Navalism, limited war, and American strategy

Intervention and military force are legitimate tools of the state interest. While I have written many posts arguing against poorly thought-out present-day American interventions overseas, I have also consistently defended the legal precedent for many U.S. interventions, and noted that these trends are far more persistent in U.S. history than many other opponents of modern doctrines of humanitarian intervention and Responsibility to Protect are often willing to acknowledge. Recovering our understanding of limited interventions in defense of U.S. interests and adapting the U.S. policy planning and military capability to undertake them is a critical task – one which makes avoiding unnecessary, distorting, and draining interventions all the more important.

As is easily apparent from even a brief overview of American military interventions, the United States engaged frequently in limited, expeditionary actions to protect the lives of American citizens and U.S. interests abroad. While many of these interventions were undoubtedly imperial in nature, in many cases they were far more limited in scope and intent than the supposedly post-imperial actions the United States and other Western powers pursue today. Here, though, it is important to distinguish actions where the U.S. was directly concerned with gaining territory from the protection of U.S. interests.

As outlined in Federalist No. 8, Alexander Hamilton explained something of a core rationale in American geopolitics. The preservation of an open, liberal society was necessitated by the exclusion of potential military rivals from an American sphere of interest. American union was necessary both to prevent each state or grouping of states, without a sovereign federal authority, from sacrificing their liberty in the compelling interest of achieving safety from each others potential military threat. Hamilton saw the development of a maritime-centric U.S. military, under the auspices of a federal government, as a critical task for U.S. national security. For, without it, the U.S. would find itself in a dangerous neighborhood, and more likely in need of a strong army:

The jealousy of military establishments would postpone them as long as possible. The want of fortifications, leaving the frontiers of one state open to another, would facilitate inroads. The populous States would, with little difficulty, overrun their less populous neighbors. Conquests would be as easy to be made as difficult to be retained. War, therefore, would be desultory and predatory. PLUNDER and devastation ever march in the train of irregulars. The calamities of individuals would make the principal figure in the events which would characterize our military exploits.

This picture is not too highly wrought; though, I confess, it would not long remain a just one. Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. Even the ardent love of liberty will, after a time, give way to its dictates. The violent destruction of life and property incident to war, the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger, will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free.

Hamilton did not believe in the democratic peace, nor did he see maritime and continental states as being at similar risk of tyrannical military rule:

… if we should be disunited, and the integral parts should either remain separated, or, which is most probable, should be thrown together into two or three confederacies, we should be, in a short course of time, in the predicament of the continental powers of Europe — our liberties would be a prey to the means of defending ourselves against the ambition and jealousy of each other.

Hamilton’s warning, of course, was proven correct by the secession of the Confederacy, which quickly plunged both the Union and the C.S.A. into mobilization of war economies which the territory of the United States would not see again until the total war mobilizations of the twentieth century. Additionally, as John Jay noted in Federalist No. 5, separate states or confederacies would be:

be more desirous to guard against the others by the aid of foreign alliances, than to guard against foreign dangers by alliances between themselves.

This is another prediction born correctly out by the course of the Civil War, in which the Confederacy probed using relations with the French and United Kingdom as a safeguard against the superior strength of the Union. Critical to the exclusion of foreign powers from bringing about the creation of a European-style security dilemma within the United States, and reinforced by the overcoming of that dilemma in a federal union, was a strong navy, capable of protecting the commercial rights of the whole union and excluding rival powers from the U.S. neighborhood when necessary. The vigorous use of expeditionary forces, in particular, by a permanently authorized U.S. Navy which, since the inception of the U.S., was able to act without a formal Congressional declaration of war, was a frequent feature of U.S. security policy, especially with non-Amerindian polities. In a survey of foreign interventions, a Library of Congress researcher accurately summarized:

The majority of the instances listed were brief Marine or Navy actions prior to World War II to protect U.S. citizens or promote U.S. interests. A number were actions against pirates or bandits. Some were events, such as the stationing of Marines at an Embassy or legation, which later were considered normal peacetime practice.

