The United States faces challenges throughout the world, not solely from Russia and China, but also from regional and transnational groups. While U.S. leaders will always debate which instruments of national power will be most effective in each geographic area and against each competitor, the Navy’s rapid response capability and on-station endurance no doubt will ensure it plays a role.
Naval officers can enhance the Navy’s role by developing a deeper understanding of international security cooperation and how U.S. partners view their own place in the region and the world.
21st-Century Challenges Require Partnerships
As the United States faces great power competition with Russia and China, as well as risks from regional challengers, one of its crucial advantages is the ability to rally allies and partners.1 This expands its effective reach across the globe, but it does not happen only at the diplomatic level. U.S. Navy ships and aircraft are a critical piece in the military element of national power, but the Navy can do more, especially in building relationships with other nations’ militaries and people.2
The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) calls for naval actions in every corner of the globe—from promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific, to maintaining a peaceful Arctic, to building U.S.-Africa partnerships. Ensuring freedom of navigation along sea trade routes and strategically vital international waterways—another ongoing Navy mission—takes the service to places such as the Strait of Malacca, Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Gibraltar, Suez Canal, and Panama Canal. Even this small list covers three combatant commands and four continents, all with complex political relationships.
In addition, arms control, nonproliferation, humanitarian assistance, and disaster response could take Navy units to unexpected places with unexpected partners. Competition with Russia and China also could occur in unexpected geographies and require the Navy to arrive on-scene and help forge new partnerships.
At the unit level, officers may face unexpected red lines in international military operations: partners who refuse to cooperate with one another, or operations in waters or airspace with particular sensitivities for the countries involved. Moreover, there can be significant differences in U.S. military cooperation with individual nations within larger security partnerships and alliances, such as NATO, the India-Japan-Australia-U.S. Quad, or the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy. Combatant commands and U.S. military foreign area officers (FAOs) work extensively to prevent such issues from disrupting operations; however, last-minute changes to plans can put decisions on the shoulders of ship and squadron commanders.
The Navy must increase regional knowledge and foundational and continuing military education on international security organizations among its personnel—from the combatant command down to the deckplate level. This would not supplant the expertise of trained FAOs, but rather would provide unit-level officers enough knowledge to identify potential problems and develop an instinct for when to slow down and ask questions.
Familiarity with countries in a region also can help officers identify ways to take advantage of the Navy’s presence to further other national goals.3 Community relations projects are a mainstay of a ship’s efforts to show the positive impact U.S. Sailors bring to a host country. So too are the interactions officers and crews have with foreign officials during ship tours and exchanges at sea or in port, which can be opportunities to highlight why the U.S. Navy makes such a powerful partner and formidable foe. Navy port visits present opportunities to exercise all elements of national power, including economic (positive impacts on ports’ economies) and informational (the opportunity to share and update information on local conditions).
Teach International Security Cooperation
The Navy can take several steps to improve its officers’ knowledge of international affairs.
First, entry-on-duty education is an opportunity to teach the fundamentals of international security partnerships. The U.S. Naval Academy, NROTC, and Officer Candidate School (OCS) should include basic international affairs courses or seminars on the functioning of NATO, the Australia, United Kingdom, and United States trilateral pact AUKUS, and other critical security partnerships. The Naval Academy offers more than two dozen political science courses relating to international relations at the global and regional levels, but none are required for midshipmen outside political science majors.4
The Academy also should resume staffing its Political Science Department faculty member from the Department of State’s Foreign Service, providing an experienced foreign affairs practitioner to instruct midshipmen and offer detailed seminars about regional politics. NROTC similarly could incorporate an introductory international affairs course requirement or equivalent seminar, and OCS could include seminars from either a Department of State faculty member or a student at the collocated Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
Second, continuing military education and training can refresh foundational knowledge and provide greater detail on international cooperation. Every service has requirements for joint professional military education (JPME), yet there are no required modules for international affairs until JPME Phase 2.5 JPME Phase 1 and 2 are prime opportunities to include information on security partnerships and how the U.S. military plans operations and exchanges information with partners.
Third, operational deployments should include pre-briefings and periodic updates on regional relationships. Every combatant command and many subordinate commands include experienced FAOs and a Department of State foreign service officer as a political advisor. Political advisors have served multiple assignments at U.S. embassies, bring at least a decade of international affairs experience, and are well-placed to provide regular updates to deploying units on the intricacies of a region.
As the United States contemplates how to face continuing (and ever more complex) global competition, reliance on new systems, platforms, and capabilities alone will not suffice. The Navy should seek ways to use and expand partnerships in every theater of operation, thereby multiplying their impact. Doing this effectively will require new skills, but it is an opportunity to expand collaboration between the Department of Defense and the Department of State, to better support U.S. efforts in global competition.
1. Tom Hone, “American Sea Power Project: Alliances and Coalitions Are Essential,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 148, no. 7 (July 2022).
2. Christopher L. Harold, “The Navy is Critical for Soft Power,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 146, no 4 (April 2020).
3. Jonathan Masters, “Sea Power: The U.S. Navy and Foreign Policy,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 2019.
4. U.S. Naval Academy, Majors Handbook, September 2022.
5. Naval Command and Staff Program & JPME Phase I, usnwc.edu/college-of-distance-education/Online-Program/JPME-Phase-I; and The Joint and Combined Warfighting School (JCWS) JPME-II, jfsc.ndu.edu/Academics/Joint-and-Combined-Warfighting-School-JCWS/Program-Description/.