Don't let all the political noise confuse you: Europe and North America are moving in the same direction, together, Armando Varricchio, Italy's ambassador to the United States and former national security adviser, told a crowd of Italian American and Italophile business people at a Union League steak dinner last week.
Varricchio laid out, and attendees echoed, a sense that U.S. and major European companies face common economic, security, and terrorist threats. He said Europeans also legitimately fear challenges to their national identities. These include threats, not from immigrants who came seeking work, but from some immigrants' descendants, who grow up resenting and feeling isolated from the nations they live in. The ambassador said that the U.S. has a greater capacity to absorb immigrants, given its history and diversity.
Varricchio, who attended both the Democratic National Convention in South Philadelphia and the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in 2016, said he began a close friendship at the GOP conclave with then-U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R., Kansas). The Italian American Pompeo, a former Army captain turned Harvard lawyer and an early Donald Trump backer, was picked by Trump to head the CIA. More recently he was selected by Trump to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, overseeing foreign relations.
The ambassador placed Trump's successful election campaign in context with ensuing votes in Britain (to exit the European Union), France (for a new political coalition), Germany (limiting the traditionally dominant parties), and, last week, Italy, where a moderate-conservative coalition and the reformist Five Star Movement each outpolled the ruling center-left groups.
In each of those countries, many voters have felt left behind, and want to see traditional national identities reinforced, not dissolved by post-national or foreign identities, Varricchio said. The European parties that have grown in the last two years tend to see Trump as similar and his supporters as generally sympathetic to their own goals, he observed. New European parties and coalitions, like Trump, attract many voters who felt poorly represented by the leaders of the past generation.
But Varricchio said it would be wrong to identify these movements as purely "populist." Nor, he said, are they anti-establishment. They may reject familiar political leaders and, in Europe, they have been voting against familiar left-leaning and right-leaning "traditional" parties that had dominated European politics.
But the fact that reformers want to run for office in the first place should be seen as an endorsement of the Western democratic system and individual liberties, and a renewal of those institutions, Varricchio added. It's the people who reject representative government and institutions, who challenge democracy and the Western alliance, he said.
The alliance has not been shaken by new faces, Varricchio added. He cited the coordinated decisions by the U.S., European, and some Pacific governments to expel scores of Russian diplomats in response to what are believed to have been government-backed attacks on a former Russian spy and his daughter in England, as a strong sign of renewed faith in the Atlantic alliance and its commitment to democracy, despite endemic partisan bickering.
Russia may be aggressive, but its economic output is now smaller than Italy's or Spain's. More substantial trade rivals, including China, should also expect to see Americans and Europeans uniting in defense of intellectual property and against pirated products, Varricchio added.
Italians, with their political history dating back to the Roman republic, understand well the difference between public politics and fundamental policy, and the chasms between the stories that leaders tell and the realities they act upon, Varricchio said.
In a question-and-answer session following Varricchio's remarks on Tuesday, attendees sounded like members of any business group expressing frustration with slow-moving bureaucracy. In their questions and in short interviews afterward they said they found his analysis reassuring.