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Ben Parker bestowed some sage advice on his nephew, Peter, when he said: “With great power comes great responsibility.”1 But Peter Parker (better known as Spider-Man) had it easy, despite the otherworldly menaces he often faced. He came by his superpowers through a quirk of fate and could rely on them always to be there when he needed them. The superhero could take on extraordinary responsibility for battling crime without wondering whether he had enough power to fight the good fight. He knew he did.
Presidents, diplomats, and military officers have no such luxury. The converse of Ben’s adage holds in world politics—with a twist: “With great responsibility must come great power.” The must indicates that there is no guarantee national leaders will have enough power on hand to attain their purposes—just the opposite. Political and military leaders are not superhuman. If their societies are to shoulder great responsibilities, they must develop great power through conscious and diligent labor.
Marshaling and husbanding economic, military, and diplomatic power is work that never ends. Fail at this central mission of statecraft, and aspirations will outrun the resources needed to make good on them. The national project could come to ruin.
And the scale of the regional and global responsibilities the United States has taken up since its founding is astounding. Today, as ever, U.S. society and government confront a stark choice: Shed some international burdens and embrace humbler political aims, in which case it might be possible to get by with modest military forces (albeit at greater risk and peril). Or, continue to bear heavy responsibilities and maintain power adequate to doing so.
The Navy constitutes the long arm of foreign policy for this oceangoing republic. Ergo, great responsibility demands great sea power. Only a navy capable of executing an offensive strategy across transoceanic distances will do.
What Washington must not do is set ambitious goals while neglecting to amass the means to achieve them. U.S. leaders have transgressed before. In 1943, the political commentator Walter Lippmann reproached past presidential administrations for taking on vast commitments in the Pacific Ocean after the 1898 Spanish-American War but failing to construct a navy mighty enough to defend them. Lippmann adjudged foreign-policy magnates guilty of “monstrous imprudence.”2 Ambition unbacked by physical might had invited Japanese aggression. Future administrations must not repeat their forebears’ strategic malpractice.
Consider the responsibilities the nation has taken on over time. For naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, enriching the populace and thence sluicing tax revenue into government coffers—some to fund a navy—constitutes the prime purpose of maritime strategy. In fact, Mahan deems a people’s innate propensity to trade—not its talent for sea warfare—“the national characteristic most important to the development of sea power.”3
That being the case, he says, it is the job of strategic overseers to facilitate (in descending order of importance) commercial, diplomatic, and military access to regions where U.S. industry hopes to do business.4 Commerce is king for seafaring societies. Diplomatic access is an enabler for commercial access. In turn, military access is an enabler for diplomatic access. In the Mahanian scheme, that is, the Navy acts as the guardian of choice for merchant shipping while lending its weight to diplomacy. It plays an indispensable supporting part in the national mission.
There is more to American sea power than guarding home waters and protecting overseas trade and commerce.
In a sense, Mahan merely codified what U.S. leaders had been doing for decades. His landmark treatise, The Influence of Sea Power upon History: 1660–1783, appeared in 1890. Long before, though, President Thomas Jefferson (1801–09) dispatched a standing Navy squadron to the distant waters of the Mediterranean Sea to protect trade. There, U.S. mariners did battle with North African satrapies that demanded “tribute,” or monetary payment, in return for safe passage through the middle sea. Navy leaders stationed a squadron in Asian waters starting during Andrew Jackson’s presidency (1829–37).5 The commercial imperative prevailed in both cases.
Jefferson and Jackson set precedents that endure. And they are bipartisan precedents. In 2007, the George W. Bush administration issued a maritime strategy that anointed the United States the keeper of the liberal system of maritime trade and commerce.6 In 2015, the Barack Obama administration opened its Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy by rededicating the United States to defending freedom of the sea.7 The Donald Trump administration made a “free and open Indo-Pacific” its mantra.8 Access remains the touchstone of U.S. maritime strategy. It will remain so, unless Americans are prepared to entrust their economic well-being to the doubtful goodwill of Eurasian powers such as China and Russia.
Provide for Hemispheric Defense
U.S. statesmen also have cast eyes on hemispheric security from an early date. Many Latin American countries staged revolutions in the early 19th century to throw off European colonialism. In 1823, fearing fresh encroachment from the Old World, President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams forbade the great powers to restore their suzerainty through either reconquest or proxy rule. Under the Monroe Doctrine, they announced, U.S. leaders would interpret any attempt at an imperial comeback as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”9 Hands off!
The Monroe Doctrine put European empires on notice that the United States intended to enforce the post-imperial status quo across half the globe, turning back all challengers. That is a great responsibility by any definition. For most of the century, though, great responsibility did not demand great power. Or rather, it did not demand that the United States make itself into a military power of high repute. The country had a silent partner in the form of Great Britain, which had reasons of its own to bar rival empires from the New World. Britain also maintained the world’s premier sea force, the Royal Navy. Because of this fortunate confluence of national interests, great power was something the former mother country supplied.
