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: Continue reading

Gulf in expectations

With America’s military withdrawal from Iraq and Ben Rhodes’s recent explanation of a plan to draw down US forces in the Gulf to a 1990 level, in combination with the revolts against the autocratic regimes the United States has thrown in its lot with, a major rethinking of America’s security posture in the Middle East seems to be in the making.

Toby Jones, whose previous article in the Atlantic I wrote about here, has another piece arguing that the US needs to militarily withdraw from the entire Persian Gulf, and asserts that this will both give the United States more leverage, stabilize the region, and reduce threats to the United States. Jones argues that the Gulf is less important than it previously has been to energy security:

The world today is awash in oil and natural gas. Protecting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf to global markets is far less necessary than it once was. Over the past generation, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the other oil producers in the region have grown accustomed to bloated national budgets and expensive state-run, cradle-to-grave welfare services, which means that there is greater pressure on them to sell oil than to horde it.

It is true that oil sources outside the Gulf are growing in importance, and I agree that more US resources should be directed towards ensuring their development and reliability. However, the concern here is not about the Persian Gulf states “hoarding” oil, but using military force or the threat of it to drive up prices, deter Western interference with their internal affairs, or, in the extreme case, seize fields to monopolize supply. The desire is less about buying or selling than controlling and manipulating. Though exploration and global recession have mediated some of the problems of high oil prices, the likely future increase in oil demand from growing countries may change this happy state of affairs. Continue reading

Everybody wants to rule the waves

The discussion of the “security of the commons” approach, as Lalwani and Shifrinson articulated it, has turned into a genuine debate, with Bryan McGrath of Information Dissemination jumping into the fray. For what it’s worth, I offered my own thoughts on the mental traps which a concern with “the commons” writ large often stumbles into. On a related subject, anyone with an interest in the debate about maritime strategy ought read Walter MacDougall’s piece in FPRI (and not just because I have a soft spot for anything delving into obscure geopolitical theory).

Continue reading

Castex and the illusion of mastery

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. Continue reading

Naval nationalism and East Eurasia

Continuing on my thoughts yesterday about Robert Kaplan’s latest piece on the South China Sea and the broad contours of future geopolitics, I’d like to address the particularly important issue of naval nationalism and its role in great power interactions. One of the more problematic assertions of Kaplan’s article is the assumption of a sort of hyper-rational treatment of naval affairs, one which leaves nationalism running relatively cold-blooded and renders great power politics “austere.”

When the Deutscher Flottenverein, or German Navy League, formed in 1898, it was hardly to become the symbol of austere nationalism or a stabilizing force in international relations. There was, to oversimplify, a significant division in German conceptions of geopolitics in the late 19th century. On the one hand, there were the Bismarckian realists who above all, sought to maintain the stability of Europe for German interests. They saw no need to risk Germany’s only recently-won unity by antagonizing the United Kingdom over frivolous colonies nor had they any interest in sacrificing stability with Russia to fight for Austrian interests in Bulgaria or some other obscure Balkan region.  On the other, there were more staunch German nationalists, Kaiser Wilhelm II foremost among them, who saw a fleet as a necessary element of German national pride and prestige, and the culmination of German sea power, in the essential combination of ports (in this case, colonies), fleets, and commerce as the key to fulfilling German national aims. So, even among the two camps ofmachtpolitik, there was a significant division between the advocates of local, status quo realpolitik, whose prime goals were French isolation and eastern stability, and the advocates of global, revisionist weltpolitik, who sought to match or supersede at sea a declining Britain, and preemptively undermine or subjugate a rising Russia on land. Continue reading

Maritime realism and the geopolitics of the “Middle Sea”

Robert Kaplan has a new piece out in Foreign Policy today about the South China Sea, the West Pacific generally, and the return of naval power and realist thought to the center stage of international politics. It’s a worth a read if only because Kaplan is unfortunately one of the few public intellectual types who has attempted to engage the question of maritime power. The crux of the argument is that the 21st century’s geopolitical stage will be much more maritime than continental, as was the case in the past, and one in which the US must increasingly submit to the exigencies of a realist few of great power politics. I broadly agree with these two sentiments. The devil, and the critical takeaways, however, are in the details.

East Asia, or more precisely the Western Pacific, which is quickly becoming the world’s new center of naval activity, presages a fundamentally different dynamic. It will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries, with the remote possibility of land warfare on the Korean Peninsula as the striking exception. The Western Pacific will return military affairs to the narrow realm of defense experts. This is not merely because we are dealing with a naval realm, in which civilians are not present. It is also because of the nature of the states themselves in East Asia, which, like China, may be strongly authoritarian but in most cases are not tyrannical or deeply inhumane.

