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Maritime Supremacy: The Indispensable Element of US Foreign Policy

The article below by Mackubin Owens was given as a talk entitled “Naval Warfare: The Strategic Influence of Sea Power” at The Institute of World Politics on July 18, 2016.

navyRecent focus on terrorism and US wars in the Greater Middle East have tended to obscure the central role of sea power in American foreign policy. To most Americans, sea power is invisible, but it is the great enabler of American power in the world.

The fact is that the United States could do nothing in the world without the US Navy, the source of American sea power. As Colin Gray has observed, for the United States to be a land power anywhere but North America, it must be a sea power. Sea power makes it possible to sustain engagement in troublesome theaters, sustain alliances, and maintain Freedom of Navigation and maritime trade.

From the end of WWII until the presidency of Barack Obama, the United States has pursued a bipartisan grand strategy of “primacy,” the purpose of which has been to underwrite a liberal world order based on trade. This grand strategy is based on what Robert Gilpin calls “hegemonic stability,” which holds that a liberal world order does not arise spontaneously. It is possible only if a major power or coalition of powers is willing to provide the “public good” of security. For 100 years, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars to the beginning of World War I, Great Britain provided this service. The United States has done so since 1945.

One of the major drivers of US foreign policy is geography. America’s geography predisposes her to a maritime based foreign policy. Alfred Thayer Mahan identified six characteristics of a maritime power: geographic position; physical conformation; extent of territory; number of population; national character; and character of the government. This was true from the beginning of the Republic.

The necessity of a navy is made explicit in the Article I Section 8 of the Constitution: while Congress shall have the power “raise an army,” it also has the power “to provide and maintain a navy.”  This suggests that funding a navy is a permanent requirement.

The Federalists, especially Alexander Hamilton, argued for creating a strong navy. The Jeffersonians opposed an ocean-going navy, but Jefferson did not hesitate to send the US Navy into the Mediterranean with directions to end the depredations by the Barbary Pirates against US maritime trade.

Despite this geographical and constitutional inclination toward sea power, the United States did not become a maritime power overnight. For decades, it in essence relied on the Royal Navy to enforce such policies as the Monroe Doctrine, which was based on a US assessment that Britain wished to keep other European states out of the Western Hemisphere as much as the United States did. Thus, America was essentially a maritime “free rider” until the late 19th century.

But the unification of Germany and its subsequent competition with Great Britain for colonies led to a naval arms race, which, along with the closing of the American frontier, stimulated a major US foreign policy debate in the late 1800s. In many respects, this debate was a replay of the one between Hamilton and Jefferson at the beginning of the Republic, pitting expansionists vs. isolationists, advocates of trade and industry vs. advocates of agrarianism. The former tended to be navalists, e.g.  T.R. Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge. The latter were anti-imperialists and anti-navalists, such as William Jennings Bryan and Grover Cleveland.

The debate played out in debates over the annexation of Hawaii, and after the Spanish American War, the annexation of the Philippines and Cuba. It saw the creation of the Naval War College in Newport, RI and the emergence of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who argued that if the United States was to be a great power, it had to build a battle fleet. His views endeared him to the navalists.

Mahan argued on behalf of overseas bases, a battleship navy capable of offensive operations, and a concentrated fleet that could achieve a decisive victory at sea. Mahanian ideas prevailed and proved their value during World War II. The engagements that Mahan envisioned, great sea battles pitting battle lines against one another, did not occur. They were instead battles between fleets built around the aircraft carrier. But the Pacific War did see decisive naval battles. The Pacific was a maritime theater, but the US Navy exercised global reach, cooperating with the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean and supporting the European Theater of Operations.

Sea power was the key to the US policy of containment during the Cold War, sustaining an alliance on the Eurasian “rimland” in order to keep the Soviet Union landlocked. It also sustained US military power at a great distance. No other country in the world could have pulled off what we did during our time in Vietnam.

What about the future? How should US naval power best be used? Should we move from a maritime-based “continental commitment” such as NATO to “off-shore balancing?”

Today, we face a debate similar to the one of the late 19th century: do we continue with a grand strategy of primacy or shift to strategic disengagement? This plays out as we consider the size and composition of the US Navy.

In the sort of world we face today, with no major enemy fleets to confront, perhaps a better guide to maritime strategy is Sir Julian Corbett as opposed to Mahan. While they are complementary in many ways, Corbett’s understanding of using the navy, not as an independent force, but as a part of a joint force to control that portion of the sea necessary to the conduct of joint operations, seems closer to today’s reality than Mahan’s emphasis on war at sea and decisive fleet engagements. 

Today’s naval tasks include power projection, including amphibious operations; strike; and defense of SLOCs. How do we achieve these goals? One limitation to our maritime power is the size of the US Navy. Although today’s smaller navy possesses much greater cumulative firepower than did the 600 ship Navy of the Reagan years, the smaller number of ships means that it cannot be everywhere we would like it to be.

There are some substantial threats to continued US maritime supremacy. The primary external challenge is a rising China and its desire to exclude the United States from the Western Pacific. China’s actions in the South China Sea have caused concern, as well as its anti-access, area denial strategies and technological advances such as an anti-ship ballistic missile.

But there are internal challenges as well: Defense budget reductions; the rising costs of emerging technologies; and organizational imperatives that block emerging technologies.

An effective US maritime strategy will focus on countering China. An important tool will involve strong alliances with Japanese and Indian navies, as well as partnering with others.

How do we sustain US maritime power into the future?  First of all, recognize that there will be no 600 ship Navy in the future but that we need one bigger than what we currently have. Second, cultivate innovative approaches to ship building and weapon development. Third, cultivate and support allies, especially in the Western Pacific. Finally and most importantly, stress innovative strategic thinking. Such a strategy should recognize the continuing importance of geography.

For instance, Britain’s First Sea Lord, Sir John “Jackie” Fisher, once observed that there are five strategic keys that lock up the world, and Britain controls them all: Dover and the English Channel; Gibraltar;  Alexandrea and Suez; Capetown and the Cape of Africa; and Singapore.

Continued US maritime supremacy depends on the ability of the United States Navy to exert that same kind of control of certain “strategic keys,” including the Strait of Hormuz, the Malacca Strait, Suez, the Danish Strait, the Turkish Strait, Bab al Mandeb, and the Panama Canal.

The alternative to continued US maritime supremacy and American primacy is strategic decline. The decay of British power in the latter part of the 19th century paved the way for economic depression and the two world wars of the 20th century. As Rudyard Kipling wrote in “Recessional:”

Far-called our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget-lest we forget!