Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visits the US to tighten a strategic relationship – including for the Mediterranean.by Enrico Casini, Federico Deiana
Italian Prime Minister Meloni’s recent visit to the US confirms the importance of the relationship between the two countries, one of the cornerstones of Italian foreign politics, also from a Euro-Mediterranean perspective.
When President Woodrow Wilson traveled across Italy in 1919, on a journey that took him to Rome and other several important cities, he was hailed everywhere by huge crowds. The images of the time well testify the enthusiasm with which the event – a first for Italy – was met.
Only two years earlier, the United States led by Wilson – the father of the internationalist and liberal vision of American foreign policy as well as of the League of Nations, which was based precisely on that vision – had intervened in WWI, making a decisive contribution to the Allied victory over the Central powers.
Europe, and Italy, had just emerged devastated from the Great War. For the United States, the war had been its first truly significant show of strength at the international level. Not only was the US instrumental to the victory of the Allied front, but it managed to establish itself as a rising power on the global scene, set to replace the old European powers, starting from Great Britain. The popular tributes paid to Wilson during his trip to Italy bore testament to the significance of his role. America was the land of dreams across the ocean, where millions of Europeans and Italians – as recalled by PM Giorgia Meloni and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy – had fled for decades to seek a better future.
Although temporarily disrupted during the WWII period, the relationship between the United States and Italy has continued to grow stronger over time. Undoubtedly, the presence, since the end of the 19th century, of millions of Italians – for a long time the largest immigrant community in the United States – has always had a significant impact on the relationship between the two nations. But it is equally evident, although not always sufficiently recognised, that this relationship gained momentum since 1943, first with the Liberation of Italy following the German occupation and then with the Marshall Plan. This has been a pillar of Italian foreign policy, but also an element of stability and security for any government in the country’s recent history.
After WWII, Italy became a strategic ally for the United States, particularly in contrasting communism and in confronting the Soviet Union in the Mediterranean. It is no coincidence that the Italian territory has since then housed some of the most important American bases in Europe and that the US navy’s Sixth Fleet is headquartered in Naples and has its homeport in Gaeta. Italy has always been considered a natural platform stretching across the Mediterranean and a crossroads between East and West, until 1989, and between North and South now. As such, for decades it has played a key and irreplaceable role for the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). So much so that Italy was chosen to be one of NATO’s founding members.
Over the past 80 years, the Mediterranean and transatlantic relations have been two crucial and interconnected elements of Italian foreign policy. At the end of WWII, as the country was proactively freeing itself and was being freed from dictatorship and foreign occupation, the collaboration between the new Italian democratic ruling classes and the United States began to strengthen. Since the end of WWII, the important role that Italy could play in the Mediterranean and in Europe led to a further tightening of political relations with the United States. This was also the case with the rest of Western Europe, particularly during the Cold War, when the confrontation between the Western bloc and communism focused primarily on Europe and much of the “game” was played around the Iron Curtain that divided the continent in two. In this context, transatlantic relations have always had a significant impact on the domestic and foreign policies of Western European nations. Since then, for more than 70 years, the Americans have ensured the defence and security of Western European nations – and of Italy first and foremost – against the Soviet threat and any others that have arisen over time, also thanks to NATO’s protective shield. Throughout the Cold War era, as well as in the years that followed 1989, when chaos suddenly spread inside Europe, from the Balkans and the southern shores of the Mediterranean to Central Asia, Italy remained loyal to its commitments to the US and its Western allies, fulfilling its role as a bridge to many Arab nations and actively committing to the security of the Euro-Mediterranean region. Italy has frequently been able to carve out for itself a leading position in the context of the complicated connections of the bipolar era and its aftermath, through mediation and communication skills – and particularly through high-level personalities – while remaining always loyal to its allies and, often, in complete harmony and agreement with them.
On several occasions, remaining a reliable ally for the US was a necessity for Italy, also given the level and volume of its economic and commercial relations with the country. The US is Italy’s first non-European partner, with the two countries sharing strong economic ties and strategic interests, including – to quote Italian Prime Minister Meloni – in sectors such as “defence, cybersecurity, energy, space, supply chains, infrastructures, critical raw materials, semiconductors”, as well as the frequently mentioned scientific partnerships.
Even today, in the Broader Mediterranean – Italy’s main geopolitical projection area – Washington still needs Rome to play a role, given the multiple security threats in this region, and Italy cannot waive American guarantees and support. It is also for this reason that the Mediterranean, Africa and threats to NATO’s Southern Flank were among the topics of the recent bilateral meeting between PM Giorgia Meloni and President Joe Biden.
During the meeting, for example, the US expressed full support for Italy’s initiatives on peace and stability in the Western Balkans, as well as for its fight against illegal immigration and food insecurity. These issues were also at the heart of two international conferences held in Rome a few days before Italian Prime Minister’s trip to Washington, which were praised by President Biden. PM Meloni also referenced the importance of Tunisia, a hotspot of instability on the African continent. The country represents, in fact, a key factor in the security of Italy and of the whole Broader Mediterranean. Consequently, the support expressed by Washington for Italy’s work in Tunisia could have a significant impact on the resolution of the current crisis, especially if Biden were to adopt the “pragmatic approach” the Italian Government has been advocating for in all international fora.
In the light of the current situation in the Mediterranean, of the international crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and of the existing threats around European and Italian borders, the meeting in Washington represented a significant opportunity to promote Italy’s interests and the consolidation of its relations with the United States.
In the current context of increased international rivalry, relations between Italy and the US have again acquired special relevance, just like they had a few decades ago. While the main focus of the United States is now on China and the Indo-Pacific, maintaining strong ties with historical allies such as Italy is a need that Washington cannot ignore. Both countries look at the Mediterranean and Africa, feel the need to expand the front of democratic countries, and wish to play a prominent role in the Indo-Pacific. The latter area has a key influence on Mediterranean dynamics, and Italy has increased its focus on it, with a commitment of its own, albeit shared with its allies. Italy’s recent activities in the Indo-Pacific are an example of this, as are the more structured partnership with Japan and several high-level meetings and initiatives with Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. During the summit at the White House, both leaders agreed to “strengthen bilateral and multilateral consultations on the opportunities and challenges posed by China”. While reiterating the importance of keeping the dialogue open with Beijing, both parties reaffirmed the need to protect national interests (de-risking), as already expressed during the G7 Summit in Hiroshima and the NATO Summit in Vilnius.
With the Sahel ablaze with insecurity, Niger’s democratic regime – one of the West’s main allies in the region – at risk, China and Russia advancing in the Mediterranean and in Africa, and the prospects of peace in Ukraine still elusive, the strengthening of transatlantic relations becomes essential. With regard to the Mediterranean, which poses an often underestimated threat to Europe, a solid, open dialogue and shared goals – not only in the security sphere – between Rome and Washington can also be useful in pushing Europe to act and, in the words of PM Meloni, “to have a clear foreign policy that represents an added value for the whole coalition.”
Italy and the United States have been sharing the same views for decades, not only on a political level, but also on an economic, values and cultural level. As recalled in Washington, support to Ukraine and the sharing of common strategic objectives, including in the Mediterranean, have confirmed the solidity of this relationship. Despite changes in leadership and political outlooks on both sides of the Atlantic, the relationship between the two countries has maintained its integrity and continuity. This is a further factor of strength and a value that confirms how for a country it is indispensable to put national interest at the heart of its actions, be it in foreign policy or in security-related matters.