Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, written by retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis and published in 2017, outlines the historical role of sea power on geopolitics, and argues that American naval power should continue to underwrite the ongoing integration and globalization of the world.
This is a predictable thesis from one of America’s top statesmen, an application of official ideology to the author’s official area of expertise. Still, it would be interesting if paired with new argumentative strength or convincing engagement with the future geopolitical environment.
The book is significant because it is reasonably representative of the opinions of America’s top geopolitical brass. For example, the late, well-respected Senator John McCain gave his official stamp of approval in his review of the work:
No one understands the importance of the oceans and their impact on today’s security better than Admiral Jim Stavridis. He is a leader and a sailor who stands out in every way. This is a must-read book.
Indeed, it is undeniable that the reach of Sea Power is broad and its approach unique. However, it brings little to the table in terms of historical literacy or sensible prescription. Sea Power presents its case for a global and omnipresent American naval force justified by the logic of neoliberal globalization: the free movement of people, goods, ideas, and capital. But it quickly becomes clear that policy prescriptions coming from this ideological perspective are aspirational, not practical. Many of Sea Power’s assertions and conclusions come across as empirically foolish, or even dangerous. Moreover, Admiral Stavridis repeatedly misses the opportunity to examine broader geopolitical questions outside of his ideological constraints, a sine qua non of hard-nosed geopolitical analysis. As such, Sea Power fails in its stated attempt to become the modern-day successor to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s seminal 1890 work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.
Nonetheless, as a stand-in for the logic of globalization currently informing most of America’s geopolitical policy-makers, the questions Sea Power raises are worth analyzing and deconstructing to allow for the exploration of genuine potential alternatives.
Sea Power on the Asian Arms Race: “Massive Buildup Probably Will Lead to Peace”
Sea Power begins in Asia, asserting the major Pacific powers today are engaged in an arms race with each other. It states that the “maritime arms race in Asia comes from each state’s perception of external threats.” This is an accurate analysis; ‘Thucydides Trap’ has become a common descriptor for the current situation in Asia.
However, Sea Power then goes on to state that “despite the tensions and the risks in our modern Pacific Rim, the odds are better than even that the region will develop peacefully.” Here the ideological blinders are put on display: a strategist with any knowledge of historical precedent can argue with honesty either a) there is an enormous military buildup between potential unconstrained antagonists in a region, or b) that region will develop peacefully. Not both.
It is not impossible for peace to follow an arms buildup between geopolitical competitors. The notable modern example is the eventual denouement of the Cold War itself. But at best, this is a tenuous example. During the Cold War era, both sides’ personnel had formal working relationships with each other by virtue of their governments having previously been in alliance during World War II. Additionally, both sides took intentional measures to de-escalate tensions on numerous occasions, including setting up lines of communication between command authorities such as the Moscow-Washington hotline in 1963, treaties that mutually limited nuclear arms from the 1960s-1980s, and finally conventional arms reduction treaties in the 1990s.
Yet despite both sides attempting to avoid open hostilities, Cold War competition came close to kinetic conflict on several occasions, including during the 1948 Berlin Airlift, the 1954 Suez Crisis, the 1961 Berlin Crisis, the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1973 Yom Kippur War escalation, and the 1983 Operation Able Archer. This was with a relatively stable bipolar power structure and with geopolitical control centered mainly on two capitals in communication with each other. Even under this relatively stable power dynamic, open conflict nearly occurred on numerous occasions.
By contrast, the present power structure of the Pacific may more closely resemble that of pre-World War I Europe than the Cold War: the Pacific arms race is not just between the two major power blocs, but between numerous powers in competition with each other, having sometimes aligning, sometimes diverging interests. These include Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, North Korea, and South Korea. While there have been efforts to create a “NATO of the Pacific” such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), these efforts have led only to economic coordination, not political cooperation. The well-armed potential combatants wield arsenals of unknown kinetic destructive capabilities as well as offensive cyber weapons.
