Anyone looking at the geography from a security standpoint can understand that Italy is in a rough spot. Too many internal problems, however, are turning the Italian people’s attention away from what happens outside the confines of their own country. A major revolution has taken place. The so-called “First Republic” is almost dead. The “New,” which is still not born, is supposedly characterized by less corruption and a more market-oriented attitude. Democracy is not at risk; words like fascism and communism, and even more dangerous, antifascism and anticommunism, are haunting the consciences no more. The past cannot come back. The adjustment process for this new course of events, though, can take more time or less, depending on the old and new forces struggling for power and the attitude of the rest of the Western world.
In such an environment, the military is one of the few professions truly aware of the dangers surrounding the country. It is difficult for Italy’s armed forces to obtain the resources necessary to face these dangers, which are coming now from so many different directions in so many different, often unconventional, ways. Now, the need is to switch gradually from a policy of defense to one of security, modifying the military accordingly. Even if the need exists for this security to be integrated with the security of others, the country can no longer rely solely upon the alliance to which it belongs. Figures gleaned from the 1994 Italian Navy Report present quite a pessimistic picture of the future. The percentage of the Italian gross national product that goes into the defense budget went down from an already low 1.51% in 1989 to 1.13% in 1994. The number of billions of U.S. dollars used for defense-related expenditures went down in the same time span from 10.895 to 8.73 (in real buying power). The percentage of the overall national budget that goes into defense also went down, from 4.47% to 3.25%. Personnel numbers in the Italian Navy went from 50,000 in 1989 to about 42,600 in 1994. The goal in the near future is 40,000. Another figure indicates a reduction in the “Marina Militare” maintenance and logistics budget from .295 billion U.S. dollars to .21 billion (in real buying power). This means that we will reach the point more quickly where we can no longer repair and support the few ships available. But for a naval officer, nothing is more discouraging than the quickly decreasing number of the ships themselves. First-line ships (without operational limitations), second-line ships (for coastal or patrol service), submarines, and minehunters—all are being depleted at an alarming rate.
These dwindling numbers are an open contradiction of what Italy’s role has been in the recent past and to what looks to be the trend for this role: a medium-sized power willing to influence, to a certain extent and within a system of alliances, the international arena.
To do this, the country should be self-sufficient in terms of its own security and capable of supporting with military forces its policies and those of the alliances to which it belongs. To this end, the military, especially the naval part of it, has to be flexible, updated, and trained to be an active part of a coalition every time a contingency requires it. Not even the richest countries can afford to conduct their military operations by themselves any more, much less when lacking politically critical world consent. That is especially true when public interest is not immediately evident, when the operation has to be “sold” to the country itself. We are not living on the brink of a new international order. And a multipolar system with definite contours does not yet exist. What is happening in Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda—even if such situations are different, shows that when it comes to a crisis or a complex conflict (sometimes with heavy ethnic characteristics) the international community initiatives run the risk either of showing their inadequacy or of being late and ineffective.1 We cannot say for certain where any one of these crises can lead us. We have to be ready to face both the foreseeable and the unforeseeable menaces.
As an advanced Western country, Italy should do its share. It should at least keep up with countries similar in population and resources. The defense budgets of Italy, France, and Great Britain, compared to the gross national products of each country (respectively 1.6%, 3.31%, and 3.30%) the navies’ budgets (respectively .21%, .51%, .77%), and the absolute budget of the navies, expressed in billions of U.S. dollars (respectively: 2.10, 5.11, and 6.36), all give the clear idea that the other two countries are spending much more than Italy. Sooner or later, some happening will push us to keep up.
Italy has no strategic alternatives in the area. It should take care of its security, and everything else should fall into place after that—its world position as a middle power, its influence on world events, and its people’s welfare and quality of life.
It goes almost without saying that Italy has a deep interest in the area. But what about the United States? According to the Center for Defense Information, the United States has no interest outside the United States.2 But is this true? Too many times in the past, when the question of U.S. national security has been posed, the first answer has been the wrong one. When the two world wars began, means of communication and international links were less developed than they are today. Nowadays, why should we think that any major problem in any part of the world should not affect the United States? The fact that the world is so economically interdependent adds to the problem. It is not a fight-limiting factor. According to former President Richard Nixon, in his book Seize the Moment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), “With imports and exports comprising over 20% of our economy, our prosperity depends on international stability. He added, “Success abroad will bolster our confidence and unity at home, and success at home will enhance our prestige and leadership abroad."
