Strategic Posture Review: Italy

Strategic Posture Review: Italy

The main external influence on a state’s foreign and security policies is the structure of the international system. Prudent states act within the constraints determined by both the distribution of power in the system and their own position in it. As the international system changes, so, too, do its systemic constraints, with national foreign and security policies also likely to undergo changes as a result. Other factors determining the type of security policies a state adopts include national security culture as well as state capacity. In line with this theoretical approach, this review will discuss how the changing systemic constraints following the Cold War impacted Italy’s strategic posture. It will also provide an overview of Italy’s security culture, including its professed core national interests and its perceived threats, and examine the evolution of Italy’s national security policies.

Systemic Constraints

During the Cold War, Italy could fulfill its security needs through membership in NATO. Moreover, because of its position in the Mediterranean and its willingness to provide military bases, Italy enjoyed a kind of a geostrategic “rent,” allowing its government to be sparing with its defense budget. Italy, in other words, was more of a “security consumer” than a “security producer.”

The end of the bipolar system, however, brought about a readjustment in Italy’s strategic posture. Since the early 1990s, Italian governments have pursued a more proactive and pronounced security policy, for at least two reasons. First, a defensive alliance such as NATO was an appropriate instrument to counter the Soviet threat, but it appeared less suitable to deal with the more complex post-Cold War threats. Second, in the post-bipolar environment, disagreements appeared more likely to arise among the allies — and between the Americans and Europeans, in particular — concerning the severity and immediacy of different threats and the best way to deal with them. This meant that there might be cases in which the European members of the alliance would be left to their own devices. Hence they had to give themselves the institutional structure, political ability, and military capability to act alone. As a result, Italy embarked on an effort to become a “security producer” as well.

As part of this more proactive approach, Italian governments have pursued a number of policies aimed at reinforcing the main international organizations dealing with security issues of which the country is a member — the U.N. and NATO, in particular — as well as supporting the project of giving the EU a role to play in the security and defense sphere. Italy’s objective has been to enable these organizations, collectively and/or individually, either to respond directly to the type of new threats to which Italy, given its proximity to the two turbulent regions of the Balkans and the southern shore of the Mediterranean, is particularly exposed, or, in the absence of a direct response, to legitimize the security initiatives taken by states acting both jointly and unilaterally. Since the end of the Cold War, in fact, Italian governments have not shunned the responsibility of intervening unilaterally (in 1997 in Albania), or taking the lead in promoting interventions (in 2007 in Lebanon) whenever national or regional security needs seemed to require a speedy response.

Security Culture

National security culture can be seen as consisting of four core elements: perception of the international environment, national identity, instrumental preferences, and interactional preferences. Italian political elites, as well as Italians in general, view the international political environment through a “liberal internationalist” lense. That is, they believe that international order and peace rest primarily on the active promotion of international institutions and rules. This propensity can be traced back to the consequences of World War II, which led Italians to repudiate the ideology of fascism and its view of the international system as an arena where nations compete aggressively with one another for power, wealth, and prestige.

Italians basically see themselves as brava gente (good people) who are peaceful, resourceful, and creative, but who lack a strong sense of national identity and allegiance. Their horizons are both local/regional and cosmopolitan, but rarely national. Because of the fascist experience, they tend to equate nationalism with militarism and reject both. The Italian armed forces, for instance, were made up of conscripts until 2005, because a professional army was perceived — especially by left-wing political parties — as inherently authoritarian and hence as a potential threat to the newly established democratic system. Italian security culture helps explain why, throughout the Cold War, security and defense issues were largely delegated to NATO and practically absent from the domestic political debate.

When, in the early 1990s, the end of bipolarity made it necessary for Italian governments to take security issues more seriously, this national security culture represented an obstacle to change. The civil war in Yugoslavia and the collapse of Albania, however, made it clear that the frailty of some states required stabilization through the intervention of the international community in order to prevent disorder from spreading regionally. Hence, Italian political elites, with the exception of some left-wing fringes, took on a more proactive international role. Cultural constraints, however, continue to play a role, if a limited one, in the way political elites present Italian military missions abroad to the public. The term “war” is banned from their vocabulary, and all missions — even those that require the use of military force, such as the one in Afghanistan — are always described as peacekeeping missions, with deployed troops portrayed as being engaged exclusively in humanitarian activities.