Furthermore, these competitors have no history of international cooperation or even multilateral communication that predates post-World War II American geopolitical hegemony in the Pacific. Finally, many of these countries have smaller disputes with each other that exist independent of the main great power geopolitical paradigm. It is an uncertain proposition that this situation will develop into a stable power structure, especially if the U.S. continues in the expansionary geopolitics advocated for by Stavridis.
In the 21st century Pacific, to argue both that an non-nuclear arms race is occurring, and that peace is likely to follow, is a stretch, bordering on wishful thinking. But this kind of idea is common among American thought leaders.
Sea Power’s Recommendation for Sino-American Relations: “Provoke, Do Not Seek Modus Vivendi”
In its prescriptions for American relations with China, Sea Power again displays conformity to the standard set of ideological prescriptions. Stavridis initially states that China’s “weakness, so apparent in the 20th century in particular, is outside the norm, and current events in the South China Sea show that the pendulum is swinging back strongly toward a policy of strong Chinese activity throughout the region.” This is sound strategic analysis. Stavridis then goes on to assert that “in the 1970s… the Chinese began to help the United States diplomatically, and the tension across the Taiwan Strait was visibly reduced.” This ought to be welcome news from a geopolitical standpoint, assuming the aim is to prevent unnecessary conflict. However, he then states, “as a result, sadly… the U.S. Navy stopped pulling into port there” and that the United States “should continue to explore a strong refueling and resupply arrangement with Taiwan, even if this makes China upset,” which he acknowledges “it will.”
Sea Power, and more broadly the neoliberal logic it represents, argues that China is becoming stronger, and that the U.S. previously has demonstrated an ability to de-escalate tensions with strengthening China based on mutual respect for each other’s geopolitical imperatives, but that the U.S. should instead provoke China in equal parts for strategic reasons and because American sailors enjoy the exotic nightlife found during port calls at the Taiwanese ports of Keelung and Kaohsiung.
Such a perspective is evidence of an inability to conceive of a world beyond the imperatives of ideological globalization; i.e., that the world must become more interconnected at any cost, including the risk of open conflict with a near-peer adversary. It precludes coming to a territorial modus vivendi with China—like Rome did with Persia—so as to de-escalate tensions. It also vastly limits the options available and increases the odds of conflict between the two main nuclear-armed Pacific powers. Bluntly stated, this prescription—for the United States to assert unconstrained geopolitical interests based on sentimentality and ideology, thus antagonizing a rising China—is a recipe for a Pacific war.
Sea Power’s Approach to the Mediterranean: “Disrupt Stable Regimes, then Attempt to Contain the Chaos Caused”
The theme of advocating for unnecessary conflict is not limited to the Pacific. Sea Power’s advice for European countries like Italy to defend themselves from non-state actors like ISIS in the Mediterranean is equally hamstrung.
Stavridis first over-exaggerates the threat that ISIS could plausibly present to Europe in framing the terrorist organization as a military threat to mainland Italy. Realistically, ISIS has never had any ability to project hard power into the Mediterranean beyond a few tenuously-held bases of operations in Libya. ISIS’ main engagement with Italy came in the form of threatening propaganda that targeted the Pope, which just added Italy to the list of its enemies, rather than being materially threatening.
Tellingly, Stavridis never broaches the possibility that perhaps NATO, under his watch as Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2009 to 2013, may have erred in destroying the Libyan regime of Moammar Gaddafi in the first place, which both opened the floodgates of the migrant crisis in Europe and allowed ISIS to gain a base in Libya. Stavridis instead asserts that, “eventually Libya will succeed” because “it has big oil reserves” and “an educated population.” This type of reasoning is wishful thinking, considering the current state of many hydrocarbon-rich countries such as Venezuela, Iraq, and Nigeria.
