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Everybody Wants to Rule the Waves

October 4, 2011

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).

Peers for Fears

First, it’s worth going through a few of McGrath’s objections. I largely agree with his argument that the “commons” may not be an appropriate way to think of cyberwarfare. Besides that’s too far outside my lane even for this dedicated dilettante neophyte, so I’ll leave that aside regardless.

McGrath’s second point is more problematic, however. He claims that counter-balancing since the end of WWII hasn’t occurred. Now, there is of course the necessity to recognize, as many critics of US hegemony often overlook, that countries have motives for expanding their military capability and forming balancing alliances besides whatever American menace poses. After all, countries often have more local threats they are concerned about, internal pressures for expansion or vulnerabilities in their neighborhood they would prefer to exploit. That said, US posture certainly influences, at the margins, countries’ decisions to oppose the United States. US activity in East Asia certainly contributed to Chinese backlash, despite the historic frailty of the Sino-Soviet relationship.

As for the fall of the wall, the Sino-Russian rapprochement, after US exploitation of the split and years of heated anti-imperialist rhetoric directed at the USSR from China, is another example of hesitant counterbalancing behavior, albeit behavior that is overdetermined by a variety of factors. Nevertheless, the investment in area denial technologies by a variety of actors does represent, in part, counterbalancing motives.

This analysis bears understanding outside the maritime realm because the decision of a country to seek a foreign policy by which it makes accommodations or alliances with neighboring land powers in order to devote more power to its naval force represents both internal balancing and buck-passing by land powers designed to stymie US power.

There are some parallels with the response of the world to the threat of Anglo-American supremacy during the interwar years. As MacDougall points out in his FPRI piece, Haushofer and other German geopoliticans and strategic thinkers became enamored with the idea of accommodating with the USSR and Japan so as to form an alliance against the common enemy of Western maritime imperialism, an idea which saw its culmination in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Only when the Drang nach Osten materialized did the period of Eurasian counterbalancing against the sea powers come to an end.

Of course, counterbalancing does not have to take the form of grandiose geostrategic flourishes to be effective.  As I noted in my previous writings on this subject, but the insecurity US overstretch generates is compounded by the compound effect being tied down in one area has for US efforts in another part of the world. Iran does not need to counter-balance as much as we might assume, because Iran will never need to face the entire US navy at once – geographically it is unnecessary (if not impossible) and grand strategically it would be folly for the US. The ability to concentrate force at the decisive point gives local powers a higher return on their investment for counter-balancing capabilities.

Beyond that, one must consider some of the intangible aspects of “backlash” – near peers absolutely fear the idea of US encirclement, and US foreign policy affects domestic political calculations in unpredictable ways. The rapid expansion of NATO certainly influenced domestic political debates in post-Cold War Russia, and in ways not necessarily favorable to US interests, as the legacy of the 2000s would demonstrate.

Acting on your best behavior

McGrath also criticizes the use of the free rider argument by offshore balancers. I am inclined to agree that modern advocates of offshore balancing, particularly those who wish to use it to establish a “concert of powers” type arrangement to provide stability in lieu of direct US oversight, fundamentally misunderstand the nature – and the virtues – of offshore balancing on this issue. The goal of offshore balancing is not to provide stability per se, it is to leverage the inherently dynamic and antagonistic nature of great power politics in Eurasia to encourage more to deter each other and prevent any country from maintaining regional hegemony, not to get them to enlist in a happy institutional arrangement to preserve the openness of the commons. Offshore balancing’s saving grace -and most common implementation – comes when the offshore power would prefer to see two potential threats wear each other down as much as possible before intervening directly.

That said, I think it is somewhat unfair to use the prospect of a naval arms race as a cost of offshore balancing. After all, the naval arms race is not a hypothetical outcome, it is ongoing and real. Insecurity and backlash certainly apply locally, since the near enemy is generally more frightening than the far enemy, and so in Eastern Eurasia and the Persian Gulf large arms purchases and naval expansion are very real, despite US presence. The notion that the US can suppress this naval arms race in a strategically viable fashion is almost certainly too optimistic, since it is already having enough trouble reassuring its allies despite a massive advantages. Even if the US were to almost solely focus itself on naval concerns, the ability of rising powers to levy fleets will increase and the spiral of insecurity that goes along with it will too, along with all the attendant risks of naval arms races McGrath is right to point out.

The question is whether or not a strategy of naval dominance, cooperative or otherwise, is going to effectively insulate the US from the risks of this naval arms race, which is not to say offshore balancing is necessarily the best response. Indeed, the “1,000 ship fleet” concept implies that the US ought to be encouraging naval build ups as a way of providing sea control at the relevant decisive point.

Nothing ever lasts forever

That said, how long can the US afford to maintain the kind of resources to maintain even a cooperative strategy of control of the commons while still having enough power to suppress the potential negative benefits of the ongoing naval arms race?

Regardless of whatever strategy the US chooses, it will have significantly fewer resources available to confront it. McGrath makes the valid point that the US can recoup on defense costs by curtailing other, unnecessary missions, but given the unpredictability of the strategic environment and the basic economic trends, maintaining such a posture is still a difficult proposition. One must also consider that forward presence that entangles the US with host countries and clients may also compel the US take on security burdens for problems that do not necessarily align with the US-centric maritime grand strategy.

Concerns with maintaining the freedom of the seas in contested spaces such as the Persian Gulf often do set the stage for later land wars, as violators become threats which need greater hedging against, and the client states which host the US agitate for forms of reassurance which the navy cannot always effectively provide.

