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Think tanks and international affairs during the interwar period: Ispi (Institute for Studies in International Politics) between foreign policy and public opinion (1919-1943).

Giona, Federico (2016) Think tanks and international affairs during the interwar period: Ispi (Institute for Studies in International Politics) between foreign policy and public opinion (1919-1943). Advisor: Orsina, Prof. Giovanni. Coadvisor: Schulz-Forberg, Prof Hagen . pp. 165. [IMT PhD Thesis]

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The object of analysis of this dissertation is the historical analysis of the Institute for Studies in International Politics (Ispi), from its founding in Milan in 1933 until it was compulsory mothballed after September 8th 1943. In confronting Ispi, the attempt is to approach Italy’s international involvements during the interwar period from an unusual but meaningful standpoint. As a matter of fact, Ispi turns out to be a challenging as well as controversial subject of study. In fact, even if at first sight the Institute seemed to be nothing more than a propagandistic machine, to gain both domestic and external consensus to the policies of the fascist regime, a thorough analysis of Ispi highlights a more complex story to tell, which is deeply linked with the way in which the international environment was thought and structured in the aftermath of the First World War. The Institute is considered as a meeting point of two separate wider historical phenomena: the interwar European and Transatlantic debate on international relations, animated by a number of national institutions that where born in the 1920s and 1930s, Ispi among them; the intellectual history of Italy in the fascist period, in particular as regards conceptions related to politics, international relations and historiography. In this way, the dissertation tries to handle two different historiographies and methodologies: that of transnational history, necessary to map the debate on International Relations that took place in the interwar period both in its cultural and organizational features, and that of intellectual history. The two layers can’t be divided: the international background that “prepared” the birth of Ispi have to be seen together with the peculiar relationship between the Institute and the Fascist foreign policy. In other words, the main purpose of the research is to achieve a meaningful historical account more able to identify transfers and exchanges of ideas, without overlooking the national context: the attempt to define what is Ispi and why it was founded has to be accompanied with an in-depth understanding of the political environment in which it developed its activities. Ispi was founded in 1933 when fascism’s international position was reaching its peak: after all the fascist regime appeared to be a system of government able not only to stabilize a complex society after the First World War, but it also managed to shrug off the impact of the financial crisis from 1929 and the increase in unemployment of the early 1930s that market economies across the West experienced. For these reasons, Italy’s fascism was perceived as a viable solution and it seemed to promise answers to questions liberal democracies were still facing. Against this backdrop, the Institute was performing a twofold task: while it was supporting a solid and pregnant document-based scientific research on international affairs, it also pursued the precise pedagogical aim of forming a strong national conscience of foreign affairs, in accordance with the fundamental directives of Fascist foreign policy, in short «an Institute which marries science with propaganda». Pierfranco Gaslini, the first director of Ispi, strongly believed that Italy needed a body able to shape a new political culture which was the result of interests and political patterns linked to the liberal period, as well as with new aspirations and watchwords which saw the fascist regime as a reliable answer to satisfy them. The director was able to understand the qualitative changes which characterized the sphere of international relations after the first world war and, to some degree, he recognized the necessity of placing a filter between political decisions and the masses. Against this background, the creation and development of Institutes of International Affairs, nation-based think tanks with the twofold aim of providing national and international elites with qualitative works on international affairs as well as creating an “informed” public opinion, provided Gaslini with the push he needed to found a similar body in Italy. In short, on one hand the consensus created by Ispi in favor of the regime was clear; on the other hand it tried to manage a factual situation in which the realm of foreign policy was linked with a series of aspirations and forces which were more influential than in the past. Indeed, the latter represented a new and lively field of action shared by the various European nations: in this perspective the astonishing growth of the Institute of International Affairs’ movement in the 20s and 30s can be seen as an absolute necessity of various national establishments to guide or impose a top-down mechanism with the aim of controlling the flow of information to the general public, rather