Since the inception of the Italian presidency of the Council of the European Union, it's only too normal that Rome has become the hotspot of international political summits to define the future course of EU foreign and domestic policy.
So while media attention was focused on the EU Intergovernmental Conference, inaugurated in Rome on October 4 with an Extraordinary Summit of the Heads of State and Government of the EU (and the protests accompanying it), another no less controversial political event was taking place on the same week-end in the Italian capital: a closed-doors two-days conference organized by the Italian section of the Aspen Institute and by the New Atlantic Initiative of the American Enterprise Institute (http://www.aei.org/research/nai/projectID.11/default.asp) under the auspices of the Italian Government.
Title of the event: "Relaunching the Transatlantic Partnership: Common Goals and Shared Values"; in other words, how to mend the rift between the two sides of the Atlantic, created, according to many, by decision of the Bush administration to unilaterally attack and invade Iraq, with the only support of a scant "coalition of the willing".
Among the exclusive (in the most literal sense of the word) list of invited guests, besides the Italian vice Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affair and a host of journalists, ministers, MPs, academics, diplomats and top managers from all over Europe, the who's who of the AEI, the most influential US neoconservative think tank: from president Christopher DeMuth to vice-president Danielle Peltka, accompanied by a small crowd of scholars and fellows (twelve overall); among them, Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen, arguably two of the strongest advocates of an endless "war on terror". Completing the list of American guests, among others, John R. Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, and Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century, the neocons front groups whose letters to the President have largely anticipated the current developments of US foreign policy.
So what were neocons doing in Italy? According to Michael Ledeen, the two-day event, which saw guests confronting themselves with issues going from the challenges of "democratization" of the Middle East to the role of NATO in fending off the current "threats" to international security, is one of several "friendly get-togethers" regularly held since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. And as such it was treated by a few of the journalists attending, who provided only minimal coverage, bordering at times on sheer gossip (see for example the articles by Anne Applembaum and Beppe Severgnini, on the Washington Post and the Corriere della Sera, respectively, highlighting the different oratory style of European and American politicians, as if that was the only element worth focusing on).
Yet the political significance of the event cannot be underestimated, if we think about the critical moment this took place: on the one hand, the beginning of the EU Intergovernmental Conference to approve, by the end of the year, the draft European Constitution - the discussion being dominated, among others, by the thorny subject of Europe's geopolitical role vis-Ã -vis the United States and the definition of a common defense and security policy); and on the other, the worsening of the crisis on the Iraqi front that appears to have created profound disagreements within the Bush administration, particularly concerning the necessity of returning to the US's old allies, hat in hand, to share the costs of managing post-war Iraq.
It's quite significant, in this light, that neocons have attended "en masse" the roman appointment meant to re-launch the transatlantic partnership: according to many analysts, their influence on US foreign policy and the Bush doctrine of "pre-emptive war" has far exceeded that of any other political faction of the American right. Virtually unknown to the large American and international public until the outbreak of the war in Iraq, they are becoming the object of increasing criticism for having masterminded, through their obsessive media campaigns and reckless manipulation of intelligence, a despicable military campaign that now sees the United States struggling into the Iraqi quagmire, which it will hard to extricate itself of without massive injections of troops and funds, which the already-stretched federal budget can hardly accommodate.
Hence the impellent need for the US to resume dialogue with Europe, especially at a time when EU governments are debating the EU's geostrategic role on the international scenario. According to Ledeen, the US would be better off with a strong Europe, with a coherent policy and modern armed forces; reading behind the lines, a Europe capable of "projecting power" outside its own borders and that can support the United States in its war against the "Axis of Evil". An idea of Europe which is definitely not supported by the great majority of its population, as we have demonstrated times and times again, on several occasions, during the antiwar demos last spring.
It's hard to tell whether the neocons doctrines, that were so successful with Bush jr., will be embraced to the same degree by European policymakers, thus becoming the basis for a new transatlantic relationship. Indeed, while the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs declared during the conference that "in Italy, we are comfortable with US leadership" (which begs the question: who is we?), a substantially different view was being expressed by Karsten D. Voigt, Coordinator of German-American cooperation of the German Federal Foreign Office:
"The two World Wars brought home to us that the superordinate interests of the international community and respect for fundamental human rights - and not merely the national interests of individual states - had to take precedence. In Europe, the European Union allowed us to replace the wars of the past with today's rule of lawâ€¦ Although the European model cannot necessarily be adopted by other regions in the world, this positive experience of what can be achieved without military means influences our strategy and aimsâ€¦
Attempts to undermine the tried and tested canon of rules contained in the UN Charter and of established practices of states by introducing a further-reaching right to preventive self-defense meet with widespread criticism in Germany. This applies in particular to the debate about a right to "preventive self-defense", which some are calling for in the US." (http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/www/en/archiv_print?archiv_id=4973).
An apparently unbridgeable gap, that led one of the journalists attending the event to talk about "a dialogue between deaf", but that might not suffice to discourage the ideologues of the Bush administrations from seeking support for their belligerent plans in the old continent. Hard to tell whether they'll succeed: but given the support some European governments have provided to president Bush's war drive, there is a real danger they might. It is up to Europe, and first and foremost to its peoples, to promote an alternative vision of international relations, strengthening the dialogue with those social and political forces in the United States who want to see a transatlantic relationship fostering international law, dialogue, respect and well-being for all. This is surely the kind of transatlantic partnership that many of us, on either side of the Atlantic, are hoping to see re-launched.
Adele Oliveri is an economist and political activist from Italy, now living in Spain. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org