In the larger context, the US is still going to face a period of severe political constraints on its expenditures, while rising powers will likely face a more permissive economic environment – as well as one which will produce rising internal pressure for naval power. As MacDougall acknowledges, in spite of his support for Air-Sea battle and the New Maritime Cooperative Strategy, the price of stability will likely be some sort of accommodation with China as an alternative means of suppressing the violent potential of naval arms races. This would include, as MacDougall notes, both an acceptance of China having a genuine sphere of influence over its immediate environs, as well as institutional accommodations along the lines of the Washington Naval Treaty. These would be the compromises necessary to have stability in an age of diminishing financial resources.

The issue of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance which McGrath brings up is an interesting one, but one more complex than what he lays out. After all, it was the termination, and the manner of termination, of the Anglo-Japanese treaty, far more than anything which occurred under it, which served to embitter Japan against other maritime powers.

It was not as if refusing the Anglo-Japanese alliance would have changed the basic fact that Britain was a power in decline and Japan was a power on the rise. Britain could have chosen to relieve its security burden in the Pacific either through reaching an accommodation with Japan and its increasingly powerful military, or through cooperation with another maritime power, such as the United States (which was uninterested in doing so, and, if it had been, would likely have resulted in an earlier war). After all, one must recognize that the Anglo-Japanese alliance had common cause in a mutual concern about Germany and Russia.

The Anglo-American refusal to approve Japan’s request for a racial equality clause in the post-WWI settlements, and their reluctance to recognize the legitimacy of Japan’s Pacific conquests during that war, further antagonized the relationship. The Washington Naval Treaty further enraged Japan, limiting its options for maritime expansion. Yet simultaneously Japan was discouraged from seeking a continental empire in China, despite that country’s slide into anarchy. Furthermore it must be noted here that the London Naval Treaty in 1930 contributed further to the growth of the military and the decline in its trust in the party system, along with the trade restrictions imposed during the Great Depression, often to Japan’s disadvantage.

Britain was never going to be able to peacefully deter the rise of the Japanese fleet – it could either attempt to limit the potential risks of that growth or reduce its vulnerability through retrenchment, but it could not stop that growth. If anything, the Anglo-Japanese relationship is a demonstration of the instability of unipolarity giving way to a multipolar system, in which the three maritime powers had to contend also with a strong continental power (the Russian Empire and later Soviet Union) and a complex power balance on the other side of the Eurasian continent.

Certainly, it would have been a preferable solution for the British to simply maintain naval dominance at an affordable price forever, but this was not in the cards. So too will this eventually apply for the United States. The dangers of suppressing naval arms races with limited means should be apparent – whether through multilateral treaties or attempts at forging alliances. Such a risky enterprise will prove increasingly untenable as a pillar of US security in the Pacific.

I would agree with McGrath that there are major drawbacks to an over-the-horizon force posture. One must be careful not to turn over-the-horizon naval capability into the sort of magic bullet capability that SOF raiding is often made out to be. That said, there are operational reasons to begin reducing US commitments say, within the first island chain around China. Barring a quantum leap in BMD and ASW capability, China will still have the ability (one which will likely only grow) to disrupt US sea control and access to its immediate environs in the West Pacific. Bases, not just straits, are choke points for SLOCs which China can exploit. Given the inadequacy of purely carrier-based assets to confront the land-based PLAAF, the inability of many US vessels to replenish critical weapons systems (such as anything launched from VLS) while underway, and other needs, the ability of China to knock out forward US basing within the range of its land-based and littoral capabilities could severely reduce the US’s ability and will to fight a drawn-out naval conflict.

In any conflict in the West Pacific, the US will be particularly dependent on Japanese facilities. How willing will Japan be to risk potential Chinese bombardment and naval warfare to protect US interests in say, Taiwan, particularly if it is not confident in the US ability to decisively and quickly win such a conflict? The uncertainty of this question, while limited now, will grow as an important “unknown unknown” in US security calculations going forward.

Thus there are diplomatic, as well as military, reasons to seek a more resilient US force posture in the region. The simplest way to avoid damage from Chinese littoral and land-based assets is to increase capacities out of Chinese range reduce US reliance on the most vulnerable forward bases. This has many pitfalls, as McGrath describes, but I think the potential disaster that might be wrought through aggressive use of A2/AD capabilities, the alternative is risky enough to need operational capacity outside that range.

However, as McGrath points out, there are obvious problems with assuming that such operational adjustments can punch so far above their weight strategically. Nevertheless, while I’d prefer a world where his approach is diplomatically and financially sustainable, I am not very confident. In a pinch, everybody wants to rule the waves, at least locally. The US cannot indefinitely suppress the ongoing naval arms race.

However, it should recognize that all regions are different in importance to US interests. Despite the increasingly tense Mediterranean, can the US really afford to be the arbiter of a maritime peace through hegemony when threats in the Persian Gulf and East Asia are rising? Elsewhere, are there steps the US can take to reduce potential backlash and vulnerability to local threats to introduce more naval “swing capacity” into its grand strategy? How much will institutional constraints, such as the revival of naval treaties that MacDougall advocates, be able to serve US interests without itself provoking backlash, as the original naval treaties did? Ultimately I would envision a future that looks very much like the “security of the commons” approach in some places and McGrath’s in others. After all, it’s the specific commons and seas in question, not the sea writ large, where naval posture ought be determined.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 5, 2011 5:55 am

    Thanks for taking my points seriously. You’ve done a very good job here bringing some of them into question, and that’s the beauty of the medium. Cheers, mate.

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