Italy’s New Look

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Under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy has initiated a particularly energetic foreign and defense policy. In the face of limited European and international legitimacy, the prime minister realized that she could capitalize on her own domestic political strength and a fortuitous geopolitical moment created by the war in Ukraine and a continent-wide energy crisis. To do so, she surrounded herself with pragmatic politicians with government experience and set them to work. The result, for better or for worse, is what we might call an Italian “New Look.”

In the past few months, Meloni and her ministers have visited the Italian troops deployed in Iraq and Lebanon, signed new energy agreements with Algeria and Libya, tried to unlock financial support to Tunisia, reinvigorated détente policy with Turkey and Egypt, relaunched the Italian presence in the Western Balkans while offering to mediate between Serbia and Kosovo, reopened diplomatic relations with India and the United Arab Emirates, signed a strategic partnership with Japan, reached a trilateral agreement with Tokyo and London to produce a sixth-generation fighter jet, visited Ethiopia, received the presidents of Niger and Somalia in Rome, and started confidential talks with the Taipei government for cooperation in the semiconductor and critical materials sector. Meloni also took the risk of visiting Kyiv to reaffirm Italy’s commitment to the defense of Ukraine, alongside authorizing the transfer of Sol-Air Moyenne Portée/Terrestre air-defense systems and offering to host a reconstruction conference. Most recently, during a state visit to the White House, Italy and the United States agreed on further deepening cooperation in technology, aerospace, and defense.

 

 

Ultimately, Rome’s “New Look” aims to reboot Italy’s role as a regional power with global influence, while still operating within the framework of NATO and the European Union. Drawing on the policies of her predecessor Mario Draghi, Meloni is adopting a strong Atlanticist posture, developing a new African strategy — the Mattei Plan — while also aiming to connect the Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific. The Ministry of Defense, alongside the strategic Ministry of Economic Development, is expected to play a major role in realizing these ambitions, through defense cooperation agreements, naval diplomacy, and investments in critical technology, aeronautics, and aerospace. Several constraints, however, might hamper Italy’s ambitions, from slow economic growth to the risk of overstretch and inter-European scuffles. There’s also the possibility of escalation in Ukraine, the deepening crisis in the Sahel, and potential Chinese pushback after Italy left the Belt and Road Initiative. In the face of such challenges, Rome should focus on strengthening its U.S. and European partnerships, while at the same turning its “New Look” into a more coherent and focused strategy.

 

The Mattei Plan: Pivoting to the Mediterranean

For all Meloni’s new activity, the elements of continuity with Draghi’s government are greater than those of discontinuity. These include the Atlanticist turn, the decisiveness in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the new strategy for energy supply diversification, and the focus on the Mediterranean region. The difference is to be found in the political narrative and the scale of priorities: While the Draghi government looked at Italy’s Mediterranean policy as a complement to its European policy, the Meloni government prefers to look at the Mediterranean as the country’s primary area of political action and at the European institutions as necessary but subsidiary.

Meloni wants to make her personal mark on Italy’s Mediterranean pivot through the Mattei Plan, which could also expand to allow Italy to play a leading European role in Africa. So far, this plan serves more as a narrative or strategic vision than a concrete, operationalized strategy. It takes its name from Enrico Mattei, a Catholic leader of the anti-fascist resistance who, after World War II, helped revitalize the oil giant Eni while expanding Italy’s foothold in Africa, Middle East, Iran, and the Soviet Union. Where some critics see the lack of an operational doctrine as a weakness, this could also serve as its strength, allowing Rome to seize on diverse initiatives to develop cooperation, diplomacy, security, or economic projection in Africa. At a time when the invasion of Ukraine and its aftermath have revived longstanding Italian dreams of becoming the energy hub for the central Mediterranean, this goal might also evolve into a future cornerstone of the Mattei Plan.

