IN CANADA'S INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, the multilateral dimensions usually attract the headlines, whether it is summits of the G-7 or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the Organization of American States (OAS), or international conferences on climate change or on the banning of anti-personnel landmines. With the exception of the Canada-United States relationship, which is the object of almost constant scrutiny, Canada's bilateral relationships attract relatively little attention, except in times of crisis - France over interventions in Canada's internal affairs, India following nuclear weapons tests, or Spain over the turbot. And yet bilateral relationships constitute the foundation stones or building blocks of Canada's ongoing interactions with the rest of the world. Based on historico-cultural and geopolitical variables, the more important of these relationships usually have one thing in common - they are the focus and end product of quiet, incrementalist diplomacy over a period of years or decades. Their nurturing and development is a steady, unspectacular process in which Canadian national interests are pursued without much hype and without much attention being paid to the fleetingly fashionable ideas of the hour. The relationship that exists between Canada and Italy is illustrative of this reality.
Although clearly fostered by governmental policies and initiatives, the relationship between Canada and Italy is in the first instance the product of a shared Western civilization. Whether in the fields of art or literature, philosophy or religion, science or political thought, the two countries are heirs to a common cultural tradition. This in itself is sufficient to create certain natural affinities and to make the relationship an 'obvious' one. It also accounts in part for Canada's attraction as a destination for Italian emigrants, giving the relationship a strong social basis, and for the identification of common political, economic, and security interests, giving the relationship broad institutional foundations (NATO, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and so on).
The relationship with Italy is one to which the Canadian government has paid a 'normal' amount of attention, given the level of the interests at stake. Diplomatic contacts have been continuous and substantive, as would be expected with a country that is a NATO ally, a G-7 partner, and a leading member of the European Union. A long list of bilateral agreements has been negotiated with Italian governments in response to evolving circumstances and interests. Italy has not, however, been accorded a particularly high priority in the formulation of Canadian government policies and programmes and has rarely been the target of any unique or high profile initiatives. Although substantial, and likely to continue its steady growth, the relationship does not seem destined to know any spectacular developments or break-throughs in the near future.
A shared civilization and a common cultural heritage do not guarantee close or friendly relationships between nation states - a point eloquently demonstrated by two World Wars in the past century. However, in the absence of any major clashes of interests or policies, they do constitute an important basis for understanding between states, for mutual appreciation, and for the development of solid bilateral relationships, especially when, as in the case of Canada and Italy, they are buttressed by social ties and contacts resulting from immigration and the presence of significant Italian communities in Canada.
While the existence of a shared 'civilizational space' may not always be a leading consideration in the process of foreign policy development, it does constitute a sub-text that occasionally finds overt expression. As early as 1927, Prime Minister Mackenzie King wrote in a public message that Italians 'have always stood at the forefront in all spheres of human activity, in that of the intellect, of the imagination, of science and of art. …