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The Historical Roots of NATO Engagement in The Mediterranean – Transatlantic Policy Quarterly 22/08/2022

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The structures of the political-military alliance sealed with the North Atlantic Treaty were decided upon within the framework of the so-called Cold War. The conflict between the two superpowers, the United States, and the Soviet Union, arose in Europe. The continent was the epicenter of a conflict which never escalated into open warfare and revolved around the “Iron Curtain” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced had descended on the continent in his famous speech. So, the prospects of a dreaded conflict had a distinctly land-based character, with a possible battlefield moving from Germany to the Pyrenees. In the case of an invasion by the Warsaw Pact forces, the strategic debate of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) revolved around European fears of U.S. engagement.

The Beginning

By 1950, in the midst of the Korean War, the first line of defense was established in West Germany, disrupting assumptions that had placed the boundary much further West. This enabled Federal Germany’s participation in the Atlantic alliance in 1955, which in turn allowed it to guarantee to other European allies that the reconstitution of the German armed forces was not dangerous. The city of Berlin became the topos of the Cold War and the division of Europe. Along with this incontrovertible element, which called the U.S. commitment to the defense of Western Europe into question, there were other matters, such as the question of nuclear armaments or control of the Mediterranean, which has endured well after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet system.

Focusing on the Mediterranean, it is appropriate to retrace here the steps in the construction of the Atlantic coalition. U.S. military engagement is grounded in President Harry S. Truman’s doctrine, which wove U.S. national security with international aid to free peoples struggling against totalitarianism. Formulated in 1947, the doctrine was applied in 1948 in support of the governments of Greece and Turkey. Two Mediterranean countries linked to U.S. national security, a founding element of the era that fixed the role of the U.S. in preparation for the North Atlantic Treaty and the organization that would derive from it, NATO. The geographical focus for the application of the Truman Doctrine was the Mediterranean as well, that is, Mediterranean countries that did not orbit the Soviet Union. The necessary background for the success of the Truman doctrine was the placement of the Italian republic in the Atlantic field. The defeat of the Popular Front in the first elections of Republican Italy and the country’s subsequent accession to the North Atlantic Treaty were preconditions obtained by overcoming various kinds of obstacles.

The French government pledged that the Italian Republic would be among the signatory states of the treaty on 4 April 1949. Ennio Di Nolfo recalls that, with Italy’s entry into the treaty, the French strengthened the representation of Catholic countries within the alliance and off shouldered some of the responsibility of dealing with large swathes of coastline on the Mediterranean alone. These reasons are certainly analytically valid with respect to the Western European balance of power – but from the American perspective, the strategic-political relevance of the Mediterranean and other crucial basins on the planet was already given. There was certainly a strong co-management of these areas with the United Kingdom, as the United States was moving from a comprimario to superseding it as global hegemon. A trend in the special relationship that united the British and Americans developed in the following years: it started in the Mediterranean, where the takeover occurred earlier than in other eastern basins and coincided with the beginning of U.S. support for the Greek government.

Historically in the British area of influence, the U.K. government was no longer able to maintain effective patronage over monarchist forces loyal to it in the Hellenic Civil War of 1946-49, which pitted them against communist formations, already the backbone of the resistance against Nazi occupation. The victory of the Christian Democrats in Italy, followed by the victory of the Greek anti-communist forces, precluded Soviet entry into Mediterranean shores. However, this cardinal issue for the Anglo-Americans was not to be part of NATO’s priorities at the time of the organization’s founding, it was to remain a side issue. It was too far outside of the Atlantic line of defense, and it was too important to the respective British and U.S. imperial policies. This position was easily justified since the line of possible aggression was coming from the heart of the European continent, as the Berlin Blockade of 1948-49 had shown, and not from the sea. The French, on the other hand, were fully engulfed in a situation that encompassed an arm of the Mediterranean in the national sphere, since Algeria was not simply a colony but part of France’s metropolitan territory. This aspect marked a key difference between French and British participation in the integrated command of NATO’s Mediterranean maritime forces because France had to take care of its Algerian shore as a priority.

The Enlargement

In 1951, the representatives of Greece and Turkey signed treaty access and began their integration process into the structures of the alliance. This first enlargement intersected with the process of decolonization in the Mediterranean, not only in Algeria but especially of Malta. Consolidation was marked by developments in military technology, namely new ballistic carriers armed with nuclear warheads. The entry into the so-called “missile age” reduced the deterrent value of the air force: it was no longer the sole carrier of nuclear weapons, as it had been in the early years of nuclear weapons. The bombers in the sky were in constant rotation, guaranteeing retaliation even if command centers were destroyed. In 1960, NATO deployed PGM-19 Jupiter strategic missiles to Apulia and, later, to the province of Izmir, directly threatening the Soviet Union with nuclear warheads. The choice had many implications, but one that geographically seemed to express the value of Italian and Turkish territory as NATO’s southern flank to the interior of the continent, not to the sea. However, it must be considered that the missile deployment came at the end of a period of fluid definition of NATO command structures, which would be followed by a phase – the one we are currently in – where the Mediterranean character of Italy, Greece and Turkey became central to their integration into the Atlantic system.

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