The protection of national interests on the sea

(To Renato Scarfi)
08/02/21

Among geopolitical analysts the question of foreign policy and the protection of national interests seems to have returned with great vein in the debate of recent times. A very topical topic especially if related to issues concerning the sea such as, for example, the need to ensure freedom of navigation along maritime trade routes and the growing tendency towards territorialization of the seas and oceans, a phenomenon linked to the increasingly intense competition for the achievement and acquisition of the most closely guarded energy resources.

A percentage of around 85% of world trade occurs through the sea routes. Just to give an idea of ​​the size of the phenomenon, more than 2.000 ships sail in the Atlantic Ocean alone every day. The Mediterranean, which has only 1% of the global surface of the oceans, now sees the passage of 20% of world maritime traffic. This is a huge freight traffic that runs through these liquid highways on a daily basis.

The most assertive and expansionist maritime policies of some coastal countries which, whether in the enlarged Mediterranean or, as it is lately called, theOcean World1 or even "Infinito Mediterraneo"2, are triggering or fueling strong international frictions.

Due to its enormous dependence on the procurement of resources and raw materials, Italy is particularly exposed to any actions that interfere with the free accessibility of maritime communication routes.

In 2018, for example, 79,3% of Italian goods exported to the world traveled by sea, a percentage that rises to 95,9 if only countries outside the European Union are considered. Without the possibility of importing raw materials and exporting products by sea, the Italian economy would therefore be suffocated in a very short time.. Consequently, it is clear that it is crucial to protect our national economic interests primarily through the safety of marine mining and maritime trade.

Nevertheless, the wide range of what can be defined as national interests related to the sea does not end with the satisfaction of the relevant economic or safety aspects, but also concerns scientific knowledge, nutrition, communications, tourism, links with fellow countrymen at abroad, technology. Basically, all the major issues that affect the entire sphere of life, values, history and culture of a people. As is well understood, then, our overall interests today go far beyond the Pillars of Hercules and extend throughout the world. They are global interests.

This makes the maritime question not only an economic and commercial concern but, given that the prosperity and very survival of our country depend to a very large extent, also a political and military problem.

Italy, therefore, being a regional medium power with global interests, cannot afford to underestimate the geopolitical implications of the current situation, which is extremely fluid and fragmented, characterized by a multifaceted, asymmetrical threat and by widespread insecurity, by growing competition and more and more tensions of very low intensity, but of high disabling power.

The picture is further complicated by the fact that the “simple” defense of one's interests is not in itself sufficient to guarantee their protection. Those who remain in defense, in fact, leave the initiative to the opponent and, reacting to events determined by the will of others, is always late.

History teaches us that those who force themselves into a defense-only policy can never hope to win, nor hope to see their role and international prestige recognized, a starting point for the protection of their interests. We experienced this directly in 2018 with the SAIPEM 12000, which Turkish military ships opposed, preventing it from carrying out its activity, duly authorized by Nicosia, in Cypriot waters. Out of specific political will, Italy reacted to the event with extreme weakness, although it was perhaps not a vital problem, but certainly significant for our economy.

Today it has become essential to effectively oppose, wherever necessary, any actions against international law or aimed at hindering the achievement of our legitimate interests. The experience of the anti-piracy missions is a clear proof of this.

A successful maritime strategy must aim to ensure, for example, the freedom of navigation along trade routes, the protection of marine resources, the continuity of energy flows and supplies of raw materials, the protection of ports and other critical infrastructures such as oil pipelines, oil and natural gas platforms, telecommunication cables. They are of strategic importance both from a commercial point of view and for our safety and must be protected everywhere, under any circumstances, including through the use of force, if necessary.

For this reason our approach should be reshaped (v.articolo), as any national maritime strategy, even if shared with closest allies, will in fact have no hope of success if it is only a matter of defending the status quo, which is now constantly changing, without the possibility of adequately protecting and actively national interests.

We are going through a moment in which we have to face a magmatic situation that sees, for example, destabilizing actions in the Mediterranean carried out by relatively new actors such as the aforementioned Turkey, whose membership of NATO becomes secondary when it comes to acquiring modern weapons from Russia, or when it has to feed historical friction with Greece. (v.articolo) But this situation is not limited to the Mediterranean.

