Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi won a big victory this weekend. He threw support behind Sergio Mattarella as candidate to replace Giorgio Napolitano as President of the Italian Republic and Mattarella managed to win almost two-thirds of the votes of the Italian electoral college in the fourth round of balloting. This means that Renzi was able not only to hold together his fractious Democratic Party but also to split Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia on the Center Right and to show the growing irrelevance of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in national politics. Mattarella becomes President and Renzi is much strengthened as a consequence.
This result was not a foregone conclusion. Things could have ended differently. The Democratic Party could have split, Renzi’s center-right coalition partners could have refused to support Mattarella for President, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia could have held together in the electoral college and then turned on Renzi’s institutional reform agenda, or Grillo’s Five Star Movement could have tried to create chaos in the whole proceedings by introducing a Democratic Party grandee like Romano Prodi or Pier Luigi Bersani. Renzi had to negotiate skillfully to avoid most of these obstacles; he had to be lucky to avoid the rest. Hence the take-away for most Italians is that Renzi has a good mix of cunning and bravery — the Italian word is ‘furbizia’ — to carry the day.
Renzi also has the advantages of knowing his adversaries. That advantage comes from frequent contact and close (if not intimate) familiarity. He can afford to run negotiations aggressively and close to the line because he has a clear sense of where people’s interests and loyalties lie, and of how they will respond emotionally. Moreover, he has the kind of skill set for reading and calculating these variables that is the legacy of decades of Christian Democratic hegemony. When one party dominates politics, you survive by navigating shifting currents and manipulating strong personalities. Those were the skills that Renzi put on display. They are also the skills that Renzi admires in Mattarella — himself a seasoned Christian Democrat — as a President of Italy.
These peculiarities of Renzi’s recent victory in the hard bargaining over the Italian Presidency are worth underscoring because they are almost entirely absent in the two big negotiations that are currently underway in Europe — between Greece and its creditors and between Russia and the West. None of the parties to either of those conflicts has any of the intimate familiarity that Renzi shared with Berlusconi, Grillo, or the many other named participants that any reader of Italian newspapers would have to recognize to follow the story from one day to the next. There are principals in the negotiations whose names and faces will be familiar from intelligence briefings, newspaper articles, and television clips. The principals from either side of the negotiations may have even met each other once or twice for a conversation filtered through interpreters or conducted in a third language. But this is hardly the same as being part of different and overlapping networks that all go to the same mass.
This distinction is worth underscoring because it helps to explain why international negotiators appear so much less in control of their craft and why furbizia in these negotiations is more of a liability than an asset. The simple fact is that German political leaders have little or no idea how the newly elected Greek coalition will respond to implicit or explicit threats — any more than they know how to interpret the confusing messages that are coming out of the Greek cabinet, with Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis claiming that Greek will no longer work with the ‘Troika’ of macroeconomic policy monitors drawn from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission (EC), and the European Central Bank (ECB), while Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras claims his government will repay its debt to the ECB and the IMF. The same logic applies in reverse as well. Tsipras and Varoufakis do not know much about what motivates specific German policymakers and politicians. They can speculate in general terms using rules of thumb distilled from personal experience and political science. But they are really only guessing when they look for which buttons to press. And this assumes the Greeks only need to negotiate with the Germans — while they actually need to take a host of other actors into consideration, starting with the leadership of the main international (or supranational) organizations and ending with the Slovaks, Spaniards and Finns.
The situation between Russia and the West is only slightly different. Most Western political leaders have put a lot of effort into studying Putin in the fifteen years or so that he has been on the scene. That may be to their advantage. Then again, it may not. Putin has changed in many ways almost as quickly as they have come to know him — and so has his regime. On top of that, any Western leaders have to keep track of changes in the loose coalition called the ‘West’. This was clearly on display when the new Greek government balked initially at calls to extend the sanctions on Russia but, only slightly more beneath the surface, it is an enduring feature across the many deliberations among Europe’s heads of state and government over how best to respond to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It is not clear whether Putin is skillful in manipulating divisions among the Western allies are the divisions are so large that even Putin can manipulate them. What matters is that any bargaining between Russia and the West is rife with potential for misunderstanding and miscalculation.
Ideally, the negotiations between Greece and its creditors and between Russia and the West could unfold gradually so that the different principals could learn more about one-another and so avoid making unnecessary mistakes. Alas, that is not going to happen. The Greek negotiations are constrained by the need to roll-over the country’s national debt and maintain the solvency of its banking system; the Russian negotiations are constrained by the collapsing Russian economy and the intensifying violence in Ukraine. These are not situations were we should expect a masterstroke of diplomacy from a cunning strategist like Matteo Renzi. They are also not situations where we should expect bluff and bluster to win the day. Instead they are situations were mistakes are both likely and costly, where patience is only rewarded through reference to what might have happened otherwise, and where the outcome is always going to be messier than Mattarella’s election as President of the Italian Republic might suggest.Follow @Erik_Jones_SAIS