than the expression of a new internationalism. The majority of the members of Ispi and its collaborators shared a common political and ideological background with Mussolini’s aspirations, and it was equally clear that fascism was conceived as the driving force of Italian foreign policy. Against this background, it is clear, as I showed with the analysis of some articles drawn by the two journals of the Institute, that if on one hand it is plausible to place the start of an Italian tradition of foreign policy studies during the interwar period, on the other hand it is equally clear the intimate connection between the sphere of research and political aims. The fact that Ispi was thought as a centre of research which was dealing with international problems, in general, allowed to mix different perspectives and attitudes. This constitutes a crucial reason in order to understand why very different intellectual personalities and political figures met together in Ispi. Nevertheless, the fact that the Institute aimed at collecting all the most important specialists with an interest in international relations, it didn’t mean that Gaslini was able to impose a coherent and logical cultural project to his collaborators. As a matter of fact, there was a continuous compromise between the directives of the “centre” and the effective work of the scholars involved in this activity, as if this preliminary freedom guaranteed by the Institute had as a consequence a dispersion of forces and an inability to constitute a solid amalgam. Eventually, this work reveals how Italian specialists conceived public opinion, which was a new and important weapon to use in the field of international politics against other governments: a top-down construction which had the duty to control in every step the exchange of information and meanings from the realm of political decisions and events to an “informed” public. This doesn’t mean that Ispi, and the scholars who were working in it, was a passive instrument with a mere function of control and selection. The Institute, especially with the collaboration of the Roman School directed by Volpe, produced a series of historical works embracing various themes but basically focused on a new reflection of the Italian past functional to the political aspirations of their time. In this perspective, it can be said that there was a connection between this new wave of historical studies and the stimulus derived from the political environment. Members of Ispi as “cultural mediators” were trying to improve the sector of cultural international relations, supporting a specific idea of Italy which contributed to the formation of those cultural assumptions behind Italian foreign policy during the interwar period. In this perspective, Ispi constitutes an institutional framework from which to investigate some of the most important specialists in international relations and their attempts to develop their works and analysis in constant relationship with the Institute and the political context. Given all this astonishing variety of studies, actors and themes that one can find in the history of Ispi during the 30s and early 40s, I argue that the Institute represents a meaningful vantage point from which to comprehend on one hand the weaknesses, the limits and ingenuity of a particular class of intellectuals and experts in international relations and their degree of support for the foreign policy of the fascist regime; on the other hand the effort to help the Italian nation to overcome structural defects and deficiencies which the Italian state had not been able to remove is undeniable. In accomplishing this “mission”, indeed with different accents and motivations, all members of Ispi shared the belief that Italy had to become a great power and, in their Eurocentric view, they considered the world of international relations as a hierarchical environment in which the strongest nations had to come to terms with each other in order to create a harmonic system with different hegemonic spheres of influence. In this perspective what was the relationship between the effective policies of the fascist regime and the reflections made by the members of Ispi? First of all, it is necessary to identify a fault line that sits above the Italian military action against Ethiopia in 1935-36. The Ethiopian war represented a “before and after” for the activities of the Institute: if before the invasion of the North African state Ispi, as I reported through the examination of the journals «Rassegna di Politica Internazionale» and «Relazioni Internazionali», was trying to act as a real transnational think tank, involving a wide range of different non-state actors, once Italy had its own empire the ever-increasing activities of the Institute suffered a loss of dynamicity and maneuvering space. As a matter of fact, in the first phase of the Institute (1933-1935), Ispi tried to pursue a multidirectional cultural diplomacy hosting key personalities from the political and cultural world. It tried to create contacts especially with the British conservative establishment (through the figures of Muriel Currey, Luigi Villari, Charles Petrie) and the Hungarian revisionist front as well as weaving links with analogous foreign institutions. After the Ethiopian war, the activism which characterized Italy in the former