In fact, the well-known disputes in the South China Sea between China and almost all the coastal states of the area should not be underestimated (v.articolo). Even if that area seems very far from our interests, it should also be considered central for us, as it is one of the main communication routes crossed by enormous quantities of goods directed to our country and Europe. Any serious international crisis affecting that area would have repercussions on the entire geopolitical structure of the Indo-Pacific and also heavily on our economy, already in conditions that are not particularly exciting and today further weakened by the effects of the pandemic.

Then we have the Persian Gulf in which, in addition to the relative instability due to the known disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Iran over regional competition (and religious differences), new geopolitical actors have emerged, such as Qatar which, from a small emirate has grown economically thanks to the rich oil and gas fields, becoming a very active geopolitical protagonist both in the Gulf and in the troubled Mediterranean area and in Africa, thanks to the military alliance with Turkey and good relations with Iran. An actor who has already created instability in the area by politically challenging the Saudi giant and the Cooperation Council in the Gulf and who, after a short period of relative isolation, has fully returned to the Middle Eastern stage.

In a context of generalized precariousness like the one we are experiencing, Italy can nevertheless aspire to an important international role. First of all, by relaunching its ties with an America that seems to strongly want to leave Trump's isolationist assertivism behind. An America which, in recent years, has increased the skepticism of the Old Continent towards American Europeanism, on the solidity of the transatlantic multilateral bond and on the firmness of Washington's commitment to the collective security of Europeans. An America that, in order to contain Chinese activism in the Indo-Pacific, is slowly "detaching" itself from the Mediterranean, leaving important geopolitical spaces free and having a representative of the CDO-CSU group at the Bundestag write that "... we can no longer count one hundred percent on the US ... "3.

Despite the last few controversial years, our alliance with Washington is not in question and, indeed, we and our European allies should take steps to secure the spaces vacated by the US in the enlarged Mediterranean, perhaps by exploiting our modern aeronaval capabilities in concert. with France, for example, a country with which we share many important interests, which must be acknowledged with realism. In fact, there are countless reasons that suggest Italy and France to return to cooperate both in politics, seeking a common vision (which acts as a counterweight to the friend but too dominant Germany) to be exploited also in the construction of a new European policy founds on new bases, both on the sea, being the only Mediterranean nations in possession of modern, competitive and efficient aircraft carriers and naval instruments. Directions towards which to proceed together, also in light of the fact that Great Britain has resumed its autonomous path also in terms of Defense. An autonomy that was never really abandoned even when it was part of the European “family”, so much so that it has always instrumentally slowed down any initiative that represented some significant and qualifying collective improvement in the sector.

Faced with the new challenges of the XNUMXst century, therefore, it is essential to find adequate responses, defending multilateralism for its ability to mediate between different instances, but also cultivating all national response capacities, including last resort options such as the use force, should it become necessary to protect national interests. In the face of the assertive policies of some, it is no longer possible to hope to passively defend one's national interests, competing with competitors only on a political, economic and commercial level. This was thought to be the essence of the capitalist system. Today we have understood that this is not the case and that a formidable and ruthless competition is taking place, especially as regards marine resources, to obtain the right of exploitation of which the diplomacies of all the coastal countries, and not only, are moving their own pawns on the chessboard of the enlarged Mediterranean.

The main method through which an independent state protects its national interests is, in fact, diplomacy, that is the set of procedures through which a state maintains its international relations, in the form of bilateral relations or with participation in multilateral organizations, where you have the opportunity to represent your requests and receive answers. One of the main objectives of foreign policy is, therefore, to weave a coherent interweaving of relationships and alliances that can guarantee the safety of one's population but also ensure the supply of raw materials and energy (import, extraction, etc ...) and export of finished products at favorable prices and conditions for the economic growth of one's country.

In this context, the particular ties that have always united the navies to diplomacy should be highlighted, for the virtuous contribution that their operations or representative missions abroad have had in maintaining the prestige of their country high, contributing not a little to intensifying political and industrial relations with friendly countries and to support new economic initiatives with other coastal countries. History (even recent) teaches us that where diplomacy has had difficulties, for various reasons, the naval instrument has been effectively used to support their requests, by forcefully hindering the initiatives of those who intended to hit the economies of the countries of belonging and oppose the achievement of legitimate foreign policy objectives, enforcing international legality, freely entered into agreements or to restore security conditions in a given area.