During the Barbary Wars, the United States did attempt to support regime change, albeit one under the aegis of a coup d’etat by a rival claimant to the throne of Tripoli, rather than any kind of exercise in democracy promotion or nation-building (it was ultimately proven unnecessary by Jefferson’s successful negotiations with the standing government). Even when the United States overthrew overseas regimes, its primary interests were generally less about the promotion of democracy than the protection of American citizens, the punishment of regimes harboring pirates, bandits, and other violent non-state actors, and the prevention of third party governments from using the target regime as a proxy for attack against the United States (such was often the case in U.S. interventions in the Caribbean).

If the United States intervened in response to massacres, it was because the target regime (such as Ottoman Turkey) had engaged in or permitted a massacre of foreign and American citizens. Until the Spanish-American War, which was justified as much by conventional conceptions of national interest (and the rationales clear in Federalist of preventing foreign colonial encroachment in the Western Hemisphere) as it was by humanitarian ones, the maltreatment of foreigners by their own governments was not a justifiable trigger for hostilities (nor was the institution of democracy a normal and widely accepted rationale for intervention). On the other hand, the mere murder of an American sailor was enough to trigger the bombardment of villages or the deployment of Marines. One can contrast this to the European proto-humanitarian interventions which were often justified on the basis of protecting one’s preferred sect of Christians from another sect, or another religion entirely (a logic which, in secularized form, was later imported into American international juristic thought by James Brown Scott from the conquista-era Spanish theologian Vitoria).

The frequent use of a maritime-centric force to conduct limited interventions, often punitive in nature, or to stabilize a foreign government against insurrection or assist a U.S.-friendly faction in winning a civil war, then, should not surprise anybody. Yet to many commentators, drones, special operations forces, and naval forces are some kind of new and unprecedented threat to world order and national sovereignty. As Tom Engelhardt writes in a breathless summation of Obama’s new defense policies:

A new way of preserving the embattled idea of an American planet is coming into focus and one thing is clear: in the name of Washington’s needs, it will offer a direct challenge to national sovereignty.

This is only new if one considers World War II to be the beginning of American engagement of the world. As it should be immediately obvious, the use of maritime-centric forces to launch punitive raids against countries which infringe upon the safety of U.S. citizens or threaten its interests is probably one of the oldest ways of American warfare. Indeed, one could call it an Anglo-American way of warfare, as the Royal Navy and Marines fulfilled a relatively similar purpose for a long time (although the British far more frequently ended up completely upending the sovereignty of their targets by incorporating them into a formal empire).  According to Tom Engelhardt, modern military technology will result in the fundamental destruction of land-based sovereign rights by a pernicious offshore power – a historically unprecedented event in and of itself. As another commentator recently put it:

It [is] immediately obvious that a naval fleet shielded by aircraft [is] no longer confined to the surface of the sea, that [purely] maritime weapons had become old style…

… independent air war, no longer confined to purely land war… presented a new type of war, with no analogies or parallels to the rules of traditional land war or sea war. The independent air force introduced an entirely independent application of force, whose specific results for the concept of enemy, war, and booty we must now consider.

By recently, I meant 1954, when Carl Schmitt described the development of modern aerial technology in the early 20th century in his Nomos of the Earth. Indeed, many of the criticisms of indirect war and offshore war actually date to the 17th-19th century trends in warfare that Schmitt chronicles in his genealogy of international law. Take for example the fear that offshore forces will stir resentment and hatred:

As opposed to an occupying land power, a sea power pursuing a blockade would have no interest in establishing security and order in enemy territory. Land forces can have autoritié établie, i.e., a positive relation to the occupied territory and its inhabitants, because military occupation can be accomplished only by an army that is present and establishes authority. This introduces the necessity of direct contact between the occupying army and occupying territory, and results in legal relations between the occupying power and the occupied country. By contrast, a blockading fleet has only a negative relation to enemy territory and its inhabitants, because it considers both the land and the people to be nothing more than the goal of a forceful action and the object a means of compulsion…


With air bombardment the lack of relation between military personnel in the air and the earth below, as well as with inhabitants thereon, is absolute. Not even the shadow of the relation between protection and obedience remains. Independent air war allows neither the one nor the other side a possibility to establish a relation…. [thus demonstrating] the purely destructive character of modern air war.

