During the rainy summer of 1816, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed in a villa on Lake Geneva with John William Polidori. They were all guests of Lord Byron, who, to pass the time during a period of inclement weather, challenged his friends to write the best horror story. From this forced captivity and literary challenge were born immortal works such as Frankenstein and The Vampyre.
Similarly, the essays of Contagio Rosso (“Red Contagion”) originate during a period of forced captivity — a consequence of the Coronavirus and the lockdown in Italy — and similarly probe a dark subject matter: that of an Italy that gazes at itself in the hypnotic mirror of Xi Jinping.
A metaphorical ostrich with ‘its head in the sand,’ Italy has adopted a feeble façade of neutralism. In the context of the ‘red hot’ struggle for global supremacy between Beijing and Washington, this would appear to signal the defeat of the ‘Atlantic Alliance’ — or perhaps the lack of it. The recent report from the 2020 Munich Security Conference included distressing polling results: in a conflict between the U.S. and China, 63% of Italians said they would opt for “neutrality”; 10% said they “do not know” who they would choose; only 20% sided with the U.S.; and 7% — the highest figure among the eight European countries surveyed — would side with China.
With the Coronavirus emergency, this ‘Eurasian trend’ in Italy has become more and more accentuated. And there is a marked preference for Beijing. Surveys conducted by SWG in London similarly show that Italians prefer China to the U.S. and that they support an Italian foreign policy based on a ‘Grillian model’ [after Beppe Grillo, co-founder of Italy’s Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) political party].
Alessandro Di Battista, the epitome of a ‘Grillian ideologue,’ has even gloated over Luigi Di Maio’s pro-China foreign policy, saying that Italy’s close ties to Beijing will certainly give Italy more influence within the European Union. “China will win the Third World War without firing a shot,” Di Battista has said, “and Italy can put this relationship on the European bargaining table.”
In reality, this is not really the case. The polls show that a shift towards Beijing goes hand in hand with total disenchantment with the European institutions, and the ‘enemization’ of France and Germany. Italians, in short, have lost their heads over their new ‘Chinese demi-god.’ And, in addition to Washington, they are also removing Brussels, Paris, and Berlin from their former pantheon.
Once again, the famous aphorism of Winston Churchill about the incurable Italian tendency to change horses in mid-race is coloured with substance: “Bizarre people the Italians. One day 45 million fascists. The next day 45 million between anti-fascists and partisans. Yet these 90 million Italians do not appear from the census.” It must be said — in partial exoneration of the Italians — that if Chinese propaganda in Italy has taken root much more than elsewhere, it is because Italy’s political and institutional leaders have tended to parrot Beijing’s narrative, thereby validating it and ensuring that it appears in the media without interruption.
On the psychiatric bed provided by Contagio Rosso, the various ‘tics’ and insecurities of Rome’s political elites are revealed one by one, as they struggle with a whirling global geopolitical map. In the essays collected in this book are bold strategic forecasts (which see a triumphant China and a declining Pax Americana) but also treatments of Italy’s ‘cultural complexes’ (anti-Westernism, self-hatred) and age-old subjugations (i.e. subordination to the Vatican, which is now pro-Chinese and anti-U.S.).
The book also points to the conviction that Italy is a fundamental piece in Xi’s global mosaic. Elongated as it is in the centre of the Mediterranean, contained by the Alpine range to the North, and forced to look out over the horizons of the near East and far West, Rome has deluded itself into thinking that the country can be a sort of ‘hinge’ between the Eurasian and Afro-Chinese vectors. The collapse of Baathist power structures in the region of Mesopotamia (Iraq) and the Levant (Syria) has opened up new spaces and created new strategic opportunities for Beijing and its authoritarian partners (such as Iran and Russia). Together they aim to turn the Mediterranean into a sort of Eurasian lake, as Beijing increasingly takes control over key trade hubs from Malacca to Suez.
Italy’s infatuation with Xi, according to Anglo-American strategists, cannot be tolerated. In fact, Xi’s thinking embodies geopolitical thinker Halford Mackinder’s darkest nightmare — that of a “World-Island” that welds Eurasia and Africa. Lest anyone in Rome is under the illusion that their embrace of Beijing is a ‘power multiplier,’ the facts say the exact opposite: in the Balkans, the Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa — three traditional ‘priority areas’ for Italy’s projection of influence — China has proven to be an implacable rival, capturing valuable ground from Italy.
We need to regain our place alongside the U.S. as soon as possible — and contribute to an integrated, progressively inclusive market between democracies, starting with the core G7 as the basis for political, military, and monetary policy, as well as common industrial and legal standards. Contagio Rosso conveys a message that is not only an unsparing condemnation of Rome’s rather adolescent discomfort at being part of the West; it also offers a confident vision of a global Pax Democratica — the only real antidote to the growing assertiveness of China and its authoritarian club. ◼︎