James Holmes

The Diplomacy of Fleet Reviews

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James Holmes

The Diplomacy of Fleet Reviews

The Naval Diplomat delivers remarks at the International Fleet Review 2013, in Sydney, Australia.


Colleagues and friends, old and new: thank you for letting me be part of this magnificent event.

I am a huge memorabilia hound. Two of my favorite keepsakes from my time in uniform are an Australian surface warfare pin and a set of Australian wings of gold, or aviator pin. I display them proudly in my library back home. I came by them by attending a get-together with the wardrooms of HMAS Adelaide and Success in Muscat, Oman, in late 1990, when my ship, the battleship Wisconsin, paid a visit there just before Desert Storm.

The RAN [Royal Australian Navy] officers titled the event "Light Lunch, Heavy Beer." I should've interpreted this as code for RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. Instead I went, and was exposed to some of the RAN's rowdier traditions. Things were done; mistakes were made. Fortunately, no one could prove anything — and I survived my first encounter with the RAN. Barely.

It's a pleasure to interact with your navy once again — under far more tranquil circumstances — and with all of the mariners here present. Now let me turn to the substance of my presentation:


Let me do what I advise my students to do, and give away my punch lines up front. Captain Jones asked me to revisit Ken Booth's book Navies and Foreign Policy 36 years after that work first appeared. Punch line number one is that the book has weathered well. Much of what he says remains strikingly fresh. I will review some of his concepts here, and critique a few of them mildly.

Writing something that remains evergreen is no small thing in the world of naval and military affairs, where we tend to fixate on the day's headlines; on the minutiae of administration, hardware, and tactics; and even on individual personalities.

How did the author accomplish this? He accomplished it by refusing to dwell on the events of his day, which would have anchored his book in the late Cold War, and given it a musty smell by now. He was about helping us think, and cared little about prescribing specific policies. This endears the book to me.

Which is why I superimposed a second purpose on my assignment for this conference: using Navies and Foreign Policy as an eyepiece through which to survey the purposes behind the international camaraderie and cooperation that form the public face of this gathering. There's more to such occasions than that.

Consider a historical case that relates directly to the RAN's entry into Sydney in 1913. In 1908, five years before that, the U.S. Navy's Great White Fleet dropped anchor here during its 'round-the-world cruise. I started off my academic career writing about Theodore Roosevelt's handling of naval diplomacy. The battle fleet's world cruise was a goodwill gesture toward foreign nations, and it made good PR at home. In his memoir, President Roosevelt said he wanted the voyage to be a "striking thing" that would consolidate and reinforce America's maritime culture. It would renew the love affair of ordinary people with the sea, and with their navy.

This was an act of cultural upkeep for a continent-spanning nation that had the option — and, naval advocates feared, the preference — of looking inward to continental affairs. Over the past few days we have heard echoes of that sort of thinking from our Australian hosts. And for good reason, given the resemblance between Australian and North American geography. Culture takes care and feeding.

But Roosevelt also acknowledged that he had ulterior motives for dispatching the fleet. He wanted to show Imperial Japan that it stood no chance of doing to the U.S. Pacific Fleet what it had done to the Russian Baltic Fleet not long before: thrash a fleet that was debilitated from a long journey into East Asian waters. TR believed the Great White Fleet could deter Japan by steaming across the Pacific and arriving in the Far East in fighting trim. The cruise thus was a display of capability and resolve, as well as a venture meant to inspire and conciliate.

Thus it was 105 years ago. And thus it remains today. Fleet reviews, I submit, are about branding and messaging. We try to impress our constituents, our allies, our potential adversaries, and fence sitters who might become allies or adversaries, depending on how we play our cards. And we try to send messages of reassurance, coercion, or deterrence to various audiences.

Fleet reviews are about diplomacy; and diplomacy, in turn, is about persuasion and dissuasion. That's what diplomats do: negotiate with foreign governments on behalf of their nations, using all the tools in the policy toolkit. Let's not avert our eyes from the reality that we all have national self-interests to pursue here. That's punch line number two. Let's be candid about our purposes — how they differ, not just how they coincide.