Schmitt later outlines what he sees as a fundamental tension between the desires for a truly universal world order in which the victor of the Cold War would “appropriate the whole earth – land, sea, and air – and would divide and manage it with his plans and ideas. Of course, where Schmitt departs from the many commentators who have followed in his footsteps contemplating the impact of new military technology and globalization on international order is in his sober assessment of their ultimate meaning, one rather surprising for somebody whose very country and idea for a new legal system was completely annihilated by the loss of World War II:

The existence of modern technology should neither make us drunk nor lead us to despair. We need neither abandon human reason nor cease to consider rationally all the possibilities of a new nomos of the earth.

A second possibility might be an attempt to retain the balance structure of the previous nomos, and to maintain it in a way consistent with contemporary technical means and dimensions. That would mean that England’s former domination of the oceans would be expanded into a joint domination of sea and air, which only the United States is capable of doing. America is, so to speak, the greater island that could administer and guarantee the balance of the rest of the world…. Continuation of the hegemonic balance structure… has the greatest chance of accepted tradition and custom on its side.

In other words, the American way of war and global strategy Engelhardt outlines is neither really a radical shift nor a historically unprecedented one – indeed, it is one that, as most realist commentators have since argued, is really an outgrowth of the British strategy – and one reapplied to American strategy, in which naval power kept continental threats at arms length while suppressing threats to commerce and the rights of U.S. citizens. Because of this latter task, Schmitt identified sea war as being a sphere where opponents did not always have legal equality and recognition, because it was often waged by states against pirates, bandits, and privateers, which were either illegal (in the case of the first two) or legal but without significant legal protections (the latter). Raids and destruction without obligation to populace on land were the order of the day. Now read Engelhardt:

And don’t forget the Navy, which couldn’t be more offshore to begin with.  It already operates 11 aircraft carrier task forces (none of which are to be cut — thanks to a decision reportedly made by the president).  These are, effectively, major American bases — massively armed small American towns — at sea.  To these, the Navy is adding smaller “bases.”  Right now, for instance, it’s retrofitting an old amphibious transport docking ship bound for the Persian Gulf either as a Navy Seal commando “mothership” or (depending on which Pentagon spokesperson you listen to) as a “lily pad” for counter-mine Sikorsky MH-53 helicopters and patrol craft.  Whichever it may be, it will just be a stopgap until the Navy can build new “Afloat Forward Staging Bases” from scratch….

Onshore, American power in the twenty-first century proved a disaster.  Offshore, with Washington in control of the global seas and skies, with its ability to kick down the world’s doors and strike just about anywhere without a by-your-leave or thank-you-ma’am, it hopes for better.  As the early attempts to put this program into operation from Pakistan to Yemen have indicated, however, be careful what you wish for: it sometimes comes home to bite you.

Of course, the threat to sovereignty Engelhardt outlines has, in fact, existed since the development of global maritime power during the dawn of the European state system. Engelhardt is correct to note that this challenges the ability of other states to retain their sovereignty – but it does not challenge the concept of sovereignty itself. The doctrines of war and strategies it has replaced, such as wars which inherently required the overthrow of regimes, the restructuring of societies, and ones launched on the justification of a state’s domestic behavior, were and are far more dangerous to the concept of sovereignty than the pursuance of unauthorized raids.

In fact, most of the behavior that Engelhardt describes occurs with the implicit or explicit consent of the countries involved. Both Pakistan and Yemen’s governments are in fact quite involved with the decisions to conduct drone strikes within their countries, even if politicians use them to curry nationalist favor. These drone strikes receive implicit or explicit sanction in part because the United States tolerates Pakistan’s own “border busting” use of covert proxies in Afghanistan, and successive administrations in Islamabad have all decided that tolerating and seeking some involvement with drone strikes is preferable to taking less cool-headed American politicians up on their threats to bomb the entire country back to the stone age. In Yemen, the government in fact used the drone strikes to maintain the sovereignty of the Saleh regime by directing U.S. targeteers towards enemies of the Yemeni state rather than fighters necessarily involved in levying war against America. Similarly, the proliferation of Anti-Access/Area Denial technologies to challenge the ability of the U.S. to operate close to hostile shores, or deny use of bases for American aircraft or ships, will render this U.S. power projection capability far less invincible and unimpeded than the use of gunboat diplomacy during the 19th century.

