It is widely believed the COVID-19 pandemic that has recently hit and paralysed the international community has accelerated processes already underway. These include the redefinition, certainly not the disappearance, of what is often termed globalisation. A trend, the latter, that – despite trade wars, shrinking supply chains, reshoring of companies – is destined to permanently characterise international relations, marking the end of traditional space-time limits and expanding their scope as never before. In terms of conducting foreign policy, the world is still global without space and time limitations – at least, that is how things should be viewed when managing a country’s external relations.
This requires a global vision of national foreign policies, including Italy’s, so as to have a comprehensive picture of geopolitical and geo-economic conduct. On the basis of this assumption, it becomes clear the traditional Mediterranean dimension, although strategic for Italy, cannot be the totality of our country’s external dimension. On the other hand, and beyond purely geographical data, it would be equally simplistic to define Italy as the "pivot" of the Mediterranean.
In such a perspective, the Mediterranean dimension is the core of Italian foreign policy. Assuming the latter can be represented by three concentric circles, the smallest circle would be the Mediterranean area, the second one would cover the European and Transatlantic dimensions, while the third one would encompass the system of international relations, including the multilateral dimension.
Thus, the Mediterranean can be seen to be at the heart of our interests, albeit not representing them as a whole. At the same time, taking this area in its broadest sense – the enlarged Mediterranean –, many of the tensions of the global international system find an outlet here. In this sense, the Mediterranean resembles a microcosm in which differing relationships and global trends are developed and thrive: relationships between superpowers; inter-Islamic relationships; flows of people, goods (and weapons); and the threat of Islamic terrorism in its different forms. These factors are too numerous and too diversified to guarantee our country that uniqueness that is so often evoked, but remains confined within the framework of a crystallised narrative, often just lip-service.
What role can Italy then play in today’s Mediterranean that, like a coin, has two sides: threat and opportunity?
First, it is necessary to adopt an integrated approach so our country can combine geopolitical and global dimensions in defining its role in the area. In concrete terms, this means, first and foremost, abandoning the logic according to which Italy – a "medium power" – can act only act in the region within the framework of international multilateral initiatives. Such an approach would obviously be the preferred option, provided all our partners and competitors acted in the same way. Which is clearly not the case. Accordingly, developing strong bilateral relations with the countries in the region is a priority for our foreign policy. To this end, we need to leverage our economic, commercial, technological and cultural expertise, and our ability to facilitate relations between key Mediterranean countries and the EU. This does not mean we are set to act alone all times. Pursuing our national interests realistically and effectively on our own does not exclude identifying other countries that can share a "road map" with us. For this, potentially making instrumental recourse to multilateral bodies (the UN and its agencies) could also prove useful. And clearly, bilateral diplomacy should primarily include our European partners, without forgetting, on the one hand, Washington is still key to the overall balance in the region and, on the other hand, the need to carefully consider the threats and opportunities arising from the growing role of powers like Russia, Turkey and Egypt.
Defining a scale of priorities is equally a top priority, putting security and defence first and assessing any other potential opportunities for cooperation in such a framework.
Conceiving the Mediterranean region not as a mere basin but as a wider framework (Africa, the Greater Middle East) and starting to define our interests and our partnerships in this broader context would be a logical consequence of such an approach. From this standpoint, the significant political capital the Italian Government invests in the yearly MED Dialogue Conference, organised by ISPI, is a meaningful example of such an integrated and far-reaching course of action for our policy in the Mediterranean region.
Two additional paths should guide our steps and help shape our role in the region. First, being a European democracy is consistent with siding with the forces that support secularism in the region, standing against any form of extremism and fanaticism. Secondly, we should propose our economic model (not only in the energy field - ENI - but also in transport and infrastructure, sharing the positive experience of SME supply chains) and promote a more targeted and widespread use of cultural diplomacy.
For all these aspects, Libya offers a real case study, especially as it is a country where Italy is not easily replaceable from many viewpoints. The current stalemate and a possible de facto partition of the country are not an option. Nor is a military solution. This is the time for active diplomacy to develop a network of connections with countries that are instrumental to a negotiated solution, namely Turkey, Egypt, France, Germany, Russia and the US. All of them would need to become involved to try to achieve meaningful political dialogue between the Libyan parties.
We could then promote the creation of a less plethoric and more pragmatic multilateral 'format' that brings together meaningful players.
Once again, specific priorities, diplomatic initiative and political/economical/cultural tools, without neglecting military cooperation, would prove key in moulding a positive role for Italy where our national interests are at stake.