There is an important relationship here between geography, military technology and capability, and international morality, that I have attempted to address in previous posts. To summarize simply, the arbiter of the moral and normative activity within a state rests with its governing political power. The arbiter of power control is, in Wylie’s phrase, the “man on the scene with the gun.” The ability of an offshore state to put men on the scene with guns is power projection. The ability to project power is dependent on maritime-aerial superiority, which for an offshore power is fundamentally naval superiority.

However, Kaplan has perhaps an unduly sanitized and rationalized vision of naval warfare means for the broader political context. While the naval realm is more purely military, since humans are creature of the land, not the sea. Yet naval power has always been a combination of civilian – especially commercial – and military power. Mahan acknowledged as much in his triad of sea power as the combination of not just fleets, but friendly ports and maritime commerce.  This inter-linking is obvious today. The growth of the Chinese shipbuilding industry has played a vital role in advocating for the expansion of the PLAN, and Chinese attempts to extend influence beyond the South China Sea into the Indian are coming as civilian ports such as Gwadar and Hambantoa, whose militarization is a possibility but not an inevitability. I’ll speak more of this unheeded connection between the domestic and naval sphere later. Continue reading

Taiwan, sea denial, and the bounding of US dominance

There was some fuss lately over US reluctance to sell the Republic of China F-16 fighters. Supposedly, the US was imperiling a fellow democracy by refusing to sell it F-16Cs, and then downgrading the deal to F-16As with upgrades. What is missing from the conversation, as David Axe points out, is that new fighter aircraft are a pretty poor return on the investment as far as Taiwanese security is concerned.

Anything that the Chinese can reliably hit with a conventional ballistic missile is useless, along with anything that relies on it, if the Taiwan Strait dispute goes hot in a big way. This includes airfields, which is why Taiwan is prepared for highway operations for F-16s. However, Taiwan is not a big place and it is only a matter of time before the PLA 2nd Artillery hit those as well. Indeed, even as a 2008 RAND study determined, even with USAF support and ridiculously high probability of kill statistics, the sheer mass of Chinese airpower, combined with a narrowing qualitative gap, is enough to keep the air war from deciding a conflict in Taipei’s favor.

Instead of doubling down on the sunk costs of an air-centric strategy for defending the island, commentators have rightly suggested investments in other areas. Robert Haddick suggests switching to mobile missile launchers, although it is hard to see how these would be able to overcome the sheer Chinese quantitative superiority at hand. Axe suggests something which might make more sense – diesel submarines:

Realistically, Taiwan can only hope to delay a Chinese assault on the island long enough for international pressure and US reinforcements to convince Beijing that war is a losing proposition.

The best weapons for delaying a Chinese attack are ones that can’t be targeted by ballistic missiles – and that could confront a Chinese invasion fleet far from Taiwan’s shores. That means submarines.

Today, the Taiwanese navy operates just two combat-ready submarines, bought from the Dutch during a rare period when European nations were willing to risk angering Beijing by selling weapons to Taipei. In 2001, Washington approved the sale of eight new diesel-powered subs to Taiwan, but no US shipyards currently build such boats. Ten years later, the deal is still pending.

Unlike the F-16 sale, Taipei’s inability to purchase new submarines has a real bearing on the island’s ability to defend itself.

Although Haddick insists on mobile missile sites, one assumes that submarines would be better platforms for cruise missiles, particularly those oriented towards sinking PLAN vessels. Nevertheless, judged by the metrics of the past, the assumed US capability of defending Taiwan, whether directly or through bolstering Taiwanese defenses, is increasingly coming into question.

Now, this is far from a disaster. However effective the PLA’s capability to fight and perhaps even win wars within SRBM and MRBM range is, means only increased regional power, not extra-regional hegemony. However, to avoid turning these setbacks into a geopolitical catastrophe, the US needs to understand that things in East Asia cannot carry on as normal, and neither burden sharing nor doubling down qualitative superiority can change that.

In fact, pursuing either of these tracks without reevaluating our broader grand strategy in the region will merely sow instability and weaken US power. The notion that the Chinese are interested in pursuing a vision of burden sharing that has implications for the unity of their claimed territory is rather puzzling. So too is the notion that China is interested in contributing to the maintaining a vision of upholding the global commons that allows foreigners to violate its sovereignty, at least in the Chinese view. With a hat tip to Daniel Larison, Lyle Goldstein explains why the US idea of freedom of navigation is so unappealing to the Chinese: Continue reading