For a U.S.-Italy special relationship

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A troubled America is asking allies to take on new tasks, in order to stabilise important but secondary areas. Italy must offer itself as an anchor in the Mediterranean, to create a coalition on maritime security. To help itself.

Originally published on Limes, n. 2/2024, «Una certa idea di Italia».

By Federico Petroni

1. Italy needs to forge a special relationship with the United States. Evoking the deep relationship between the Americans and the British may sound almost ridiculous, yet a special relationship is in the interests of both countries. Washington is desperate for allies to whom to delegate functions in essential areas that it can no longer deal with directly – areas in which Italy falls. The relationship would obviously be unbalanced but it would also be open to ongoing negotiation. For its part, Rome without America cannot focus on any of its strategic priorities, namely keeping the routes between Gibraltar and Aden (Middle Ocean) free and open. Moreover, Rome has a responsibility to contribute to the security of the Euro-Atlantic system in which it is embedded as a founding partner. 

In strategic circles dealing with Europe, one is beginning to hear talk of the US being increasingly oriented towards China while Italy cannot do much in the Indo-Pacific. Italy could help the US indirectly by contributing to stability in Italy’s region: the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa. How can the US help Italy take responsibility for local security threats? How can the Americans help the Italians enhance their capabilities?

The American downsizing in the central-western Mediterranean seems to provide the Italians with a unique opportunity to present themselves as the maritime security pivot in the Mediterranean for all nations concerned, and as intimate interpreters of US tactical interests, without giving up a margin of autonomy, but rather claiming it in order to compete on an equal footing in the fray around them.

2. What makes the United States so open with Italy? The Americans are at once overextended, introverted, and grappling with a geographical shift in priorities – three challenging conditions when taken individually, but explosive when added together.
The overextension stems from burdens accumulated over three quarters of a century in the form of security guarantees that were not expected to be honoured, let alone honoured simultaneously. America has too many missions for too few resources.

The nation’s introversion makes it extraordinarily difficult for it to increase available resources. The population demands rebuilding at home not defending the empire. The political system is in a crisis of legitimacy, no longer able to make strategic decisions.
The hiatus between ambitions and means is such that American strategy is being described as ‘insolvent’. The collapse of America’s will and capacity encourages its rivals to openly challenge it in Europe and the Middle East, the theatres that three consecutive Administrations have declared to want to downsize in order to devote themselves to the Indo-Pacific. The apparatchiks are dismayed: deterrence has failed, we no longer frighten anyone. Internal dysfunction makes it difficult to resort to force to become scary again.

This is where allies make their appearance, conceived as the last anchor of deterrence. The US also realises that it is going through a crisis of persuasion – it is not in a position to order. Therefore, it is willing to grant allies large margins of autonomy. This is especially true for countries like Italy, which are not situated in Washington’s priority territories.

At first glance, the US is not setting priorities. After all, it is investing simultaneously on all fronts: Europe, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific. And the Biden Administration keeps reassuring allies that America intends to defend and restore primacy. But reasoning by geographical regions and political narratives leads one into error.

In reality, certain priorities are imposing themselves on the United States. The competition between overheating great powers (Broad War, for short) has put garrisoning the maritime straits back at the centre.

Around Russia: because of the war in Ukraine and the possibility of weakening Moscow (especially the Black Sea fleet), the US is prioritising the belt between the Barents Sea and the Aegean, via the Baltic and Bosphorus bottlenecks. This is the Intermarium belt extended to Scandinavia to the north and Turkey to the south.

Around Iran: the Israel-Gaza War has re-prioritised the Suez-Hormuz-Bab al-Mandab triangle and the states in “Mesopotamia”, the Holy Land, and the Arabian Peninsula. At stake: not to be expelled from the Middle East – in particular Syria and Iraq – at the hands of Iran. This would give continuity to the axis of Shia resistance between the Iranian plateau and the Mediterranean, bringing the Iranians closer to Israel.