Concerning the instruments to use when acting on the international scene, Italian political elites privilege the use of soft power and civilian instruments such as economic aid and democratic institution-building. The use of military force is considered only when absolutely necessary and even then should be both limited and proportional. They also believe that Italy is eminently suited to act as an international mediator given its lack of either a military tradition or a significant colonialist heritage.

Finally, concerning interactional preferences, Italian political elites prefer to act within extended, institutionalized, multilateral organizations, such as the U.N., NATO and the EU. However, when deemed absolutely necessary, they are not averse to more restricted forms of multilateral cooperation, or even to taking unilateral initiatives and then seeking ex-post facto U.N. legitimization, as was the case in Albania in 1997.

National Interests and Perceived Threats

Besides the defense of the country’s territorial integrity, Italian governments have defined the following objectives as national core security interests: to prevent the emergence of a non-democratic power at Italy’s frontiers, to preserve the country’s economic wealth by protecting the inflow of primary resources, and to contribute to the international collective effort of maintaining international order and peace.

The end of bipolarity has meant that the main threat confronting Europe is no longer a westward-marching Soviet army. The Italian government, largely in agreement with the first-ever European Security Strategy paper of 2003, has identified the main threats it faces as follows: conflicts in nearby regions (particularly the Balkans, the Middle East, and the southern shores of the Mediterranean) that may cause large and uncontrollable migratory flows, terrorism (and in particular Islamic terrorism), proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the impact of failed states on regional and global order, and organized crime.

Because of its geographical location, Italy sees itself in the front line when it comes to dealing with such threats. As a result, the Italian government believes that crises in these regions must be managed in loco and before they explode with unpredictable results for regional and global security. The same, of course, goes for the civil and political reconstruction of failed states, which are regarded as the result of unmanaged crises. Because of the necessity to intervene in loco, the Italian government concluded that Italy needs the capability to project military force beyond its territory, with “peace-support operations” as its main contribution to collective security.

Italy’s Security Policies and Contributions to Security Governance

Italian governments insist that the provision of global and regional security, though the responsibility of states acting conjointly, should always be legitimized at the highest possible level, meaning the U.N. Security Council, especially when the use of military means is required. Thus, in the last two decades, Italy has tried to reinforce U.N. legitimacy, while also seeking to broaden the range of NATO security missions and give the EU the responsibility, as well as the capacity, to act in the security field.

To increase the legitimacy of the U.N. as well as the activism of the Security Council, Italy has promoted the principle that membership in the council should depend “on objective criteria of participation, role, weight and commitment.” To this end, it has advanced a proposal for the reform of the council that calls for the addition of eight to 10 non-permanent seats, which would rotate more frequently. They would be filled by members chosen from a group of some 24 to 30 countries selected on the basis of their contributions to the activities of the U.N., and divided into three regional sub-groups to assure equitable geographical representation.

Italy has also advanced suggestions aimed at limiting the use of the veto and reinforcing the role of regional organizations in the council. Thus, it first raised the idea of an EU seat and then, given the cool reception the proposal received even among EU member states, suggested that a representative of the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU sit with the delegation of one of the EU member states, occupying a non-permanent seat. The Italian objective is twofold: to strengthen EU efforts to develop a common foreign and security policy while linking the union more closely to the U.N.

With respect to the EU, Italy has fully supported the creation and development of a common European security and defense policy (ESDP). But in keeping with the traditional view that European integration must be a process that reinforces the Atlantic alliance, Italian governments, whether center-left or center-right, have regarded ESPD as a complement, and not an alternative, to the strengthening of NATO. Italy has also suggested setting military convergence criteria, along the lines of what the Maastricht treaty required with respect to the Economic and Monetary Union, in order to speed up ESDP’s realization.