In recent years, Italy has made a great effort to renew the fleet and to bring the Navy back to the level of the most modern and efficient, so much so that today we have a naval instrument that is fully among the top six navies in the world is “… One of the few countries in the world, together with the United States, Great Britain and Japan, to be able to express an aircraft carrier capability with 5th generation combat aircraft….”.4 However, some delays in the assignment of F-35B fighter aircraft have recently been occurring, caused by industrial reasons and by disagreements at the top about the priorities to be given to the issue. The scarcity of these advanced and extremely competitive aircraft could negatively affect the effectiveness of the air coverage of naval groups that would tomorrow operate far from our coasts, to protect national interests (v.articolo).

As Limes pointed out, slowing down "... the development and modernization processes of the Navy's air fleet, there is a risk of producing direct and negative consequences on the geopolitical scenarios in which Italy is involved in the foreground ..."5, nullifying the efforts made so far and preventing us from resolving independently any issues, even vital ones, concerning our security and our economy.

Italy, consistently with the provisions of art. 11 of the Constitution, rejects war as an instrument of offense and as a means of resolving international disputes. However, it it does not exclude that our Armed Forces can intervene to restore the conditions of legality, in situations that require such interventions at an international level. Sometimes it is not necessary to make use of force but it is sufficient to be ready to use it to lead the potential aggressor to more mild advice. Unfortunately, at other times, however, the use of force is indispensable in order to protect national interests. It is therefore necessary to be ready to intervene effectively on the sea to maintain one's political and economic freedom, which means retaining the possibility of expressing autonomous and independent choices.

The task of politics, and I am not referring only to the Government but above all to the sovereign Parliament, consists in identifying national interests (as they result from the synthesis of contingent interests, to become a collective interest) and in defining the objectives that must be achieved at a given moment. historical. The task of the military leader is then to prepare the instrument for its temporary dependence in order to achieve the assigned objectives. It is for this reason that it is essential that there is close coordination between Foreign Affairs and Defense. But if foreign policy has a fluctuating attitude, or is non-existent, it is not possible to have a clear vision of the objectives to be achieved and the military instrument remains prey to the passions of those in charge at that moment.

We are a maritime nation, even if the gaze of some is turned towards Central and Northern Europe for ideological reasons. It is time to finally become "... aware of how much the sea matters to us ..."6 and how economically dependent we are. The synthesis of the last hundred years, in order not to go too far, is that we have always wanted to imitate those who were beyond the Alps, to then find the solutions to our problems on the sea.

A question of fundamental importance that would require, on the part of political and military leaders, an integral, unitary and concordant vision of the main national interests, starting from our economic and political dependence on the sea and the delicate tasks assigned to the Navy, not only in the context of international alliances or ad-hoc coalitions of which Italy is a part. The fact that we do not overlook the oceans must not, therefore, prevent us from being present where our national interests must be protected, even if it meant sailing in waters far from home.

As James Donald Hittle put it "... the path traveled by man through history is littered with the failures of nations which, having achieved prosperity, have forgotten their dependence on the sea ..."7. In a historical period in which competition for resources and access to markets is multiplying on the sea and transnational threats are intensifying, in which activities connected with organized crime, human trafficking, piracy and terrorism are increasing , who often resort to flags of convenience or simply make a mockery of the rules of international law, there is no doubt that the gaze of the political decision-maker must be turned with extreme attention mainly towards the sea, in the interest of our safety, of the our commercial traffic and the whole complex of our national interests.

1 Lucio Caracciolo, Limes 10/2020

2 Gian Carlo Poddighe, Infinito Mediterraneo, Defense analysis, 3 December 2020

3 Roderich Kiesewetter, Head of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Head of Defense, on Limes online of 4 January 2019.

4 Lorenzo Guerini, Minister of Defense, greeting speech to the crew of Nave Cavour, 29 January 2021

5 Pietro Messina, Who are the F-35s? The endless dispute between the Air Force and the Navy, Limes 10/2020, p. 88

6 Limes, October 2020, p. 38.

7 Brigadier General JD Hittle (June 10, 1915, June 15, 2002), address given in Philadelphia on October 28, 1961

Photo: web / Türk Silahlı Kuvvetleri / Ministry of National Defense of the People's Republic of China / US Navy / presidency of the republic of Turkey / Ministry of Defense

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