James Holmes

A Machiavellian Age of Sea Power

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James Holmes

A Machiavellian Age of Sea Power

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

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.