After a Few Bad Centuries, Italy Gets It Together

Peter Bridges formerly served in the U.S. Embassy in Rome and was U.S. ambassador to Somalia.

Italy, which many Americans know mainly for good pasta, Gucci purses and the Mafia, has been looking proud. Despite some fresh political problems--Prime Minister Bettino Craxi resigned last Tuesday--Italy in 1987 is one of the world's success stories.

While Craxi's resignation may cause some to wonder if this is not the same old Italy after all, with Italians resuming their old game of political musical chairs, it is unlikely that the country will lose its economic impetus if there is a break in coalition government.

One has to appreciate what Italy has accomplished. The American view of Italy is still affected by the memories of Italian-Americans who left crushing poverty for a land of opportunity. Their sons are corporation heads, sit in Congress--and now on the Supreme Court--and might someday, in the shape of a Cuomo or an Iacocca, become President. But all too often, Italian-Americans' successes in America have left unchanged their image of the old, poor, peasant homeland.

This image was long reinforced by the course of events in postwar Italy. Every few months a government would fall, to be replaced by another with equally poor prospects. There were many strikes and the largest Communist Party in the Western world. The country had few natural resources, except for talented people, and there were too many of those. In the 1950s and 1960s people were still pouring out of the undeveloped Italian south--the Mezzogiorno--to seek work in Northern Europe. How could such a country get anywhere?

Now, however, the Italian standard of living exceeds the British, and is climbing. A recent U.S. academic study found Italy the world's second-best country to live in, after Denmark. What happened?

Even during the hard-pressed postwar years, the Italians kept on working and saving, putting their savings into the modern plants that today line the autostradas. Italian industry and government cooperated, more closely and productively than in the United States. There still were strikes--40,000 Fiat workers marched in Turin, not against their employer but against unions whose tactics threatened their jobs. Terrorism continued, striking its worst blow in the killing of Christian Democratic leader Aldo Moro. Yet even as Moro died, the number of terrorist attacks was decreasing. The Red Brigades had failed to win broad support, and as the police closed in, young plotters began to opt for a less violent life style.

Even government in Italy turned out to have strengths. It could still take a day to register a child's birth; pension applications could take years. But the computer finally made it possible for the state to collect taxes from its citizens, at least on salaries and retail trade. The Communists remained the second-biggest party, but mellowed, even accepting Italy's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And it became evident that the succession of governments, which in any case always left the civil service in place, amounted to reshuffling ministerial posts among a small group of experienced senior politicians.

In recent years the newly confident and prosperous Italians have reconfirmed their liking for the United States, while finding in us not just their strongest military ally but their best business partner. They find us less threatening than Japan, a more expandable market than the rest of Europe for their goods--and not just shoes and dresses but subway cars built by Breda for the Washington Metro system, Cadillac bodies produced by Pininfarina in Turin and airlifted to Detroit, and wing and fuselage parts that Aeritalia makes for both Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. The problem is that Italian-American trade begins to go too much one way. The aggressive businessmen and high-quality products are now more often Italian than American.

And the Italians are becoming concerned about the United States. Top industrialists like Olivetti's Carlo De Beneditti say openly that the United States is living beyond its means and must put its house in order. The revelations about the Iran arms scandal particularly shocked Italy, which had agreed to our request not to sell arms to the Islamic regime. Defense Minister Giovanni Spadolini describes "a sentiment of censure" toward America.

Italy is not without major problems, however. The country's budget deficit is relatively much larger than the United States'; industrial progress has brought environmental problems; Italians remain more dependent than other Europeans on Middle East oil. Though domestic terrorism has diminished, there is still the international sort, and an occasional temptation to go easy on such gunmen in hopes they will leave Italy alone. There is still the Mafia, long a purely Sicilian evil but now rich with drug money and stretching tentacles across the country. Italy has a superb interior minister, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, and an admirable national force of police, carabinieri and investigating magistrates. Having broken up the Red Brigades, they may in time break up the Mafia.

What of politics? Now that Craxi has resigned, if the current coalition falls apart, could Italy fall into the doldrums?

Craxi, Italy's first Socialist premier, has held office since 1983, a postwar record, but his government rested throughout on a fractious five-party coalition. The Christian Democrats thought they had Craxi's agreement to pass on the prime ministership to them this spring. But tempers rose and Craxi accused the Christian Democrats of giving him an ultimatum. Meanwhile, Christian Democratic leader Giulio Andreotti--past and possibly next prime minister--has recently been in Washington, calling at the White House.

Whether or not Andreotti takes over as prime minister, early parliamentary elections are likely. There should be little realignment, however, with the Christian Democrats remaining the largest party, the Communists a perhaps slightly fading second and the Socialists a distant third.

The Italians don't think the current political furor will derail their economic engine. The plethora of parties, with the Communists in the wings, may make it hard to put together the next government. And beyond that there no doubt will be some new calamity, sometime--if nothing else there are always earthquakes and volcanoes. Whatever it is, Italy should be able to face it with a confidence, prosperity and strength it has not known for centuries.

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