Why Italy Is Pivotal to U.S. Strategy in the Mediterranean

December 12, 2019
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The United States and Italy have enjoyed a productive security relationship since the end of World War Two. This is partially a result of both countries being founding members of NATO, and partially because of Italy’s strategic location at the center of the Mediterranean Sea. Likewise, as the U.S. and Italy each rank among the other’s most important trade partners, and a significant number of Americans claim Italian descent, there is no mystery to the United States’ affinity for Italy.

The United States-Italy alliance is a relationship that has only become more important as the seams of long-established U.S. strategy in the Mediterranean Sea continues to fray, with Turkey, another NATO member, increasingly reorienting itself toward Russia.

Italy is thus the de facto center of U.S. military activity in the area. It hosts the second-largest number of U.S. troops in Europe (after Germany), providing bases for some 30,000 military and civilian staff in various parts of the country. It is one of the U.S.'s strongest partners in tackling problems of international security, including in humanitarian efforts in such varied locations as Kosovo, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Italy is one of the largest European contributors to the coalition against ISIL, and also contributes significantly to efforts in alleviating pressures from the ongoing migration crisis in the Mediterranean region, with Italy being one of the countries receiving the greatest number of migrants and refugees on its shores.

However, there are two disconcerting factors that may endanger the closeness and productivity of that relationship: Italy’s economic troubles, and the United States’ changing relationship with its NATO allies.

Italy’s defense budget has taken various cuts through perennial economic woes. While its defense spending increased by nearly one-fifth in 2019, its spending overall has been on the decline for over a decade, with many politicians preferring to fill in the gaps in social spending and increasing Italy’s low employment rate. The same political players also favor defense spending that is not strictly military or NATO-based in nature. Italy’s economy remains the fourth-largest in the EU, but slow growth and a suffocating sovereign debt crisis in the last several years jeopardize the country’s ability to meet NATO commitments of a 2 percent GDP contribution in the future, to say nothing of the stability of the Eurozone.

Repeated demands from the Trump administration to increase its NATO contributions are little help to the situation. As it is, Italy consistently falls short of meeting the 2 percent GDP benchmark, contributing 1.15 percent in 2018. When President Trump and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte met in July of this year, the topic of raising Italy’s contribution to NATO was a thorny issue for both leaders.

In the long run, it would probably be more in line with U.S. interests to ease off on political pressures in favor of considering Italy’s prime importance to U.S. strategy in Europe and the Middle East, particularly at the current moment.

This does not mean the defense relationship between the United States and Italy is any less strong. The importance of Italy to Washington centers first and foremost on its role as an anchor of NATO’s southern flank—a role that Balkan allies and Greece are currently unable to fill.

Greece is caught in a particularly delicate situation that prevents it from being dependably reliable to the U.S. Greece is even more strapped for cash than Italy, and unable to prevent the flagrant daily incursions in their airspace by the Turkish air force. Turkey, a fellow NATO ally, is rapidly re-aligning itself with Russia. This shift is embodied by Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 missiles, and potentially puts the security of all NATO F-35’s in the area at high risk.

Italy is a key manufacturing center of F-35's in this part of the world, while such programs are nonexistent in Spain and Greece. Turkey has all but abandoned its commitment to the collaborative use of F-35's with its buy from Russia. Documents released by Italy's Defense Ministry revealed that in 2019, spending on F-35 deliveries was estimated to total €690 million, and is further projected to increase to €859 million in 2020.

Therefore, Washington should not make mutual cooperation with Rome dependent on formulaic solutions that ignore Italy’s geopolitical importance.

Sarah White is a Research Associate at the Lexington Institute.

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