When Giorgia Meloni assumed the position of Italy’s prime minister, reactions across the world ranged from perplexity to panic. Media outlets proclaimed that Italy had elected its “most right-wing government since World War Two.”
Many news outlets chose to focus on Meloni’s domestic agenda, highlighting her opposition to migration, same-sex unions, LGBT+ rights, and abortion. In the foreign policy realm, there were questions about Italy’s commitment to the European Union (EU), its support for Ukraine during its war with Russia, and to the Western alliance more broadly.
Absent from the public discourse, however, were accurate predictions that Meloni’s early tenure would be dedicated not only to developing Italy as an active global power engaging in trade, technology, and international security but also to the reaffirmation of Italy’s place as a leading voice in the Western alliance and a key US partner across a variety of issues.
An increasing emphasis on US-Italy relations is underpinned by the unanticipated stability of the Meloni government, Italy’s renewed economic strength (with GDP growth forecast to outpace the UK, Germany, and France), and a convergence of American and Italian interests on a number of key geopolitical issues. Even Italy’s controversial membership in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) looks up for grabs. These factors augur for a highly productive relationship.
Regardless of the observer’s political preferences, Meloni’s work rate since coming to office — particularly in the foreign policy realm — has been impressive. This year alone, she has visited: Algeria, Libya, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Ukraine, India, the United Arab Emirates, Belgium, Ethiopia, the UK, the Czech Republic, Iceland, Japan, Moldova, Tunisia, France, Austria, Latvia, Lithuania, and, most recently, the US.
Meloni has used these trips to make Italy a central player on key issues like energy, migration, and security with a European focus and global implications. In the security sphere, policies have perhaps been the most surprising and most significant. In the run-up to her election, there were concerns that the pro-Russian elements of her coalition — led by Matteo Salvini of the Lega and the now-deceased Silvio Berlusconi — would undermine European and transatlantic cohesion, particularly on the issue of support for Ukraine. This has not been the case. On the contrary, Italy has provided some of the most vocal and substantive support to Ukraine throughout the war, working in close collaboration with its NATO partners, particularly the US.
Italy’s support for Ukraine was front and center during Prime Minister Meloni’s meeting with President Joe Biden on July 27. The official joint statement reflected the enormous number of issues where Italy and the US share common values and interests, most prominently: Ukraine’s defense and reconstruction from “Russia’s illegal aggression,” “stability and prosperity in the wider Mediterranean . . . and Western Balkans,” “the vital importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” combating the climate crisis and achieving a clean energy transition, working toward mineral security, increasing bilateral investment and economic partnership, and strengthening space cooperation, along with collaboration in science and technology.
Critically, Meloni is also developing a coherent Italian policy on China that will reaffirm Italy’s position in the Western alliance without eliminating its economic relationship with China. Walking this line is not without difficulties. Italy’s choice to join the BRI in March 2019 while under the Movimento Cinque Stelle (5-Star Movement) government of Giuseppe Conte was widely criticized in the West. Regardless of BRI, there are important trade and business links between the two economies, but nothing on the scale many Italians envisaged when they lent support for the initial agreement.
For much of Meloni’s coalition, joining BRI was a mistake from the beginning. As a candidate, she staked out a position in support of Taiwan, deriding China’s threats to Taiwanese autonomy as “unacceptable.” She also admitted that she did not see compelling reasons to renew Italy’s participation in BRI. Underpinning these views was Meloni’s stated commitment to “standing tall in the Western camp.” These attitudes are shared by high-ranking members of the coalition, like Forza Italia foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, and business minister, Adolfo Urso. Defense minister, Guido Crosetto was even more plain-spoken, lamenting Italy’s decision to join BRI as “atrocious.”
Meloni’s actions in Asia more broadly are also an indication of the direction of Italy’s distancing from China under her government. In March, she met with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, during a brief trip to Delhi focused on supply chain diversification, business development, and technology collaboration. That same month, Italy, Britain, and Japan announced plans to jointly develop a fifth-generation fighter aircraft for delivery by 2035. Likewise, she has pledged a close relationship with Vietnam. Together these developments are unlikely to sit well with China.
Beijing’ is clearly concerned about the broad drift of Italian policy. It continues to trumpet the BRI’s potential while advising the Italian government to the “paranoid hype” created by the US, and warning of a “potential negative impact” if the BRI is not renewed. China remains concerned that the US’s ability to influence the economic partnerships of its allies is a clear demonstration of America’s continued political and economic clout on the world stage — a position of power that China is eager to erode.
For the US, Italy looks appealing at a time when other European powers like the UK, France, and Germany are preoccupied with concerns closer to home. This gives Meloni’s confident Italy a prominent position to champion the Western alliance and act as the key reference point for America’s critical relationship with Europe. It benefits both sides of the Atlantic and prepares the ground for the shared challenges that await us.
Andrew R. Novo is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with CEPA’s Transatlantic Defense and Security program. He is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Washington, DC, and an adjunct at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. The views here are entirely his own and do not represent the Government of the United States, the Department of Defense, or the National Defense University.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.