If we could compare the Italian diplomatic network in the United States to a fleet, the Italian Embassy in Washington would be its flagship, heading a team of nine consulates, six Italian Trade Agency offices, five cultural institutes and three ENIT offices in the Country’s main cities. A network that daily provides services, promotes ideas and projects and builds bridges between the two sides of the Atlantic, engaging with a very extensive network of public and private bodies: hundreds of organizations – institutions, companies, universities, museums, theaters, associations, foundations – ranging from Manhattan to Silicon Valley. To learn more about how our diplomats work overseas, we interviewed Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero who has been at the helm of the largest bilateral Italian Embassy in the world since 2012.
Ambassador Bisogniero, when we look at the close-knit ties between Italy and the United States, or at data on the Italian and Italian-American community in the country, the task of the Embassy of Italy in Washington appears to be none too easy. Is this true?
While it is perhaps not a simple role, it certainly is an interesting one! I don’t know many other similar contexts where, as diplomats, we are spurred on not only by political attention, but also by the great mutual admiration between our Peoples and Countries. We find very fertile ground in the areas we work in, and daily start dozens of initiatives in fields ranging from economics to science, education, culture, sports and safety. I could not imagine a more stimulating environment.
Some concrete examples?
Let me start with data on the Italian and Italian-American communities that you mentioned: about 252,000 are registered with the Registry of Italians Living Abroad (AIRE) – almost the size of an average Italian town. To this number we must add the many other “temporary” people too, who come to the States for short periods of times to work, to study or for tourism. Not to mention the roughly 26 million Americans of Italian descent: an incredible number of people who are quickly rediscovering the wish to reconnect with their roots, but also to better understand an Italy that is a very different country from the one that their grandparents or great-grandparents had left. This populous community yields countless inputs, that we daily try encourage and support. But this “critical mass” is just one part of the picture. The admiration for Italy in the United States goes far beyond this type of “family” bonds. Suffice it to look at bilateral trade data: our exports here (over $ 44 billion in 2015) have grown for seven years in a row – we are now in the top ten supplier countries. This success is of course largely due to appreciation for those sectors that to some extent distinguish our way of life: we are, for example, the first exporters of wines. But we also do very well in those areas in which it is important to be reliable: think of the + 30.5 % recorded in transport machinery, or of the + 18.8 % registered in the chemical-pharmaceutical industry.
You mentioned two sections – the consular and economic-commercial one – in which the Embassy plays a very active role. Can you tell us how?
The Embassy’s Consular Coordination office oversees the activities of a network which, although extensive, is barely sufficient to meet the needs of the community. In addition to the nine Consulates General, we count on 73 “no cost to Italy” honorary consular offices, which play a pivotal and local role, especially when taking into account the vastness of the territory. The main task of the diplomatic network is to ensure the protection of the interests of nationals, and to provide services. Just think of unfortunate cases such as deaths, accidents, serious illness, arrest or detention, acts of violence, assistance in the event of natural disasters, the issuance of emergency travel documents following the loss or theft of your passport. But also of more “normal” services, such as vital records, notarizations, the registry office, vote for Italian citizens abroad, and entry visas issued to foreigners wishing to travel to Italy. To meet these needs, we increasingly rely on new technologies, and most services and assistance are now available electronically. In many cases it is possible to finalize one’s request without even setting foot in our Consulates. We have completely revamped the Embassy’s website, which is now a pilot project for the entire Italian diplomatic network. Another important aspect of consular work is the relationship with the representative (and elected) bodies of our communities in the US: the 10 Committees of Italians abroad (COMITES); the two Counselors to the General Council of Italians Abroad (CGIE) and the three Italian MPs elected in our constituency (two members of parliament and one senator). The Economic, Commercial and Scientific Affairs Office handles both the traditional task of analyzing policies implemented by the American Administration and other relevant parties (for example, the Federal Reserve), and supports entrepreneurs in their contacts with American authorities. It helps to promote “Italy” as a whole in its many facets, to enhance Italian industrial excellence, defend our country’s position in trade negotiations, encourage the US to participate in events organized in Italy as, for example, happened with EXPO Milano 2015. In this area too the Embassy coordinates the action of Italian institutions in America: Consulates, ICE and ENIT offices and Italian-American Chambers of Commerce: a unique network serving companies.
You mentioned a growing interest in our way of life: does the same hold true for Italian culture?
