Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri

My first post in a month and a half (I'll explain later); Obama, the Vatican and Italy

President Obama has made a unilateral decision to place the American Embassy to the Vatican in the same building as that to Italy, excusing that with expenditure and security considerations. This is my comment on it, as a historian who knows a little about diplomacy and its conventions, and an Italian who knows a lot about Italy and Rome.

Right. To begin with, the diplomatic world is a very artificial world, and there are things you do and don't do according to its own code. The do-est of the do things is that any country or organization of importance gets an embassy. They don't have to be huge mansions – several embassies in several capitals occupy little more than a flat – but they have to stand on their own. And states are not the only thing you send ambassadors to. You have embassies to the UN and to various UN bodies, to international organizations such as Organization of American States, to NATO, and so on. You DO NOT have the same embassy in Brussels merely because you have one mission to NATO, one to the EU, and one to Belgium. That's expensive? Sad. If you are not disposed to spend a certain amount of effectively wasted money, you are only proving that you are not a first-rate presence on the international circuit and that you are not able to afford what such presences are. Diplomacy money is in good part display expenditure, but anyone who does not see that display of various kinds is utterly essential to status in foreign eyes (and that in diplomacy it is part of a fixed system that you simply don't have the power to rewrite, since it is shared by every other state and international organization) should not be in politics in the first place.

Now from the point of view of Washington DC, both embassies in Rome (there is a third, to FAO, of which nobody seems to be talking) are first-rate missions, for wholly different reasons. Italy is a major ally, with the third or fourth largest fleet in NATO, two aircraft carriers, over 120,000 men under arms, NATO and UN missions in various places, efficient and wide-reaching security and secret services, one of the world's top ten economies, a crossways of trade and industry, and a strategically dominant position in the Mediterranean. It is also visited and lived in by millions of Americans who need consular services every day of the week.

The Vatican, on the other hand, is by far the single most important trans-national body other than the UN and its various parts. In some ways it is more important. For one thing it has a far better information service than the USA or anyone. They have men in places where the CIA would not dare send a drone, and because of the nature of priestly work and the close relationship of priests with their bishops, they get to hear things fast. Have you noticed recently that a country called the Central African Republic has come to the attention of leading governments? I had been trying to get people to notice the civil war – or rather, the pseudo-civil war – in that country for about a year. Why? Because I follow the missionaries' information agency, Fides, and I knew that the country was being invaded by a bunch of thieving, murderous jihadis under the guise of a local revolt. And that's me, a private citizen. How many more interesting bits of information like that would a friendly government get from all those nice, unworldly celibates in the Vatican? But Obama has a problem with that, obviously. And he does not want the operational and political support that any American presence in any country could get if they were friendly with the local priests. Obama does not want to be in any kind of debt with the Church, because he has long since declared war on the Church over abortion. And from this point of view, it makes sense that the change was an entirely one-sided affair which the Vatican had to swallow, with no consultation, no previous warning, no courtesy of any sort. And courtesy is the soul of diplomacy.

On a purely local and operational grounds, the two embassy complexes have remarkably different aspects, that correspond remarkably well with their two very different missions. The American Embassy to Italy is in a former World War One military hospital on Via Vittorio Veneto, the famous shopping avenue, near Porta Pinciana; a major highway, densely trafficked, within walking distance of the Italian Confederation of Industry and of the Ministry for Defence (if not to the Italian Foreign Ministry, which is located in the eccentric and distant Farnesina), close to a couple of underground stations and comparatively easy of access to any American in need of help or any Italian in need of any of its services. On the other hand, the US Embassy to the Holy See is in Villa Damiana on the Aventine Hill: a super-luxurious residential neighbourhood made for old money and a few of the more discreet institutions, isolated from main roads (although well connected) and served by churches of incredible antiquity. The head office of the Knights of Malta (a theoretically independent state and the last redoubt of Europe's bluest blood) is not far. It is about as likely to be struck by a riot or invaded by terrorists as one of the more exclusive gated communities in the richer towns in America. And it seems to me rather evident that each of the two settings was chosen – by wiser judges than Obama – with their different role and use very much in mind, and that they confer on each a clear atmosphere that means that the workers of each would find themselves terribly ill at ease in the other. The Embassy to the Holy See is, as I said, in the most expensive, quietest and most secure neighbourhood in inner Rome, a place for soft contacts, fine manners, delicate suggestions and careful deliberation. The Embassy to Italy, a former military hospital, is a large building that towers over the bend of Via Vittorio Veneto, one of Rome's busiest and most luxurious highways, surrounded by hotels, businesses and splendid fashion shops, and constantly at work with American citizens and foreign visa seekers. To bring them together in the Via Veneto building is an act of brutality.

There is no organizational or practical advantage in the transfer, either. Neither location is at all near the Vatican. They are both on the eastern bank of the river, within the circle of the imperial walls, but they could not be much further from each other either. Anyway, physical closeness to the actual territory of the Vatican does not matter. Visit your own capital city; see where the embassies of the main powers are. I shall be very surprised if they are all next door to the White House or to Foggy Bottom. At any rate Roman distances are smaller than American ones, and a healthy man can walk both from Via Vittorio Veneto and from Villa Domiziana to the Vatican in an hour or two (and enjoy some of the world's finest sights along the way). And if we are talking security, the Villa Domiziana, surrounded by high walls and a garden, isolated in quiet residential streets where any intruder would be easy to spot, is considerably safer than the Vittorio Veneto building, open to anything that can come up one of the city's great highways (and there were, in fact, some security scares a few years back). Obama and his accomplices are simply falsifying fact, as is obvious to anyone who knows Rome.

To finish with, it is not just the Vatican that receives a savage and undeserved insult with this crass decision. In case nobody had noticed, Obama has implied that the streets of Rome are no safer than those of Benghazi. Thank you so much, Mr.President. You may not be aware of it, but one of the things that binds Italians together is pride that we have police, carabinieri and security forces loyal, brave and competent enough to have broken the Red Brigades and brushed back the Mafia at the price of many, many courageous dead. This is an insult to them.
Tags: american politics, barack obama, international relations, italy, rome, the catholic church, the papacy
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