COVID-19 will not change Italy’s Euro-Atlantic position, defense minister says

Italian magazine Formiche conducted an exclusive interview with Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini. Below is a transcript of Formiche reporter Francesco Bechis’ conversation with Guerini about the COVID-19 pandemic, Italy’s relationship with the United States, and the transatlantic alliance.

Bechis: Russia’s and China’s international aid diplomacy has been particularly successful in Italy. Is your country going to change its global position?

Guerini: Many countries have shown solidarity toward Italy in an extraordinary situation. We talk to everyone, but the pillars of our security are NATO and the European Union, and these shall remain. In the phase of the health emergency, the international community has helped Italy. Europe, the United States, and other countries, including China and Russia, have done so. This series of events, however, does not change our traditional international framework of reference in the slightest. We are grateful to everyone for the aid, but it has nothing to do with the pillars of our Euro-Atlantic position, which do not change.

Bechis: A survey by the Italian polling company “SWG” shows that, in the last year, the United States has ended up in third place in the appreciation of Italian public opinion, preceded by China and Russia. In your opinion, is this a passing sentiment, or are we witnessing a constant change of perception on the part of Italians?

Guerini: I do not know the details of the SWG survey, but it is evident that statistical surveys in a time of crisis, such as the current pandemic, can temporarily influence the public opinion’s perception of political scenarios on a global level. The reality is that our countries are united as parts of the same community: the community of democracies that have chosen freedom. The relationship with the United States rests on history, on the commonality of values, culture, and human ties represent iron-clad ties, and Italy will never renounce them. The $100 million aid announced during a press conference on March 30 by [US] President [Donald] Trump—let alone $25 million dollars already donated by the American private sector—represent an objective and a significant, unmatched figure that further strengthens a deep friendship cemented by the transatlantic relationship.

The collaboration and trade exchange that Italy has with other countries in a globalized world is something different we should not misconstrue but rather relate with the propaganda on aid. Our community, with its democratic and liberal values, will always maintain its traditional European and transatlantic position.

Bechis: The 5-Star Movement has asked to spend less on defense and proposed putting expenditure for the F-35 program on stand-by for one year. Do you consider your Ministry’s investments at risk?

Guerini: First and foremost, the modernization of the Armed Forces ensures our nation is secure. The technological advantage is part of our national sovereignty.

The pandemic we are facing has shown the unthinkable can happen. During times of recession or economic crises, a drop in the investments for defence often happens. When faced with the need to reduce deficits and rebalance public accounts, there is always the risk that defense is not perceived as a priority. Therefore, public opinion must be aware that defense budget cuts mainly affect investments in research and development. Not only that, not to mention the loss of highly qualified jobs: industrial capabilities would be impoverished in a sector where technology is very developed and present, where dual-use products, both civil and military, offer very significant economic returns to our nation.

For this reason, we need to involve the entire country in a broader debate on defense. Our citizens should be persuaded that there is a piece of Italy’s competitiveness in the industry and that maintaining procurement programs equals preserving our capacity to defend the nation and the system of alliances we are part of. From this perspective, the JSF Programme, which started twenty years ago, made a 5th generation aircraft—the top tier of what is available today—available to our Armed Forces. A few months ago, I confirmed that the program would continue.

Above all, let me point out that the resources allocated to defense represent extraordinary economic leverage for our country system, as well as an indispensable investment to guarantee our security. Therefore, in this phase, we need to exploit the full potential of the national defense industry, a sector which is certainly rich in diverse small and medium enterprises but also characterized by two top players of reference, with a relevant international presence. The recent success of Fincantieri in the US, which follows another important performance of Leonardo in the same market, is the best evidence of this. Investments in defense are a useful tool to pursue growth and to relaunch the country, given the higher rate of innovation than in any other sector and the impact on exports—which according to recent estimates account to 70 percent of the entire production.

Bechis: Minister, a few months ago you received a warm welcome at the Pentagon, and even after General Soleimani’s death, you talked several times to Secretary Esper. In your opinion, what are the sectors where Italy and the United States could strengthen their cooperation?

Guerini: Italy and the United States have always had strong, long-standing relations in both military cooperation and mutual solidarity, as the COVID-19 pandemic has proven. I had the opportunity to convey to [US Secretary of Defense Mark] Esper the gratitude of the Italian people and Government for the aid received from the United States.

The brotherhood the US has shown once again testified the deep-rooted, very sound relationship that exists between our countries, both of which are facing a severe public health crisis. As partners and members of the same Alliance, we share the same values. Our common objective is to seek solutions to ensure we can defend and secure our peoples within the framework of the international organizations we are part of and create the best conditions for economic development, labor, healthcare and, all in all, to safeguard our way of life. 

When I met my colleague Mark Esper in Washington, and later during every phone call, those common intents and the willingness to support each other emerged. Not only we must work together to tackle traditional threats such as terrorism, against which we have been cooperating with the US for years, including within Coalitions. We must also take steps in sectors such as energy supply, information, healthcare, finance, and infrastructures. Our complex societies are interdependent at the regional and international level. Bilateral cooperation and our NATO membership are and will remain a fundamental factor to tackle the challenges we face.  

