The view of New York City is spectacular from the Ambassador’s Office at the Italian Mission to the UN: the UN Headquarters, the skyscrapers, the entire area sprawling around the East River unfolds beyond the wide glass windows that run along two sides of the Office. This Office was occupied for five years by Sebastiano Cardi, who is now preparing to pass the mantle to the first woman Ambassador, and return to Rome and continue his work in the foreign service in a new prestigious capacity. Voce di New York was here five years ago, when Ambassador Cardi first took this important diplomatic position and is here now at the end of this journey. We met with him in late May to take a look back at these years in which Italy became an unquestionable lead actor in vital UN negotiations, especially thanks to the commitment of the Mission he led and which brought Italy to sit at the Security Council in 2017.
We would like to sum up these past five years – years in which Italy took bold strides at the UN: our country, let us recall, has a leadership role at the UN as the top contributor of Blue Helmets among Western countries; and under the aegis of the Mission, it became a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Ambassador, have the national interests of Italy been preserved in these five years?
“I believe so, and I hope we have done a good job in preserving them. In this time we have not changed our standing at the UN, which, as you mentioned, is traditionally a very strong one. When I arrived, Italy was already the 7th contributor country to the UN regular budget, and as you recalled, the top troop contributor to peace operations among Western countries. Thus we already had achieved a solid position within the Organization starting in 1955. In these years, however, we have endeavored, also in view of the election campaign for the Security Council, to assert our presence even more, to project the strength of our country, based on our concept of multilateralism as the best method for facing the challenges of our time. We have thus aimed for Italy to leave an ever greater mark on the United Nations. Shortly after my arrival, I was elected president of the II Committee of the General Assembly, which deals with a central UN themes, i.e., the fight against poverty, underdevelopment and hunger. I was later elected Vice President of the GA – a role that is partially formal, but also substantive as I had to oversee its many meetings and sessions. In these years we ran our campaign for elections on the Security Council, which was very intense and hard fought. I also took on the position of Vice President of the International Criminal Court, owing to Italy’s commitment to the rule of law and to accountability for crimes committed against humanity. In June of 2016, following a vote that had us tied with the Netherlands, Italy was elected to the Security Council for the 2017 term. This was, from a certain perspective, a milestone and, at the same time, a starting point, because in the Council we have endeavored to affirm our priorities: first and foremost the Mediterranean, where the international community – not only Italy – is facing the greatest challenges. These are terrorism, migration, illicit trafficking, and connections between terrorist networks and organized crime. We have thus worked in this year in the highest body of the UN, to bring our vision of what we believe should be the solutions for a world that is more stable and peaceful, in which global threats are held at bay or, if possible, defeated altogether.”
When speaking of the Mediterranean, I’d like to recall that at the beginning of Italy’s Presidency of the Security Council, our then Foreign Minister, Angelino Alfano, visited the UN and spoke of how it was strategic to work for Libya’s stability. Do you think Italy can be satisfied with how the other Member States of the Council addressed the issue?
“The Security Council is a very complex organ, in which the permanent Member States have a very important role. I do believe, however, that the greatest achievement that can be attributed to our action was to have brought the Mediterranean agenda to the forefront of the work of the Council. We took this work further – not that it hadn’t already been started – thanks to the support of other countries, such as France, Egypt and Senegal, which were on the Council that year. Together with other countries we have made it possible for the Mediterranean agenda – made of challenges but also opportunities – to be brought more strongly to the attention of the Council and thus of the international community. A bit, so to say, like what Italy has been doing for years at the European Union, where we have long been signaling the urgent issues of migration – which was and still is a European problem. There are also compounded issues that, in the past 20 years, we have seen mainly come from the Middle eastern-Mediterranean region: a challenge that Italy has raised before the EU, and that we have also raised in the Security Council. I believe that, beyond the practical and operative achievements in certain areas, such as Libya, where Italy was able to work inside and out of the Council, our greatest accomplishment was to bring to the Council our strong sense of awareness. The phenomenon of migration cannot be a problem only of Italy, Greece or of other countries located on the coasts of the Mediterranean. It’s a problem that must be faced by the whole of Europe and by the entire international community.”