Italian activism in this field was no doubt spurred by the events in Albania in the spring of 1997 when, after the Albanian state collapsed in the wake of a large financial scandal, thousands of Albanians crossed the Adriatic in search of better fortune in Italy. The Italian government first tried to work through the EU to develop a plan for common action. When this failed, it did not hesitate to take the lead in forming a “coalition of the willing” and in putting together a military-humanitarian mission to deal with the emergency. Its objective was to restore order, to help reconstruct the Albanian state by preparing for new elections, to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid in loco, and thus to put an end to the flow of refugees. In line with its national security culture, Italy insisted that such a mission receive the necessary multilateral legitimization, which the U.N. eventually provided.

Concerning NATO, Italy supported the new crisis-management role the alliance assumed after the Cold War as well as the extension of its responsibilities to include out-of-area missions. According to Italy, however, such missions should not be undertaken unilaterally, but rather should be legitimized by the U.N. Not surprisingly, at the Rambouillet conference that preceded NATO’s intervention against Serbia over the Kosovo issue, the Italian government was very sympathetic to the Serb request that a U.N. Security Council resolution authorize the entry of a multinational force into Kosovo. In the end, even in the absence of a Security Council resolution, the Italian government embraced its responsibilities as a member of the alliance and took part in NATO’s first out-of-area mission, although it insisted that the Kosovo case was to be considered an exception and not the first instance of a new type of practice. Concerning NATO’s process of enlargement into Eastern Europe, Italy argued that it should proceed slowly in order to give the EU time for its own enlargement. Italy, in other words, preferred the two enlargements to proceed in unison to avoid any widening of the gap in membership between the two organizations, which would risk complicating relations between NATO and EU in the security field.

Another reason for Italy’s cautiousness was its desire not to antagonize Russia, a country with which Italy has developed an important relationship based primarily on economic and energy interests. Italy imports about 40 percent of its natural gas needs from Russia. Trade between the two countries has grown substantially and steadily during the last decade, with exports in 2007 totaling more than €9.5 billion and imports amounting to €14.3 billion. Finally, Italian direct investment in Russia, both by private and state-owned companies, albeit still modest, is also growing steadily, especially in the energy sector. For these reasons, Italian governments, whether formed by the center-left or the center-right, tend to adopt a very conciliatory — and never antagonistic — position vis-à-vis Russia on all issues, including the 2008 Georgian-Russian conflict. Italy, in other words, tends to act as a political mediator-facilitator for Russia within the EU, NATO and other international forums.

Prevention. The term “prevention” refers to policies aimed at preventing conflict by reinforcing domestic and regional democratic political institutions. Given the relationship between economic development and democratization, official development assistance (ODA) can be seen as forming the core of prevention policies. Italy’s ODA has traditionally been based on a humanitarian rationale. However, recent developments in global security have led Italian governments to link ODA to policies aimed at maintaining international peace and managing the flow of immigrants. Hence, even if ODA has not been securitized, at least not officially or fully, the belief seems to be emerging in Italian government circles that long-term sustainable security cannot be attained without economic development. As a result, Italian ODA now has three objectives: humanitarian goals meant to alleviate poverty and help reconstruct both social fabric and political institutions in the wake of conflicts and civil wars; economic goals that emphasize integration into the world economy and support for the private sector (particularly small- and medium-size businesses); and political goals of stability, which applied to developing countries means greater security for Italy, primarily through a reduced flow of legal and illegal immigrants.

Notwithstanding repeated promises to increase it, however, the Italian ODA budget still falls far below not only the 0.7 percent of Gross National Income (GNI) set by the U.N. in 1969 but also below the average contributions of OECD-DAC members, which stands at just above 0.4 percent of GNI. Italian ODA as a percentage of GNI declined by more than half between 1990 and 2000, from 0.31 to 0.13 percent, and has only climbed back to about 0.20 percent in the second half of this decade. Good intentions, in other words, are not supported by capacity. The decline, in fact, has been due to the so-called tangentopoli scandals involving the development cooperation directorate, as well as due to the financial constraints of meeting the economic and fiscal criteria to join the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). It should also be pointed out that in parallel with the process of overall decline, the percentage of Italian ODA channeled though multilateral organizations has increased, passing from 32 percent in the late 1980s to about 60 percent 10 years later, which is more than any other EU member states. The reason seems to be primarily the absence of a long-term, well-developed national plan for development aid.