Around China: the priority since 2017 is to use major Indo-Pacific actors to reinforce the containment centred on Malacca City and the first chain of islands. Progress with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and India is proceeding in parallel with underperformance in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the South Pacific island states. This underperformance opens a path of penetration for China.

Combining these points shows that America’s greatest interest lies along the Rimland, the maritime edge of Eurasia. This is a concept that was popularised by Nicholas Spykman in the 1940s and always serves as a reference point for the supremacist currents of American strategy, who press for an expansive definition of US commitments and burdens, that is to say for a perimeter defence of Eurasia. There is a trace of this in NSC 162/2, the 1953 document that formalised the containment of the USSR by granting the rollback hawks to extend American guarantees between Korea and the Middle East. The refusal of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Indonesia, and others to fall in line with sanctions on Russia has made it clear to Washington that it cannot rely solely on the Western democracies on both sides of Eurasia, but must also focus on the powers in the middle, along the Rimland.

3. Where does Italy stand in all this? In a second group of priorities, immediately outside the first, comprising Western Europe, the Balkans, the Mediterranean Sea from Gibraltar to Crete, and North Africa. These are essential areas, but not at immediate risk of war. They are therefore delegable, where possible, to partners to free up useful resources for the first group. They stand in somewhere between the areas that Washington must manage directly with substantial contributions from allies and those that are dispensable (much of Africa and South America).
Three findings follow from this logic.

First, the United States will not leave from Italy because its bases there form the centre of its Mediterranean deployment. Those bases, however, serve mainly to project the US towards Russia and the Middle East.

Second, the advantage for Italy of being in the second league is that the US is not asking the Italians to wage war against China. At most, economic war, which does not affect the Italians given their negligible trade exposure to the People’s Republic. The most the Italians can offer is to assume defensive responsibilities in the Mediterranean in the event of conflict in the Indo-Pacific.

Third, Italy’s position can be extremely insidious. NATO’s centre of gravity is shifting north-eastwards. The Americans have long since renounced a leading role in the central-western Mediterranean: this is shown by how they have acquiesced to the fait accompli in the different parts of Libya disputed by hostile or untrustworthy subjects. Meanwhile, the Russians, Turks, Egyptians, Gulf Arabs, Chinese, and French are competing for spaces of influence from North Africa to the Gulf of Guinea, turning the African coast with its Sahel-Saharan depths into an offshoot of Eurasia and extending the playing field to Africa in order to squeeze the Middle Ocean into a land pincer. This is an aspect found in the strategic culture of all the major Eurasian powers, even China.

The risk is that the Mediterranean will turn into a giant strait, controllable from land. This development will be enabled by the increase in chaos, and the range and availability of armaments, as demonstrated by the Huthi. In the worst scenario, the control of maritime flows vital for Italy (energy, trade, digital, migration) will pass from being secured by America to being subject to permanent competition between Russia, Turkey, France, China, the United States, and others: a costly and divisive condition for Italy.

The condition would worsen on account of Moscow’s attempt to expand its naval network from Tartus in Syria to Tobruk in Cyrenaica. A Russian base in Libya would greatly compromise Italy’s security. It would allow sabotage or the pointing of missiles at Italy, a coveted target as the first major country just outside the American priority zone and an ideal place to put pressure on NATO through aggressive tactics below the US threshold of war and of attention.

4. What is the basis for a special Italy-US relationship?

First of all, the old relationship’s logic, based on the political use of limited Italian contingents in support of US operations to demonstrate alignment and demand defence in return, must be reversed. The time for this approach is over, even though it survives in Italian attitudes, as seen in the decision to send the aircraft carrier Cavour to the Indo-Pacific with F-35s on board. Italy would be giving a sign of maturity if it were to announce that it is not going to the Indo-Pacific in order to concentrate on the enlarged Mediterranean.

