The theory of the enlarged Mediterranean and classical geopolitics in Italy

(To Philip Del Monte)

The definition of "enlarged Mediterranean" is a definition that is often heard and is linked to the strategic conception of Italy's posture - political, diplomatic and military - in the international scenario and, specifically, in what is identified as its projection area and competence which is the vast area between Gibraltar and the Gulf of Aden and which also includes the Middle East and Central Africa.

Il Mare Nostrum represents 1% of the globe's waters, but is crossed by 20% of world maritime traffic and is an area subject, for some years now, to a growing military presence, initially visible mainly in the maritime domain, and today also terrestrial, giving concreteness to the dangerous phenomenon of the "territorialization" of the Mediterranean and therefore not only to a form of widespread instability but also to the risk of conventional conflicts.

These phenomena, which are emerging in all their dangerousness and gravity in this phase of "regressive globalization", had already been identified as potential and concrete risks (including opportunities as well as any crisis situation) by the Italian geopolitical school of Trieste in the 30s, in particular by its founder Ernesto Massi.

Recovering the old geopolitical tradition of the Risorgimento, Massi expressed a “regionalist” vision of the Mediterranean, far from the globalist thrusts instead developed by the German geopolitical school of Karl Haushofer. Therefore, the Mediterranean remained for the Triestine geographer what the French historian of New Story Fernand Braudel would have defined it as the “luminous center” in his work “Mediterranean civilizations and empires in the age of Philip II” (1947). The Massian "sea of ​​civilizations", a geographic and geopolitical center, can only have its function if it is capable of holding together Europe, Africa and Asia, the three continents washed by its waters, which have made it a pole of encounter and confrontation between different peoples and cultures since ancient times. The geographical and anthropic characteristics of the Mediterranean basin have allowed over the centuries the appearance of great empires such as the Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great, the Roman one with a geopolitical perspective developed from the third century BC, the Byzantine, Arab and Spanish empires in the period by Charles V. These imperial realities had their fulcrum in the Mediterranean, even when, as in the case of Arab expansionism up to the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 AD) or the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Spain of Charles V (1519 -1556), they were born far away or had different perspectives with respect to the geographical area of Mare Nostrum.

Ernesto Massi had identified a perpendicular geopolitical direction that from the Jutland peninsula, passing through Berlin and Rome, led straight to the heart of the Mediterranean with the epicenter of Italian Libya, an expression, according to the geographer from Trieste, of the political-military program of the Italian-German Axis , while the Italian guidelines were constituted by an imaginary arc which, incorporating the Balkans, a large part of the Danube basin, the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant, ended straight in Italian East Africa.

Together with the influences of French historiography and anthropogeography ofÉcole des Annales and, therefore, from the study of long-term processes, the theory of the "enlarged Mediterranean" owes a lot, from a conceptual point of view, to the geopolitical guidelines identified by Ernesto Massi and to their "ahistoricality" since they are always valid and not linked to specific eras.

In particular, the geopolitical school of Trieste had given great importance to the "bottlenecks" of the straits, Gibraltar and Suez in the case of the Mediterranean, which since the opening of the Egyptian canal dated 1869, have played a fundamental role in the regional balance of power . Already in the 50s, when a united Italy did not yet exist, both in the Piedmontese environment and in the Lombard-Venetian one, a fundamental debate had begun on the new role that the Italian peninsula could have acquired once the canal was opened. of Suez and therefore with the transformation of the Mediterranean into "Durchgangmesser", open sea, which brought Eurasia and Eurafrica into contact, clashing blocks (read article "The debate on the Suez Canal in the nineteenth century. Geopolitical food for thought"). The same problem had also been highlighted in the military debate both within the Army and within the Navy on the prospects of the national military instrument at the end of the 800th century (read article"Relations between the Army and the Navy in Italy in the 80s"). Furthermore, precisely in the wake of the opening of the Suez Canal, one of the factors that had prompted the Italian government to set foot in Eritrea had been that of" indirectly "but massively influencing Mediterranean politics, trying to carve out for Rome that autonomous space of action that was denied it, due to a question of balance, in the Adriatic and in North Africa, the latter question closely linked to the security needs of Rome in relation to the Strait of Sicily and the consequent events of the Tunis slap and the Bardo Treaty in 1881-1882.

The geopolitical direction perpendicular to the Mediterranean axis and the arched one that led Italy to be interested in both the Balkans and the Red Sea - and, consequently, the Indian Ocean - were also identified by the German geographer Alfred Hettner (1859-1941 ), as part of the debate within the German geopolitical school during the First World War on the reasons that led Italy to fight against Austria-Hungary.

