Will Italy Renew the Triple Alliance?

NOTWITHSTANDING the fact that the Triple Alliance is a secret convention, the text of which is known only to the chiefs of the official world in Rome, Vienna, and Berlin, the key to its various clauses is possessed to-day by most European governments. Moreover, during the eighteen years of its existence, statesmen and politicians have more or less successfully discounted its connection with international politics and the balance of power both in continental Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Nevertheless, it has never ceased to exert a potential restraint over European political ambitions and international combinations.

The object of this study is, as its title implies, the examination, from the Italian point of view, of the past achievements and possible eventual benefits of this much-discussed convention.

Within a year Italy will be called upon to decide between the renewal of the treaty and its denunciation twelve months later (1903). Will her statesmen, in view of altered political and commercial conditions at home and abroad, again subscribe to the convention ? And should Italy decide on the severance of the ties now binding her to the two great Teutonic powers, would such action necessarily be detrimental to her political, commercial, and financial interests ?

Signor Zanardelli, the present Premier, recently stated that the weights which are to decide Italy’s course are not yet in the scales. These words would seem to imply that the considerations which evoked the pact of 1882, and prompted its renewal in 1892, either no longer exist, or are likely to be so altered in the immediate future as to necessitate a recasting of fundamental principles or the abandonment of the Agreement. In truth, the interests of at least one of the parties concerned have undergone radical alteration. The psychology of Italian home politics, as well as existing foreign relations, reveals in a measure the pressure which will be brought to bear upon King Victor Emmanuel’s ministers next year. Yet without attempting a forecast of the probable action of Italian statesmen a twelvemonth hence, we shall be able to obtain a tolerably clear perception of the motive forces if we glance rapidly at the peculiar circum stances which called the treaty into being, on May 20,1882, and led to its subsequent renewal.

No ties of race, no considerable commercial interests, bound Italy to the Teutonic peoples. One of the contracting parties had been Italy’s hereditary foe, the bitterest opponent of her national unity, and, moreover, still held in bondage districts geographically and ethnologically claimed as intrinsic portions of the Latin kingdom. With Germany (more especially Prussia) there had long existed, it is true, a vague traditional friendship, which, however, at that moment (1881-82) was seriously strained by Bismarck’s equivocal diplomacy in connection with the ambitions of the Vatican, — a policy which even after the conclusion of the treaty continued to give umbrage to Italians.

The action of France in Tunis, resulting in the signature of the Bardo treaty on May 12, 1881, came to Italy as a bolt from the blue. Panic seized upon Italian politicians as the realization of the political isolation of their country was thus rudely impressed upon them. It is now known that Bismarck encouraged France in the execution of her Tunisian policy, hoping to divert inconvenient ambitions for the reconquest of Alsace and Lorraine, and at the same time effectually detach Italy from any latent sympathetic leaning toward her ally of 1859. Napoleon III. had lost no opportunity of meddling in Italian affairs, and although the services rendered were undeniable, the subsequent action of the Emperor in maintaining his troops in Rome, in spite of repeated promises of speedy evacuation, had gone far to efface all sense of gratitude or obligation. On the other hand, that Italy should avail herself of her neighbor’s bitter humiliations in 1870 had wounded alike the national and religious susceptibilities of Frenchmen. During the ten years following the transfer of the capital from Florence to the Eternal City, France had seized upon every occasion to intimate very clearly that the temporal independence of the papacy was still an unsolved problem, and, moreover, one which might at any moment require readjustment at the hands of Catholic Europe.

Harassed by the consciousness of general insecurity, Italians saw in the French occupation of Tunis not only the usurpation of what had been tacitly considered their legitimate sphere of influence in Africa, but a military menace to the neighboring shores of Sicily and Sardinia. Strategically France had scored a distinct advantage, and economically the loss to Italy might be computed not inconsiderable. From the point of view of diplomacy, also, Italy had been worsted, her international prestige impaired, and her statesmen and diplomatists made fools of. Yet, sore and disgruntled as Italians might feel over the moral humiliation they had been subjected to, there existed a general reluctance toward any step which must inevitably jeopardize the tangible advantages gleaned from the existing commercial relations with France. Public — or, more correctly speaking, official — opinion was greatly inflamed ; the feeling of exasperation being intensified by the knowledge that Italy was practically helpless to avenge the encroachment on alleged time-honored privileges, or avert the destruction of — perhaps vague, yet possible — colonial ambitions at her very gates.

While fully realizing Italy’s inability to maintain, without alliances, her prestige in the family of Great Powers she had so recently been admitted to, her statesmen, notwithstanding the gravity of the present crisis, still hesitated to sacrifice the traditional though vague and unsubstantial bonds uniting the Latin cousins. Nor was Prince Bismarck’s attitude calculated to lessen their anxiety. With consummate diplomatic skill the German Chancellor played a double game, and when approached contrived to give subsequent negotiations the appearance of having been spontaneously initiated by Italy.

