Politicus: Prodi's campaign song beckons to the hard left

Posted in Europe | 28-Mar-06 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (L), leader of a centre-right coalition, and Romano Prodi, former European Union president and opposition leader of the centre-left 'Union' party, shake hands before a political debate in Rome, March 14, 2006.

'We choose multipolarism," it says, bash, bang, in the Italian center-left's official election program.

Which, as a vote-grabber, is a little like backing photosynthesis or transubstantiation. But there it stands, squeezed in between world peace, European integration, and international legality, right up at the top of Romano Prodi's signed list of good global intentions as Italy's would-be prime minister.

You remember multipolarity (well, maybe). It's not multilateralism, or just making sure everybody gets consulted in arriving at big international decisions.

Rather it's the idea that the world is fated to split into various power groupings like Europe, China and Russia, and that this one is good development because it creates a series of counterweights, the European Union heading the pack, to muffle American power.

Obviously, the United States, including most Democrats, has no use for the concept because it designates America as civilization's central problem and seeks to build a European identity in opposition to it.

The multipolar religion's charter member and main evangelist is Jacques Chirac. Recent converts include Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Spain's José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. Depending on who's in the room, the Russians and the Chinese can talk the talk.

But Gerhard Schröder, although coaxed to join by Chirac, avoided the multipolar chorus as too antagonistic. Nicolas Sarkozy, who could be president of France next year, scorns it as conflictual, artificial and divisive. At the European Union in Brussels, Prodi's successor as president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, calls incantation about counterweights just plain counterproductive.

So why has Prodi, a fairly orthodox- seeming politician over the years, with a good chance to oust Silvio Berlusconi on April 10, headed down multipolarity's sawdust path?

The kind answer is that Prodi is just offering up some verbal stylin' with an anti-American, epater-les-bourgeois subtext to a segment of his coalition of incoherence. Beyond its democratic left core, Prodi's alliance drags along communists, anti-globalists, and a handful of extremist unsavories.

In a less accepting mode, you could say that if Prodi is making these kinds of concessions to his allies on the far left now he will have make more palpable ones against reform of the economy or bureaucracy once in office. You could even assume he is serious about multipolarity and will regard Italy's increased role in NATO (it ranks number four as a provider of manpower to alliance missions) as Zapatero-style, domestic-policy scrip to be bargained off when opportune.

The fact is, Prodi has made an unmistakable effort to give his views on multipolarity prominence. It is the first subject he expounds on in 150 pages of question-and-answer that make up a book called "Ci sarà un'Italia," published to coincide with the campaign.

Setting up his argument, Prodi places in one corner a "unipolar American conception" of the world that involves the premise that Italy is a subaltern, condemned to the role of the Yanks' majorette, beating a drum and shutting its mouth. The alternative, says Prodi - recalling how the president of China told him the Chinese liked the multipolarity idea and held euros to prove it - is "whether we accept and accentuate the myth of a grand unipolarity or work to create a world rich in vitality, energy and diverse solutions."

The "we choose multipolarity" answer in the coalition manifesto comes in here.

Besides, if you make an exception of Prodi saying once he couldn't understand why Italy didn't have a good chain of standardized hotels like Holiday Inn, it takes an archivist's patience to track down anything faintly resembling the usual boilerplate acknowledgments of the importance of good transatlantic relations and NATO in the coalition's campaign literature.

Telephone call to Filippo Andreatta, Prodi's foreign policy adviser, who is a professor of international relations at the University of Bologna and at the Bologna Center of Johns Hopkins University in Italy. Exegesis requested.

He insists there is no micro- Gaullist view of the world at hand. If Italy is going to take its troops out of Iraq under a Prodi government, it would be responsibly, not in the in- your-face manner of Zapatero's withdrawal of Spanish forces.

In fact, he says, Prodi would really be more like Angela Merkel than Zapatero - a mammoth reach, considering Merkel's very public choice to make rapprochement with the Americans the (now successful) cornerstone of her reversal of Schröder's foreign policy.

More conversation. What must have resonated in Bologna like my lingering obtuseness and an incapacity to look beyond a couple of contradictions brought a telephone call from Romano Prodi, a congenial man.

Prodi explained that "political statements" were involved in the campaign and that it was wrong to look at them "like a political scientist" because the terminology of political statements did not come from political scientists and could be misused. Yes, his analysis of the world involved the coming of multipolarity, but no, it was unfair to mention him with other advocates like Hugo Chávez.

Clear? Not all that much, because Prodi's explanation included his acknowledgment that there were people in his coalition who were "working for a split of the French type" between Europe and America, "but a coalition always has such situations."

Instead, I was told that his Italy would not run away from its NATO role, involving strong military participation in Afghanistan and the Balkans. That was the man's word, but a confounding one when it comes coupled with what I heard as sotto voce urging not to take literally every bit of the foreign and security policy stuff Prodi has marked with his brand.

One reaction to these circumstances might be to take refuge in the inexact line that Italy's global role doesn't matter anyway. This reasoning finds dismissive comfort in the idea that a country that could live through economic decline and Berlusconi's posturing (albeit with a well-defined pro-NATO position), can also toss off the seemingly debilitating effects of electing Prodi and his coalition's incoherence.

Perhaps not. When you have to make concessions before you start to a communist and extreme leftist constituency (the Communists abandoned Prodi in 1998 as head of a governing coalition), and then insist to outsiders not to take those pledges too seriously, you've done both the prospects of reform and stability a disservice.

In a Europe that aches today from pessimism and retreat, this says that whatever the result of the Italian election, it will not provide a government whose grip on the future can be an example in fighting those trends.