Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy (Retired). Penguin Press, 2017. 384 pp. Illus. Biblio. Index. $28.
Reviewed by Captain Peter M. Swartz, U.S. Navy (Retired)
This is a marvelous and essential addition to that groaning Leader’s Bookshelf that Admiral James Stavridis himself just wrote about in his previous book (Naval Institute Press, 2017). Why? Because in it the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and present dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy not only describes what his subtitle promises—the history and geopolitics of the world’s oceans—but also seeks to accomplish something far more elusive, sophisticated, and significant: To show how service at sea in one of the world’s great global navies simultaneously expands tactical, operational, strategic, and policy knowledge and skills in an officer and—most important—develops insights in him or her regarding myriad possible interconnections among those levels of conflict. The result: Navy senior leaders such as Admiral Stavridis in his last several tours who can employ their unique backgrounds at sea in a highly nuanced fashion to deal with burning contemporary and future national military problems.
The theme of interconnectedness of levels of military and naval thought flows through the book, along with demonstrations of its utility. But another powerful theme also flows through it—the interconnectedness of the world’s many separate seas and oceans forming one “world ocean” (the book’s first chapter is “The Sea is One”). These two interrelated and interwoven themes reinforce each other powerfully throughout the author’s narrative.
Keenly aware of the geopolitical heritage of every strait, bight, bay, gulf, canal, sea, and ocean through which he sailed in a career that included almost 11 years out of sight of land, Admiral Stavridis both applied that awareness to problems at hand, on the ship, and stored it away for use in future situations. He writes about the whole world and himself, on personal and geopolitical levels, past, present, and future. He highlights the breadth that service at sea in the U.S. Navy gives the nation’s naval leaders. It is a model of how sailors reflect on their sea experiences and those of their forebears, bringing them to bear not only on tactical and operational problems, but also on matters of national policy and grand strategy.
The main body of the book is a stately march of comprehensive chapters, through the centuries and over the waves. The admiral considers, in turn, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean (styled “the Future Sea”), the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, the Caribbean, and the Arctic. His sympathetic and sober consideration of the Caribbean (“Stalled in the Past”) is particularly thoughtful, as is his discussion of the “Promise and Peril” of the Arctic. Curiously, however, for the only SACEUR to have worn a Navy uniform, he barely mentions the Baltic—a body of water that figures prominently in current daily U.S., NATO, and Russian concerns. Perhaps that is because the Baltic—of all the world’s seas—has almost never loomed large in the U.S. Navy’s attention, or because Admiral Stavridis had not often sailed that sea as a sailor (probably not unrelated phenomena). Or perhaps because he plans to turn his attention to that sea in his next book or article.
A particularly valuable chapter is entitled “The Outlaw Sea: Oceans as Crime Scenes,” analyzing acute global issues of piracy, overfishing, and the environment, with prescriptions for each. In his final chapter, “America and the Oceans: A Naval Strategy for the Twenty-First Century,” Admiral Stavridis pulls it all together, providing policy nostrums based on a lifetime of sea and shore duty at all levels of command and informed by his keen sense of the legacy bequeathed to him by sailors and sea contests long past.
He finishes the final chapter with another look at each of the world’s oceans, but from a contemporary strategic sense. Buttressed by his historical understanding and wide personal experience at sea, he takes stands and argues positions: For a 350-ship U.S. Navy battle force with at least 12 carrier battle groups; the possibility of reconstituting a U.S. Navy Eighth Fleet (and a Ninth); internationalization of the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; a drastic increase in U.S. Navy warship numbers in the Mediterranean; and an aggressive cyber campaign to sabotage the North Korean weapons program, among other recommendations. He concludes where he started: “the thought that there is both a deeply individual component to sailing and understanding the oceans and a key geostrategic element to the idea that the sea is truly one.” This is a book for all sailors and policymakers, and especially for those who are both.
Admiral Stavridis talks about Sea Power
PROCEEDINGS: Thank you for talking with us about your book, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans. You have written many other books and articles about the sea and sailors. Why did you feel compelled to write this particular book in this particular way? What is special in this book that you are trying to get across?
Stavridis: Three things drew me to doing the book at this time. One is that I have finally realized that I have come to the end of my own long voyage on the seas, and I wanted to try to bring together what it is like to be a mariner in each of the world’s oceans in which I was privileged to sail over my 37 years in the Navy.
Second, as I continue in my life and career at Tufts University, being the dean of the Fletcher School, again and again, I see the importance of history and geopolitics in the oceans collectively. I have had to contemplate how important the oceans are historically.
