The coronavirus epidemic ranks alongside the rise of terrorism in the 1970s as the worst tragedy that the Italian Republic has ever had to face. In their effort to overcome these tragedies, the Italian people have shown courage, a commendable spirit of sacrifice, and a sense of discipline. The country’s institutions and society have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of very difficult circumstances.
We are not at war. We are, however, fighting a low-intensity conflict against an enemy that has invaded our territory. It is difficult to see, difficult to trace, highly mobile, adaptable, resilient. The long-term post-coronavirus scenarios are very uncertain. Recovery will not be V-shaped or U-shaped, but will instead be better described as a W or, worst, a sine curve, marked by progress and setbacks, ups and downs, great optimism punctuated by moments of great discouragement.
The rules and practices that have been in place for two months now have forced all of us into self-isolation. They have also led to a de facto criminalisation of sociality, calling into question our relationship with ‘others’ as potential untori (plague-spreaders) at all levels – local, national, international – and our deeply held principles of solidarity and community outside the household.
This has eroded a fundamental part of the social capital that defines a community, including the international community. The damage caused by the virus transcends our individual and local horizons, and extends to the national and international level to include the social capital and mutual trust that is (or should be) the backbone of the international order.
Covid-19 is a caste virus, both collectively and individually. The impact of the virus and the necessary measures to contain it have very different impacts depending on the overall resilience of each country and the solidity of the collective and individual economic landscape. In fact, it is an accelerator of socio-economic inequalities and tensions within and between states.
The virus has opened a window on the future, forcing us to question the sustainability of current growth and development models, as well as the factors that could further weaken the fabric of cooperation that underlies the international post-cold war system. Amplification of anti-globalisation and protectionist rhetoric, upsurges in self-referential and autarchic instincts, questioning of interdependence and value chains, and the growing appeal of authoritarianism, with which greater efficiency and decision-making capacity have been incorrectly but successfully linked, are all rising threats in the wake of the virus.
The essence of foreign policy is the relationship with the ‘other’: the ally; the foe; the friend; the enemy
As a matter of fact we were already in the “interregnum” described by Gramsci as key for the transition from the old dying world to the new one. The coronavirus crisis has accelerated this, but the foundations, principles, and rules of the new order are yet to be created.
For these and many other reasons, the need for a reflection on the relationship between ethics and foreign policy has become extremely urgent.
The war of narratives that we are witnessing today and that will dominate the long aftermath of the crisis has an internal as well as an external dimension, and they are intimately connected. Now is the moment to reflect on the vision of the future in the post-covid world: will this be an opportunity to build a more just, resilient, and sustainable world, or will we move in the opposite direction?
There is little doubt that the extreme forms of nationalism and isolationism that have pervaded public discourse and foreign policy in recent years will become even stronger and more vocal. The volatility of the political framework, socio-economic tensions, human emotions, a rising sense of fear and insecurity among the public, the opportunism of some elites, all offer fertile soil for these to take root in.
The war against ‘sovereigntism’ must be fought on its own battlefield by affirming an alternative vision of national identity. This must be one that is not rooted in nineteenth or, worse, twentieth-century national ideologies, but in history especially of the age of the catastrophe (1914-1945); in norms and institutions; in democratic processes; in the awareness of the contributions made by all elements of society in defining that identity; and in the geographical dimension on which the great flows of ideas, people, goods, and capital that define and redefine a nation over time depend.
The essence of foreign policy is the relationship with the ‘other’: the ally; the foe; the friend; the enemy. And it is through interaction and interdependence with the other that national identity is built and altered over time. One of the fundamental differences between authoritarian systems and democracies lies precisely in the historical and juridical roots of the process of formation of a national identity, which must constantly evolve to account for all parts of society.
“We thought we would stay healthy in a world that was sick,” Pope Francis declared in his benediction on 27 March, spoken to an empty St Peter’s Square and transmitted to the world on the internet. It was an admonishment of us all, especially addressed to decision-makers and foreign policy players. And it was a reminder of the need for what has come to be known as the covid catharsis: the cathartic effect that the crisis could have in relaunching global governance and fostering the construction of a new international order built on new, fairer, more sustainable, and cooperative foundations.
But it is a long and tortuous road ahead.
Early in the new millennium, a great Italian diplomat, Roberto Toscano, pondering the compatibility of ethics and diplomacy, drafted a set of foreign policy priorities based on ethical criteria. Uncannily prescient for the situation we face today, it should remind us now of the principles of genuine equality, with strong integration of political and socio-economic rights, and complete rejection of any trade-off between security, democracy, the rule of law, and the right to health, work, and education.
Today we might update this “Toscano checklist” for an ethical foreign policy for the post-covid world. The way forward is the way of greater emphasis on strengthening socio-economic resilience, reducing inequalities, increasing sustainability, stepping up the fight against climate change, and protecting the most vulnerable areas of the planet and the most defenceless sections of the world’s population.
This reasoning may seem counterintuitive in the midst of an emergency scenario, where widespread insecurity might be expected to feed the worst instincts in public opinion and the elites, driving a push towards isolationism and other illiberal impulses, ultimately leading us to embrace a particularistic and parochial perspective on the “national interest”.
But we will soon be required to make a choice between two opposing visions of the future and to identify foreign policy priorities accordingly. Each vision will appeal strongly to our identity and our roots, real or imagined. But at this decision point, the only option for Italy (and for the European Union) is to affirm its national and European identity. Now is the time to affirm the values that are engrained in our historical and civic heritage and our democratic system, which enshrines the dignity of all human beings and the principles of solidarity and substantive equality.
Armando Barucco is director of the Policy Planning Unit of Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. Views and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the official position of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.