Vice Admiral Dean McFadden—Canadian Navy
In a recent article for Proceedings, I asserted that, "while armies and air forces operate in the global system, navies are part of the system itself." Ever since the Portuguese edged their way around Africa to the riches of the Indian Ocean, the procession of the world's principal maritime powers—Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and today, the United States—has demonstrated how deeply sea power is connected to the global economic, legal, and political systems.
The recession changes none of that. The instinct to trade remains a deeply human one, and the underlying trend toward increasing integration and interdependence remains the best way we have yet conceived to generate and distribute global wealth.
The recession, however, did underscore how a seemingly isolated cause can spark a set of globally cascading effects in a system that is so massively interconnected, with consequences that are hard to envisage. Consider, for example, that the underlying economics of seaborne commerce are trending toward vessels of ever-larger displacements, served by a relatively small number of megaports that act as logistics hubs for regional spokes. The improved efficiencies that this global distribution system has created come at the expense of increased vulnerability to serious disruption at the hubs.
Many have long observed similar concerns with respect to the handful of choke points defined by maritime geography—the Suez and Panama canals, for example, or the Strait of Hormuz. A number of these choke points are at risk from a range of concerns—from those latent in unresolved jurisdictional disputes, to those posed by actual threats such as piracy, as we're seeing in the Gulf of Aden.
In economic terms, oceanic choke points are a scarce resource. They provide a fixed capacity to bear traffic safely in relation to growing volumes of commerce they must accommodate. The Turkish Strait and Panama Canal are already at or near those limits, and others will become increasingly stressed as shipping resumes the trend of sustained growth we saw before the recession. How will global shipping patterns change when we hit those limits? What will be the impact to shipping patterns when—not if—the Arctic Basin becomes the preferred shipping route between Asia and Europe?
We tend not to think of these issues in defense or security terms, but sea power cannot be extricated from geo-economic realities. It's important that we think about sea power not just as a military instrument of state, but also rather as a component of the global system itself. A regulated ocean—oceans that are free for all to use lawfully—is as fundamental to our way of life as any of the other pillars of the international system.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Click on the "Google Translate" button under the photo box and choose the language into which you would like the section translated.