Book Review: Strategic Culture and Italy’s Military Behavior

Paolo Rosa, Strategic Culture and Italy’s Military Behavior. Between Pacifism and Realpolitik (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2016). 158 pp., $80,00 (hardback), ISBN: 9781498522816.

The analysis of Italian foreign and security policy has recently gained the attention of Italian political scientists. Paolo Rosa’s book contributes to this new wave of analysis, in that it aims to analyze how strategic culture has affected Italian behavior (p. 1).
The introduction provides a review of competing explanations of Italian foreign policy, based on international and domestic factors, to eventually claim that they are indeterminate and fail to consider the ideational dimension and the effects of the belief systems shared by the leaders on Italian international behavior.
Part I is dedicated to the study of strategic culture in international relations. Chapter two is devoted to the sociological turn in international relations, focusing on social constructivism, sociological institutionalism, and the relationship between learning and foreign policy, and suggests the usefulness of security culture as a theoretical “bridge” (p. 27). Chapter three is specifically dedicated to strategic cultures. The author adopts Johnston’s definition of strategic culture as “a system of symbols that expresses a society’s prevailing ideas” about the role of war in international relations, the nature of the adversaries, the efficacy of the use of force, and the ranking of the various strategic options (p. 54). Accordingly, the author applies the following research scheme to Italy’s strategic culture: 1) identification of the main cultural elements (images of war, of the adversary and of the role of force held by the political and military elites); 2) identification of the preferred strategic options; 3) analysis of the actual military behavior.
Part II engages with the analysis of Italy’s strategic culture and of Italian security policy. Chapter four is specifically dedicated to the identification of the characteristics of Italian strategic culture, providing an overview of the images of war and of adversaries, an assessment of the military instrument, and of Italian strategic preferences. In particular, the author highlights that during the Liberal period Italy shared with the other European powers the “cult of the offensive.” During the Fascist period, Italy showed a greater adherence to realpolitik tenets, viewed war as a natural event, and relationships with opponents as zero-sum games. It also expressed a clear preference for offensive military plans. World War II, however, was “a fundamental watershed that led to the emergence of a strategic culture diametrically opposed to that of the previous era,” leading to the “emergence of an elite that refused the use of military force as a means for solving international problems” (p. 70). After 1945, Italy’s national identity was heavily affected, and nationalism, militarism, unilateralism, and offensive strategies were refused. Italy adopted strict limits to the use of force in its constitution, strongly supported multilateral organizations, reorganized its armed forces on the basis of a conscription army and, certain that its actual defense would have been guaranteed by the United States, it rescaled its military-industrial complex, and created a “mito autoassolutorio”, in an attempt to distance itself from, and delegitimize, Fascist rule. All of this contributed to the stabilization of a non-militarized strategic culture. Although with important differences (that tended to fade away over time), this non-militarized strategic culture was shared by both Christian Democrats and left-wing parties, and translated into an anti-war attitude and the possibility of using military force only in a defensive or multilateral framework. Accommodation strategies were preferred to defensive strategies and offensive strategies became residual.
Chapter five assesses the impact of strategic culture on Italy’s military behavior. After defining hypotheses based on a neorealist perspective versus a cultural approach, the author proposes a quantitative analysis elaborating data from the Correlates of War project on militarized interstate disputes (MID) (version 3.0, with data up to 2001). Through a cross-national comparison of nations’ involvement in MIDs in the period 1946–1992, the author shows that Italy is not a war-prone state, and this is confirmed also in the post-Cold War period when comparing Italy to the other medium-sized powers. A longitudinal comparison of four sub-periods (Liberal, Fascist, Republican, and post-Cold War) confirms a resistance toward realpolitik practices (p. 98), and comparing pre- and post- 1945 this resistance becomes more evident. The author then concentrates on the level of violence, on the presence of revisionist objectives, and on the type of conflictual actions used by Italy, all supporting evidence of the strategic culture approach. Finally, he moves on to analyze armed forces and military spending, and highlights the importance of the Lebanon mission (1982–1984) in restoring a positive role for armed forces within a society in which strong antimilitarist feelings were present, and the inclusion of international security actions in the 1985 White