Importantly, foreign great powers do draw a distinction between interventions against groups involved in attacking the United States and perceived wars of aggression and regime change. Compare the Chinese reaction to the 1999 Kosovo War or 2003 invasion of Iraq to its reaction to, say, the killing of Osama bin Laden. While China vehemently condemned American aggression in its support of Kosovar secession and the unilateral decision to invade Iraq, it has been far more supportive, or at least even-handed, in its treatment of the broader U.S. war on terrorism. For example, even criticisms of the War on Terror in Chinese state media condemn the United States, more than anything else, for its refusal to acknowledge China and Russia’s right to suppress their own insurgent groups in Chechnya and Xinjiang. Non-intervention is far more desirable to the Chinese as a principle for excluding foreign involvement in China’s internal affairs. China paid lip service to Pakistani sovereignty and acknowledgment of Pakistani sacrifices since 9/11, but this criticism was anything but its vituperative condemnation of U.S. policy in 1999, 2003, or even Chinese state-run media reactions to the war against Libya’s government.

China has never been one to shirk from the morality of launching brutal raids against pirates, brigands, bandits, and terrorists. Even countries with very strong conceptions of sovereignty, and fierce criticism of humanitarian intervention, R2P, or unilateral U.S. military action are indeed quite in favor of the sort of naval raiding strategies the U.S. Defense Strategic Guidance appears to be shifting the U.S. military towards. For example, take General Chen Bingde’s statement on piracy in Somalia. The chief of the PLA general staff argued that the international community should be launching amphibious operations and raids against pirate bases on the Somali coast, asserting, “For counter-piracy campaigns to be effective, we should probably move beyond the ocean and crash their bases on the land.”

India and Russia are also vigorous partners in the fight against Somali piracy, and indeed there is a similarly noticeable pattern whereby intervention against terrorist groups is envied or criticized for hypocrisy, rather than outright condemned, but intervention to overturn regimes or enforce human rights meets staunch opposition. By attempting to interlink the objectives of protecting the world with changing the domestic affairs or ideological stripe of U.S. foes, America actually sacrifices a large deal of favorable perceptions from other great powers. While India, China, and Russia all certainly use U.S. military interventions, whether they are favorable or unfavorable to their respective interests, as case studies for their own force modernization and strategic planning efforts, it is no contradiction to argue for the vigorous use of interventions to conduct limited raids to protect U.S. sovereign rights while fearing the effects of interventions seeking regime change, secession, or undue influence on a country’s internal behavior.

As Schmitt noted, one of the critical problems with continental states towards the naval, and later Anglo-American way of warfare was its applications of categories of political relations more commonly associated with sea warfare against irregular foes to total wars against legitimate governments. Richelieu, in his 17th century Testament politique, noted:

The sea is of all heritages the one over which rulers claim most, yet it is one over which the rights of everybody are least clear… the true titles of this dominion are force and not reason. One must be powerful to lay claim to that heritage….

A great state should never be in a situation of receiving an insult without being able to avenge it…. [England] could obstruct our fisheries, disturb our trade, and by blocking the mouths of our great rivers, force our merchants to pay whatever tolls it felt like asking. It might raid our islands and even our coasts with impunity…

The German geopolitician Friedrich Ratzel, writing centuries later, but before Schmitt, further concluded:

When the balance among the maritime powers is upset, one of them will have to secure for itself control of the maritime space involved. In time of peace, it is continental powers that aim at monopoly within their own territories, particularly in the area of trade; conversely, in time of war, it is maritime powers that tend toward monopoly.

