- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The interesting question in this turbulent 21st century is whether or not shifts in power, international norms, or technology have substantially altered the Mahanian [Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, 19th century naval strategist] approach. Personally, I believe his message still rings true for the United States today. As we seek to craft an international maritime strategy for the nation, Mahan’s point of view — adapted somewhat for today’s world — still presents a timeless message.
Taking his principles as a starting point, what advice can we imagine Mahan presenting the president today?
First and foremost, he would emphasize the need for the United States to regard itself as a maritime nation. This means supporting a reasonably sized civilian merchant marine; a powerful, capable Navy; a robust shipbuilding industry; a competent fishing fleet; efficient ports and infrastructure; icebreaking capability for the Arctic; and the ability to conduct broad area surveillance of the ocean approaches to our nations.
Mahan would also emphasize to today’s president the importance to the United States of defending the concept of an open global commons — the rights of high seas passage and transit, the importance of the U.N. Law of the Sea Treaty (which he would support, like virtually every active duty admiral in the U.S. Navy does today), and safe passage from piracy, political interference, or natural barriers. The open flow of free goods on the oceans (95 percent of global trade moves by sea) is crucial to a geopolitical power like the United States. This means challenging attempts to close the global commons by nations like China, which is building artificial islands and claiming much of the South China Sea as a “historic claim.”
A third key element in Mahan’s prescription would be a strong system of alliances and partnerships around the world. He would have thought in terms of colonies, which are — praise the lord — things of the past. In their place today, we need strong Alliances, with NATO at the top of the list. By working with NATO, the United States has reliable and immediate access to bases and logistic support all around the periphery of Europe and up into the Arctic. Our warships can pull into port in Rota, Spain; Souda Bay, Greece; Portsmouth, England; Toulon, France; Bremen, Germany; and essentially anywhere within the 28 nations of the alliance. Over my time as a Navy commander, I have frequently made port calls, refueled, sent my crew on liberty, conferred with close colleagues from Allied navies, and generally found support and sustenance in our alliance. Similarly, in the Pacific, we have formal alliances with Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea — all of equal value in ensuring a global system of operating locations.
In addition to alliances, the United States needs an active network of partners and friends — nations which we are for a variety of reasons not ready to engage with a formal alliance — but with whom we have warm relations nonetheless. Some nations in this category include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Finland, Sweden, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, on and on. I have made port visits to each of the nations mentioned above, and have found a welcoming committee in each place. These partners and friends are an essential part of our global maritime network as well, and part of our maritime strategy would include embracing them. In an article I published in the early 1980s, I spoke about a “Global Maritime Coalition,” and more recently the Navy has talked about the so-called “Thousand Ship Navy.” When you put all the capability of our allies, partners, and friends together, it is a formidable naval force indeed — that approach of international coalitions must be central to our global maritime strategy.
Fourth, Mahan was keenly aware of the importance of the private sector in ensuring the United States maintained a robust maritime capability. In his view, the primary key was supporting the maritime industry and the global trading capability. In today’s world, both of those are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Another key component of an effective global maritime strategy for the United States must be a high level of private-public operational integration and cooperation. One key example is in the world of sharing intelligence and information on ship movements at sea, both passively through the Global Positioning System and associated beaconing systems, and through active shared reports. This is crucial to ensure an open and free global navigational system, especially in the face of potential piratical activity in places like the Straits of Malacca, the east and west coast of Africa, and the Caribbean Sea. Another example is specific to piracy, and that is exchanging operational protocols — embarked security teams, convoy operations, distress reporting systems, and counter-measures on individual ships. In the world of cyber protection of global shipping systems — ships, ports, loading cranes, buoyage systems — are all vulnerable to cyber-attack and are therefore a shared responsibility between the U.S. government and the U.S. operators
The United States continues on a voyage that is both personal to the mariners who sail it, and of vital geopolitical importance. In the end, we are an island nation, bounded by oceans and nurtured on the global commerce, international markets, fishing expeditions, hydrocarbon offshore rigs, and strategic waterways of the world’s oceans. Without the oceans and our ability to sail them, we would be enormously diminished as a nation. Our ability to navigate, both literally and figuratively through the oceans will be a determinative part of the voyage of our nation in this century. I began this volume with the thought that there is both a deeply individual component to sailing and understanding the oceans, and a key geostrategic element to the idea that the sea is truly one.
Taken together, it seems clear that the nautical character of our nation will continue to be vital, indeed essential, for all that the future promises to our country and the world. Let us continue to sail in our ships, which take our sailors daily out of sight of land, and leave us gazing at the eternal vista of the deep sea, where we stand on a narrow hull, rolling before the waves and the wind, knowing we are at that moment indeed an ocean away.
Excerpted, with permission, from Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (Penguin Press, 2017), by Admiral James Stavrdis, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
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