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Italy Positions Itself as the Driver of “Transatlantically Sustainable” European Strategic Autonomy

September 02, 2021
5 min read
Photo credit: Stefano Garau / Shutterstock.com

On September 3, Italy’s Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini will be in Washington for his first meeting with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. This comes at a critical time, not only in Italian-U.S. relations but more broadly speaking for the transatlantic alliance as it goes through the ultimate stress test in Afghanistan. Austin has praised Italy for its role in supporting the evacuation from the country, particularly for agreeing to temporarily host Special Immigrant Visa applicants and other Afghan evacuees at U.S. installations in the country and the crucial logistical role by the military base in Sigonella.

Its military mission in Afghanistan has been the most significant, demanding, costly, and dramatic for Italy since the end of the Second World War. More than 50,000 members of the armed forces went to Afghanistan, with around 700 injured and 54 victims. This mission was dictated by transatlantic loyalty, as Afghanistan would not be—under normal conditions—at the top of Italy’s military and strategic agenda. It was supported by governments of different orientations over the past 20 years, demonstrating the significance of the transatlantic logic in Italy’s strategic calculations. Italy’s disengagement from Afghanistan only started when it became clear the United States was getting ready to leave.

As this disengagement started, Italy began devoting more resources to other theaters considered of more immediate significance for its security, particularly the Maghreb and the Sahel. The more significant political and security focus on Africa, seen as a fundamental strategic appendix of the Mediterranean, is also perceived in Rome as a potential asset in the framework of the transatlantic partnership, particularly as it is becoming clear that the United States is rethinking its role in the world.

President Joe Biden reassured U.S. allies when he was sworn in that “America is back” after four years of erratic Trump diplomacy. However, while the United States returned to play a significant role in several multilateral fora and contexts, it became evident that for Biden and other crucial members of the administration, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken domestic politics, and internal needs would be of particular significance in driving foreign policy choices. Biden’s decision to move ahead and fast with the withdrawal from Afghanistan despite the mounting chaos should also be seen through this lens.

A U.S. Move to “Selectivism”

The withdrawal is likely to have an even greater significance than many initially thought. Biden has said that this is “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries … trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan—something that has never been done over centuries in Afghanistan history.” This is not only the end of the Afghan war: this is the end of the approach that has characterized U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. This started under President Bill Clinton and was reinforced after 9/11 and the “ideological shift” of President George W. Bush’s administration that, although he was elected on a realist or even isolationist foreign policy platform, turned to a muscular, neoconservative approach to democracy promotion and state-building

However, this move from Biden should not be read as the United States moving toward isolationism. Rather, this is a move toward what could be defined as “selectivism.” The threshold for intervention and devoting political, financial, and logistic resources to crises around the world is rising significantly, and Washington will become more and more selective in choosing where, when, and how to engage.

That said, Biden has shown that he cares about Europe. Recently, the United States has joined the PESCO project on military mobility, a program led by the Netherlands implementing a strategic platform that enables the rapid and smooth movement of military personnel and assets throughout the EU. This is not only of particular importance to EU security and defense, but it is extremely relevant in the framework of NATO-EU cooperation, as the alliance would need this mobility capacity to reinforce its posture in the Baltic region should Russia escalate there. U.S. participation is extremely relevant, not only from a political point of view but also from a more symbolic perspective. It signals the Biden administration’s support for the idea of a more efficient and effective EU defense cooperation that is complementary from a transatlantic perspective.

Italy’s Push for Synergy

This is in line with what Italy has been promoting over the past two years in the European and transatlantic debate. Since he became minister of defense in 2019, Guerini has constantly stressed the need to shape the evolution of European strategic autonomy, of which PESCO is a crucial element, to make it consistent and complementary with the transatlantic alliance. Speaking about the lessons that NATO could learn from Afghanistan and the need for Europe to be more effective and consistent on security issues, he has stressed that building a common European defense is essential for Europe to play a more effective global role. And also that the debate should not be limited only to the “establishment of a common army” but focus primarily on pushing the EU to take on “greater responsibilities” in defense and security. For Guerini, this must be done “in full synergy with NATO” amid the “indissolubility of the solid transatlantic relationship.” Italy is possibly the most significant European supporter of the vision of strategic autonomy that is firmly complementary to the transatlantic alliance, while other EU countries—France above all—perceive it in different terms.

To achieve this goal, Italy can also promote greater cooperation between the defense and security industry on both sides of the Atlantic. In the longer term, fostering interoperability between transatlantic security forces and pushing the major players of the respective industries to cooperate can be key to reinforcing simultaneously strategic autonomy and the transatlantic bond while also supporting their financial sustainability. Over the past few months, there have been several examples of fruitful defense cooperation between Italy and the United States: the F35-Bs program, the delivery of TH-73A helicopter and provision of laser pointers/trackers used in the Common Infrared Countermeasure system to mention a few.

As the transatlantic community rethinks its priorities and look at a future in which great-power competition is looming, reinforcing complementary and interoperability through joint programs involving European and U.S. defense companies could represent a major step in rethinking the raison d’être of the alliance. From this point of view, Italy could become the European driver of a “transatlantically sustainable” definition of European strategic autonomy.