Indeed, the Royal Navy acted as the de facto guarantor of the Monroe Doctrine for most of the 19th century. Only in the 1880s did U.S. political leaders resolve to fit out a fleet capable of commanding regional waters. And it was fortunate they did. Around the turn of the 20th century, London withdrew the bulk of the Royal Navy’s American fleet to home waters to run a naval arms race against imperial Germany, which was building battleships close by the British Isles. That left Washington responsible for hemispheric security. Great responsibility demanded great power—but history granted the United States a long strategic holiday before forcing it to do its self-appointed duty.
Today, few decision-makers explicitly cite the Monroe Doctrine to justify policies and strategies. By the 1930s, the doctrine had given way to the inter-American system familiar today. Yet the impulse to keep outsiders from encroaching on the Western Hemisphere endures. The United States remains the supplier of first resort for hemispheric maritime security—much as James Monroe and John Quincy Adams intended. Hemispheric defense alone demands a U.S.
Navy of formidable standing.
If not our navy, whose?
Balance in the Rimlands
But there is more to American sea power than guarding home waters and protecting overseas trade and commerce. Geopolitical logic has prompted the United States to mount a forward presence in the “rimlands” of Western Europe and East Asia since World War II. Yale professor Nicholas Spykman formulated the rimlands concept during the war, depicting them as intermediate zones between the sea coast and the deep continental interior. A dominant naval power—Britain in its imperial heyday, or the United States today—could mold events within the Eurasian supercontinent by projecting power into the rimlands from adjacent seas, and thence into the backcountry.10
To what end? As Spykman pointed out, a hostile power or alliance that cemented control of one or both rimlands would boast enough militarily relevant resources to reach across the oceans and do Americans harm in their own hemisphere. History bore out his analysis. Imperial Japan came close to dominion in East Asia before overextending itself in the Pacific. Nazi Germany had imposed dominion over continental Europe. The Soviet Union would overshadow Europe throughout the Cold War. For Spykman, it behooved the United States to keep a military presence in the rimlands—even during ostensible peacetime—to forestall aggression by some new antagonist. Washington could prevent a new world war by helping Europeans and Asians counterbalance domineering neighbors.
U.S. leaders were of one mind with Spykman. Forward balancing has been prominent in U.S. strategic thought for more than three-quarters of a century. It is here to stay.11 But a glance at a map reveals how geography, military technology, and power politics now could undermine a rimlands strategy. The corollary to Spykman’s concept is that any naval power hoping to shape events in the rimlands must be able to get to the rimlands. That means its navy must be strong enough to wrest command of the sea—in particular “marginal seas” such as the South China or Baltic Seas, which wash against the rimlands—from local foes defending their home waters. Overpowering a rival great power on its own turf is a daunting task.
It gets more daunting by the day. For example, China has erected what the Pentagon calls “antiaccess/area-denial” (A2/AD) defenses designed precisely to obstruct U.S. access to the western Pacific from West Coast or Hawaiian bases. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders can use shore batteries, aircraft, and ships to loft anti-ship missiles toward U.S. Pacific Fleet forces rushing to reinforce the U.S. Seventh Fleet and allies. If missile volleys do enough damage to slow or halt the U.S. naval advance, PLA defenders will need merely to defeat the contingent already in the theater.12 A2/AD works against close-in opponents, too—compounding the strategic quandary confronting U.S. commanders.
Recent years have witnessed lively debate about how to size and configure the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, which have taken to calling themselves, corporately, “the Naval Service.” The future force design remains contested—but there is little question that the United States needs a great navy to surmount the China challenge. Without one, America will surrender its strategic position in the western Pacific. Military access to Western Europe could come under duress as well, as Russia upgrades its navy and air force. Balancing in the rimlands requires a fleet of the first rank.
Build and Oversee Alliances
One thing U.S. administrations from both parties have managed to agree on over the years is that the Navy needs help not just with combat duty but also with policing the sea in peacetime. Moreover, political and military grandees concur that the United States must not just found but also lead the constabulary effort. The need for a multinational armada is plain. The World Ocean is a big place, the biggest fleet tiny by contrast. The more ships and planes available to apprehend pirates, terrorists, and weapon traffickers, the better. The framers of the 2007 and 2015 maritime strategies dubbed their handiwork A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower precisely to punctuate its multinational character. A grand seagoing coalition spanning the Seven Seas is desirable. Failing that, a family of smaller alliances, coalitions, and partnerships represents an agreeable—and more plausible—substitute.
