Two years after it was published, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower continues to be the subject of fierce debate among scholars, uniformed officers, government officials, and the American public. As a coauthor of the strategy and participant in the discussions that shaped the final document, I consider it useful to explore and set forth some of the more interesting and contentious internal issues that preceded its release.
Strategy discussions occurred among the senior-most officers of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps, and there is no need to name names. However, it is important to convey that all ideas were taken seriously and reflected the vision and experience of the best of our nation's officers. While often in disagreement, just as often, all points of view were "right."
Navy-Only or Joint Strategy?
To categorize this issue as contentious would be an understatement and would minimize the intensity of the emotions of those involved. From the beginning, some believed this effort represented a prime opportunity to tell the Navy's—and only the Navy's—story. One participant believed that the document should convey "the relevance of the U.S. Navy to the well-being of the nation as a stand-alone entity," and went so far as to suggest that it be titled, The Maritime Strategy of the United States Navy. Additionally, he believed that by elevating the Marine Corps and Coast Guard to cosignatories of the strategy, "the unintended consequence is to deemphasize the Navy's role in the missions detailed in the document, which makes a case for reduced force structure at the very least."
While this opinion was voiced with vigor, then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen gave specific direction from the beginning that the strategy would incorporate each of the Sea Services. The "Navy-only" argument was an enduring one, however, and was raised again just weeks before the document's publication.
Include a Force Structure?
Starting with the CNO's initial direction, the answer to this question was a firm "No." Navy leadership felt that a discussion of force structure would dilute the document's strategic vision, keeping in mind that an accompanying force structure would necessarily follow the strategy's release.
Time and again CNO Admiral Gary Roughead and Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen asserted that this strategy would be intentionally independent of such a number and pointed to the fact that smart folks would convene after the strategy's release to review their respective shipbuilding plans. The debate over force structure was vigorous. During twice-monthly maritime strategy task force meetings, officials from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), the Joint Staff, and the Secretary of the Navy's office often raised the issue of force structure and accompanying budgetary concerns. The ends, ways, and means methodology of strategy development, so firmly ingrained in military minds, forced many to conclude that a strategy without resources is not a strategy. The service chiefs disagreed.
As of this writing, no shipbuilding plan is yet in place.
How to Order the Strategic Imperatives?
While the first two questions may be familiar among the naval community, the third has likely remained obscure to most. A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower groups six strategic imperatives into two general employment schemes: regionally concentrated, credible combat power; and globally distributed, mission-tailored maritime forces. The former comprises the following three imperatives:
- Limit regional conflict with forward-deployed, decisive maritime power;
- Deter major-power war; and
- Win our nation's wars.
The latter comprises the final three:
- Contribute to homeland defense in depth;
- Foster and sustain cooperative relationships with more international partners; and
- Prevent or contain local disruptions before they impact the global system.
This organizational structure is radically different from the model initially proposed.
For many months the writing team presented a model keying each strategic imperative to increasing levels of complexity and violence (although "Defend the Homeland" was the context throughout). The chain began with "Fostering and Sustaining Cooperative Relationships" and ended with "Win our Nation's Wars." This model conveyed two important premises, the first of which was the importance of cooperative maritime relationships. One of the fundamental strategic notions advanced in this document was to protect and sustain a global system with like-minded maritime nations. Placing this imperative at the top of the list reinforced a firm commitment to the idea. Second, the model demonstrated seapower's unique ability to serve as a means of escalation and de-escalation, giving sea forces the critical capability of being as effective as possible in influencing events.
This model was eventually scrapped, as Navy leadership became concerned that it overemphasized "soft power." While raising the prevention of war to the same level as the conduct of war was intentional, any sense that hard power was less important was unintentional. Although the writing team found this change hardest to swallow, the amount of criticism aimed at raising the stature of soft power in the document as it was released reinforced the wisdom of making this change.
How to Refer to the "War on Terror"?
The writing team was aware that the Bush administration would leave Washington a little over a year after the document was published. Thus the team would have to proceed with extreme caution when addressing what was then referred to as "the global war on terror." While each team member realized the danger that al Qaeda and other such organizations pose to our national security, the question of what terms to use to refer to them led to heated debate among the four-star community. In a late draft of the strategy, one Navy four-star lauded the term "Islamic extremists," noting on a draft copy, "Good. That's what they are."
This line of thinking greatly pleased one Marine four-star who held his support of the entire document based on what he felt was the appropriate characterization of extremism. It was interesting to see a cultural divide among the services on this topic. The Marine Corps generally supported the term "Islamic extremism," while the Navy crafted a more mixed message, calling out Islamic extremism on one hand while seeking to cultivate relationships and alliances on the other. Eventually, the term "terrorist networks," a term OSD had begun to use, was adopted.
Should We "Name" China?
The question of whether to "call out" China in the document was one of the most interesting and engaging of the entire process. Doing so would have been uncontroversial; after all, several senior OSD documents, including the last Quadrennial Defense Review, had done so, and there were many voices on Capitol Hill calling for the Navy in particular to be more mindful of the "Chinese threat." That said, the combined maritime leadership decided not to do so, largely on the basis of two ideas.
The first was the centrality of the global system to the strategy and the critical cooperative relationships with like-minded nations in fostering and sustaining that system. Simply put, China has a huge stake in having the global system function smoothly. Crafting a strategy that invited them to maintain the system, rather than needlessly antagonizing them, seemed appropriate.
Second, there was never any question among the writing team or the flag and general officers who approved the strategy that the Chinese would read themselves into the document in the places where they wanted them to. This was largely confirmed in the work of Dr. Andrew Erickson of the Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, who monitored open-source Chinese reactions to the document. These reactions were largely predictable, with a certain amount of attention paid to the document's description of a "multipolar" world (they liked this) and a sense of foreboding over the object of all this "cooperation."
Guiding Tomorrow's Policy
While the debates here are by no means comprehensive, they represent the most heated of the discussions that led to the final strategy. The many flag officers who chose the debate grounds invested an enormous amount of time, effort, and intellectual capital in this enterprise, which was, for those who served on the writing team, one of the most satisfying of our careers.
The true test of the document's impact will be measured by the messages in President Barack Obama's National Security Strategy and DOD's Quadrennial Defense Review. While each member of the writing team was dedicated to the task of composing a strategy for the maritime services, we also hoped that the work would later serve to help guide all elements of national power.
Indeed, key decision makers may already have been influenced by the cooperative strategy, as the excerpts below demonstrate. For example, the final document states, "U.S. maritime forces will be deployed to protect and sustain the peaceful global system [comprising] interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people and governance." In her 2008 paper entitled "Making America Grand Again: Toward a New Grand Strategy," then-president of the Center for a New American Security Dr. Michele Flournoy wrote, "It is time for America to renew its longstanding bipartisan commitment to helping sustain the pillars of the modern international system. . . . A strategy premised on sustaining the global system recognizes that in the modern age, America cannot be a loner—it must be a leader." Later, as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy of the United States, in a July 2009 article for Proceedings, Dr. Flournoy wrote, "One way the United States could respond would be to re-embrace a grand strategy that focuses on sustaining a healthy international system, the maintenance of which is not only central to our national interests but is also a global public good."
Perhaps those framing Mr. Obama's policy will build on the foundation set by our team. We did not get it completely right, but a careful reading of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower should indicate that our nation is well protected, that those in its service are the most talented and dedicated of any nation's on Earth, and most important, that its best days lie ahead.