The sentiments of both these thinkers were largely reaffirmed by interwar French naval strategist Raoul Castex, who saw in these sentiments, and American economic interests, the seeds of a “problematic” kind of “humanitarian imperialism. For Schmitt, the most worrying aspect of the navalist way of war was not that it violated sovereignty – in the eyes of many, international violent non-state actors could not use state sovereignty as a cloak to defend themselves – but the application of its criminal categories and unjust foes who had no justis hostis to states, which throughout the 19th century had been considered to have a legitimate right to wage war, as well as the norms of sea warfare, by which all people and property of an enemy state could be targeted without any of the reciprocal obligations inherent to military occupation – in other words, the treating of terrestrial citizens as pirates and privateers (though, it should be noted that Schmitt fully understood that the status of the insurgent and terrorist did not entitle him to the same rights as the conventional uniformed combatant).

Adam Elkus has often observed that the United States shift towards raiding against non-state threats is, in many respects, a return to the historical norm. However, that is not to say that the defense shifts ongoing are perfect. The increase and resources, public attention, and political cache of U.S. special operations forces may ultimately lead to an exhaustion of actual SOF capability, as U.S. policymakers and publics increasingly perceive and market this way of warfare as an inherently “special” activity. If a brief survey of U.S. military interventions makes anything about these sort of raiding operations in defense of U.S. interests clear, it should be that raiding is not special – it is normal. Robert Caruso, who outlined most of what Engelhardt is decrying now a few months ago, explained:

The only consistently forward-leaning and proactive branch isn’t –- it’s called the Marine Corps.

That consistency stretches back to the Barbary Wars. Much ink was spilled about the need for conventional forces’ “big war” doctrines to give way to MOOTW, but unfortunately the end of population-centric counterinsurgency as the ur-meme in U.S. strategic thought has too often meant that what is replacing it – raiding and other limited actions – is seen as purely the territory of SOF, and that an increase in these strategies is inherently at risk of over-expanding or compromise SOF capabilities. This is not so – if institutional and political disincentives and barriers can be overcome, the USN and USMC can arguably return to the role of raids, limited actions against irregular threats and non-state actors, and relieve some of the burden on SOF. For the purposes of destroying pirate bases, rescuing hostages, or storming ships, there do exist actual organic capabilities within the regular USN and USMC capable of doing what Naval Special Warfare makes headlines for doing. VBSS, FAST, and a variety of Marine expeditionary forces can do – and have done – what popular perceptions – and often policymaker perceptions – associate SOF with. The account of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in its takedown of pirates hijacking the Magellan Star is instructive in this regard. Counter-piracy is hardly the only case where a robust USMC and other branches with a more expeditionary posture could avoid the potential of a force over-dependent on SOF and a SOF exhausted from this dependence.

Creating conventional units that know how to conduct such operations across the spectrum of potential threats, and increasingly, raiding operations against foes with robust Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities, will be a vital development. But the recovery of limited warfare methods to deal with genuinely criminal threats and infringements on U.S. sovereignty is complementary, not distracting, to the mission of deterring and confronting rival regional and great powers. By reverting to the limited warfare common to maritime powers in history, the U.S. will need to expend fewer resources on tasks of nation-building and societal transformation that had limited fungibility, and politically, a negative effect, on attempts to defend U.S. interests and stature vis-a-vis rival great powers. However, limited warfare means acknowledging that criminal categories must be, whenever possible, kept far away from state foes. While terrorists, pirates, and even sometimes proxies and insurgents must be dealt with by the norms Schmitt would associate with warfare at sea, the superimposition of such status to so-called rogue or criminal regimes must be undertaken only with caution. The delimiting of U.S. interests and the imposition of moral criteria which makes rival great powers feel unnecessarily threatened.

Capitalizing on U.S. strengths, as Bernard Finel argued in the Armed Forces Journal in his case for the virtues of raiding, is important – and it should include training across the spectrum. However, the eclipse of U.S. impunity – if not U.S. predominance per se – will make the delineation of U.S. thresholds and interests for intervention, and a re-internalization of the norms and purposes of limited war, rather than just wars of aggression, regime change, or societal transformation, all the more vital. A framework of intervention that balances U.S. interests, military capabilities, and norms of sovereignty that alleviate avoidable aspects of great power tension is possible, but cutting through the hype and novelty surrounding the rhetoric about modern technology, limited warfare, raiding, and the reversion to a maritime-centric force posture is a vitally important first step.

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