Nevertheless, the Mediterranean is not Rome’s only geopolitical focus. Italy also hopes to connect its maritime basin to the Indo-Pacific along the southern corridor, outside of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. This explains the recent official visits to Abu Dhabi and to New Delhi. The former served to rebuild a relationship that had badly frayed to the point of costing Italy important industrial orders, while the latter served to demonstrate Italy’s interest in expanding its foreign policy to the Indo-Pacific. Between the two trips, the prime minister of Israel also visited Rome, enhancing Italy’s efforts to bring the United Arab Emirates, India, and Israel together in a series of mini-lateral initiatives. By building East-West connectivity through the so-called Indo-Abrahamic Alliance, Italy hopes to lay a deeper foundation for a potential energy axis.

The Role of the Ministry of Defense

The “New Look” of Italy’s foreign policy is also characterized by the unusual role being played by the Ministry of Defense. Despite Italy having been one of NATO’s main troop contributors in operational theaters such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, the military was always a secondary element of Italian foreign policy. The new defense minister, however, wants to make the armed forces a key instrument of operational support and a force multiplier for Italy abroad. Guido Crosetto, a former Christian Democrat close to Meloni, brings considerable experience, having served as undersecretary of state for defense under Silvio Berlusconi and as chairman of the Confederation of Defense and Aerospace Companies. He finds himself overseeing a complex machine plagued by duplication, elephantiasis, resource allocation problems, old equipment, and an aging workforce.

 

 

Last February, Crosetto outlined his doctrine for Italian defense. According to the minister, “The present seems to be a return, in a technologically evolved key, to the horrors of the last century’s conflicts.” Based on processes already started by the previous defense minister, Lorenzo Guerini, Italy’s armed forces will therefore need to be capable of operating in all scenarios and physical spaces where the structure of democratic institutions is threatened. Italy will need the ability to generate security both through deterrence and compellence and have the technology to do so. To this end, the government will invest in the construction of remote-control systems, drones and anti-drone defenses, stable offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, air and anti-aircraft artillery systems to be flanked by renewed armored units, and anti-submarine units. In doing so, Crosetto seeks to contribute to scientific and technological research programs, particularly in the realm of AI, to ensure Italy’s strategic autonomy through a solid industrial base. This will be enhanced by improved synergy between the armed forces, industry, universities, start-ups, and businesses, as well as the selective but timely application of Italy’s “Golden Power” rule to halt foreign and hostile acquisitions. The Ministry of Defense has also relaunched a permanent roundtable with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and intends to strengthen the role of military attachés so they become “agents of military diplomacy.”

Crosetto has emphasized that, in addition to deploying forces within the framework of the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO, Italy will no longer exclude the possibility of cooperating within ad hoc coalitions with other partners. Indeed, the armed forces will serve to increase Italy’s relevance and autonomous capacity at an international level. In this context, he also distinguished between the importance of supporting European defense and the less realistic possibility of a common European army. He encouraged the European Union to focus on building the interoperability of its armed forces by buying equipment and materials, defining common methods and doctrines, and opening joint command and officer-training centers. The result would be a “European defense ecosystem” in which Italy, alongside France, Germany and Spain, would play a leading role thanks to its defense industry and the deep experience of its armed forces.

 

Heading Toward the Pacific

The interplay of Italy’s foreign policy and defense policy can be seen in its new Indo-Pacific pivot. So far, this has entailed signing strategic partnerships with Japan and India, entering negotiations with Taiwan for semiconductor investments, and signing a defense cooperation agreement with the Philippines. Italy’s trilateral agreement with London and Tokyo — the Global Combat Air Programme — can be described as the aeronautical version of AUKUS. Indeed, Rome, London and Tokyo converge on the need to strengthen their role within the American-led western alliance system. They are also driven by the desire to extend their international influence through scientific and technological excellence in defense. The competition between the United States and China is not limited to containing Beijing’s military expansion in Asia but is equally focused on the control of critical technologies. Thus, the success of the Global Combat Air Programme would put London, Tokyo and Rome on the front line of this technological contest, while also giving them greater weight in inter-alliance relations.