The Italian-American special relationship must focus on maritime security. In the Euro-Atlantic system, the Italians must offer themselves as the leading nation of a Coalition for a free and open Middle Ocean. This would be a threefold mission: freedom of navigation, security of strategic submarine infrastructure, and retraining to fight war from and on the sea. As Italy alone does not have sufficient resources, it would be an excellent opportunity to develop technologies and industries with partners aimed at creating tools to monitor and protect Internet cables and energy pipelines.

NATO must be part of it, but one cannot expect structures emerging from the Southern Flank Strategy, set to be discussed at the Washington Summit this July, to deal with unconventional challenges. NATO is a military alliance ill-equipped to handle the broadest security threats. What is needed is a political agreement to share resources and create core groups, and to recognise that the Mediterranean members of the alliance contribute to strengthening the southern front.

It is illusory to think that a NATO-Russia war would only take place on the north-eastern plains. Yet, this does not exempt the Italians from supporting Ukraine. But Italy will carry weight if it knows how to stem the turmoil from the south. Only then will its voice be heard. An example: if the EU thinks of rapid intervention contingents of one or two brigades to be deployed in North African crisis situations, the Italian Navy can provide the amphibious landing capabilities which it is now training for again.

The Coalition for a Free and Open Middle Ocean must involve non-NATO countries. It must be a means to offer solutions in exchange for influence, to the detriment of anti-Western powers. There is a demand for Italy coming from small nations such as Malta, Cyprus, or Bosnia Herzegovina, which are not yet framed by and at the mercy of Euro-Mediterranean instability. The southern-shore states must be offered roles and recognition. Morocco, Algeria, or Egypt are not mere objects at the mercy of external powers, although the French, Turks, Russians, and Gulf Arabs like to treat them that way. They have means, capabilities, and ambitions. Framing them in a maritime security initiative would create institutional structures where clashes and competitions arising from, say, overlapping EEZs (exclusive economic zones) or the use of energy resources to blackmail, could be managed. The coalition must be extendable to the Arabian Peninsula monarchies in order to cover the south-eastern mouth of the Middle Ocean. Without this basis, the Mattei Plan proposed by the Italian government to stabilise Africa will not produce any results.

5. In a special relationship each party uses the other. Italy is asked by the US to engage in American naval rotations to cover certain routes. The problem lies in the rules of engagement. For the Americans, whoever takes over is useless unless authorised to shoot. It is easier for the Italians to start this operation between West Africa and the Central Mediterranean, perhaps as part of the Middle Ocean Coalition.

In the eastern segment of the Middle Ocean, between Crete and Bab al-Mandab, the Italians will only assume direct military responsibility when the extended war in Gaza is reduced in intensity. Italy can now play a useful diplomatic role. Not taking part in the Anglo-American Operation Prosperity Guardian and in the attacks against the Huthi in Yemen will not be a gesture of cowardice if Italy knows how to exploit its distance from the belligerents to open channels with the Iranians and the Yemeni militias, with whom it will sooner or later have to negotiate.

And what does Italy need the United States for? Two things: financial and technological resources to pursue the maritime agenda, and political support when it clashes with larger powers.

On the first front, the Americans desperately need to outsource war production. Their industry cannot grow rapidly, especially shipbuilding and artillery. The Pentagon is studying how to finance production in other capable countries. South Korea is getting rich with the mass production of bullets. Italy is interested for its shipbuilding. Is it imaginative to think of American incentives to build their ships and Italy’s that would then perform agreed functions?

The scheme should be extended to the production of technologies that serve both the US and Italy for the monitoring of communication routes (maritime, space, cybernetic). Italy has important niches, also in the space sector. A dialogue is needed at ministerial level to identify specific functions in which to invest, anticipated by a precise mapping of the capabilities that can be integrated between Americans and Italians. Joint ventures are needed together with agreements with elite American universities for research and development, or even the integration of entire Italian business units in US giants.

