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Transatlantic Take

China, the Mediterranean, and Multilateralism: the New Italian-U.S. Agenda

7 min read
Photo credit: MikeDotta / Shutterstock.com
This analysis is produced in the framework of the IAI-GMF Fellowship on Italian foreign and defence policy. 

This analysis is produced in the framework of the IAI-GMF Fellowship on Italian foreign and defence policy. 

If diplomatic visits are indicators of the state of ties between countries, the relationship between Italy and the United States is apparently in excellent shape. In April, Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio was the first foreign dignitary to visit Washington since President Joe Biden was sworn in. Two months later, on June 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to Italy for an intense three-day visit. In Rome, he met President Sergio Mattarella, Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and Di Maio. With the latter, he co-chaired the Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. On the last day, Blinken traveled to Matera to attend the G20 Foreign Affairs Ministerial Meeting. During his trip, three issues emerged as crucial in the current Italian-U.S. agenda: China, security in the wider Mediterranean, and multilateralism.

Unavoidable China

China is more and more part of every diplomatic conversation involving the United States. The Biden administration has made clear that it is considered a competitor and a strategic rival, and it is even tougher on Beijing than the previous administration.

China is also inevitably a thorny issue in Italian-U.S. relations as Rome is so far the only G7 member that joined—in 2019—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Although Italy never perceived this as questioning its traditional alliances, this left room for some ambiguity. China’s propaganda machine also tried to reinforce this impression, and the attention to Italy in Washington inevitably grew. At the time of the populist government formed by the Five Stars Movement and the League, Di Maio was the minister of economic development and the main political actor that pushed Italy’s BRI adhesion ahead. During Blinken’s visit, however, he said that “Italy is a strong trading partner of China, with whom we have historical relations, but these relations do not interfere with the relations we have with the United States and NATO”, a comment in line with the more nuanced approach he has adopted on China since becoming minister of foreign affairs.

Italy’s BRI participation is destined to remain a dead letter.

Following Biden’s election, it became clear that the United States would adopt a more uncompromising and more consistent approach toward China. Therefore Italy had to work to defuse ambiguity on an issue that is crucial for the new administration. The evolution of Italian-Chinese relations over the past two years also suggests that, although the BRI project is not dead, it has not been as successful as many would have thought. Draghi has said that he would be ready to reassess Italy’s participation. While a withdrawal is unlikely as it would do more harm than good, with China likely to retaliate, Italy’s BRI participation is destined to remain a dead letter.

The Regional Perspective

The meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS highlighted another crucial aspect that defines current Italian-U.S. ties: the centrality of security dynamics in the wider Mediterranean. The presence, reorganization, and expansion of ISIS show linkages spanning across the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel, and the rest of Africa. It is a problem that cannot be addressed focusing only on one specific region.

Italy is actively trying to strengthen and expand its African profile. At the end of last year, it launched a new “Partnership with Africa” policy. Rome also increased the amount of human and financial resources devoted to military missions in the Sahel and other areas (Iraq, for instance), a notable effort particularly in the light of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, Italy is playing a more proactive role inside the EU to coordinate and promote a more consistent approach toward the area. The appointment of Emanuela Claudia Del Re—a former deputy foreign minister of Italy—as EU special representative for the Sahel is noteworthy, mainly as this was a policy area that used to be dominated by France.

The Challenge of Multilateralism

Looking at these dynamics through the lens of Italian-U.S. relations, Italy’s commitment to multilateral military missions is positive, and the United States welcomes this commitment, but it might not be enough. The material, financial, and military resources the United States devotes to the Mediterranean mean it remains a crucial actor in the area. Yet, there has been a shift: it is now clear to all the actors that are part of the Mediterranean security equation that the threshold for U.S. intervention has been raised substantially over the past ten years, regardless of the administration in power. This, more than U.S. material commitment, affects the calculations of the actors involved.

For Italy, and the EU, this means the necessity to be involved more actively from a military and security perspective. The United States does not want to intervene in areas and countries considered secondary for its immediate national interests. Yet, at the same time, it also does not want Russia and others to take advantage of vacuums, as happened in Syria and Libya. Washington perceives that European countries should play a more proactive role in containing these threats in their neighborhood.

From the United States’ perspective, the flawed approach of Italy and Europe can be a major problem. Rome still sees its military involvement across the wider Mediterranean as part of multilateral arrangements and non-combat missions aimed at supporting processes of local capacity-building. When there is the need to intervene militarily either to protect specific allies or to achieve political goals through military means, as was the case in Libya when the Government of the National Accord came under attack in April 2019 from the rogue warlord Khalifa Haftar, Italy does not act. In that specific case, the intervention of a NATO ally, Turkey, filled the vacuum and counterbalanced Russia’s growing influence in eastern Libya. This was an example of how in the new Mediterranean context, in which many more countries have a say in defining the strategic balances and dynamics compared to just a few years ago, inaction can turn almost automatically into a loss of influence.

As noted, Italy always needs a multilateral framework to operate militarily. From this point of view, Biden’s focus on revitalizing the United States’ system of alliances and multilateral arrangements after the unpredictable isolationism of Trump, although with new formulas to make it sustainable domestically, was met with relief in Rome. The support for multilateralism and an international order “based on rules, with the United Nations at the center of the system” is a foundational pillar of Italy’s international action. On this Rome and Washington are likely to be on the same page in the foreseeable future, making it a vital and promising area of cooperation.

After the tension inevitably created by Italy’s BRI membership and some ambiguities in the early stage of the coronavirus pandemic, relations with the United States are now back on a more normal track. Even if Biden did not mention Italy among the top U.S. allies in his first foreign policy speech, the diplomatic activism of the past few months has shown that the relationship is healthy and stable. Italy’s government is very much on the same page as the Biden administration when it comes to China and multilateralism. In the wider Mediterranean, its greater attention to Africa and continuous support for military missions are also positive assets in the eyes of Washington.

However, the emergence of powers willing to use military means to fulfil political goals in the Mediterranean might require Italy, and the EU, to partially shift their approach as the United States has made clear that, while it is not withdrawing from the area, it is not willing anymore to act every time there is a crisis. Italy often requires the United States’ attention to military crises that can jeopardies its interests, as in the case of Libya. Looking forward, Washington would like Rome to be less passive in addressing these threats. If this happens in cooperation with other European countries, even better. As such, the increasing convergence with France and Germany over the past few months is seen as a positive development in Washington—even more so if this is considered to be the beginning of a more consistent and pro-active European approach to the Mediterranean and its mounting militarization.