Naturally. In the cultural field, we are recognized as a world leader. I am not exaggerating: just think that ours is the first country in terms of Best Foreign Language Film Oscars; of the steady rise in the number of students enrolled in Italian courses; or that we are the second country of destination, after Great Britain, for Americans wishing to study abroad; or of our “country reputation” ranking, yearly published by the Reputation Institute in New York, which in 2013 had already put Italy first for “cultural reputation”. We have worked hard to promote the Italian language and culture. And the incredible selection of over 300 high-level events in more than 60 American cities that was organized in “2013 – Year of Italian Culture in the United States” was certainly pivotal in this. Since then we have perfected a method and tools that allow us to
bring together – also via our five cultural institutes in the United States – the hundreds of ongoing collaborations between museums, universities, research centers and associations. Among them, the Italy in the US “brand”, which has become the true hallmark of Italian cultural initiatives in the US from “sea to shining sea”; the www.italyinus.org portal, which attractively lays out information on the Italian network in the US and on the hundreds of events related to our culture in this country (from 2014 to date, events have passed the 1100 mark), plus a guide to shows, exhibitions, tourist routes and language courses in Italy. Last but not least, the “Italian Treasures in the US” project: a catalog which is available online, via app and in a more traditional paper format, and which includes almost 800 Italian works selected from different US museums. Promoting our culture has gone hand-in-hand with promoting our language. The initiatives of recent years have enabled us to achieve outstanding results. Today, Italian is the fourth most studied language in the United States. The number of students attending Italian courses at American universities increased by about 60%, jumping from 49,000 to 80,000 students. In high schools, numbers have grown from 65,000 to about 78,000. A feather in our cap is the success of the Advancement Placement of Italian exam which, taken in the last years of high school, allows students earn credits recognized by most American and Italian universities. The strategy that we have implemented in recent years – and which has focused on the creation of a “National Observatory of the Italian language” and local observers at the consulates, on specific agreements with States and Counties, and on the continuous improvement of the quality of teaching and outreach activities – has enabled us to go from 1,806 exams taken in 2012 to 2,573 in 2015. So, one year ahead of time, we passed – with flying colors – the minimum threshold of 2,500 exams taken required by the College Board to reintroduce the exam on a permanent basis, putting us on a par with other languages such as French and German.
This is wonderful. And does this interest towards Italy extend to our Country today?
Certainly. To be honest, this comes easy for us, probably much easier than you could imagine back home – to convey the image of a country that for thousands of years has seduced – and continues to seduce – and produced so much, thanks to the ingenuity and industriousness of its people. A Country that is the second manufacturing power in Europe, which is one of the countries with the highest life expectancy, also thanks to the quality and the accessibility of its health system, and that continues to set positive records in every field. Just think of the Space sector. In 2013 we celebrated, here in Washington, D.C., fifty years of cooperation between Italy and the United States. In this case too the Embassy plays a fundamental role in achieving a success that make us proud – starting with the fact that a substantial part of the International Space Station is made in Italy. Or, a recent case, the scientific sector: it was in our Embassy – on the very day that we made the announcement that shook the international community – that we celebrated the role that about two hundred Italian researchers (out of a thousand in total) played in the discovery of gravitational waves, which confirmed Einstein’s theories exactly a century later.
Just a couple of questions left. The traditional sector that comes to mind when talking about diplomacy is: political relations. What are relations between our Countries like, and what does the Embassy in this field ?
Political relations are excellent, as is constantly testified by the very warm welcome extended to the highest Italian authorities visiting here: most recently, the President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella. The United States know they have a reliable ally in Italy as we provide clear analyses, and exercise a leadership role in a wide range of geographic areas and issues. Let me mention our role in Libya, but also in the Balkans, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, in Afghanistan or in international organizations such as NATO. In these matters the Political Office and the Defense Section are in close touch with the US administration both in terms of foreign policy and US security: from the White House to the Department of State and the Department of Defense. Similarly, we liaise closely with the many active think tanks in Washington, D.C. – truly one of the global hubs where world opinion is formed.
What you have described is an impressive amount of activity: do you have any time left for a social life?
Well, creating bonds is second nature to every diplomat who loves their job. And although our Embassy has focused greatly on new technologies and on so-called “digital diplomacy” which allows us to interact with many people even outside the traditional circles, nothing will ever replace the human touch. This is why I am proud that the Embassy, thanks to its many events, is now widely regarded as one of the busiest places in Washington’s cultural life: an open door to civil society, a space for dialogue where – over the course of year – thousands of people gather together. This has little to do with a dusty image of an elitist, inward-looking diplomacy of the past. In addition, let me say I have another cause for satisfaction: during my two different terms here I have visited all fifty States! I have therefore been able to see first-hand just how much Italy and Italians are present, active and, above all, admired in every corner of this great country.