by Carlo Pelanda

Rome must reinterpret its dual European and Atlantic loyalty. The crisis of the Franco-German couple and the American doctrine of ‘integrated deterrence’ open limited margins of manoeuvre for us. The three possible alternatives for gaining space in the Pax Americana.

1. For decades, Italy’s Grand Strategy – i.e. lasting geopolitics – has consisted of passive loyalty to the European Union and to America/NATO. This posture has been adopted by Italy as a nation defeated in a major conflict that needs to import order from the outside to make up for the limits of internal governability and to sustain an export-based economic model ultimately to balance the consociative ineffectiveness of its mercantilist internal market. This necessitates geopolitical passivity in order to sell to anyone in the world. Incidentally, it was the same model chosen by the other nations defeated in the Second World War, i.e. Germany (which, however, is abandoning it) and Japan (which has semi-abandoned it, renouncing the mercantilist Fukuda doctrine of 1977, driven by the necessity of being supported by an anti-Chinese alliance). The idea was to remain geopolitically passive so as to rebuild an economic power status under the umbrella of the Pax Americana, albeit by adopting semi-neutrality.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rome attempted to enhance its geopolitical status, for example, by supporting the Algerian uprising against France. This was part of a policy of autonomy with regard to oil and gas sources and, consequently, the Mediterranean. Rome also attempted to become a nuclear power, in a fashion much more pointed than is publicly known. Paris reacted by expelling Rome from the de facto leadership of the then European Community and by signing the Elysée Treaty (1963) with Germany, the confidential protocol of which permitted Paris to take over the Mediterranean and forced Bonn to finance, albeit in indirect ways, the French nuclear deterrent. Even America showed it did not trust Italian ambitions. For two reasons: Italy’s strong Communist Party and the perceived tendency to be uneasy about following orders from the empire. So America decided it was better to keep Italy ‘amicably compressed’ as a territory for military bases, like Germany. Then, in 1964, the establishment of the centre-left in Italy marked a long period of internal unrest that forced Rome to resort to external restraint, abandoning ambitions to go beyond the status of a secondary nation. Since then, both loyalties – Atlantic and European, more passive than active – have to be seen as a necessity of international positioning imposed by context. Italy had no alliance alternatives that could serve as multipliers of small-medium national strength because domestic capacity was minimal. Therefore, the Grand Strategy is actually an adaptation, rather than a product of national strategic thinking aimed at actively defending a perimeter of national interest.

In fact, this is the main reason for Italy’s discomfort in both alliances. The EU, rather than multiplying Italy’s strength, tends to compress it, even if Rome benefits from the single market. NATO does not go far enough south to support Italy’s security and economic needs in the coastal Mediterranean and its deep hinterland. In short, the Italian Grand Strategy tends to produce costs that reduce benefits. It serves to demultiply national influence and wealth, when the opposite should be the case.

Italy cannot change its Grand Strategy; it cannot diverge from America, NATO, G7, and the EU. But it can insert a Grand Tactic to increase the multiplicative advantages of the NATO/EU umbrella. Today, thinking in these terms appears realistic. The Franco-German diarchy is moving from convergence – which will not dissolve anyway – to competition. And the need has grown for the American empire to delegate the garrison of certain areas to reliable allies. America has to risk its power against China and no longer has the internal consensus for global erosive engagements, but it does not want to relinquish its primacy in the management of the world order. The new US doctrine of ‘integrated deterrence’ affords ample room for collaboration with allies. This is a notable change from the old Republican doctrine of national interest – published by Condoleezza Rice in April 2000 in Foreign Affairs – which delegated/forced allies to take responsibility for garrisoning their regional areas with only the remote support of the US umbrella and with provision for direct US engagement only in cases where vital interests were at stake. This doctrine was then maintained by the Obama administration (leading from behind), and later rendered chaotic by the Trump administration which then pushed towards a ‘retreatism’ corrected with difficulty by the US imperial bureaucracy in the last year of that administration’s term. It was then ambiguously revised in the first two years of the Biden administration and calibrated with new language that admits a direct reglobalisation of US engagement, but reinforced by stronger support from allies, obviously under scrutiny.

This increases Italy’s passive and potential relevance. The empire’s engagement with a powerful enemy such as China promises to be a force multiplier for Italy. Combined with the increased difficulty of aligning the interests of France and Germany, this makes our country more relevant for one or the other to win in their multiple contests, in turn stimulating a new active posture for Rome, determined to seize the opportunity to increase its geopolitical leeway.

2. Defining a grand tactic for relations with France and Germany has priority. There are three options, within the preservation of the passive Grand Strategy.
A) Converge trade with one or the other depending on the expected advantage.
B) Tilt towards Germany.
C) Refrain from seizing the opportunity of bargaining, except in specific sectoral cases, amplifying a ‘pro-European’ stance, i.e. in favour of the small nations compressed by the diarchic regime, increasing unilateral actions of influence in neighbouring areas thanks to this posture.