period in almost every international fora as well as its willingness to see its “rights” recognized within the international system built in Versailles, gave way to an increasingly imperialistic conception of the international environment, as though the colonial enterprise had rekindled the aspirations and latent desires of the Italian nation. the Ethiopian war had resulted in the political and cultural isolation of Italy, making scorched earth of that prestige internationally reached till then. These factors heavily affected Ispi’s activities and the previous attempts to create transnational diplomatic channels with foreign intellectual and political figures. Consequently, there was a transformation of Ispi which followed the changes of the international situation after the Ethiopian war, from a “transnational think tank” to an institute more concerned with research and divulgation of works related to foreign/international politics, with the desire of developing a political culture on foreign affairs within the national boundaries. On the other hand Gaslini tried to keep alive the Study Office and a peculiar way of doing research which gave priority to a vast use of documents and a taste for inter-disciplinarity. Ispi was trying to produce an innovative cultural project capable of linking historiography and politics, a study of an “imagined” national past with an in-depth analysis of the international context. The aim was to provide Italy with a more solid political culture in order to help the government both meet the requirements of being a Great Power, and fulfilling what was thought to be an Italian imperial mission. The ambiguous position occupied by Ispi during the fascist regime as well as the contradiction that was revealed at the beginning of this research, which was a claim for the unity of scientific research and propaganda made by Gaslini, can be understood in the relationship that the Milanese Institute established with the liberal Italian past. Ispi didn’t want to make a decisive break with the past, in fact it presented itself as an instrument to achieve that national unity which couldn’t be reached in Italy before the First World War: a sort of sacred mission which could have been reached walking arm in arm with the fascist regime. On the other hand there was a break to the extent that parlamentarism was considered as a bad disease, and a new sense of hierarchy and order emerged which couldn’t be challenged by “individualism” and more in general by all those “vicious” principles which were considered as an attack against the State and the Nation. Against this backdrop Ispi developed a sui generis political and historiographical laboratory that saw the collaboration of a large number of scholars, who differed from each other as regards political and cultural interests, but they participated in the initiatives of the Institute specifically because its cultural projects were able to rely upon a broader basis in respect of the most pressing political aims of the fascist regime. This is why, at least until a certain point, the members of Ispi and its collaborators didn’t feel that particular contradiction between a serious and autonomous study of international/foreign politics and a dictatorial environment which, at the beginning, was not so assertive in shaping a coherent and unidirectional foreign policy. Indeed, its history was heavily affected by the fascist regime, and in a broader perspective it assumed a specific physiognomy as well as a peculiar position at the crossroad of political, cultural and propagandistic national concerns. Nevertheless, these specific features didn’t confine Ispi to an isolated environment with no contacts or exchanges with foreign institutes or personalities. Suffice it is to say that the very idea of founding a series of Institutes of International Affairs capable of studying and disseminating a more scientific knowledge regarding foreign matters was born out of the Peace Conference of Versailles by some Anglo-American representatives; that almost all the members of Ispi went abroad to complete their education; that Ispi was one of the Institutes which participated at the annual International Studies Conference, whose original name was International Conference of Institutions for Scientific Study of Politics. This is why I think that this research has made it possible both to find new materials in order to better understand the relationship between culture and politics during the fascist regime, and more specifically to investigate what were the themes, aspirations and interests of Ispi’s members and the political directives of the dictatorship, as well as to start a reflection about the development of the Institutes of International Affairs. Investigating both how they treated and exploited international information and what kind of relationship they had with their governments allows to better understand the nexus between international politics, foreign policy and public opinion and how it was changing during the interwar period.

Item Type: IMT PhD Thesis
Subjects: J Political Science > JA Political science (General)
PhD Course: Political History
Identification Number: 10.6092/imtlucca/e-theses/194
Date Deposited: 02 Aug 2016 09:33
URI: http://e-theses.imtlucca.it/id/eprint/194

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