According to the obligations laid upon the contracting parties, not only the terms of the treaty were to remain secret, but the very existence of the convention was to be concealed. It is difficult to appreciate, under these circumstances, the principle which prompted both Bismarck and Mancini, the Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs, officially to hint at the existence of an understanding within a few weeks of the exchange of ratifications. Nevertheless, in spite of current rumors, the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, M. Challemel-Lacour, replying in the Chamber to an interpellation of the Due de Broglie, admitted, as late as May 1, 1883, that he knew of nothing more definite than a rapprochement between the Italian Cabinet and those of Vienna and Berlin. And he further stated that he used the term rapprochement advisedly, because it was more “ vague,” and excluded the idea of a convention, or treaty, of formal alliance implying territorial guarantees.

Yet, while appreciating the dangers of isolation, and admitting the efficacy of the Alliance as a potent factor in the preservation of the political statu quo, there were not lacking in Italy thinking men who still doubted the wisdom of the step, and mistrusted its effect on the jealously guarded democratic institutions of the kingdom. They argued that the alliance with the great military empires beyond the Alps must inevitably exert an influence on internal politics, and expressed doubts lest such influence prove of an ultra-conservative or reactionary character. In their opinion, France was not only the representative of the great liberal principles of 1889, but was also, economically, Italy’s natural ally. They held that France could still, as in the past, lend efficacious aid in the evolution of financial reforms and the reestablishment of the national currency on a firm and stable basis, a problem at that moment of vital import. Once the treaty divulged, they reasoned, the hostility and opposition of France must be reckoned with in all issues, political, financial, and commercial. If the Alliance was popular in Germany, for the very obvious reason that Germany desired peace in order to preserve what she had acquired, it must, on the contrary, be most distasteful to France, who still desired an opportunity to recover what she had lost. For this reason, if for no other, the course adopted by Italy was interpreted for many years as an act of overt hostility toward her Latin sister, and as such bitterly resented in the press, while tingeing official relations with a frigid constraint little short of enmity.

That the Dreibund has been instrumental in preserving peace few will question. During the last eighteen years the knowledge of its existence has constrained the adoption of the “ sober second thought ” in moments of international irritation. Political meteorologists, parliamentary buccaneers, socialistic agitators, and popular demagogues have alike bowed before its hidden yet dreaded might.

Has the Alliance really outlived its usefulness, as so many affirm ?

The original political significance, as viewed from the international standpoint, has undoubtedly been completely transformed. The restoration of the temporal power is now a chimera, utterly beyond the range of practical politics, although still an annoyance confronting parliamentary and local elections in Italy. The occupation of Tunis has been accepted as an accomplished fact, the permanency of which is unquestioned. But if politically Italy has perhaps little to expect from her Teutonic allies, commercially her stake is still considerable.

Public opinion in Italy, as well as abroad, accuses the Triplice of imposing military obligations totally beyond the meagre financial resources of the Latin* partner. The peninsula has to - day a population of thirty-two millions. Military service is compulsory, as it is in France, Germany, Austria, and most other European countries. The standing army is larger than many of her most eminent statesmen and economists consider advisable ; and in proportion to her revenues, the four hundred and fifty million lire spent (1898-99) on her military and naval defenses constitute, at first sight, an enormous item. But the expenditure, if disproportionate, is not in itself a crushing financial burden, or a totally unproductive one.1 Moreover, it would be erroneous to presume that the abrogation of the Triplice would entail a diminution of military and naval expenditure. We have been repeatedly assured, by those in a position to know, that no explicit military obligations are laid upon Italy by her allies. If this be true, the alleged disproportionate allotment of the national financial resources would appear to be dictated by internal rather than by foreign political considerations.

The political history of the last decade and the actual composition of the Italian Chamber effectually refute the theory, held by the original opponents to the treaty, of a threatened tendency toward reactionary conservatism. A Germanizing influence has undoubtedly resulted, but is to be found in commercial and financial centres alone, and is quite without political significance, while even the court sympathies of the last reign are believed to be on the wane.

That the Triple Alliance has outlived its political usefulness recent European coalitions would seem to attest; but that its commercial possibilities have been exhausted is still a much-debated question.

Count Robilant, Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs, in 1886 qualified the Triplice “ an unfruitful alliance,” asserting that the perils which had driven Italy to ally herself with the two central empires had even then ceased to exist. Certainly the renewal of the Alliance would have been impossible in 1892, had not the Marquis di Rudini succeeded in grafting upon the political pact economic innovations of considerable value. To him is due the insertion of a clause which, it is claimed, not only conceded to Italy the position of the most favored nation, but promised all such economic concessions as can be reciprocally accorded. The tariffs in favor of Italian wines are the outcome of this agreement.