At first glance, Tactic A appears to be the best of the three. But if one delves deeper into the scenario, problems emerge. Image/reputation might not appear that relevant, but it would still have to be taken into account because in the case of two against one the losing diarch would certainly (re)ignite the image of Italy as unreliable, switching alliances while not keeping its word: in the first world war, it abandoned the Triple Alliance; in the second, it disengaged from the alliance with Germany. If France were to feel uncomfortable, old papers would surface showing Rome’s (very substantial) support for the Algerian insurgency of 1962 and earlier years. This would necessitate but an easy reply; nevertheless, recalling past swings would still hurt Rome’s image and status.

Incidentally, Paris and Berlin are more historically battered than Italy, but they succeed in maintaining a relevant international status even when their past is recalled. It would not be healthy for our country if there were friction on this level, not least because in America’s eyes Rome has value if it operates as a cohesive and not divisive Atlantic wedge within the EU. More importantly, Paris and Berlin, despite the strong friction between them, would hardly leave us such room for manoeuvre if Italy’s game were to touch on important issues. And Italy is most vulnerable when it comes to public debt. Moreover, Germany and France are big customers of the Italian economy, which suggests that friction with one and the other should be reduced.

Tactic B would make sense because the interests of Germany and Italy are similar: pro-NATO (both host American troops/bases); Europe’s first and second largest manufacturing/exporting nations with consequent common interests in pushing the EU to sign bilateral free trade agreements with a multiplicity of nations around the world, while France is more protectionist and inclined to selective European sovereignty outwardly, particularly towards America. But Paris’ reaction would aim to divide Germany and Italy. The resulting instability would be a signal for the Eastern Europeans to build a district of their own. Such a scenario might please Washington and London, the second would-be guardian of the Baltic. But it would detract from Italy’s relevance.

Tactic C offers many multiplicative advantages to Italy, provided Italy engages in foreign policy activism. This is doubtful. The political class has not been accustomed to thinking in this way for decades and the new rulers are still untested. Moreover, action would have to be backed up by a strengthened bilateral relationship with the United States, which would certainly be possible and welcomed by Washington, but would require the economic and technical willingness and ability to give America in return what it typically asks for: availability to engage in military combat, expansion of the military garrison in critical areas of the planet, and the like. In the present war-averse Italy, risks to domestic consensus would ensue.

Therefore, the opportunity to gain geopolitical prominence appears limited. However, there is a gap, created by the power crisis that is squeezing both Germany (less) and France (a lot) thereby generating a small intra-European geopolitical vacuum. The question is how big a gap it is and how it can be filled. A preliminary idea is to use, without making too much noise and with a positive coating, a demultiplied, i.e. very conservative, formula of the three options mentioned above.

In the meantime, all this means putting the Italy-France Quirinal Treaty (which in any case has the status of a non-binding letter of intent) quietly in abeyance, except if it is needed for some specific dossier. Any temptation to sign a bilateral treaty of privileged relations with Germany should also be avoided, without however renouncing to de facto convergence in areas of common interest, for instance, by pushing the EU to sign external trade agreements, in particular with America, despite the likely restrictive interference from Paris. This would allow Rome to profile itself as a bona-fide ‘honest broker’ within the EU, arguing that there should be no selective treaties that create hierarchies: a very useful – if nominal, since coalitions are formed in any case – position for relations with the small European nations that in any case have both representatives by right in the Commission and the European Parliament and a power of veto in the Intergovernmental Council. Thus the refining of a Grand Tactic would be an active element within the traditional passive pro-European posture. This would give Italy the role of a positive partner for small nations: a very important point for the creation of Italy’s intra-European geopolitical space.

3. The Adriatic Lake Project. It is in Italy’s objective interests (business and security) to create a community that includes all coastal nations of the Adriatic area. In other words, the Western Balkans, including Greece. This area is also of primary interest to Germany-Bavaria, which was formally anticipated by the inclusion of north-eastern Italy in the Reich (1943-45), called the German Adriatic Littoral, and the vector of German territorial influence towards the south-east, i.e. towards former Yugoslavia, Turkey, and Iran (a route to Central Asia, historically opposed by Italy when it had the strength to do so, for example with the Treaty of Rapallo (1920)). And this while not forgetting the German and Austrian attempt in the early 1990s to absorb Slovenia and Croatia by confidentially facilitating the formation of Greater Serbia in exchange for the dissolution of Yugoslavia. This action was initially blocked by Italy by calling for a strong US presence in Slovenia (also to preserve the passage through northern Italy of the Lisbon-Budapest European railway corridor).

