Elephants in the Room

Trump’s National Security Strategy Is Nothing Like the British Empire’s ‘Blue Water’ Policy

The historical analogy is wrong — whichever way you look at it.

"The Fighting Temeraire" (J.M.W. Turner/British National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Commons)
"The Fighting Temeraire" (J.M.W. Turner/British National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Commons)

In a piece for the Wall Street Journal published Monday, Walter Russell Mead makes a truly terrible argument in defense of the Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy. Mead’s case is based on an astonishingly inept historical analogy. He argues that the new U.S. strategy has embraced “an older strategic approach” exemplified by the so-called “blue water” policy of the British Empire at its height.

In Mead’s cartoon, British imperial leaders always had a debate between two schools. One he calls a continentalist strategy, which prioritized alliances and close political cooperation with key European powers. The other Mead calls a blue-water policy, which encouraged Britain to turn away from Europe and toward the open oceans, “using its unique global position to maximize its power and wealth.” The United States, according to Mead, now also seems to be making the blue-water choice — which Mead praises as an evocation of Britain’s past wisdom.

This is wrong on so many levels. First, it is the blue-water men who were the multinational globalists of their day, emphasizing the maintenance of a bewildering variety of political, military, and allied linkages — dozens of them. Somehow Mead gets through an entire essay about the British analogy without once using the words, “empire,” “imperial,” or “India.” These omissions would have startled any British strategist of that era, blue water or no.

None of those strategists thought their country’s prosperity was to be found at sea. The water just connected the nodes of the imperial network. In their globalist conception, which they sometimes contrasted mockingly to the ideas of “Little Englanders” (the America Firsters of their day), the oceans connected little Britain to its vital economic and military partners which, above all, consisted of India (the indispensable partner) and the “White Dominions,” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa). Beyond those core partnerships there were the associated alliances to shore up the Ottoman Empire (aided by the colony in Cyprus), look after Egypt, prop up Argentine commerce, administer the Suez Canal, fortify Aden, build up Singapore, police Shanghai, and so on.

Second, these same blue-water globalists were entirely aware of the other great dimension of the British world system. This was Britain’s world leadership of the cause of free trade and common global financial cooperation in the form of the gold standard. London was the financial hub and organizing center of this world system, as commodities from across the world flowed into and out of England’s docklands. This was foot-on-the-pedal globalization.

Third, the context for the actual British blue-water arguments is also revealing. It was an argument over imperial defense after revelations in the 1880s about the deplorable condition of the British navy. The core problem was that Britain could not feed itself. If it lost naval control, it would starve. (This premise of extreme interdependence is also rather foreign to a doctrine of America First.)

That was the context in which British navalists such as Admiral Philip Colomb argued for the merits of blue-water doctrine against what he called the “blue funk” pessimists, as he advocated for huge investments in modernizing the Royal Navy, instead of investing in modernizing the Army. An ambitious Naval Defence Act was indeed passed in 1889. But it did not solve the problem. Britain’s subsequent rapid naval buildup did not increase its relative naval power. Instead, Britain’s relative naval advantage actually declined, as Britain strained to keep up in the naval arms race as France, Russia, Germany, the United States, and Japan all accelerated their efforts too and gained in relative position.

But, as strategists like Halford Mackinder pointed out in replying to other navalists like Alfred Thayer Mahan, none of these blue-water arguments avoided the dilemmas of land-based strategic commitments. Britain had constantly been involved in continental European politics during the first half of the 19th century. Even in the sunny imperial afternoon of the late 19th century, Mead neglects to mention the omnipresent concerns about containing Russian expansion in southeast Europe and the Balkans, in South Asia, and in East Asia. Nor does he mention that this same period of naval buildup was associated with the scrambles for colonial expansion in Africa and in the Pacific, an extremely grave Far Eastern crisis over the future of China, a disastrous war in South Africa, and finally the reluctant necessity to reengage even more intensively in continental European politics.

Mead wraps up his piece with the statement that “blue-water strategists in the Trump national-security team believe that it is American power, not multilateral institutions, that keeps the West afloat.” Power versus multilateral institutions?

If this is the dichotomy Mead draws from his glance at British imperial history, then I hope that would-be blue-water strategists will find other sources of instruction. They should at least spend a while contemplating why someone, then or now, might equate blue water with a great power’s prosperity. The prosperity is not in the water.

Philip Zelikow holds professorships in history and governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He also worked on international policy as a U.S. government official in five administrations.

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