Italy, during its year in the Security Council, “made its voice heard” on Lebanon, when you had the Council note that, considering Italy’s substantive contribution to peace missions, you expected greater involvement in handling the issue, which certain powers, at the time, hadn’t taken into due consideration. This is an example of how Italy stood up for itself at the UN.
“Yes, it is, and a perfect example at that. Italy is the top troop contributing country to the UNIFIL Mission, a very delicate mission operating in an extremely volatile theater, exposed to the winds of war coming from Syria and from the instability of the Middle Eastern region. When it was time to debate the Mission’s new mandate, some permanent members took our requests or observations into lesser account. So we brought to their attention, rather “vocally” I might add, what our needs were and what we thought were the priorities to consider; and in the end, I believe our work paid off.”
Let’s talk about the United States. The arrival of the new Trump Administration had the UNHQ building “trembling” because no one knew what its stance would be towards the Organization. Later – and this is our assessment – we understood that in actuality not much, at least in substance, would be changing. Something did change, however, with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. What do you think of that?
“It must be said that the United States is a fundamental actor of the multilateral system. The political importance and the economic contribution of the US – this is clear – are enormous. The US is the main financial contributor to the UN and thus the greatest supporter of this Organization. Indeed, when the new Trump administration came, there were rumors of a possible exit or abandonment of the multilateral system. These rumors were quashed, also owing to the intelligent and pragmatic work of US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who was able to interpret the more critical issues as to be attributed to an organization that needs to be reformed – something Italy fully agrees with- while maintaining the US’s commitment and presence in the Organization, that is a guarantee. Of course, a diminished involvement of the US in the UN would be fatal for all Member States, because we all believe that multilateralism is the best way to resolve conflict. So the evaluation of the UN after a year and a half with the Trump Administration is positive. The US President himself came in September, at the opening of the latest General Assembly, and together with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, launched a message of confidence in the Organization, and that it may be reformed for greater efficiency and capacity in responding to today’s challenges.”
When Ambassador Haley appeared before us journalists, with the now famous announcement in which she stated that the United States would take down the names of those countries that would not have acted according to expectations, did Italy fear ending up on that list?
“We were not worried because, in actuality, the alliance we share with the US was never put in doubt. What is more is that we agree on the UN reform with many of their points. There can be differences among friends and allies, but we have always worked together with our partners – all of the UN Countries and among these the most fundamental, such as also Russia and China – to try to find consensus-based solutions. When the international community is united, even the most difficult problems can be resolved. Italy has the wherewithal to favor dialogue and work constructively with every Country.”
— US Mission to the UN (@USUN) June 8, 2018
Secretary-General Guterres recently reiterated his concerns over the “winds of cold war” – a circumstance that makes the work of the UN more complex. Does Italy share these concerns? Or is it just part of the Secretary-General’s job to “exaggerate” a bit to have his voice better heard?
“This is true: part of it is that he is trying to provoke reactions; but although the relations between the two world superpowers – Russia and the US – are not in perfect accord, it is also true that dialogue is constant. It is essential that the main global actors, the US and Russia, and, I would add, China, are able to speak to each other. A case in point is Syria, where dialogue is difficult and the input of European countries like Italy is important. There were also cases, namely that of North Korea, in which the unity of the Security Council and its permanent members was such that an agreement was reached on rather strong and firm action against the Pyongyang regime to persuade it to come back to the negotiating table.”
Italy, among others, was also the President of the North Korean Sanctions Committee and when there was a “return to talks” – we have yet to understand how it will go –the media noticed how Trump’s hard stance worked, with only a few outlets stating how UN sanctions played a fundamental role in this. Even here, Italy showed its leadership.
“It certainly did. Just a premise, however: the sanctions are not an end in themselves. You cannot think of applying them only to exert pressure; you need a parallel plan at the political level. Pressure serves to bring the counterparty to assume a different behavior and sit at the negotiating table. Italy had a leadership role in this because we leveraged the cohesion of the international community, which, through sanctions, was able to convince Pyongyang that it needed to return to talks to avoid a dangerous military escalation. We believe that the new openness toward dialogue is also the result of this policy, especially of the cohesion of the international community.”
Let’s talk about Iran. There was a united response of Europe, which showed to have a different view, to the change in US policy toward Iran. How did the UN experience this shift by the US and Europe’s cohesion in opposing it?