Recently, Germany and France have been competing again in the Adriatic area. Also as a side-effect of the conflict in Ukraine, this pressure has been reduced and a geo-economic space has been created that is not manned by anyone. Italy will be able to offer the Balkan area – without too many obstacles – multi-sector connectivity, perceived by the Balkans themselves as a multiplicative opportunity for their interests: integration of the Exclusive Economic Zones for the exploitation of gas fields, the realisation of common infrastructure and environmental safety programmes, etc. For Italy, it is fundamental to pursue security in the hot Balkan area, including Serbia, to keep under control the influence of Turkey (declining) and of China (growing), and to connect the Adriatic vertical line with the eastern one in order to increase horizontal exchanges by ship useful to both shores. In short, it is a matter of building a sub-community within the EU, compatible with the EU itself because it is not divisive, with Italy as its economic centre. The main advantages for Italy and the aforementioned partners, possibly extendable to Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary, would be to strengthen NATO’s south-eastern front by giving it a stronger integrated economic base, to support the entry of some of these countries into the EU and to build with the states of the area a selective consultation for dossiers in the EU.

The strengthened Italian-Swiss convergence project. Italy needs qualified personnel, investment in new technologies and an integrated policy for cross-border mountain safety. Switzerland needs a smoother connection with neighbouring markets. There is certainly room for stronger and more useful economic convergences on both sides, obviously below the threshold of the economic agreements for which the EU is competent, but far above the current levels of cooperation between companies. A move with particular impact would be to create an Italo-Swiss Nasdaq with dual headquarters in Milan and Zurich, via an agreement between an Italian consortium and the Zurich Stock Exchange plus the US partner. The addition of an Israeli partner would be very important: the Zurich-Milan-Tel Aviv axis would become a global reference point for innovative technologies.

Strengthened Italy-US bilateral agreement. If kept within the perimeter of security and military collaboration agreements, such an agreement would not violate EU constraints. Such an understanding is decisive for Italy to be able to exchange essential goods within a neo-Cavourian strategy (Piedmont’s Prime Minister Cavour sent a substantial part of his country’s army to Crimea in 1853-54 to support the Franco-English war against Russia in order to obtain French military support in return during the second war of independence against Austria). Italy needs US geopolitical capital to strengthen its negotiating position within the EU, whereas America needs Italy to establish an Atlantic wedge in the EU space.

The Ukrainian case has pegged Poland, Romania, and the Baltics to the Atlantic Alliance and Germany has abandoned its post-NATO strategy of Franco-centric European sovereignty. On this level, Italy will be less relevant. So it will have to find another level of exchange with the United States. Since Rome needs to secure the routes that bring liquid gas from Africa and the Gulf, it seems rational to offer itself as their guardian. This action is also useful for strengthening the US projection in the Indo-Pacific.

Moreover, Italy has an interest in establishing unilateral garrison positions in Africa, on which it would be possible to build a co-interest with the United States. For Rome, this implies the construction of at least two more aircraft carriers (prepared to house the F-35s), with a service landing somewhere in southern Africa, and the creation of a rapid intervention force with global reach and combat capabilities typical of special troops. All this with a set of Italian-American collaborations at the level of space missions (which already exist, but can be expanded). Would this be enough to get political support and relevant technological access in return? Perhaps it would be better to add a bilateral technological-military collaboration agreement with Japan (favoured by Tokyo’s possible participation in the programme of the future sixth-generation Anglo-Italian-Swedish Tempest fighter-bomber) with common landings and surveillance routes that could be integrated with the Aukus. But it would need to be understood whether the new US doctrine of ‘integrated deterrence’ favours bilateral collaborations between allies or aims to integrate the allies themselves more strongly under US control. In any case, Italy’s anti-Chinese posture would be a cornerstone of any agreement. In short, the range of Italian action must not only extend to the neighbouring area but also globalise if Italy is to have anything serious to exchange with America.

4. The grand tactic suggested here is ambitious, but below the threshold of friction with France and Germany. The question remains whether Rome has the ability to move unilaterally, albeit positively and always accommodatingly. Here one can only point out that the enunciation of an active doctrine typically stimulates reorganising thoughts, if formulated in realistic terms. However, it can be suggested to Italian politics (both the right and the left) that a doctrine of a shared definition of the national interest within a model of converging and mutually contributing national sovereignties should be elaborated. The EU is much more than an alliance of nations but much less than a union between them. The likelihood of a European confederation – while theoretically necessary due to the presence of a very sub-optimal single currency as a stateless currency, i.e. with a monetary policy but no fiscal policy – is low even in the long run.

The EU will remain intergovernmental for decades, despite attempts to increase its community component. It will therefore have to find a coherence mechanism other than the (con)federalist one, while maintaining the unionist myth as a goal to strive for that is useful to the rhetoric of diplomacy and to the illusionism of communication. Until now, this coherence was guaranteed by the command action of the Franco-German diarchy. But this has broken down. It will probably be reassembled, but not to the point of functioning as in the past. So there is room to propose another ‘extended coherence’ mechanism, based on the ability of individual nations to define their national interest in a shared form. The strategic hope is that Rome will successfully propose such capacity, aiming at the role of honest broker, destined to produce a better status for Italy. In fact, to produce a return to the functionalist method – albeit updated – that made the previous European Community great.

(translated by Mark A. Sammut Sassi)