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Domino effect of a fallen government in Italy

Italy's then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at Palazzo Chigi

Italy's then-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at Palazzo Chigi on June 1, 2018 in Rome, Italy. Credit: Elisabetta Villa

Europe is on everyone’s mind. As the U.S. Federal Reserve holds its conference, and the G-7 prepares to meet, America’s economy is tied to news from the other side of the Atlantic and the news is rocky.

The resignation this week of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte serves as a warning to Europe and the United States about the limits — and potential — of extremist populism around the world. If that sounds confusing and schizophrenic, it is.

Although Italian politics always seems rocky, the past year has been particularly destabilizing as a coalition emerged that has defined Italy as having the most nationalistic, populist and anti-immigration system in modern-day Europe. The coalition includes the parties of Conte and hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the ardently anti-migrant League party.

For a brief moment this week, it looked as if there might be a coalition of the willing, but in stepping down Conte also issued a warning to politicians on the right that they have gone too far. That, of course, remains to be seen as new elections are called to determine the outcome. Sound familiar?

You don’t need to understand Italian politics to know that it is a microcosm for what is happening around the world. In short, we are at a moment of inflection in global politics as nationalism and authoritarianism either win the day or fall victim to overreach.

Europe is reeling from the tugs and pulls of nationalistic politics with the change in power in the United Kingdom to a more populist leader, and the May 2019 resignation of Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who was forced to step down after reports surfaced of secret meetings that included a Russian oligarch and references to “strategic collaborations” between Moscow and Vienna.

Many of these political dramas seem to have Russia in the background. Which brings us to the United States and our own nationalistic, anti-immigration president, Donald Trump. Can Trump survive another election in 2020? Are anti-immigration and nationalist views truly “popular”?

We are living with a new version of the old Cold War ideological battle although this one might have Moscow on the side of some in the West who despise communism but seem to have an affinity for strongmen. The masses will have to decide whether they like the road we are on.

Keep an eye on Italy, which today is in the center of a global storm over hearts and minds. Where that leads us may inform us about the future of this great ideological struggle. 

Tara D. Sonenshine, a former U.S. undersecretary of state, advises students at The George Washington University.

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