Last spring the U.S. Navy was already stretched thin and had to quickly move the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group from Thailand into the Arabian Sea. Putting fewer warships to sea due to budget fights poses a significant risk of forcing the U.S. military to have to choose between having key naval assets in the Persian Gulf or East Asia. Such a state of affairs would be a grave problem if, as today, multiple security contingencies simultaneously exist in both areas. The Defense Department risks spreading itself too thin, diluting the deterrent power of having carrier strike groups close by, and thus removing a vital tool of influence that enhances the credibility and effectiveness of American diplomacy that has long helped keep the peace in complex, and often unstable strategic theatres.
If U.S. security commitments to maintaining large-scale forward deployed naval forces capable of shaping events continue to remain subject to the daily ebb and flow of the political tides in Washington, allies and potential foes alike will lose confidence in America’s capability. Accordingly, the era of maritime Pax Americana would erode and place the world at risk of reverting back to a much more chaotic state of affairs in the global maritime commons. A reversion to this type of environment would bring with it a higher risk of significant state-state conflict and catalyze activities by state and non-state groups opposed to freedom of transit through important zones such as the Persian Gulf and South China Sea. This in turn would risk effectively imposing a heavy tax on global trade at exactly the juncture when it can least afford it.
The period in which the fledgling U.S. Navy earned its expeditionary stripes fighting the Barbary Pirates 200 years ago was this type of world. Now, it is high time both sides of the aisle in Washington ask themselves if they wish to set the wheels in motion for a possible return to maritime anarchy and unconstrained naval competition in strategic regions.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The damage done to U.S. allies’ confidence and potential foes’ awe that deters them from initiating conflicts is not yet irreparable, but once other parties begin building up naval forces and altering operational philosophies based on the signals American political actions send, path dependency sets in and makes maintaining U.S. naval preeminence in core areas of strategic interest much more costly and less likely to succeed.
Isolationism has consistently forced the U.S.to become involved in conflicts that could have been prevented or minimized by earlier, pro-active engagement. Moreover, this usually occurs on unfavorable terms and the current period is almost certainly no different. Robust forward maritime engagement is essential and the U.S. should resist isolationist impulses despite short-term financial difficulties at home.