Italian ODA has gone primarily to African countries (particularly former colonies), those countries where Italy has taken on international commitments (Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon), and areas with which the country has historical ties (Latin America, the Middle East and the Mediterranean). In line with the security considerations mentioned above, particular attention has been paid to the so-called “near abroad” — North Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), the Middle East (the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen), and the Balkans (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, and Montenegro). In 2008, the top five recipients were Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian-administered territories, which together accounted for almost half of the total amount of Italian ODA. With the exception of Iraq, which received $663 million (although one-third of that amount was in the form of debt relief), all the other countries received less than $100 million. The fact that Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon — three countries in which Italy had or still has military forces deployed — are among the top five recipients of ODA seems to indicate the increasing importance of the relationship between Italian aid, foreign policy objectives, and security. In March 2007, for instance, the decree issued to refinance Italian peace-support missions abroad allocated €40 million for economic development in Afghanistan and €30 million for Lebanon.

Finally, the connection between immigration and “prevention” needs to be mentioned. The number of legal immigrants to Italy has increased from 729,159 in 1996, to 1,549,392 in 2003, to 3,891,295 in 2009. The number of illegal immigrants is estimated to have increased in a similar fashion. Italian immigration policy has focused almost exclusively on the latter and has largely neglected the former, apparently for two reasons. First, the government recognizes the increasing importance of immigration in sustaining the Italian economy in light of the country’s low birth rate, rapidly aging population, and reluctance on the part of Italians to seek employment is some economic sectors. Second, it would appear that Italian governments have come to regard immigration as part of, or in any case closely linked to, aid and development policies. Emigration from unstable or undeveloped countries, in other words, seems to be perceived as a kind of social and economic safety valve relieving population pressures in societies of origin and contributing to their economic development through remittances. Indeed, the Italian development aid office finances a number of programs specifically linking immigration and economic development.

The linkage between immigration and security, however, is not limited to this perceived link with “prevention” policies. The absence of a clear selective immigration policy matching Italian economic needs with the skills of the immigrants, coupled with the high number of illegal immigrants, is rapidly turning immigration into a public-order problem as well as a state and societal security issue.

Assurance. The term “assurance” identifies policies designed to rebuild state and civil society in the wake of conflicts. Traditionally these were limited to observation and peacekeeping missions, but assurance policies have become much more complex in the post-Cold War period and have come to be identified with the more general term of “peace-support operations.” Between 1955 and 1990, Italy took part in 15 U.N. observation and peacekeeping missions, although it always played a minor role. Indeed, until 1990, Italy’s only major military contribution to a U.N. peacekeeping operation was its participation in the multinational force dispatched to Lebanon in 1982.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, by contrast, Italy has participated in all major international peacekeeping and peace-support operations, some of which have required a significant military contribution. As a result, it has become one of the top five contributors of troops and personnel. Since 1995, Italy has had an average of about 8,000 soldiers and civilians in the field at any given time, and has usually ranked as the fifth- or sixth-largest contributor to the U.N. regular and peacekeeping budgets. In 2008, for instance, it contributed 5.5 percent of the total regular budget, representing €83 million, and €246 million to the peacekeeping budget — a notable increase from the average of $66.5 million per year that it contributed between 1997 and 2000. At the end of 2009, Italy had over 8,000 military personnel deployed in over 20 missions in almost as many countries on three different continents. Of these missions, seven were led by the U.N., six by NATO and 10 by the EU. In addition, Italy was also participating in two multilateral but independent observing missions, namely the Multilateral Force and Observers (MFO) in the Sinai (78 observers) and the Temporary International Presence in the City of Hebron (TIPH) in the West Bank (12 observers).

The approximate equality in the number of missions between multilateral institutions, however, does not correspond to equality in the commitment of personnel. In terms of military personnel deployed, in fact, the number committed to NATO-led missions is almost two-and-a-half times greater than that engaged in U.N.-led missions (5314 and 2497, respectively) and eight times greater than that committed to EU-led missions (656). The difference, moreover, would be much greater were it not for UNIFIL, the only U.N.-led peace-support mission in which Italy is currently participating, the others being traditional observation missions. UNIFIL alone accounts for 98.9 percent of all Italian troops committed to U.N.-led missions.