Italy’s Indo-Pacific pivot has also been driven by more pressing political and security concerns about China. By the end of the year, Meloni will need to decide whether to renew the controversial 2019 memorandum of understanding signed during Xi Jinping’s state visit to Rome. Following in Draghi’s footsteps, Meloni is giving Italy’s foreign policy an Atlanticist slant by demonstrating that she prefers democratic values to commercial interests and combatting enduring suspicions of neutralism. To succeed, however, the prime minister needs backup from the other G7 countries, above all the United States, as Italy faces the backlash produced by withdrawal from the memorandum and its firm stance on Ukraine. After all, Italy is already experiencing the threat of “indirect pressure” from the Balkans, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa through the operations of Wagner in Libya, the coups in the Sahel, the violation of its territorial waters in the Adriatic sea by Russian submarines, and the increasing presence of China in Serbia. These risks are exacerbated by Italy’s naval support for Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific. After the defense minister and the chief of the naval staff met their counterparts in Tokyo, Rome is preparing to send a battle group to the Pacific consisting of the flagship aircraft carrier Cavour, a destroyer, a multi-role frigate, and a refueling ship.

This happens at a time when Italy’s naval capacity is expanding dramatically. In 2024, the landing helicopter dock Trieste will also enter service in the Italian navy. Together with the Cavour and the Garibaldi (which could become a mobile space launcher), this will bring the number of Italian aircraft carriers to three. The Trieste and Cavour will also host F-35Bs, making Italy the third country after the United States and the United Kingdom to possess an air-to-sea projection capability with fifth-generation fighter jets. The navy can also deploy a growing flotilla of state-of-the-art attack submarines, while the naval staff and the Italian defense industry have shown a keen interest in the underwater domain, where Italy has been historically active.

Nevertheless, the limitations and risks inherent in Italy’s presence in Asia are evident. Rome is returning to East Asia (where from 1901 to 1943 it controlled a commercial concession in Tientsin, just outside Beijing) without having elaborated a Chinese policy or an Indo-Pacific strategy. In fact, until last year, this strategy was delegated to the European Union. Therefore, in addition to the Africa policy already in development, Italy should also elaborate a national strategy for the Persian Gulf and the Indo-Pacific as soon as possible. Without clear objectives and a well-defined operational perimeter, it risks entering a volatile and highly competitive area without a compass. Crucially, to pursue a foreign policy with global aims, Italian policymakers should also stop considering state power in purely economic terms. Indeed, in the past, this economicist view deprived Italian businesses of geopolitical depth, reducing Italy’s foreign projection to mercantilism as an end in itself.

The Martini Doctrine and Italy’s diplomatic conundrum

The “New Look” is implicitly pushing Italy beyond the so-called Martini Doctrine. Named after Cold War-era intelligence chief Admiral Fulvio Martini, this defined Italy’s area of exclusive interest as the “enlarged Mediterranean” — North Africa, the Western Balkans, the Middle East up to the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea up to the coasts of Somalia. In doing so, it accepted the downsizing of Rome’s ambitions after the disastrous outcome of World War II. Today, however, Rome is betting on its ability to play a more global role.

This will require an increasingly close partnership with Western allies, especially the United States. Historically, Italy gains weight and autonomy when it is closer to the United States and when the European powers face moments of crisis. At the same time though, Rome does not have the strength and means to deal single-handedly with issues such as migration, the food and energy crises, international terrorism and security, and containing rivals in the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa. That is why Italy needs to act in concert with its European partners, especially France and Germany. To date, Rome’s relations with these two powers have sometimes been marred by competition and could be improved through greater cooperation in regions like North Africa and the Sahel as well as on issues like energy security and European defense. Rome also remains eager to cooperate or act under a U.S. umbrella, even though Washington does not necessarily want to be directly involved in areas like the Mediterranean, which it treats as a lower priority. By bringing longstanding allies on board as it expands its global scope, Italy can help secure the long-term success of its ambitious “New Look.”

 

 

 

Leonardo Palma is a strategic analyst within the Research and Geopolitical Analysis Unit at Leonardo Med-Or. He is also a Ph.D. candidate at University of Roma Tre, a visiting D.Phil. student at Oxford University, and a teaching fellow at the Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali School of Government.

Image: Presidency of the Council of Ministers

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