Paper on defense still met a robust political opposition, evidence of the strong constraints still posed by its strategic culture. However, after the end of the Cold War, Italy’s military spending decreased less than other European countries, the country became increasingly involved in international crises showing an increased activism, and its armed forces moved from conscription to a professional army. All of this shows the inclination to give Italy a greater capacity for force projection. Nevertheless, as the author points out, changes occurred “within the parameters determined by the strategic culture, sometimes pushing these parameters to their limits, but never breaking them” (p. 109). The strong support to multilateral security organizations has been internalized and Italian involvement in multilateral peacekeeping missions has increased. Finally, the author analyzes the eight military operations in which Italy has been involved in the period 1990–2008 to highlight elements of the political debates held. While sharing with other scholars the relevance of the identification of this involvement as international policing or peace operations, the author reverses the explanations given so far, advancing the idea that caveats and limitations in the use of force were intentionally imposed, in line with the Italian idea that peacekeeping operations are intended as a contribution to reconstruction and pacification. Accordingly, the author concludes that, despite Italy’s greater assertiveness in the post-Cold War period, its behavior still shows “the decisive weight of a nonmilitarized strategic culture” (p. 132–133).
Throughout the book, the author effectively makes the case for the importance of ideational factors. He devotes less attention (although he does devote some) to fully enlighten why existing explanations based on material factors and other explanations based on ideational factors are unsatisfactory. This is surely fine, because the assembled evidence is noteworthy and confirms his stance. Still, at times the collected evidence leaves room for competing explanations (as the author admits). For instance, all European countries have shown, to a greater or lesser extent, restraints on the use of force since the end of World War II, so it is possible that the European dimension (and a European security culture) have interacted with and strengthened Italian strategic preferences. Moreover, the reduction of interstate wars and the rise of intrastate conflicts (protracted and with different dynamics) may have created different incentives regarding the instruments to be more effectively used and the chosen framework. Finally, the overall increase in peace operations may be useful in better explaining Italian behavior in the post-Cold War period. This is not to say that these are better explanations, but just to suggest that, for as ambitious a goal as it is, explaining whether and how a combination of different explanations (based on both material and ideational factors) is possible would have also been a useful contribution not only to our understanding of Italian security policy, but also to the strand of literature dealing with strategic culture.
Another element, hardly explored by the literature, that could have benefited from receiving more space is the “obsessive focus” on balance of power in Italian political thought (endnote 52, p. 94). As the author explains, strategic culture influences the means (diplomatic versus military actions) rather than the ends that policy-makers try to accomplish. However, there is a tension between the two, because balance of power can be not only a goal, but also a lens through which policy-makers read the world to decide whether they should enact balancing policies or otherwise. If they believe (correctly or not) that their survival is at stake, it may become more difficult to ignore calls for the use of military means. Accordingly, this would have made an even stronger case for the author’s argument.
As for the data used, Rosa uses one of the most authoritative databases. This choice, however, only allows him to cover until 2001,1 and therefore to compare a significantly shorter sub-period (post-Cold War) with longer ones (Liberal, Fascist, and Cold War), leaving occasional doubts on the interpretation of data regarding Italian choices in the post-Cold War sub-period (for instance, Italy’s involvement in MIDs per year in the post-Cold War sub-period is quite close to the one during the Liberal sub-period; likewise, the level of violence used by Italy in the post-Cold War sub-period is rather close to the Liberal and Fascist sub-periods). Now that a newer version (4.1) is available and covers until 2010, it would be interesting to see whether the observation of a longer period is helpful in clarifying the occasional doubts.
Rosa has made an original, interesting, and very useful contribution to our understanding of Italian security policy, and has brought attention to the importance of the analysis of the impact of strategic culture on the Italian policy-makers’ choices.

Carla Monteleone, University of Palermo


1 Probably because the book was originally published in Italian in 2012 as Tra pacifismo e realpolitik: Cultura strategica e politica estera in Italia, Rubbettino.

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