This difference in levels of personnel commitment is neither surprising nor does it make Italy an exception among Western countries. With the end of the Cold War, the number of troop-contributing countries increased substantially because of the participation of developing countries and the permanent members of the Security Council. As a result, all Western countries, Italy included, are contributing fewer military personnel to U.N.-led missions.

Italian participation in NATO operations includes two typically robust peace-support missions (KFOR in Kosovo and ISAF in Afghanistan), which alone account for 86 percent of all Italian troops committed to NATO-led missions. By contrast, most of the EU missions provide support in the rule-of-law area, more specifically police, judiciary and customs-inspection training. Italy seems to have carved out a niche for itself in this type of mission, especially regarding police training, a job usually performed by the Carabinieri. This highly trained Italian police force is a central component of the multinational European Gendarmerie Force (EGF), established by Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Romania in 2006 and headquartered in Vicenza, whose task is to provide the EU as well as other international organizations and ad hoc coalitions with an operational instrument for crisis management.

Compellence. Compellence refers to the use of the armed forces in conflict resolution. Since the end of World War II, Italy has been involved in compellence operations only twice: in the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 NATO intervention against Serbia. It should be pointed out, however, that some peace-support missions — such as those in Somalia and Iraq, and the current one in Afghanistan — also have a compellence dimension.

Two main factors constrain Italy’s use of compellence policies. The first, as already mentioned above, is Italian security culture. Participation in the Gulf War, even if it was a duty under the U.N. Charter and limited to the deployment of eight Tornado fighters, caused a very harsh domestic debate, both among politicians and the public at large. The intervention against Serbia did not have a U.N. mandate and the center-left government at the time justified it by invoking the need for NATO solidarity. In the case of Afghanistan, where Italy is entrusted with the Regional Command West and the leadership of the Provincial Reconstruction Team of Herat, the Italian government has repeatedly underlined the peaceful objective of the mission, which it describes as “to assist the local leadership to extend its authority in order to facilitate the development of a safe, stable environment in the province and encourage reconstruction.” The Italian government has also adopted restrictive rules of engagement limiting the Italian contingent’s freedom of action and ability to use force. Such limitations have upset other NATO allies and might also have made the operations of the Italian forces both more difficult and dangerous.

The second constraint on the use of compellence is represented by Italian military capabilities. Although Italy would like to be considered politically on a par with France or the U.K., the country is still unable to muster a military with a force-projection capacity equal to that of those two countries, and the process of modernization of the armed forces has been slowed down by Italian security culture. In the post-Cold War period, the role of Italy’s armed forces changed from that of defenders of the national territory to international peace-supporters. But the transformation from a territorial defense force to a flexible and professional instrument capable of intervening in distant crisis zones has not yet been completed due to inadequate resources. Italian defense expenditures have not witnessed any major increase since the end of the Cold War. On the contrary, in terms of percentage of GDP, they have actually declined from 2.1 percent in 2000 to 1.3 percent in 2008, representing just half the ratio spent by NATO members as a whole and two-thirds of that spent by European NATO members.

The number of personnel has steadily decreased as conscription was slowly phased out and the armed forces became fully professional in 2007. As a result, the percentage of defense expenditures devoted to personnel has steadily increased from an average of 57.8 percent between 1985 and 1989 to about 75 percent of the total today. The percentage of expenditures devoted to the modernization of equipment, which stood at 19.7 percent in the 1985-89 period, steadily decreased afterwards, reaching 10.3 percent in 2001. It picked up again after Sept. 11, 2001, only to fall back in 2005-2006 due to the country’s economic difficulties. It currently stands at about 13.8 percent.

