help the United States lead the fight against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The EU-3 -- which intentionally excluded Italy from their ranks -- have failed for over five years. Berlusconi can provide a significant alternative, and, even more importantly, do something concrete to derail Iran’s threat to the North Atlantic community as a whole.