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Italy's embrace of the Belt and Road Initiative: populist foreign policy and political marketing


Are populist governments harbingers of foreign policy disruption? The foreign policy of western Europe's first all-out populist coalition government constitutes a good window to address this question. Italy's ‘Yellow–Green’ government's decision to embrace China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2019 has been understood as an important rupture from Italy's traditional Euro-Atlantic foreign policy. On the basis of substantial empirical research, especially elite interviews and official documentation, this article finds instead continuity with previous administrations' overtures to Beijing, including non-opposition from the EU and active engagement by the bureaucratic establishment. This article makes a contribution to the study of populism and foreign policy by positing that political marketing constitutes the key intervening variable that accounts for populist governments' rhetorical differentiation to local electorate and international counterparts alike. The Italian case demonstrates that populist ‘ruptures’ may well be about style and electioneering tactics, over substance and policy strategy. Considering the still growing number of governments that decide to sign into the BRI, most lately that of Argentina, policy-makers and observers ought to assess to what extent these are real commitments, or rather a smokescreen of marketing practices that does not change the relationship between China and the target country in any substantial manner.

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