A balanced approach is necessary, even in times of relative calm. But what calm are we talking about? A strong military must be available wherever the interests of the country are at stake. For the only superpower, these interests can show themselves anywhere at anytime. According to former Undersecretary of Defense Richard Haass, "The post-Cold War world promises to be a messy one where violence is common, where conflicts within and between nation-states abound, and where the question of U.S. military intervention becomes more rather than less commonplace and more rather than less complicated.”3 The textbook statement, which maintains to a certain extent its part of truth, is: “A state must clearly define its commitment to defend a particular interest, communicate that commitment to the potential aggressor, possess a sufficiently potent military capability to increase costs on the adversary that exceed his potential gains, and demonstrate its resolve to implement the threat in spite of short-term cost to itself.”4
The guidelines can be no clearer about how and where to apply force. Something such as George Kennan’s “containment” is still to be defined. Without directions and with many people still debating if and where the national interests are at stake, setting priorities becomes complicated. “The net result is that policy makers have less latitude to pursue policies that are controversial, uncertain in outcome, and potentially expensive, as military interventions tend to be.5 The United States, on the other hand, cannot take care of all the problems in the world. It should help countries willing to be helped, and sometimes it will have to intervene even when such cooperation does not exist. But what are the forces required for that purpose? Even the people in the position to decide are having a hard time figuring it out. The necessary force level could vary from time to time. The United States will have to operate more and more in a combined environment, cooperating with its allies. In the long run, this is the most economical way to operate, but sometimes that can be an additional burden as well.
In an area as delicate as the Mediterranean, it is probably too early for the United States to decrease its presence. Because that presence has always been conspicuous, such a depletion could send the wrong signal to the wrong people. It is probably better to wait until local allies are able to take care of most of the regional problems themselves. This process, already started, will most likely take some more time. A major change in attitude is required for most of the European countries, which have adopted many of the same interests as those of the United States. They recently started to take decisions in international politics as single states and as “Europe.” This last process is especially difficult to improve. We do not have a common history like the United States. The “United States of Europe” still have more differences than similarities, and it will take a while for the countries involved to come out with a common policy, even one limited to the security issue.
In the meantime, the United States should maintain an active presence. One way is to continue supporting the NATO Alliance, which was instrumental in the eventual collapse of the Eastern enemies. It still has several reasons to exist. It could be the tool to help in reshaping this part of the world. A NATO military presence is required to deter anyone from taking the wrong chances against democratization. NATO could be one of the right answers; at the moment, it is the only strong answer available.
To borrow from the title of Richard Nixon’s book, the United States could “seize the moment” if it can escape the tendency of public support for isolationism, a philosophy that never brought benefit to the United States. One of its many forms becomes manifest in caring less for other countries and any activity taking place outside the country’s boundaries. This aspect was depicted very effectively in a 1958 novel, which anticipated many of the bad decisions that were to be taken and the good opportunities that were to be missed abroad by the United States in a future not so far away. The title of the novel was The Ugly American. It is to be hoped that, 37 years from now, I will not have to say: “I could stand here all night and tell you stories about one American mistake after another.”6
From the time of the Korean War, the United States and its most prestigious representative abroad, the U.S. Navy, have been always at the forefront in supporting what many believed to be the exclusive interests of the United States. In many cases, they turned out to be coincident with those of all mankind. Many possibilities will be there for future interventions— deterrence or prevention, compliance or punishment, peacekeeping or peacemaking, nation-building or interdiction, humanitarian assistance or rescue, even warfighting. In most cases, Italy will have a role to play. The U.S. Navy could be. as it has always been, the ally. But all this depends on how much the United States is willing to get involved and to support its military. That will make the difference! If the United States will not withdraw from its leading position, it could eventually compel the rest of the world—even the most cynical part of it—to say: "God Bless America!”
1 Marina Militarc Italiana, Rapporto 1994, pp. 15-16.
2 Center for Defense Information, “Defending America: CDI Options for Military Spending." The Defense Monitor, Vol.21, No.4, 1992.
3 Richard N. Haass. Intervention, (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1994), p. 2.
4 Mack S. Levy, "Quantitative Studies of Deterrence Success and Failure," Perspectives on Deterrence, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 100.
5 Haass, Intervention, p. 7.
6 William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, The Ugly American, (New York: Norton & Co., 1958), p. 21.
Commander Bembo works in the Ministero Defesa Marina in Rome.