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ROME – This is one of those unabashedly speculative pieces where I’m going to take two unconnected facts and try to stitch them together, not into a grand theory or hypothesis, but just a “food for thought” exercise.
Here are the facts:
One: For the second year in a row, Pope Francis has dropped off Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s most influential people. Francis has appeared on the rundown six times, most recently in 2019. However, all was not lost for the pope’s host nation of Italy: Prime Minister Mario Draghi made the cut, with his tribute penned by no less a figure than U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Draghi drew high marks for his aggressive response to COVID-19 and his steady leadership of the Italian and European economies.
Two: The Vatican so far hasn’t commented publicly on the new “Aukus” alliance among the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and nobody even privately has demonstrated quite the pique of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who called it a “stab in the back.” On Friday, for the first time in the history of US/French relations, France recalled its ambassadors to both Washington and Canberra for consultations. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely Vatican diplomats look with unalloyed favor upon the prospects of a new Cold War between China and the world’s Anglo-Saxon powers.
To begin, let’s briefly unpack each point.
As far as Draghi goes, he’s easily the Italian leader with the highest international profile since Silvio Berlusconi, and for very different reasons. Celebrated for saving the Euro as head of the European Central Bank during the Eurozone crisis, Draghi was a consensus choice to take over from the embattled Giuseppe Conte in February, and polls six months later show he now enjoys almost 70 percent popular support. His unyielding insistence on expansion of Italy’s “Green Pass” requirements is seen as essential to turning the corner on COVID, and his economic leadership is projected to produce almost 6 percent growth for Italy in 2021 and a record low deficit under 10 percent of national output.
Not for nothing do his countrymen call Draghi “Super Mario,” in reference to the video game legend.
Surveying the European scene today, Germany’s Angela Merkel will be out of office by the end of the month while her party struggles in looming elections. Right now, many analysts believe the new power axis in Europe will run through Paris and Rome, meaning French President Emmanuel Macron and Draghi.
As a result, Draghi is perhaps the lone Italian Prime Minister of recent memory who can hold his own on the global stage with the pope, instead of coming off as a junior partner.
As for AUKUS – new military alliance between US UK and Australia – it seems to have the potential to fundamentally redefine the geopolitical game. Since the close of World War II, it was always “the West,” meaning North America, Europe and Australia together, against someone else, whether the Soviets during the Cold War or global jihadism post-9/11. Now it seems it may be the Anglo-Saxon powers v. China, with Europe either relegated to the sidelines or finding a new role for itself.
In that realignment, the Vatican is likely to be an advocate of a more assertive and independent Europe. At the origins of the NATO alliance in 1949, the Vatican had mixed feelings. An influential party led by Italian Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, who would go on to fame as a conservative champion during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, looked askance at Italy and Europe tethering its future to a pact led by Anglo-Saxon powers, regarding them, among other things, as historically non-Catholic and uninclined to respect for the papacy.
In the end, Pope Pius XII was persuaded that an Atlantic Alliance with Europe was better than the alternative, especially in the context of the communist threat. Nevertheless, that basic skepticism about Anglo-Saxon culture remains hardwired into the Vatican’s DNA, and, famously, it’s also shared by the current occupant of the papacy, albeit from a more Latin American frame of reference.
Vatican thinkers, especially those from traditionally Catholic cultures such as Italy and the Iberian peninsula, tend to see the Anglo-Saxon realm as dominated by a sort of Calvinistic Protestant psychology, forever seeing the world in terms of the elect and the reprobate rather than various shades of gray. They also know that a rejection of papal authority is part of the English genetic code.
Now for the food for thought.
Across Europe today, many strategists and analysts are talking about the need to construct a common European defense strategy, since it’s now on the outside looking in on the new Great Game of the 21st century between China and AUKUS. The Vatican has been pushing Europe to be less deferential to the US for some time — in 2003, for example, Vatican diplomats encouraged their European counterparts to push back against the Bush administration’s plans for the Iraq war.
Now the U.S. has reframed the terms of its strategic relationship with Europe unilaterally, and it was a liberal Democrat who did it, suggesting this won’t simply be a matter of waiting for the next administration in the White House to roll back the clock.
Such a jolt could provide Europe the impetus it needs to come together. Any such new European alliance likely would be premised on positioning itself as a bridge between China and the Aukus powers, promoting dialogue, conflict resolution and the reduction of tensions when they flare up – all objectives the Vatican heartily supports. It might also be more inclined than a U.S.-led NATO to blend social concerns with defense strategy, such as styling economic injustice as a legitimate security threat, a position the Vatican touts too.
If Europe is to get its act together it will require leadership, and, at the moment, Draghi may be uniquely positioned to supply it. That may create the possibility of a partnership over the next few months between the Vatican and the Palazzo Chigi, the residence of the Italian prime minister, with Draghi supplying the strategic vision and Francis the moral leadership to position Europe as a legitimate “third way” between the poles of the new Cold War.
Whether that happens depends on countless variables, and probably is a long shot. At a minimum, however, it seems fair to say that Italy’s political capital is rising at a moment when Europe’s future seems up for grabs, and, whatever may be said publicly, it’s improbable the Vatican simply will sit out the game of musical chairs now underway.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr