A Machiavellian Age of Sea Power
Image Credit: Wikicommons

A Machiavellian Age of Sea Power


Remarks given at a roundtable on graduation day at the Naval War College, Newport.

Machiavelli depicts founding new regimes as the most difficult act of statecraft. We find ourselves in a founding era for maritime security. But the would-be founder — namely the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard — finds its budgets and force structure under stress. This calls our grand maritime-security project into question.

Let me explain. I’m not sure we fully grasp how revolutionary a document the 2007 Maritime Strategy is. It calls on the United States to establish history’s first multinational custodian of freedom of the seas after centuries when single great powers like Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and, for the past seven decades or so, we ourselves have presided over good order at sea.

There is no single successor in waiting. We cannot shift our burden to another ambitious seafaring power the way Britain, the weary titan, handed off its duties to the United States starting a century ago. Neither China nor India, the most likely candidates, yet possess the capacity or evinces any desire to take up this burden.

And again, the Maritime Strategy directs us to do all of this at a time when our capacity to found and lead coalitions is on the wane. It’s been said that he who has the gold makes the rules in alliances and coalitions. If the United States has less and less gold — and ships, and manpower — to contribute to preserving freedom of the seas, it will be less able to get its way in coalition circles than in bygone decades.

Let me offer three quick takeaways. First, coalition dynamics have a way of interfering with combined maritime security. For example, some functions are apolitical and relatively easy to combat, such as counterpiracy. Everyone agrees we need to beat Captain Jack Sparrow. Other functions have a political tinge, like counterterrorism. Consensus on how to fight adversaries with a political agenda is typically elusive.

Second, power politics intersects with good-order-at-sea efforts in places like the China seas. Threats to maritime security appear remote and abstract, whereas advancing national power and purposes offers tangible and readily intelligible gains. So power politics often wins out when it conflicts with maritime security. We need to acknowledge and work around that to the best of our ability.

And finally, in view of all of this, the most likely outcome is what I call a patchwork quilt of coalitions and partnerships. Naval diplomacy is the thread holding odd-sized and shaped bits of fabric — that is, a variety of disparate partners — together. The quilt could get threadbare without nimble diplomacy. Stitching together and managing such arrangements will demand more dexterity from sea-service leaders than ever before.

Bottom line, we find ourselves in a relatively weak position to do something unprecedented. So there’s a premium on forethought about the challenges that lie before us. Machiavelli would insist on it.

July 10, 2013 at 00:25

"…time neither moves nor is stationary. Time changes. We occupy one point in that constantly mutating time–our Aleph." ~Coehlo~ Aleph

Aleph, Greek; Qi, Chinese

Alchemist's Motto:  "Solve et coagula"  Separate and bring together


jack Lawrence
June 30, 2013 at 07:27

China us in another “great leap” or “red book” spasm.
Collapse in 10-15 years.
The leaders have grabbed the tail of their
own tiger.
They will be devoured.

June 26, 2013 at 03:25

Everybody knows what exactly China's ' national-blue-soil'  is ( indisputable sovereignty & jurisdiction over all  its near seas: ECS, SCS, Yellow Sea etc.). So, please don't talk nonsense in here!

June 26, 2013 at 02:06

That sounds an awful like the old system. Last time that happened, world wars were the norm. Don't forget piracy. Especially for countries that have poor naval and coast guard presence, piracy will be rampant. At such point, who will protect the shippings lines in those countries' areas of responsibility? The host country? I just said they can't police their own waters sufficiently. If you don't like Americans, we would welcome an alternative solution.

June 26, 2013 at 02:00

I don't see anything you said as being insurmountable. Create an international body that allows the coordination of national navies. Globalization means that many economies are inextricably tied to sea commerce for importing and exporting goods. A war of the seas in this day and age can have massive economic implications far beyond that of the host countries. Simply the implication of closing the strait of Hormuz caused a spike in commercial ship insurance and petrol prices.

I see no reason for the world to allow other powers to hold their economies hostage, an international body has far more legitimacy that a single powers control over sections of the ocean, IMO that only encourages regional competition and the risk for accidental wars.

June 25, 2013 at 18:01

"The U.S. Navy is being asked to do the unprecedented while having a weak hand."


U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers, how can that be a weak hand? lol. China has one carrier. China indeed has a weak hand. lol.

June 25, 2013 at 16:46

This article is very misleading because USA is still the sole Super Power. No other countries can take over this role at all and America, with more than 11 Attack Carriers +  over 25 US Marine Carriers together with more than 300,000 marines. No other countries have this fire power but only America can have this capabilities.

June 25, 2013 at 06:24

How about the Americans first explain properly why exactly there needs to be some kind of "maritime order?" The international system is defined by anarchy and disorder, so why should any country or group of countries think that they can impose order on the sea?

I am not convinced that the US domination of maritime regions actually does any good for anyone other than the US, and I certainly do not support any future US-dominated "coalition" dominion of the high seas. For one thing, such a regime faces tremendous questions of legitimacy given that it will probably seek to exclude America's rivals or"peer competitors" from having any sort of meanigful decision-making capacity. Such a "coalition" (of the willing) will then essentially consist of Ameirca and its subordinates ("allies") who use it for their own national interests, which primarily consist of maintaining this biased world system of access and denial based upon one's closeness to Washington's good graces. The freedom of the seas has never been threatend by anyone other than the "great maritime do-gooders" themselves: Britain and the US, who alone have conducted blockades in war and peace.

Why do we not simply divide the sea into national, sovereign zones for administration? Giving countries a stake in a meritime area would incentivize them to manage resources and traffic efficiently. In any case international trade would continue unabated, much like how airliners fly over pretty much every country without a second thought. Natrually this would give the United Stasi States of America a good chunk of the Pacific and Atlantic, but unfortunately good ideas always have nasty trade-offs.

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