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Elisabeth Braw is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and adviser at Gallos Technologies and a regular columnist for POLITICO.
In the 17th century, the Italian chess player Gioachino Greco created the world’s first chess handbook. One of the moves he recorded was the Queen’s Gambit, an ingenious opening in three parts.
Almost exactly 300 years later, his compatriot Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is about to launch a Queen’s Gambit of her own — in foreign policy. And much like Greco’s move, it involves several interlinked steps that, if executed successfully, could yield great dividends.
When Greco began his pioneering manuscript detailing entire chess matches, he was already considered one of the world’s best players. By contrast, Meloni was hardly a household name outside of Italy before leading her party to victory in the country’s parliamentary elections last year.
The world didn’t really know what to expect — especially when it came to foreign policy. Since then, however, Meloni has been surefooted on issues ranging from Ukraine to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. And when heads of state and government gather to address the world’s most pressing challenges at the United Nations General Assembly this week, the Italian prime minister will outline her Queen’s Gambit.
Meloni’s move involves several interconnected steps that deal with the national-security risks posed by climate change, strengthening the Euro-Atlantic alliance and helping African countries become more stable and secure. “Meloni has recently talked a great deal about the need to look at the entire global chessboard without losing sight of any area or piece,” her foreign policy advisor Ambassador Francesco Taló told me.
“For example, by moving the queen toward the East, we risk not noticing the bishop coming from Africa,” he added.
One could argue that the urgent issues we currently face are so interlinked, every head of government needs to develop a Queen’s Gambit. “In today’s situation, you can’t have vertical policy lines,” noted Taló, who previously served as Italy’s ambassador to NATO. “So many things are interconnected.”
But the need for such a strategy is particularly obvious in Italy, which sits at the nexus of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and is a key participant in the globalized economy — as well as a similarly crucial participant in the West’s defense against Russia and its support of Ukraine. Then add to that the serious disruption coming every country’s way as artificial intelligence and climate change inexorably advance.
These real-world challenges are clearly not as neat as a chessboard, and the foreign policy moves have to be executed simultaneously rather than sequentially — but the intricacy of the strategy is the same.
Take climate change: To protect its astonishing number of UNESCO World Heritage sites — not to mention its famous viniculture and agriculture — Italy needs carbon reductions not just at home but around the world. Of course, far more than Italy’s stunning sites and food hangs in the balance here — without a significant reduction in carbon emissions, sections of Africa risk becoming uninhabitable, which would force even more people to make their way to Europe via Italy.
During the first half of this year, over 73,000 boat migrants reached the country — more than double the number from all of 2021. And if the world exceeds the crucial 1.5-degree average temperature increase, the number of those having to flee their homes will be many times that.
Just last week, thousands of Libyans died and thousands of others were left homeless when Storm Daniel pounded the country and collapsed a pair of dams. Meloni had phone calls with Libya’s two rival prime ministers, one after the other, the day after the disaster struck, and committed to assisting the country.
The U.N. Climate Change Summit COP28, which will be held in Dubai this December, will face this intricate task of addressing climate change even as the global economy worsens. Ultimately, however, the West needs to slash its carbon emissions — as does China. And in order to get results, the two sides need to work together closely, even as geopolitical tensions increase.
But these are not the only issues the Queen’s Gambit must address.
Like many other countries, Italy needs to slash its commercial links with Russia and reduce its dependence on China too. Meloni has already decided that Italy will leave China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the country has managed to more than halve its Russian gas imports. The new electricity connector that’s being built between Tunisia and Sicily represents the flipside of this strategy — a new focus on expanded and multilayered collaboration with countries in Italy’s neighborhood.
This EU-financed connector will create jobs in Tunisia, help Italy reduce its dependence on Russian gas, and any surplus will go to Europe. And in the meantime, Meloni — joined by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — has also negotiated a migration agreement with Tunisia, which was signed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in July.
The Italian prime minister is, in fact, trying to create the kind of mutually beneficial relationship that has so often eluded European and African countries. That they would benefit from teaming up on climate change and better commercial links is clear — and Meloni believes Italy can also help make the case for Ukraine with some African leaders who might be best suited to propose ways out of the war.
“Italy is trying to engage not just with Ukraine’s traditional supporters but with other countries that are willing to propose solutions as well,” Taló said. “After all, any country can be assaulted by its neighbor, so every country should be able to understand Ukraine’s situation.”
In the Italian parliament, Meloni herself has dramatically dressed down legislators who have suggested supporting Ukraine is futile. That’s a world away from March 2020, when a COVID-stricken Italy asked its EU friends for help but received sluggish answers. Instead, the country had to turn to Russia and China, which made a big show of their rather limited assistance.
Greco helped the Queen’s Gambit become one of chess’s favorite opening moves, one that’s still used by grand masters today. It doesn’t always succeed, but it’s always worth trying because its rewards are considerable. There’s no guarantee that a Queen’s Gambit will work on the foreign policy stage either — but with so many crises and challenges pressing at the same time, trying to tackle them one by one is futile.