Finally, as you look at the world today, you can see so many of the crises and the difficulties we face ultimately end up involved in or on the oceans, including the return of great power conflicts with China and Russia, the challenges of migration moving across these oceans, competition in the Arctic, and the enormous geopolitical challenge in the South China Sea.
We are really moving into a maritime era, so all three of those things really came together over the last couple of years for me. Sea Power is the result.
PROCEEDINGS: Your book is about sea power and more. It is also about the power of the seas and their hydrology, geography, and choke points and how they can limit the power of China and Russia in the coming decades. Could you address that please?
Stavridis: The United States enjoys, without question, the most enviable geographic position of any great nation. We have access to two enormous oceans. There are no choke points that confine us. We have enormous coastlines, north, south, east, and west, yet we are buffered and protected by the seas. As you look at the rest of the world, many of our competitors are constrained by the seas.
Think of it as an enormous, complex jigsaw puzzle. In a sense, the United States is an island nation that has a key to each of the puzzles in each direction on the compass. Therefore, we ought to leverage that as a nation, not strictly for the interest of the United States, but really for the betterment of the world. We do that by ensuring that the global commons are open and that our own national interests are protected, but also that international commerce is free to flow, that we can harvest responsibly the protein and hydrocarbons from the oceans, and that we are working collectively to protect the oceans.
We are in an extraordinarily lucky position given our geography. We ought to understand how important that is and what an advantage it is for us as we go forward in the 21st century.
PROCEEDINGS: You have had some wonderful titles and influence in your career, including Supreme Allied Commander. If you could direct one great outcome, with regard to sea power, what would it be?
Stavridis: I would hope that the United States will ensure it has a fleet of sufficient size and, more important, skilled mariners to crew it such that we would always know that we could control the ocean around us. We have to be able to project power. At the end of the day, it is sea control that is crucial for our nation. We have to be able to do both. To do that, we need a fleet of sufficient size, which we are lacking today. If I could wave a magic wand, I would increase the size of our Navy and ensure that we could crew it effectively with the men and women who would ensure that we could continue to enforce control of the seas around the world.
PROCEEDINGS: You finish your book with an analysis of the U.S. Navy’s current strategy, now more than two years old, that you seem to generally endorse. At the same time, you discuss hybrid threats, such as transnational crime, piracy, overfishing, destruction of the environment, migration, and human trafficking. How should the strategy be modified to address these threats?
Stavridis: We should recognize that part of sea control is ensuring that oceans do not become the “world’s largest crime scene” and understand that an enormous amount of damage is done to the global economy through these kinds of hybrid offenses directed against the environment and directed against the merchant fleets of the world.
We have to recognize that the oceans are an enormous resource to mankind. If we strictly focus on a military-to-military confrontation in the oceans, we miss the importance of all these additional challenges we face. I think this is also a point to be made about the U.S. Coast Guard. Collectively the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Marine Corps, and of course our Merchant Marines are all part of ensuring that we face not only the obvious state-on-state challenges but that we also are prepared to deal with the other topics that you mentioned.
PROCEEDINGS: You brought up earlier that the South China Sea and the Arctic may be regions of superpower confrontations. How can the U.S. Navy act to deter such confrontations?
Stavridis: First, these are two very different scenarios, so let me take each in turn quickly. The Arctic today is a zone of competition but not of conflict. I think there are diplomatic measures: science diplomacy and search-and-rescue operations, for example. There are cooperative approaches that we can apply to the Arctic before the situation moves out of being competition and moving toward conflict. In the Arctic, we have a good shot at working to create a zone of cooperation. For the U.S. Navy to operate in the Arctic, we need our Coast Guard colleagues to have effective icebreakers. We need to understand more about operations in the high North, particularly as the icecaps continue to melt.
Unfortunately, the South China Sea today is already a zone of conflict. It is at the moment relatively low in scale. It is more hybrid than it is full-blown state-on-state. The trajectory of the South China Sea is toward a broader sense of conflict, most obviously between the United States and China. That would be disastrous for the global economy if we were to fall into what some have called the Thucydides trap. It is the idea that a rising power almost always confronts an established power in a military sense. We have to avoid that. We have the diplomatic tools to do so. The South China Sea will require both military activity to confront China when the Chinese are in clear violation of international law as well as diplomatic and economic tools so we can move that scale back toward one of competition and over time perhaps to one of cooperation.
In the South China Sea, our traditional forward-leaning, forward-deployed posture, freedom of navigation are the things that we traditionally have done there, and they are important. These are two very different scenarios, but both are of critical maritime importance.