Admittedly, this is a dour note to strike on such an upbeat occasion. Let me explain briefly why I sound it.

I organize my paper around Booth's "naval trinity" of military, constabulary, and diplomatic functions. The trinity is not a perfect metaphor; no metaphor is. Depicting the three roles played by navies as three sides of an equilateral triangle, as Booth does, conflates diplomacy with the instruments of diplomacy.

The military and police functions are mainly about capability — meaning skilled, motivated crews handling ships, aircraft, and weaponry adequate to their missions. The diplomatic function is about putting capability to political use. It misleads to equate policy with the implements used to accomplish policy goals. With that caveat, however, the naval trinity remains a serviceable model for evaluating this International Fleet Review.

Let's take the military domain first. Ken Booth tells us, rightly, that the capacity to use force is the bedrock on which all else navies do is founded. How can we advance our military prowess by assembling here?

First, fleet reviews help us know others and know ourselves. The Chinese general Sun Tzu depicts foreknowledge as the beginning of strategic wisdom. I hardly need to tell you how greatly navies vary in size, types of platforms, and roles and missions. We can acquaint ourselves firsthand with how other navies are configured, see the world, and conduct business. Such cultural familiarity is the basis for cooperative or competitive endeavors.

Second, we can take each other's measure in material terms. Visiting foreign ships offers a rare chance to peek inside the "black boxes" that are naval hardware in peacetime — when combat performance remains largely a matter of conjecture for outsiders. Indicators as simple as rust or slovenly housekeeping speak volumes about professionalism — about how well a crew will execute when it matters. Conversely, by presenting ourselves smartly, we can impress others who come aboard our vessels.

And third, multinational exercises are often held in conjunction with fleet reviews, as indeed Triton Centenary brackets this week's festivities. Sharing tactics, techniques, and procedures, through realistic maneuvers, puts joint and combined capability in place, so it exists when it's needed.

Now, I am agnostic on the often-heard claim that military-to-military ties somehow build trust between services, and thus between nations. Nevertheless, it makes sense to give national leaders options. That's what military people do. We conduct exercises to build tactical cohesion that lets us work together should our political masters deem it worthwhile. Whether this begets international harmony remains a matter of speculation.

So in the military domain, nations convene and attend fleet reviews to size up foreign navies, refine their proficiency at basic combat functions, construct working relations with allies and potential partners, and impress potential competitors.

What about the constabulary function, the second domain Booth discerns for navies? Most of the ships here are men-of-war, so police matters recede into the background somewhat. Still, many navies execute coast-guard responsibilities, tending to good order at sea. So a couple of points about police duty are worth making.

First, as Booth notes, the constabulary function is mostly inward-facing. It's a seaward extension of law enforcement on land. Nonetheless, a coastal state that effectively polices territorial waters, and its exclusive economic zone, demonstrates that it is fully sovereign.

Sovereignty means nothing if not control of the zones within lines inscribed on the map or nautical chart. States that exercise sovereignty effectively discourage outside intervention in their affairs. They also spare others from having to lend a hand. By helping themselves internally, they limit problems externally. This is one reason building partner capacity is a priority for the U.S. Navy and other leading powers.

Second, police functions can get entangled with power politics, giving rise to truly wicked diplomatic problems. What happens when one coastal state patrols waters claimed by another — and backs up its coast guard with naval firepower should the rival claimant challenge it?

Such a clash is far from hypothetical. Just look to our north, where the China Coast Guard is policing disputed waters in the South and East China seas, while the PLA Navy and land-based weaponry provide backup from over the horizon. Under such circumstances, it's impossible to separate police from military endeavors as neatly as Booth implies we can.

Events such as this fleet review offer an opportunity to exchange views about such topics frankly. We may not agree with each other; we may not head off competition, or even conflict. But at least we can help assure that any friction results not from misunderstanding but from conscious choice. That's no small contribution.

Here, it's worth recalling Booth's observation that the dual nature of warships complicates constabulary work. That is, high-end combatants can execute combat or police missions.