Sea Power then fails to acknowledge that a European country like Italy could protect itself from a terrorist organization in Libya by simply ordering its coast guard to turn away boats attempting to land in its ports, as Italy’s new coalition government has started to do. Instead, Sea Power outlines an elaborate and expensive four-part naval strategy that would require a large-scale NATO mission into the Mediterranean authorized by an Italian invocation of NATO Article 4, which sets up a consultation among NATO countries, and informally sends a strong signal of joint concern.
This recommendation appears to be an attempt to appeal to the two main sides of the neoliberal spectrum: liberal humanitarians and neoconservatives. For the liberal humanitarian side, declaring that the humanitarian intervention that destabilized Libya was the right move, then assuring that Libya will develop stably in the long run, and further assuming that mass migration will cause few real problems. For the neoconservative side, declaring the need for a full-scale NATO-led military effort to secure Italy from the threat of ISIS.
However, far from leading the reader to agreement with its conclusion, Sea Power forces the reader to question both the narrative and policy prescriptions presented. It also begs the reader to consider a self-evident alternative solution: cease disrupting otherwise-stable regimes, however unsavory they may be, and the power vacuums that allow migrant crises and terrorist havens will likewise cease existing, thus negating the need for defending against the consequences with expensive military operations. Perhaps they had some other legitimate motives for ousting Gadaffi, but those motives are not available to the public.
Fundamental Failure of Sea Power: A Shallow Understanding of Geopolitical History and Context
Aside from ideology, a more foundational factor hampering Sea Power is its inability to conceive of the world before World War II. For example, Stavridis repeatedly refers to the United Nations (UN) as if it were an always-present, permanent entity unto itself, not an entity created to fulfill the geopolitical goals of a great power following an overwhelming military victory. This is an incorrect presupposition from which Stavridis’ flawed logic follows. In reality, the UN was created by the United States in the context of its dominant geopolitical position following World War II. UN headquarters was intentionally built in America’s largest city with the specific goal of allowing the United States to sit atop a world order in which it was the leader of “the Four Policemen,” as Franklin Roosevelt planned.
Two of those policemen, the United Kingdom and the Republic of China, were to be wholly controlled American vassal states in all but name. The third policeman, the Soviet Union, was planned to fit into the order as an aligned geopolitical dominion, a sister-propositional-nation, and a controlled quasi-vassal state based on the planned peacetime continuation of the U.S.-Soviet Lend-Lease Program. In return for American financial aid, it was expected that the Soviet Union would help America police Europe, just as the Republic of China would help America police Asia.
By the late 1940s, however, the Soviet Union under Stalin stopped going along with the plan, instead opting for a strategy of challenging American geopolitical dominance, thus causing the rift that would become the antagonistic Cold War. Then, by the early 1950s, the Republic of China had been fully displaced on mainland China by the People’s Republic of China, creating a similar situation for America in Asia.
Despite the twin setbacks of ‘losing’ the Soviet Union and China as supporters of the American-led order, from a geopolitical perspective, America—with its preponderance of military, political and economic strength—nonetheless remained largely dominant in nearly all theaters of global competition throughout the Cold War era. Accordingly, the UN was designed as a primary instrument of coordination and geopolitical control for America over the world stage. It served that function during the Cold War era and continues to serve that function today. This is important to bear in mind: from a geopolitical perspective, what the UN has referred to since 1945 as the International Community in practice has been the countries that are compliant with Washington’s aims, priorities, and prerogatives. When votes are not compliant, they are essentially irrelevant.
Without this foundational recognition of geopolitical reality, there can be no meaningful geopolitical analysis or discussion around potential alternate geopolitical models to pursue. There can be only the ideological rationalization of America’s current-course geopolitical approach. This is the major failure mode of Sea Power: its inability to understand the historical context in which America became geopolitically dominant, and how that has led America to where it is today.
The Modus Operandi of America’s Global Presence Today
Today, America’s geopolitical presence is a global financial and commercial network backed by the U.S. military and justified by political ideologies stemming from the Anglo-liberal tradition.