Already author of the important monograph "Englands Weltherrschaft und der Krieg" (Leipzig, 1915), with which he analyzed the correlation between British world maritime power and war, in May 1915 Hettner published an article in the "Geographische Zeitschrift" entitled "Italiens Eintritt in den Krieg" (Italy's entry into the war).

Regarding the Italian declaration of war against Austria-Hungary, Alfred Hettner, while deploring the choice of Rome, invited us to consider Italy's initiative not as the exclusive result of a "betrayal", but as a geographical necessity that had developed an explicit program of anti-Habsburg political claims, daughters of the particular nature of both maritime and continental power of the Kingdom of Italy, which had the obligation to make its north-eastern borders safer, difficult to defend in the conformation of 1866 -1915.

For Hettner, Italy had a double need for expansion and territorial security. Through the identification of the Italian maritime-continental geopolitical guidelines, Hettner came to the conclusion that the national security of Rome and also its ambitions of regional hegemony could be guaranteed only through the transformation of the Mediterranean into Durchgangmesser. The interventionist Italian geographers Cesare Battisti (patriotic socialist), Michele Gortani (national Catholic) and, more generally, the entire Florentine geographic school linked to the Military Geographical Institute had reached the same conclusion.

Expanding this theory, Ernesto Massi nevertheless highlighted how, due to its particular geographical position in the center of the Mediterranean, the national security policy and that of imperial expansion for Italy were corresponding. "From the vulnerability of the position - wrote Massi in 1939 in the article Römische und italienische Mittelmeer-Geopolitik, published in the German magazine Zeitschrift für Geopolitik - the need arises for a policy of defense, security, order, spatial penetration of the border areas. "By correlating the Roman geopolitical thought from the Punic wars to the Augustan principality with the Italian Risorgimento and Fascist one, Massi underlined how thedefensive imperialism was the only way to guarantee continental security, the opening of the Mediterranean, a guarantee that in Mare Nostrum external influences - impossible to eliminate due to its "mediocean" nature - did not become a factor of endemic weakness of the coastal states.

Commenting on the corpus of Massi's writings on the Mediterranean, Andrea Perrone (The geopolitical centrality of the Mediterranean in Ernesto Massi's thought. The Italian paradigm between geographical awareness and voluntarism, GNOSIS, 4, 2021) notes that "every geographical unit of the Mediterranean is simultaneously part of two or more fields of geopolitical force. Every conquest, every acquisition of land leads to new disputes and friction with the neighboring geopolitical structures, in a close confrontation between land powers and sea powers, that have prevailed each other in different times and situations ". In such a framework, it is difficult if not impossible to guarantee the status of an autonomous geopolitical region and an "open sea" for the Mediterranean at the same time, without suffering the global pressures coming from the great powers interested in exploiting and controlling its specificity as a connecting sea. between oceans.

The importance of choke points (bottlenecks, critical passages, nrd) Mediterranean, already sensed by fascist Italy, to the point of pushing it into direct confrontation with Great Britain, the controlling power of Gibraltar and Suez, in 1940-1943, is still such in the XNUMXst century, so much so that one of the stages of the US assault on world power launched by China pass precisely through the Mare Nostrum, through the Belt and Road Initiative, also known as the "New Silk Road" (read article "China: dangerous imperial unreliability"). The same can be said for the Russian presence in the Mediterranean with the" spearheads "represented by Syria and Cyrenaica, but which is part of a broader strategy for Moscow's penetration of the black continent (see also"The Red Star in Africa: the war in Ukraine and the southern hemisphere")

The new centrality of the Mediterranean, combined with the strategic speed of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean in the era of "regressive globalization", has prompted many of the main players on the international scene to activate control devices for the busiest trade routes. The Italian theory of the "enlarged Mediterranean" responds to the need to guarantee Rome's national security through a broad projection capacity within a specific area.

It remains to be seen whether this strategic concept, linked to the traditional "regionalist" (which does not mean "provincial") interpretation of Italian geopolitics, can respond positively to Italian needs in this phase of instability in the Mediterranean and in the neighboring areas. The geostrategic nightmare of Ernesto Massi, that is the extreme permeability to external influences of the Mediterranean area, with the impossibility for Italy to manage its own foreign policy independently, is a concrete reality, sharpened after February 24 with the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine and with the resurgence of the clash between conservative and revisionist powers of the liberal international order led by the US.

One of the tasks of the next Italian government will be to theorize - and above all play - a leading role for the country in the enlarged Mediterranean since in areas of strong instability it is the assertive posture (from pivot) to guarantee national security and not immobility.

Photo: Marina Military