Indeed, the only real difference between a capital ship patrolling the sea and a capital ship deterring or coercing a rival state is in the mind of the policymaker giving the orders. A vessel performing counterpiracy or counterproliferation duty can morph into a combat ship — and back again — as though a switch has been thrown. Think about USS Bainbridge, one of the world's premier surface combatants, taking down the hijackers on board the Maersk Alabama four years ago.

This dual nature makes it both important and hard for great navies, such as my own, to explain their purposes to coastal states that are suspicious that we're using police endeavors as an excuse to prepare to fight in their backyards. Assigning coast-guard-like ships to coast-guard-like missions is one possible way to work around such misgivings. Again, this gathering offers an opportunity to clarify our intentions on such matters and discuss options.

And finally, how about the diplomatic function? Booth sees negotiating from a position of strength, shaping international relationships of various kinds, and accumulating prestige as three main functions navies perform in the diplomatic realm.

Diplomacy is about communicating, and communicating effectively demands capability — military and constabulary capability in this case. You have to have a big stick, or a nightstick, to back up what you say. But molding perceptions among disparate audiences represents a squishier task than amassing hardware and human capacity. How do we accomplish that?

Let me supplement Booth's analysis with a formula from Henry Kissinger to help us think this through. Kissinger describes deterrence as a product of capability, resolve and the opponent's belief in our capability and resolve. We issue a threat, display the capacity to make good on that threat, and convince the adversary we mean what we say, and that our equipment can do what we say it will.

Because deterrence is a product of multiplication, deterrence is zero if any one of these factors is zero. The audience gets a say in this two-way, interactive process.

The same can be said of coercion, in which we try to get an unwilling opponent to take some positive action rather than desist from doing something we oppose.

The same also goes for reassurance, in which we make a promise to some ally, friend or neutral. Clear, convincing communication is at a premium, whoever the audience may be.

How is naval diplomacy playing out here in Sydney? Let me close by speculating about our hosts' motives.  And then let me be parochial, and speculate about American motives. You could run the same analysis for the other navies represented here — but then we would be here until the cows come home.

What do Australians want? Like the rest of us, the RAN doubtless wants to reaffirm its reputation for excellence in seamanship, tactics and hardware. This fleet review thus represents upkeep for Australia's martial reputation. The naval establishment wants this occasion to be a striking thing, to recall TR's words.

That, I would say, is the easy part. The diplomatic challenge is trickier. Canberra wants to consolidate its standing within the U.S.-Australia alliance, reach out to fellow seafaring Asian states such as Japan and India, and do all of this while reassuring China that it is not a foe in the making. The task before Canberra is to display strength, to tend to alliance maintenance, and to deter while conciliating.  That's an ambitious agenda. Yet these competing requirements should prove manageable so long as competitive impulses in the region remain mostly in check.

How about my own country? Strangely, I think the U.S. Navy, the senior partner in the transpacific alliance system, has the most to prove, both here at Sydney and in general.

The United States must prove that it can still execute both military and police functions, that it can do so despite the tyranny of distance, and that it can do so despite the anti-access measures deployed by the likes of the PLA and the Iranian armed forces. This is a tough row to hoe, as we say in the hills of Tennessee.

Showing Asian allies, prospective allies and partners, and prospective opponents that Washington can keep its commitments, and fulfill its threats, in distant waters is central to U.S. maritime strategy. This forms an undercurrent to the International Fleet Review. Navies and Foreign Policy could have served as the American playbook for Sydney. I hope it did.

In closing, however, let me take issue with something Booth says: namely, that naval diplomacy is a preserve of great powers. Far from it. Savvy diplomacy is more crucial for smaller navies, which, after all, cannot afford to throw money and resources at problems. And in this era of declining force structures, and fiscal stringency, smaller navies carry more weight relative to the great powers than they have in the past. This is worth remembering during our interactions this week.

So let's be candid with one another about all of these things — not just about our desire to coexist and cooperate, but about the differences that could bring about a darker future — and about all of our navies' capacity to make a difference.

Ken Booth supplies few answers to the many questions he raises about naval diplomacy. Nor can I. But like any good professor, he helps us ask the right questions. So, my verdict on Navies and Foreign Policy, 30 years on, is: mission accomplished.