Economically, since World War II, America has been following a reserve-currency-centric, wheel-and-spokes strategy—mercantilism in reverse. America incentivizes countries to become and remain loyal to it by voluntarily outsourcing production, then granting free trade access to sell into the core American market. For example, the Marshall Plan to Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Japan, China’s MFN status in 1980, free trade deals with the “Asian Tiger” countries of the 1990s, NAFTA, the WTO, and the TPP. When America started pursuing this strategy following World War II, it was the only industrialized country whose homeland and infrastructure had not been destroyed by the war. America thus was able to sustain this strategy of running intentional trade deficits for geopolitical gain with minimal domestic economic production loss, due to minimal external competition.
Simultaneously, America developed robust financial instruments through which to control trade of energy resources and manufactured goods between its vassal states. The financial regime established at Bretton Woods ensured that when Saudi Arabia and Japan trade oil for automobiles, they do so in U.S. dollars. However, the failure mode of this strategy was that throughout the 20th century it slowly but surely hollowed out American domestic production, the foundational factor that American geopolitical dominance had been built upon. In the 21st century, this strategy has reached its logical endpoint of America relying primarily on financial products and control of energy resources to maintain its geopolitical presence.
Politically, like all powers with global aspirations, America has developed and employed universalist ideologies to morally justify its geopolitical omnipresence. Unsurprisingly, these have been in the Anglo-liberal tradition: from Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination promotion, to Franklin Roosevelt’s liberal democracy promotion, to the Cold War era free markets promotion, to the post-Cold War era human rights promotion.
Nearly all states on earth have adopted Anglo-American normative political behavior, or at least its nomenclature; even the leaders of Russia and China presently call themselves “president.” For many smaller powers, this likely has been to avoid the fate of those who failed to comply, such as Iraq. Today, with most of the world having adopted at least the auspices of liberal democracy, this has necessitated the invention of increasingly esoteric political concepts based on the Anglo-liberal tradition of human rights in order to justify America’s geopolitical presence.
America’s Unsustainable Geopolitical Current Course
The geopolitical approach America has relied upon since World War II has been guided by the logic of openly expansionary globalization. That is, the imperatives of supporting the free flows of people, goods, ideas, and capital. For a number of reasons, this approach now is becoming unsustainable, leading America to become increasingly overstretched in its worldwide commitments.
Globalization relies on the continuation of unrivaled geopolitical dominance by its underwriter. This condition largely existed for America in the aftermath of World War II, and completely existed for America in the aftermath of the Cold War. But in the 21st century, this era of unrivaled American geopolitical dominance is coming to an end irrespective of any American individual, party, ideology, or interest. This alteration of geopolitical condition is being brought about at least in equal part by exogenous factors outside of American control. As the 2018 National Defense Strategy notes, “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security is the reemergence of long-term, strategic competition by what the National Security Strategy classifies as revisionist powers. It is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” In short, an era of great power competition has dawned again, and it is unlike any operating environment in living memory; at least since before World War II, possibly since before World War I.
Herein lies the core disconnect with Stavridis’ thesis in Sea Power and, by extension, the neoliberal model: America now is at a crossroads where its geopolitical strength compared to the rest of the world is no longer capable of sustaining an openly expansionary worldwide presence in support of unrestricted globalization. The reasons for this are numerous: since the start of the 21st century, compounding factors have included a loss of manufacturing capability, multiple financial crises, several expensive and inconclusive wars, and domestic political turmoil.
However, Stavridis does not recognize these factors as limitations on American power. As a result, his overall thesis comes off as wishful thinking that can be summed up in a single word: “more.” More ships, more planes, more tension with China and Russia, more bases, more alliances, more trade, more everything. While these aspects may be useful to America in the short-term, they will not address the underlying geopolitical instability that America is dealing with today, an instability which stems from a fundamental problem: America has never properly defined what the limits of its geopolitical presence are.