Resisting Russian and Chinese Influence, Post-Lockdown Italy Stands by NATO

June 27, 2020
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The coronavirus has precipitated border shutdowns and scapegoating between countries, but it has not done much to erode the sturdy foundations of international alliances. With the exception of Washington’s just-announced withdrawal from the World Health Organization, the global COVID-19 crisis has appeared to reinforce countries’ commitment to these alliances, rather than chip away at them.

Even with the U.S. pulling away from the WHO, its NATO partnerships, for now, remain cohesive. In particular, the mutual support between the U.S. and Italy—a critical ally in the Mediterranean theater—and Italy’s own commitment to NATO, appear to have provided a new perspective on its importance in the aftermath of the pandemic’s worst devastation in Italy.

Italy is a key European manufacturer of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. It is the only country in Europe where the planes are assembled, and one of only two countries in the world is involved in the assembly process (the other is Japan). Distinguished by its global supply network, the F-35 represents an enduring link for NATO members’ military relationships, especially during the previously unthinkable challenge of the coronavirus.

Amidst this crisis, which pushed the country into a strict lockdown, it was striking to observe that Italy had not shut down F-35 production. This was especially noteworthy because the factories where F-35 parts are built and assembled are located in the north, where the coronavirus exacted the highest casualties in Italy and some of the highest worldwide.

That fact is no coincidence: the impact of the virus has seemingly caused Italian leadership to reaffirm the importance of NATO to the country. In an exclusive interview in the Italian magazine Formiche, Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini provided insightful commentary on the Italian defense sector’s present outlook as the country reopens. Speaking of Italy and the United States’ mutual solidarity in culture and defense, Guerini said:

“The brotherhood the U.S. has shown once again testified to the deep-rooted, very sound relationship that exists between our countries, both of which are facing a severe public health crisis. As partners and members of the same Alliance, we share the same values. Our common objective is to seek solutions to ensure we can defend and secure our peoples within the framework of the international organizations we are part of and create the best conditions for economic development, labor, healthcare and, all in all, to safeguard our way of life.”

Guerini also addressed concerns about growing Russian and Chinese influence vis-à-vis aid in Italy. Both Russia and China contributed medical aid by sending supplies and medical staff to the then-overwhelmed healthcare system, at a time when other E.U. states had been slow to respond with their own aid. But when the Russian supplies arrived, it was discovered that around 80 percent of what had been sent was effectively useless to treat active COVID cases. The Russians had provided disinfectant and sterilization technology, rather than the personal protective equipment and ventilators that were in such demand by Italian hospitals. “In other words, said one government official, “the delivery was more like a pretext.”

China was slightly more helpful, providing 40 ventilators, among 31 tons of equipment, but this was received as a trifling amount of aid for a country of China’s resources, and Italy’s level of need at the time.

Italy was not swayed to be more sympathetic to Russia and China, which was probably both countries’ intent in providing aid in the first place. Instead, COVID-19 seems to have entrenched Italy in its traditional geopolitical posture: an identification with liberal democratic, pro-European values. In Guerini’s words:

“Many countries have shown solidarity toward Italy in an extraordinary situation. We talk to everyone, but the pillars of our security are NATO and the European Union, and these shall remain. In the phase of the health emergency, the international community has helped Italy. Europe, the United States, and other countries, including China and Russia, have done so. This series of events, however, does not change our traditional international framework of reference in the slightest. We are grateful to everyone for the aid, but it has nothing to do with the pillars of our Euro-Atlantic position, which do not change.”

A bigger threat to the trans-Atlantic alliance than COVID-19 is diminished political will from within NATO members to sustain the partnership. Time will tell if President Trump’s announcement that he will withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization will have implications for U.S. participation in NATO. But the vocal affirmation of this position from the Italian leadership, along with the continued manufacture of F-35s under seriously stressed conditions, is a positive sign of NATO’s durability in the turbulent years to come.

Sarah White is a research associate at the Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author's own.

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