Bechis: From Libya to the Sahel, North Africa sees Italy’s engagement in various theatres. How will the COVID-19 global pandemic affect this and, in particular, how will Italy’s and NATO’s international missions change in your opinion?

Guerini: For more than two decades, our country has been among the main security providers in areas of crisis where our priority national interests—which, however, also concern Europe and the Alliance—are at stake. I am referring to the “Wider Mediterranean,” i.e. Europe’s southern flank, including the Middle East and North Africa.

We are present in Afghanistan, where we are leading the western sector and have helped to allow the Afghan people to start a peace process for the stabilization of the country. In Iraq, we are the second [largest] troop-contributing nation and the quality of our work is widely recognized, first and foremost by the Iraqis. Lebanon and Kosovo are areas where our historical presence and mission command role go back many years. In Lebanon—a country that is currently facing internal hardships—the Lebanese Armed Forces is proving to be an essential part of the country’s connective tissue, mainly thanks to the training conducted by the UNIFIL and MIBIL (the Italian Bilateral Support Mission) missions. Italy is providing UNIFIL’s Force Commander and Head of Mission and is the mission’s second [largest] contributor. As for the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa in general, I believe that stability in that region is essential for Italy to counter international terrorism and effectively restrict migration flows that originate from or move across that area. Our current strategy for the Sahel is part of a multidimensional approach that encompasses different and complementary actions, both bilateral—as we are already doing in Niger—and multilateral, such as the G5 Sahel initiative that we are supporting, which sees the participation of Niger, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso.

Against such a complex scenario, NATO remains the cornerstone of our security and defense architecture. Let me also underscore that Italy is the second [largest] contributing country in terms of personnel and high-end capabilities offered to NATO missions. I firmly believe that NATO should be able to rely on an increasingly more vital complementarity with Europe. On its part and being aware of its capacity and responsibility, Europe shall be able to achieve actual “strategic autonomy” to eventually build a political union, i.e., an indispensable instrument to compete in the global scenario. Today, NATO and the EU are two sides of the same coin: both of them are our continent’s fundamental complementary deterrence and security instruments. Italy, one among the countries that firmly support this vision, makes its voice heard in all fora to define the level of ambition, the priorities, and the objectives of a common European strategy for the areas of crisis.  

This approach also applies, for example, to Libya, where the EU has recently launched operation Irini under Italian leadership to monitor the UN arms embargo. It is a tangible sign of Europe’s consistent political intent that translates into strategic decisions of vital importance. In the case of Libya, we must move forward the outcomes of the Berlin Conference by supporting its political objectives within the framework of the decision-making process of the international organizations, in particular the UN. We are witnessing massive external interference from both sides, particularly in terms of sophisticated armaments and mercenaries, while the military escalation on the ground continues. Such interference leads to the increasingly direct involvement of international actors in the conflict. However, there is no military solution, just as there is no political solution without military support that may lead to the ceasefire and the enforcement of the arms embargo in Libya. We shared this position with Secretary Esper, just as we agreed that we must support a peace-building effort together within the framework of greater attention to the entire African continent.

As for the impact of COVID-19 on current operations, our attention must now focus on a timely resumption of operational activities as soon as conditions on the ground permit, for the international security scenario may worsen.  There is a substantial risk of a new instability surge caused by terrorism, human trafficking, and organized crime. In referring to COVID-19, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: “Our transatlantic family has not seen an adversary like this one before. But I am convinced that we will prevail together in unity with resolve and with solidarity for each other.” I fully share his position.

Bechis: Minister Guerini, the Italian Armed Forces were at the forefront in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. What is your assessment of their contribution?

Guerini: I am very proud of the ongoing contribution of the Italian Defence in what has probably been one of Italy’s most challenging and [dire] moments in the last seventy-five years. The Armed Forces proved to be an agile, flexible tool that tackled an unprecedented situation with a 360-degree effort. Different capabilities and significant resources were made available within the framework of a large operation supporting our healthcare system and the national relief effort.

The Ministry of Defence ensured that military facilities across Italy were available to monitor the health of infected citizens. We established strong cooperation with the civilian healthcare system; provided robust logistic support to enable field hospitals’ operations; transported materials and airlifted patients in a bio-containment setting; ensured territorial control for the safety of the Italian people. We have also set up a COVID-19 hospital at the “Celio” Military General Hospital in Rome in very little time. The hospital will soon be a reference for this health crisis within the framework of a national facility network established to tackle the disease.

National companies also enjoyed the support of civilian technicians from [the Ministry of Defence], and some production facilities were repurposed to manufacture the devices and equipment needed to counter the pandemic, e.g., ventilators and masks.

The operational output is unquestionably positive, and we will continue to give our contribution to the country with the specialized and organisational capabilities of defense. I would therefore also like to take this opportunity to express my thanks to the women and men of the Armed Forces, the Carabinieri Corps and the civilian defence personnel, to whom I am close to, for the extraordinary ordeal they are facing. My thoughts also go to the people deployed on operations outside national borders away from home in these difficult times, and to those who have regrettably lost their battle against coronavirus.

Francesco Bechis is a reporter and analyst at Formiche, Rome.

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Image: Officers half mast the Italian and EU flags as a sign of mourning for the victims of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome, Italy March 31, 2020. Italian Presidency/Paolo Giandotti/Handout via REUTERS