It’s Italy’s time to cement itself as the indispensable Mediterranean nation

When US President Joe Biden this week hosts Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni for the second time, it will mark the growing importance of Italy as a geostrategic partner for the United States. Meloni, despite initial skepticism and some persistent criticisms, has emerged as a powerful interlocutor across Europe and the world stage. In Europe, Meloni has been instrumental in ensuring much-needed European aid to Ukraine, especially during the recent negotiations to get all twenty-seven European Union (EU) countries to agree on shared funding to Kyiv. She played a constructive role in updating European migration policies. As a leading conservative and pragmatic leader, Meloni is well positioned to play a major role in the upcoming European elections and in the administration that follows.

On the world stage, she has established strong relations with Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Italy has forged strategic partnerships with India and Japan and recently hosted the Italy-Africa Summit, where Meloni launched her ambitious Mattei Plan to boost economic cooperation with African countries in addressing the root causes of migration. Meloni used Italy’s Group of Seven (G7) presidency to hold a virtual leaders’ meeting from Kyiv last week in solidarity with the Ukrainian cause of freedom. On February 24, to commemorate the second anniversary of Ukraine’s brave struggle against Russia’s full-scale invasion she spoke from the Hostomel Airport as the “symbol of Russia’s failure” and “Ukraine’s pride.” She further noted that “Ukrainians defended what they loved and, in so doing, they also defended us. They fought to give us the chance to be here today, to say that this land is a piece of our home, and that we will do our part to defend it.”

Under Meloni’s leadership, and against domestic opposition, Italy refused to renew its memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Free from the agreement with China, Meloni has prioritized leading Italian and European efforts in expanding connectivity and commerce with India and the Indo-Pacific through West Asia. She is equally committed to strengthening economic ties with the African economies. Italy, as a leading member of the EU’s “Aspides” mission, has been on the forefront of efforts to secure shipping lanes from Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. 

Meloni’s active leadership coincides with the need for Italy to step up to protect its national and European interests, as Europe simultaneously contends with a land war on its eastern front with Russia, navigates strained and worsening economic relations with China, and devises a workable Africa strategy to stem the flow of migrants. To address all these challenges, Italy needs to be the economic and military mainstay of Southern Europe in the Mediterranean.

Linchpin of the Mediterranean

Italy should use its G7 presidency this year to both cement and chart forward a credible strategy toward its reemergence as the indispensable Mediterranean nation in addressing the global challenges posed by revisionist China and Russia.

Italy, in reestablishing its Mediterranean preeminence, needs to act simultaneously as a steady anchor, enthusiastic beachhead, and humane guard post. Italy can and should play an anchor’s role in the economic and military fortification of Europe and NATO’s eastern front. Italian industry is critical in meeting the greater demand for armaments in defense of Europe. Beyond its defense industry, Italy is well positioned to play a critical role in greater north-south infrastructure development linking the Baltic and Black seas with the Adriatic. Italian industry has much to benefit from both these developments.

The Chinese Communist Party’s arbitrary and autocratic handling of the Chinese economy—and its impact on the global economy—has put a premium on diversified and resilient global supply chains. China’s unpredictability necessitates greater commercial engagement between Europe and India and the Indo-Pacific. In short, it calls for closer links between the free and open economies and nations of the Indo-Pacific with that of the Med-Atlantic. Italy, given both its geography and its history, is best positioned to be the Mediterranean beachhead for the European Global Gateway initiative in response to the BRI. The increased flow of Indo-Pacific and Med-Atlantic trade and commerce holds two additional benefits. First, it represents the largest economic driver for fostering growth and development in African economies. Second, it will serve as a timely driver for the development of southern Italian communities. Italy’s recent Africa Summit complements and emphasizes the first point.

A transport and diplomatic connector

The time has come for both the Mediterranean and Italy to accept the mantle as the continental linchpin connecting the free and open economies and societies of the Indo-Pacific and Med-Atlantic. Growing strategic convergence between Rome and Washington may serve as a timely ballast for fortifying NATO, transatlantic solidarity, European resiliency, and Europe’s outreach to the Indo-Pacific. Under Meloni’s energetic leadership and with Italy hosting the G7 later this year, the stage is set for the reaffirmation of Italy as a geostrategic actor with the full support of the United States.

Kaush Arha is president of the Free & Open Indo-Pacific Forum and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue.

Paolo Messa is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and founder of Formiche.

Further reading

Image: Foreign press journalists' dinner with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni organized by the Association of the Foreign Press at the Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Premier Meloni spoke off the cuff referring with humor to the elections in Sardinia. Rome (Italy), February 27th, 2024. (Photo by Grzegorz Galazka/Mondadori Portfolio/Sipa USA)