Tuesday, June 15, 2021
Two Cheers For The New Navalism
At the end of the 19th century, the United States was gripped by a sudden enthusiasm for sea power. The immediate impetus was literary in nature—in one of the most massively influential works of military strategy ever published, American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan developed a view of history which linked the fortunes of states to their command of the seas. Applied to his own country—then in what Mahan considered “a period of commercial and naval decadence”—this theory suggested the United States needed to seriously build up its maritime power, or risk losing out to rivals who did. His calls were taken seriously by “navalist” statesmen like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, who eagerly set about turning what had been a moldering collection of Civil War relics into one of the world’s premier battlefleets.
Fast forward to 2021, and a similar anxiety about the state of America’s navy is playing out among a growing coterie of legislators, national security officials, and defense commentators. Like their turn-of-the-century forebears, today’s navalists see maritime dominance as critical to national power, and worry the country is being outclassed by its competitors. They note with alarm China’s rapidly expanding naval capabilities: Last year, Beijing acquired, in terms of sheer numbers, the largest fleet on the planet, even as the U.S. plans to cut its own shipbuilding budget. The geographic arena of Sino-American competition is also adduced to bolster the case; clearly ships, submarines, and naval aircraft will play a more important role in the Western Pacific than tanks and infantry.
For adherents of this view, the obvious prescription is to boost investment in maritime capabilities—and that is exactly what they have been pushing for. Some have advocated for diverting money from other areas. “You can’t get to where you need to be if you just continue to cut the pie one-third, one-third, one-third,” the chair of the House Seapower Subcommittee argued earlier this year, “the Navy’s share of resources have to grow.” Others have been blunter: “We need more money” was the message the Chief of Naval Operations offered in January. All agree, as a recent cover piece for National Review put it, that the demands of great power competition mean “America must become a sea power again.”
Although skeptics will understandably wince at the invocation of what is already a hoary national security cliché, an explicitly navalist strategy does have considerable attractions. China, despite the frequent exaggerations of some foreign policy circles, is still America’s number one geopolitical challenge. It is the only country which even approaches peer status, and the only serious alternative hegemon on offer. So, if the U.S. is going to maintain a serious military, it makes sense to tool it for an actual threat, rather than the counter-insurgency phantoms the Pentagon has chased for the last two decades. This is especially true when one considers the importance of commercial sea lanes, which—since they account for 80 percent of global trade—Washington is interested in keeping open and safe.
Moreover, prioritizing the Navy at the expense of other services can act as a check on strategic adventurism. For a country like the United States, which lacks serious threats from its neighbors, strong ground forces are almost inherently expeditionary; their very existence, in addition to being rather expensive, can create a strong temptation to use. A powerful navy, on the other hand, can serve a more naturally defensive purpose, guarding potential avenues of attack and patrolling commercial sea lanes without posing an overtly offensive threat (although of course there are exceptions to this general rule—recall the recent use of submarines in launching missile strikes against Syria). It is for this reason that enthusiasts for what is now termed “foreign policy restraint” have long held navalist sympathies: “From Cromwell to Cobden,” as one 19th century newspaper proclaimed, “good radicals have ever insisted on an all-powerful navy.”
Read the rest here.