James Holmes

The Geopolitics of Port Calls

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James Holmes

The Geopolitics of Port Calls

TR sent the Great White Fleet around the world to deter as much as for pageantry. Not much has changed.

The Naval Diplomat is giddy pleased in a dignified way at being in Sydney, and Australia, for the first time. I spent Saturday morning on the Sydney Harbour Bridge overlooking the famous Opera House. Modern men-of-war were moored nearby. Tall ships were standing into the harbor. Small craft of various types were flitting around, much as they do in Narragansett Bay in summertime.

Being part of the International Fleet Review brings back memories of spectacles past. I had the privilege of taking part in New York's Fleet Week 1991 in the Wisconsin, promenading past the Statue of Liberty, the World Trade Center and the rest of downtown Manhattan before mooring across the harbor at Staten Island. Anyone who tells you New Yorkers are surly or standoffish has never gone out in town, in summer whites, when the fleet's in. They give Southerners a run for their money for graciousness.

In 1992, after taking up teaching duties in Newport, I volunteered as a liaison officer for the tall ship Pride of Baltimore II during that year's Tall Ships Festival. This mainly entailed ferrying the crew around to various grocery stores in my micro-Honda CRX to restock the ship's larder. (Good thing it's a smallish vessel.) In return my wife and I were treated to a harbor cruise in that Baltimore clipper to inspect the ships. The same festive atmosphere prevailed.

The atmosphere here is much the same. One suspects it has been ever so at such gatherings. The review commemorates the Royal Australian Navy's first entry into Sydney a century ago. In effect this was the navy's coming-out party as an independent service. There's a parochial angle to satisfy us Americans as well. The U.S. Navy's Great White Fleet had tarried here in 1908, five years beforehand, during its famous world cruise. The American port call fired enthusiasm for an Australian navy while inspiring the pomp and circumstance that greeted the new RAN fleet a few years later.

And yet events of this type aren't entirely about pageantry. Consider the reasons President Theodore Roosevelt gave for dispatching the U.S. battle fleet around the globe. He meant the cruise to be a "striking thing," renewing Americans' love affair with the sea and their navy, displaying goodwill toward foreign peoples, and the like. Those were the obvious purposes. But TR had other goals in mind as well. He portrayed the Great White Fleet's exploits — circumnavigating South America, crossing the Pacific, arriving in the Far East in fighting trim — as his greatest service to the cause of peace.

How could such a warlike display contribute to peace? Roosevelt feared, rightly, that Japan had interpreted the results of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) as an algorithm for future naval wars — most likely against you-know-who. The Russian Baltic Fleet had steamed nearly 20,000 miles around the Cape of Good Hope, through the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, and into East Asian waters to reach the scene of battle. Debilitated by its journey, the Russian force met a predictably grim fate in the Tsushima Strait, intercepted by a Japanese Combined Fleet that was fresh from a refit and fighting close to home.

TR wanted to disabuse Tokyo of the notion that it could do the same to a U.S. fleet that had steamed west across the Pacific, presumably to the relief of the U.S.-held Philippine Islands. In a real sense, then, the voyage of the Great White Fleet was meant as a deterrent as much as a show of international amity.

The same mixed motives suffuse all ventures that engage power politics. And there's nothing wrong with self-interest. So let's not kid ourselves into thinking that some parliament of mankind is assembling by the sea, or that lions are lying down with lambs, the next time a host nation convenes such a gathering. Goodwill is part of the story, but far from the whole one. Which is the thesis for my remarks to the Sea Power Conference, the academic arm of the International Fleet Review, this coming Tuesday.

Check back later this week for the text of my address.