Being the backward-looking IR recalcitrant that I am, it should surprise nobody that I have been intermittently making my way through the English translation (abridged, and the only one available to my knowledge) of Raoul Castex’s Théories stratégiques. In the midst of the past few months’ discussion of sovereignty, maritime power, and the global commons, this passage stood out:
In peacetime, the sea is free for everyone. In war, it belongs to the strongest, who will chase both his enemy and any unfriendly neutrals from it as far as he is militarily and politically able… We can conclude with Richelieu’s observation that “of all the sovereigns’ domains, it is the sea on which they make the greatest claims, but the place which the rights of each are least clear. The true title to naval domination is force, not reason.”
[and in Castex’s note to that remark:] And we can be sure that, in the next war, the Americans, ready to fight to defend the freedom of their own commerce when they are neutral, will brutally uphold the other point of view when they are belligerents. Humanitarian imperialism is always problematic.
This was written during the 1930s by a Frenchman, yet many aspects of the critique echo in modern times. First of all, it is a reminder of ostensibly neutral concepts, such as freedom of the seas, are frequently viewed as polemical attempts at domination by foreign powers – particularly when they are Western, or as the continental Europeans would have it, Anglo-Saxon. After all, the doctrine of freedom of the seas seeks the neutralization of all the world’s oceans, in peace and in war. The idea of the sea as a blank, separate space for austere naval engagement is far from dead in the American political consciousness. What goes unremembered, of course, is how many times the maritime empires have launched a war or been dragged into one on the basis of a maritime incident.
The US concern with the commons is a further technical and political refinement on the notions of sea mastery which Castex discusses. While couched in the language of global public goods, benign unipolarity and hegemonic stability, the essential critiques remain. salient. One of the many strong (though perhaps understated) points about the study of the “security of the commons,” about which Jonathan Rue has already provided some great analysis, is that it acknowledges the inherent potential for disorder in the international system. While the report offers the salve of cooperative arrangements with pro-US powers, the realities of multipolarity mean the potential for a war on the Eurasian continent, or the eruption of piracy, unconventional threats (such as potential state-sponsored or non-state irregular warfare at sea), the reality is that conflict is likely to remain inevitable since the US cannot uphold such stabilizing relationships everywhere at all times. Indeed, the very notion of maritime mastery has always been a quixotic enterprise. As Castex points out:
All of the world’s united fleets would not suffice to achieve it everywhere… The mastery of the sea is not absolute but relative, incomplete, and imperfect. In spite of a sometimes crushing superiority, the dominator of communications has never completely prevented his enemy from appearing on the water.
Moreover, even relative master of the seas cannot be exercised at all points of the globe at the same time… There has never been general control of communications, but only local control over specific regions, many or few in number, greater or smaller in extent, depending on one’s resources.Sometimes geography and the distribution of fleets has even shifted local control of the sea to the benefit of the weaker navy.
Thus we arrive at the situation where Iran, despite its much smaller size, far inferior quality of equipment and personnel, and limited diplomatic power, can plausibly threaten US interests. Yet it is the inability to prioritize resources and consider any sort of geostrategic triage which makes a closure of the Straits so damaging. The true danger of a war with Iran, more than whatever limited amount of time it could realistically close the straits, is the sheer amount of damage it could do the US fleet during that time period. By insisting on achieving the quality of local control at a quantity to achieve global superiority, in total disregard for the limited resources of the US military, an obsession with securing the global commons becomes incredibly dangerous. Castex, as a continental theorist, understands this issue deeply, for the fungibility of fleets between theaters and resources between services is inherently limited in a seagoing landpower such as France. For the United States, the risk of overstretch is doubly dangerous, not just for the potentially violent reactions it provokes, but in the compounding effect of a damage anywhere to the rest of the US security posture.
While the sort of combinations of continental powers that Mackinder and Spykman feared and Spengler and Haushofer awaited with bated breath never successfully emerged, a strategy seeking to achieve mastery over the whole commons can approximate the same risks. An approach which leaves US naval bases and naval assets persistently vulnerable to unnecessarily aggravated and defensive continental states (whose naval combat power must be measured not simply in gray-hull fleets but in fast attack boats, suicide vessels, land-based aircraft and missile batteries) flirts with disaster. In a scenario where persistent US presence in the Gulf became the subject of attack and a carrier were to be lost or even damage, it would have a major effect on US force posture and capabilities in the rest of the world – whether the US has 11 carrier groups or 9, this would be a grave issue.
The fallacy of modern interpretations of commanding the commons – an idea which policymakers and commentators all too quickly wrap up with hegemonic stability writ large – is the notion that deterring aggression in one place will necessarily achieve the same effects in others. This is not so. The inadequacy of incompletely projected demonstration effects is not a feature unique to humanitarian interventions. In a case where the US ties down large numbers of fleets in the Persian Gulf or the Mediterranean, the value of that signaling is meaningless to Somali pirates or PLAN commanders if the Fifth and Sixth fleets draw resources and attention which reduce the material capability and diplomatic freedom of action in the Gulf of Aden or the South China Sea. Symbolic mastery does not trump the calculations of material security.
The commons are too broad to be fully dominated or denied by any given actor or combination of actors, yet that same vastness means the notion of an undifferentiated space which can be uniformly secured, as policymakers and commentators have often interpreted the idea, is not just inaccurate but dangerous. At least as far as the maritime realm is concerned, it would be better to start speaking of controlling commons rather than the commons. Geostrategic concepts require a concrete grounding in real, specific spaces, as Castex pointed out. Any approach seeking to neutralize or command the commons will meet resistance and criticism from other states. The critical question is whether or not policymakers can abandon the boundless universalism that has distorted the concept of the “commons,” and in so doing maintain the capabilities those specific threats which most seriously threaten US interests.