Mr. Cropsey’s sweeping historical argument regarding the U.S. place in the world and its implications concerning the role of the Navy and sea power is well-stated but ultimately rests on ahistorical assumptions and oversimplified parallels. Some assertions—for example, that World War I was not inevitable—are correctly borne out by historical analysis. Others—such as his position that Europe mainly suffered from the fall of Rome to World War II—are myopic.
His walk through history starts in ancient times, highlighting Rome’s role as the “first Western empire.” Even though he is using Rome to support his argument that a hegemon creates stability, he cites no examples of how Rome used its power abroad, instead focusing on internal matters such as a common language. The Roman example is further weakened by considering that Rome did not face an existential threat from an external peer competitor after the fall of Carthage and that other potential rivals (Sassanid Persia, Han China) were too distant for then-current communications and technology to permit significant conflict.
Cropsey also downplays the civilization of the Middle Ages, dismissing the organic feudal structures that evolved in the absence of Rome as one “worldview” among many instead of as a more usual model of human organization (as evidenced by feudal, pseudo-feudal, and hierarchical structures being found in many places and many ages). Likewise, the centralizing impulses of Pope and Empire that he generalizes as “a metaphysics of authority” were actually an attempt to restore and revitalize the centrality of governance that made Rome a success, a version of which remained in practice (in slightly different form) in the Eastern Empire until 1453.
The author also jumps over the Age of Discovery, the global commercial empires of Portugal and Spain, as well as the Thirty Years’ War and the Treaty of Westphalia—all of which could provide lines of reasoning that would affect his central argument. His take on 19th-century European geopolitics likewise overgeneralizes complex situations.
In his account of how the United States achieved a prominent role in the world order, he dismisses the country’s general pre–World War I internal focus—rooted in Washington’s wise advice to his countrymen in his Farewell Address—as “the baseless fabric of a profoundly flawed vision.” He neglects to note that such an inward focus was largely responsible for the country’s meteoric growth during the 19th century. In addition, prioritizing domestic concerns over foreign “entanglements” was no bar to being assertive abroad when vital U.S. interests were affected, as the young nation found out during the Barbary War, the Quasi-War with France, and the War of 1812.
While the author is correct to note the challenges a rising China poses, his concerns should be more rooted in what a powerful China means to his fellow Americans and not to the world writ large. The “functionally equivalent” liberal international order he champions is a historically anomalous byproduct of the end of World War II. Such a world order has its benefits, but a brief glance at human history shows it is not normative and may well be more fragile than it appears. A more clear-eyed view centered on the more usual situation of regional powers expanding their spheres of influence, which occasionally causes conflict with their neighbors, will go further in predicting China’s future moves, as well as the actions of other emergent regional powers.
With this historically rooted, profoundly realistic analysis in mind, U.S. naval and military strategists can make more informed decisions resulting in lasting benefits to the American people whom they serve.
—CDR Nick Hoffmann, USN
The great fleets of history have all shared one common feature: They have existed to support and protect their nations’ merchant fleets as they conducted trade. In 2019, there were just 182 U.S.-flag merchant ships, a mere 0.4 percent of the global fleet. Without the Jones Act, the number would be even smaller.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy accepted the responsibility of making the world’s oceans safe for trade. It has succeeded spectacularly in this mission. But the primary beneficiaries have been the nations that supply flags of convenience and Chinese exporters.
After China, the United States is the world’s second largest exporter. But because our major trading partners are Mexico and Canada, only 53 percent of U.S. imports and 38 percent of exports (by value) travel by sea. The U.S. Navy has been providing, free of charge, maritime protection to China and foreign-flag ship owners, with the U.S. government/taxpayer left to pick up the tab.
If the United States ran a trade surplus or was existentially dependent on maritime trade, the existence of a large navy in the absence of a U.S. merchant marine would at least be debatable. But since imports only represent 14 percent of U.S. GDP (2016)—and since the mid-1970s U.S. trade has been in deficit—this is not the case. In 2020, according to the U.S. census, the deficit in “trade in goods with world” reached $905 billion.
This has created the unique historical phenomenon of a nation choosing to spend its treasure on policing the seas so other nations can grow rich trading with it. Even an ensign ought to be able to recognize that such a policy will eventually bankrupt any nation that continues to follow it.