Luigi Barzini, one of Italy's best-known journalists, was a keen observer of national characteristics. In his book The Europeans he analyzed how such traits affected the movement for continental unity, and he significantly characterized the French as “quarrelsome” and the Italians as “flexible.” No mere clichés, these terms describe France's visceral attachment to its presumed role as beacon of modern Western civilization, and the Italians' repeated attempts to reconcile their national dignity with their tendency to follow the powerful. 1 For the French it's a matter of preserving their grandeur, for the Italians it's about keeping their bella figura (roughly translated as “nice appearance”). This preoccupation with “show” and prestige has traditionally affected both nations' foreign policy. During the Cold War, American leaders had the difficult and delicate task of accommodating the “Latins' care for appearances.” Yet scholars have overlooked the extent to which considerations of prestige or status (I will use the two terms interchangeably) affected France's and Italy's relationships with the United States.
Many historians have simply explained away prestige for France and especially for Italy during the Cold War as a matter of appearance, a display of rhetoric meant primarily for domestic use, which nevertheless had little significant impact on the two nations' internal stability, and even less on their international relations. The most outstanding leader of Cold War France, Charles de Gaulle, is credited as the exception, since his policy of grandeur was such an intrinsic part of his outlook and did affect world diplomacy, especially during the first years of the Fifth Republic.