The alterations in the original scope of the treaty, effected in 1892, while they weakened its purely political significance, undoubtedly strengthened substantially bonds of a more tangible nature. In 1891 the exports and imports of Italy amounted to 2,003,384,738 lire, a sum which had steadily increased to 30,375,817,115 lire in 1900.2 Exactly how far this is due to the aid and support of German financial institutions it is difficult to affirm, but none can question that the enormous industrial development of the north has been largely fostered by the influx of German capital, and the concessions granted by her Teutonic allies. There are those who assert, however, that the high-water mark of industrial prosperity under existing tariffs has been reached, and that a large percentage of Italian manufacturers would prefer a more protective system, which would curtail the activity of their German competitors, whose goods are beginning to flood the Italian market, at prices with which even Italian labor is powerless to compete.

The difficulty with which Italian statesmen will have to contend, in entering upon negotiations for the renewal of the Alliance, is the feasibility of reconciling the industrial with the agricultural interests of their country; for, as has been seen, the ground has shifted from the political to the commercial. Italy is essentially an agricultural nation. Numerically, the class which derives its living from the soil vastly exceeds the scattered industrial populations of the south and centre, while even in the north the manufacturing interests are comparatively insignificant, from a political as well as an economic standpoint.

Prince Herbert Bismarck, addressing his constituents at Burg a few weeks ago, voiced the sentiments of a very large body of German Agrarians when he urged the necessity for protective duties. The adoption of such measures, even to a limited extent, must necessarily add to the agricultural distress now prevailing throughout Italy, and greatly influence political considerations. France needs the wines of the Puglie ; Austria does not, nor can they find a sale in Germany.

The recent disturbances in the Puglie and Basilicata, and the disorders last spring in rural Piedmont, have impressed upon politicians of all shades of opinion the urgent necessity for legislation which can promise some measure of relief to the burdened populations whose very existence depends on their finding a market for their produce. That such relief can be obtained only at the partial sacrifice of industrial interests would, alas, seem inevitable. Any rebate on rural taxation must be compensated for by a corresponding increase on the valuation of other property ; for the exigencies of the budget are inexorable, and the financial equilibrium so recently achieved must be maintained at all costs, while Italy, her political economists tell us, has reached the limit of her fiscal tether.

But there is yet another aspect to be considered. The road from Rome to Berlin no longer passes through Vienna, as Bismarck asserted in 1882 that it must. Aside from financial and commercial relations, the purely political bonds uniting Italy and Germany are stronger than those between Italy and Austria. Politically, Italy may have much to gain from the attitude of Germany on issues which may at any moment be forced upon the consideration of Europe, namely, the political readjustment of the eastern shore of the Adriatic and the coast and hinterland of Tripoli. From Austria she can expect nothing, and has much to fear. Already the aggressive policy fostered by the Viennese Cabinet in its dealings with the populations of the eastern Adriatic seaboard, and the alleged strategical nature of the work actively carried on there, as well as the commercial development of the hinterland, have excited discussion in the Italian Parliament, and stirred the official and popular press throughout the peninsula. If we are to credit the recent warnings of two French writers, MM. Ch^radame and Loiseau, who have made the subject one of special study, the propaganda (political and commercial) carried on in Dalmatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Albania, and even in Montenegro is calculated not only to destroy, at no distant date, Italian commercial activity, but seriously to menace her strategical situation in the Adriatic.

Given these motives for mistrust, together with the apparently trivial yet significant fact that the relief offered by the Austrian market to the congested wine industries of the Italian Adriatic provinces has not responded of recent years to the expectations based thereon, and it will be understood why Italians are already asking themselves if a more advantageous political and commercial combination is not within their rights. They urge the consideration of such significant details as the growing might of democratic principles, and their inevitable influence in fiscal reform, and point, incidentally, to the spontaneous character of the Toulon fetes last autumn, to the satisfactory quotations of Italian Rentes on the Paris Bourse, and to the increasingly reassuring economic conditions of the national credit as evinced by foreign exchange.

All these are momentous considerations, demanding the careful scrutiny of the negotiators of the political or commercial Pact of the Future.

Remsen Whitehouse.

  1. General Cerruti, a well-known Italian soldier, recently stated, in the course of an interesting lecture delivered at Genoa, that the percentage of military expenditure in the general budget amounted (1809) to 14.43, while in the neighboring Swiss Republic it reached 28.29. He urged that during their term of service the youth of the country received that moral education which results from strict discipline ; and that this not only fitted them to fulfill the perfunctory obligations imposed, but sent them back to their villages with a higher appreciation of the responsibilities of citizenship.
  2. Figures taken from the Deutsche Revue, September, 1901.