“It is essential that Europe be united when participating in political discussion on strategic issues, such as the Iran agreement. Presently, Europe has been trying to preserve the agreement, which not only benefits Iran, but also the global regime of nuclear non-proliferation. The United States made a different assessment. It is clear that we must continue our dialogue with the US because, beyond the nuclear issue itself, there is also a regional dimension to the problem involving Iran and other countries that must be tackled always through dialogue.”
Europe is perhaps less united when speaking of UN reform, and in particular, the age-old reform process of the Security Council.
“Europe does not have a univocal position on this. Italy for three decades – also owing to the work of Ambassador Fulci, who I like to recall as my mentor here at the UN – has promoted the idea of a general UN overhaul. Specifically as regards the Security Council, we believe unrealistic and anachronistic the proposal of some countries, such as Germany, Japan, India and Brazil, that the Council should envisage the addition of more permanent seats. We are in favor of an enlargement of the Council obtained through a more democratic process: increase the number of seats through elections, thus avoiding the conferral of an eternal privilege to only a select few.”
Speaking of the concept of democracy, we witnessed the transparency of the new election process for the Secretary-General. Does this then make you optimistic about the future of the UN? And as to the reform, do you feel that the Secretary-General should have even more authority than he already has?
“The figure of the Secretary-General is fundamental. Throughout the years the structure of the UN has evolved; new members have joined – from the initial 50 circa to the 193 of today. It moved with the historic moments of the international community and became a universal organization. It therefore, not only requires an internal organization that is more streamlined and effective, but also a chief with great energy and clear vision of the problems at hand. Guterres has shown his ability to interpret this role, with the firm support of Italy, launching with great determination actions toward a profound internal reform that will make the system more efficient and effective. This will secure the United Nations’ positive role in finding solutions to crises and in preventing threats to stability. Obviously, in such a large organization, where the Member States all have a say, his power will always remain in balance with the Membership’s, and this will continue to make his work tough.”
Your opinion of Antonio Guterres?
“This year and a half with Guterres – who is a very experienced political official, since he was formerly Prime Minister of Portugal and Head of the UNHCR for ten years – was well spent in search of ways in which the UN could resume its active role not only in the field of development and human rights, but also in finding solutions to the great crises of our time.”
Guterres has strongly insisted on the role of women. Great Britain brought in a new woman Ambassador, and Italy is also about to have a woman Permanent Representative. Could you tell us about her?
“With pleasure. Her name is Mariangela Zappia, my colleague appointed as the new Italian Ambassador to the UN. Her professional background is of the highest caliber: she was Ambassador to NATO, and EU Ambassador to the UN in Geneva. She thus has extensive multilateral experience, particularly in the field of peace and security. She is perfectly qualified to take on this difficult and challenging office. The fact that she is a woman gives even more importance to this appointment, considering that Guterres himself is promoting a very strong gender equality campaign, obtaining many positive results thus far.”
Sixty-three years of Italy at the UN. With the many administrations that came in succession, our country has always had a constant presence in international fora. Do you think that the pillars of our foreign policy will remain standing with this new government?
“When I first came here 25 years ago, I discovered at the UN the world of international organizations that I didn’t know. It was a beautiful experience, both under the leadership of other ambassadors, among which Francesco Paolo Fulci, and as Ambassador myself. It is clear that the world has radically changed since then, as has the UN. These five years have taught me a great deal: I hope to have served Italian foreign policy well, and especially I hope to have served Italy well. I am now stepping in as Director General of Political Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, and I will be generally handling the same issues I’ve had here, but this time from my capital, Rome. Instead of receiving instructions, I may be giving some myself (chuckle), on the basis of our new government policies. The themes will be those we’ve mentioned, first and foremost – security in the Mediterranean: the stability of the region will also benefit our country. We will also, of course, be looking at the Syrian crisis for which we must, after 8 years of war, death and violence, find a solution. We will endeavor to ensure that Italy continues to be a responsible actor within the international community, capable of promoting its vision and helping others find shared solutions.”
Will you be missing New York at all?
“I will miss New York very much: it is a city in which I have lived for almost ten years, in two different times of my life. It is dynamic, full of Italians, and is very pleasant; it is a very good work environment. But I am also very happy to return to Italy and my city, which is Rome.”