As China’s economic and military power has surged in recent years, U.S. defense preparations have become heavily focused on the Western Pacific.
However, the United States is a global player with security concerns in other regions.
Europe is arguably the area of greatest geopolitical importance to Washington, because it is the cradle of Western civilization and its geography makes the region far more susceptible to cross-border aggression.
In the years ahead, great-power conflict involving U.S. forces is at least as likely in Eastern Europe as it is in the Western Pacific.
Washington is not formally committed to the defense of Taiwan if that nation is attacked; it is committed by treaty to the defense of several NATO nations sharing a common border with Russia.
One country that looks poised to become more important as a European partner of America is Italy.
Despite being a major military power, Italy has never managed to rise quite to the level of regard that Britain, France and Germany enjoy in Washington.
But times have changed, and Italy’s circumstances position it in the years ahead to be a first-tier ally of America in much the same way that Australia and Israel are.
Here are five reasons, among others, why Italy is winning renewed respect in Washington as a trusted partner in Western security.
Relations within NATO are shifting. America’s most important military alliance is evolving in ways that make the biggest European members less useful as regional partners. Britain is pulling back from the Continent. France is calling for alternative security arrangements. Germany is exhibiting ambivalence about military spending that leaves the Bundeswehr in a state of chronic unpreparedness.
Meanwhile in the Mediterranean, Turkey has largely lost its status as the anchor of the alliance’s southern flank, due to persistent tensions with the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey’s ejection from the F-35 fighter program effectively precludes it from matching the air power of other key players in the region.
Against that backdrop, Italy stands out as a nation that is reliably committed the Western alliance and to democracy. Its economy, which is currently growing faster than Germany’s, is one of the most advanced in the world. The cultural affinity between America and Italy is well known; at least two Italian-Americans are poised to run for the U.S. presidency in 2024.
Italy’s location is well-suited to alliance needs. Italy’s geographical circumstances are ideal for shaping security conditions in the Mediterranean Sea—the most important body of water in Western history. The naval air station at Sigonella in Sicily, where long-range surveillance aircraft are deployed, is almost exactly equidistant from Beirut and Gibraltar at opposite ends of the sea. It is also a short hop by air to the most troubled countries in North Africa, most notably Libya.
In the north, the country’s territory extends so far into central and eastern Europe that Italian F-35s stationed there are within unrefueled range of Poland’s border with Belarus. NATO stores tactical nuclear weapons at two bases in the north, comprising a powerful component of the alliance’s deterrent to Russian aggression.
Rome’s foreign policy complements that of Washington. Italy is consistently supportive of alliance undertakings, having contributed to over two dozen peacekeeping and other stabilization efforts. It sent troops to Afghanistan during the early stages of the war there, and actively participates in virtually every multilateral organization of any consequence, from the United Nations to the G7 to the World Trade Organization.
In recent months, the government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi has exhibited an interest in becoming more involved in the quadrilateral alignment of America, Australia, India and Japan established to counter Chinese ambitions in Asia.
Draghi’s predecessor had a brief dalliance with China’s Belt and Road initiative, but Draghi has since distanced Italy from Beijing and shown great interest in developing closer ties to New Delhi—underscoring his country’s preference for democratic partners.
Italy’s military is making the right investments. Italy eliminated conscription in 2004 and today has a highly professional military of 371,000 warfighters split evenly between active-duty and paramilitary personnel. Its navy is the dominant maritime force in the Mediterranean, organized to include a light aircraft carrier, four air-defense destroyers, ten frigates, eight diesel-electric submarines and three amphibious vessels.
A version of the Italian frigate has been adopted by the U.S. Navy and is being constructed by the firm Fincantieri in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, Italy has become a pivotal partner in America’s tri-service F-35 fighter program, with plans to purchase 60 Air Force variants and 15 Navy variants. Italy supplies critical parts and assemblies for the F-35 effort, and is one of the very few partners that can assemble the entire aircraft.
Italy’s air force also operates the Boeing 767 aerial refueling tanker and Lockheed Martin C-130J transport.
Like Poland, a NATO country that has become more important since Russia seized Crimea, Italy is leveraging its limited military budget to buy advanced U.S. weapons. Like Japan, Italy has a sophisticated defense industrial base populated by companies like Fincantieri and Leonardo that can produce world-class military systems indigenously. Its armored-vehicle offerings are among the best in the world.
Political elites in Rome and Washington trust each other. There was a time not so long ago when Italy’s domestic politics were so unpredictable that they tended to undercut the country’s reputation in Washington as a reliable partner. With similar unpredictability now infecting the U.S. political culture, American policymakers are in no position to criticize the occasional domestic excesses of their ally.
With so many Western allies currently facing unusual internal conditions, it is easier to appreciate Italy’s track record as a pro-democratic, pro-American nation. Few nations have influenced U.S. culture as much as Italy has in the postwar era, and few nations have provided more forebears to the current U.S. population.
So above and beyond the tangible measures, there is an emotional component to the U.S.-Italian strategic partnership that comes from people in both nations believing that they possess similar values, and share a common heritage.