Leadership is a trickier prospect. If Washington covets the dominant say in a maritime consortium, it must make an outsized contribution to it. There is an unwritten but inexorable Golden Rule of alliances: The ally that has the gold makes the rules. The partner that devotes the bulk of the resources to some common enterprise has the option to walk away. Unless the less-resourced partners are prepared to see the enterprise founder, they tend to give way in debates over policy, strategy, or operations.
The evolution of the Grand Alliance during World War II illustrates the point. The Franklin D. Roosevelt administration tended to yield to British leaders during the war’s early going. Why? Because the United States was a latecomer to the conflict. Great Britain was supplying most of the resources and could afford to insist on getting its way. By late 1943, however, U.S. industry and the armed forces had mobilized and were turning out war matériel and manpower in colossal quantities. The United States was now furnishing the bulk of the resources—and Roosevelt could insist on getting his way on decisions, such as when and where to open a second front in continental Europe.
Today’s United States may be a weary titan, staggering under its burden. If Washington wants to remain the steward of the liberal order at sea, it must nonetheless rededicate itself to the cause of great sea power. Otherwise, some contender, unfriendly to free and open seas, may avail itself of the Golden Rule of alliances—to the detriment of the system and, ultimately, of the peace and prosperity of the world.
Preach the Gospel of Sea Power
The political and strategic logic for maintaining a great navy is impeccable. But U.S. sea power suffers from a peculiar malady. It has responsibilities of startling magnitude and duties with a pronounced saltwater flavor, but the curious thing is that the electorate appears largely indifferent to the importance of sea power to fulfilling them.
Voters seem to assume implements of power will always be available in abundance when needed. The syllogism appears to be: If sea power has always been there, then it always will be there, and if it always will be there, then there is little need to spend lavishly from the Treasury on naval construction and upkeep. Unlike Peter Parker, Americans are wrong to assume power will always be there. They must make the conscious political choice to remain the world’s foremost oceangoing state—and they must reaffirm their choice regularly come election time.
It is worth speculating about the origins of the electorate’s myopia toward nautical pursuits if we hope to correct it. Part of the problem is geography. Residents of the heartland, far from the coasts, may agree on the importance of sea power if someone puts the matter to them. Yet it is hard for them to feel much passion for seaborne pursuits because the oceans are far from daily life and abstract. In part, perversely, the Navy is a victim of its own success. A celebratory afterglow tinges popular memory of the world wars and the Cold War. An institution blessed with a triumphant legacy is mostly invisible to ordinary folk. They consider its success a matter of course. To the extent that Americans think about the Navy at all, they might find it natural to assume that past performance guarantees future results. Victory begets apathy.
The problem is also political—but so is the solution. Navies need advocates in high places. A U.S. president who makes sea power a personal priority and is a master of persuasion—a Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, or Ronald Reagan—can make naval questions part of everyday discourse. Presidential activism raises the Navy’s profile among the populace and boosts enthusiasm for naval spending.
Readers of Proceedings can abet the cause of sea power as well. Mariners—from the most junior seaman or second lieutenant to the most wizened sergeant major or admiral—must regard themselves as seagoing ambassadors to the American people. They must know their own history intimately to inform and inspire others. They must acquaint themselves with theories about sea power put forward by Mahan and kindred scribes. After all, maritime theory explains why navies do what they do. But informal outreach need not always be grave or scholarly in tenor. Stories resonate. Telling fellow citizens of nautical exploits could help the seafaring lore seep back into the public mind and, in turn, rally backing for great sea power. Sailors and Marines must miss no opportunity to spread the good word.
Let us remind our countrymen that great responsibility mandates great power. To do deeds of heroic proportions, the whole of U.S. society must undertake heroic efforts to get ready. Ben Parker could only nod.
Coming in April
“The Liberal International Order, Maritime Power, and American Prosperity” by Nicholas Lambert
1. Brian Cronin, “When We First Met—When Did Uncle Ben First Say ‘With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility?’” CBR.com, 15 July 2015.
2. Walter Lippmann, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1943), 42.
3. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (New York: Dover, reprinted 1987), 53.
4. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Retrospect & Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1902), 246.
5. Stephen Howarth, To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775–1991 (New York: Norton, 1991), 67–102, 135–40.
6. U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: 2007).
7. Department of Defense, Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy (Washington, DC: 2015).
8. Department of State, A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision (Washington, DC: 2019).
9. “Monroe Doctrine; December 2, 1823,” Avalon Project, Yale Law School, avalon.law.yale.edu.
10. Nicholas J. Spykman, The Geography of the Peace, Helen R. Nicholl, ed., (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1944); America’s Strategy in World Politics: The United States and the Balance of Power (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942).
11. Ronald O’Rourke, “Defense Primer: Geography, Strategy, and U.S. Force Design,” Congressional Research Service, 5 November 2020.
12. For my take on the A2/AD challenge, see James R. Holmes, “Visualize Chinese Sea Power,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 144, no. 6 (June 2018).