This would correct the imbalance of Italian manufacturing vis-à-vis Germany, a correction that is already underway. After all, European industry is increasingly dependent on US industry and its weight is reduced by Asian growth. Instead of indulging in the alternative pole mirage, it would be appropriate to promote a transatlantic division of labour. The Americans are genuinely concerned that they will lose their technological edge over Beijing if European niches are laced with Chinese capital and technology. The Italians can wrest concessions.

On the second front, Washington needs to give Rome an informal investiture to help increase Italian credibility, bridging the wide gap between Italy’s ambition and how it is perceived. A good signal would be to expand the Italian presence in American bases not only on Italian soil, so that Italian troops are also used for missions exclusively Italian. Naples and Sigonella could be the operational centres of the Middle Ocean Coalition.

The United States must help the Italians become an indispensable factor in the Franco-Turkish rivalry, which extends to the entire Middle Ocean and risks cutting the Italians off (see the Turkish protectorate over Somalia’s waters). For Washington, Italy is an obligatory choice, as the Mediterranean actor of a certain calibre with the most similar (never identical) interests: preventing Russian or Chinese enlargement, averting new crises, preventing the Paris-Ankara dispute from flaring up or that either France or Turkey expands too much. Especially Turkey, which aspires to inherit shares of the empire from the US shed through exhaustion. The Italians can thus float in the France-Turkey-North Africa triangle, protecting Italy’s interests even when inevitable rifts with the US emerge.

Again Washington can insert itself in the Greece-Turkey dispute, which it would like to put to rest but where the contenders tug at it with some effectiveness. Here Italian diplomacy, not insensitive to Turkish positions, can display all its Byzantine art in the service of a specific purpose: to make Athens and Ankara talk indefinitely and use dialogue as a bargaining chip with the Turks in other games.

For example in the Balkans. Here, too, the Americans can pitch in, with the aim of preventing the overheating of the Bosnian issue and the explosion of the Albanian one (Kosovo), which would favour the infiltration of adversaries. At the same time, the opportunity can be exploited to make the Balkans a structured vector of Italian projection abroad, coordinating diplomacy, military, services, enterprises, and infrastructures, in a permanent cooperative competition with Turkey. Joining the Three Seas Initiative would provide an opportunity to head the project’s Adriatic branch and provide concrete opportunities for infrastructure and industry, perhaps by relocating on the Adriatic’s eastern shore some of the investments returning from the Far East or some branches of a possible expansion of shipyards in Albania.

6. The Italy-US special relationship will remain a dead letter unless Italy increases its credibility. No one believes the Italians because they do not shoot. Even Italy’s talents in empathy and mediation end up producing no real influence. One way to reverse Italy’s perception abroad is to finally define the EEZ and actively defend it. There is no need to start wars to make it clear that the air has changed.

Public opinion and the ruling class have to accept greater responsibility, hence risks. By instinct the Italians are tempted to call themselves out of the Broad War. It is the defect of their collective mentality. The Italians are not in post-history; they are in ex-history – literally, out of history. But it is their duty at least to try, in the areas that concern them, to fill the deficit in strategic thinking of the United States and the Atlantic elite.
Italy’s greatest interest in the Broad War is to protect the Italians’ way of life from those who want to subvert it without the West embarking on a clash of civilisations. Holding these two interests together is the task of strategy. The rest is crusades.

World War is not a destiny. The Italian idea of the West is different from the American one. For the Italians it is a fixed, non-expandable whole. For the Americans it must be enlarged to use it against enemies. Few people today dream of being the West, even less of being used by it; many dream of revenge or at least of treating it as an equal. This second meaning is much closer to the Italian idea. On their side the Italians have the fact that they have never been neo-colonial, with which they have made up for their colonial crimes. The Italians must use their empathic arts to build bridges with a few selected non-Western actors, between Morocco and India, in order to counterbalance those who want to ride on anti-Western revanchism. This is an example of how two completely unequal interests between Italy and America could produce strategic results. If only they were framed in a special relationship.

Translated by Dr Mark A. Sammut Sassi