A detailed analysis of the modernization of the armed forces’ military hardware would be too long to undertake here. Suffice it to say that, overall, and in line with similar trends in other countries, the effort has been to move towards a more modern military by emphasizing technological aspects and the acquisition of a force-projection capacity, including orders for an aircraft carrier, helicopters, and new fighter jets. Conscious of its limited defense capacity and its limited ability to improve it, Italian governments have supported ESPD in the hope that synergies at the European level could make up for national deficiencies. To this end, Italy contributes, as do the other European powers, up to four brigades (12,500 to 14,500 troops), 19 naval units and 18 aircraft to the ESDP. Italy also takes part in the European Battlegroups project, contributing to one “Alpine” battlegroup with Hungary and Slovenia, and one “maritime” battlegroup with Spain, Greece and Portugal.

Protection. Protection refers to policies designed to protect domestic institutions and society. The issue areas in which the Italian government has been particularly active in developing new policies are that of public order and terrorism. Besides contributing to a series of multilateral anti-terrorism initiatives, Italy has also taken a series of domestic initiatives. As mentioned above, immigration has become both a public order and a security problem. According to data from the Ministry of Justice, on June 30, 2008, the Italian prison population amounted to 55,057 individuals (95.6 percent male), of which 37.4 per cent were immigrants, primarily Arabs (from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria), but also Romanians and Albanians.

These numbers reflect that, whatever the reasons, immigrants are nine times more likely than native Italians to run afoul of the law. This number is of course even higher for the groups mentioned above. Not surprisingly, the equation “immigration = criminality,” no matter how simplistic it might be, is increasingly acquiring credence in Italy. Muslims, and Arabs in particular, are increasingly perceived as a threat both because they are associated with the drug trade at the retail level and because since Sept. 11, 2001, a number of them have been arrested and charged with terrorism-related activities in Italy. Some of those arrested had links with the al-Qaida network, while others are best described as “do-it-yourself terrorists,” with no links to any organization. In its 2008 report to Parliament, the Department of Security Information described international terrorism as representing “a high-level threat to Italian security, both abroad and at home”: abroad because the country is militarily engaged in all the principal theaters of the global struggle against terrorism; at home, because it contains some of the main Christian sites and symbols representing potential targets for Islamic terrorists.

To protect the Italian territory and society from terrorists, in 2001, the crime “association for the purpose of international terrorism” was introduced into the country’s penal code. At the same time, an inter-ministerial and interagency Committee on Financial Security was created within the Ministry of the Economy and Finances whose task is to monitor the system of preventing and sanctioning terrorism financing. Finally, in July 2005, a series of new measures were adopted by which: recruitment and training as well as diffusion of know-how for terrorist purposes became criminal acts; authorization to stop and search terrorist suspects was extended to soldiers; terrorist suspects could be questioned immediately after arrest without the presence of a lawyer; authorization for telephone tapping and DNA identification were simplified, as was the procedure to expel foreigners suspected of terrorism. Finally, an inter-forces terrorism task force was set up within the Ministry of the Interior.


Italy perceives itself as a post-Westphalian state actively contributing to the construction of a rule-governed international community. Italian defense policy actions are, for the most part, perfectly congruent with the country’s self-image and security culture. The country, in other words, plays a constructive and sometimes even a leading role within international organizations. The eagerness to work within multilateral forums does not mean, however, that Italy is always able to deliver on the engagements it assumes. Domestic political and economic constraints, as well as limited national capacity, both economic and military, can and often do hamper action. Likewise, the country has tried to play an international role on a par with the other major powers and to take part in all major peace-support operations, but such an effort has likewise been hampered by the same limits to economic and military capacity. In this respect the country fares better in EU missions, which are more geared towards civil and political reconstruction, than in NATO missions, which have a more marked compellence component.

In conclusion it can be said that the end of the Cold War has not changed the way Italy thinks and talks of itself — what one could call the rhetoric of national identity and security culture. But it has nevertheless obliged the government to alter some of its policies to adjust to the new situation and to take security and defense more seriously. In addition, it would appear that the emerging consensus on Italian foreign and defense policies that was first noted more than 30 years ago has consolidated into a rather strong multi-partisan framework, if not among the public at large, then certainly among policymakers.

Osvaldo Croci holds a Ph.D. in political science from McGill University. Currently he is a professor of international politics at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. His research focuses on the study of foreign and security policies, especially in Canada and Italy.