In This Review

To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers
To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers
By Bruce D. Jones
Scribner, 2021, 400 pp.
The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity—and Why We’re in Danger of Losing It
The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity—and Why We’re in Danger of Losing It
By Gregg Easterbrook
PublicAffairs, 2021, 304 pp.

In 1897, the British Parliament pressed George Goschen, first lord of the Admiralty, about the potential maritime threat posed by a deepening alliance of continental European powers. Asked what the United Kingdom would do if it were confronted by multiple European navies at sea, Goschen replied, “Trust in Providence and a good Admiral.” In other words, the United Kingdom had no good answer for a challenge of that magnitude.

The same could be said of the United States when it comes to the threat of a rapidly rising China. For years, the United States clung to a near-religious belief that as China grew more prosperous, it would become more democratic and politically liberal. Now that the authoritarian regime in Beijing has disproved this theory, it seems the American public can trust only in the good admirals of the U.S. Navy to handle the looming threat of an increasingly belligerent China, even as the American economy grows more and more reliant on that same adversary. That is because to a degree many observers fail to appreciate, the contest between Beijing and Washington will increasingly become a struggle for naval power. 

Naval analysts joke that in a war with China, the U.S. military should first strike the port of Long Beach, in California, since disrupting China’s seaborne commerce to the United States would inflict more damage on Beijing than attacking the Chinese mainland. So interwoven are transnational supply chains that pandemic delays in China caused container ship traffic jams in Long Beach so costly that the Biden administration considered deploying the National Guard to help unsnarl them. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness of those global linkages and spurred some governments to consider “reshoring” production in crucial areas, but the webs of investment, communication, and production that bind economies together continue to expand. Maritime trade and power are critical to these global networks: around 90 percent of the world’s traded goods are transported by sea. Discussions of power and strategy in the twenty-first century often revolve around the novel frontiers of cyberspace and outer space. But in the near term, the geopolitical future will play out mostly in an older, more familiar arena: the sea.

Two new books assess the challenges and importance of contemporary maritime power relations. Bruce Jones’s To Rule the Waves and Gregg Easterbrook’s The Blue Age are primarily concerned with international security, building on the naval strategist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan’s premise that “the history of sea power . . . is largely a military history.” Both make strong cases that U.S. security and prosperity depend on naval dominance, and both are laden with omens that commercial waters will once again turn violent. These books will exasperate experts but will offer most readers helpful insights into maritime aspects of the global economy, the rise of China, and climate change.

making waves

Jones takes a journalistic approach, using accounts of his own encounters and conversations as a foundation for his ideas and explanations. To illuminate the centrality of the oceans in everyday commerce and communications, he charts the enormous web of undersea fuel pipelines and transmission cables, underscoring global economic reliance on seaborne delivery. And he makes powerfully clear that the oceans “play a surprisingly central role in the realities of energy, and in the global fight over climate change.”

Jones sets out to show that “the world’s oceans are rapidly becoming the most important zone of confrontation between the world’s great military actors.” He argues that the cooperative patterns of the twentieth century are eroding, setting the stage for a large-scale conflict—and that geopolitical struggles are now playing out on the high seas. Given this grim forecast, Jones warns against the diminishment of U.S. maritime hegemony. His recommendations, however, are unrealistic and lack analytic rigor: he calls, for example, for an “alliance of alliances” in which the United States would orchestrate global cooperation among all energy-consuming economies. He would also have Washington “tackle the question of winners and losers from globalization” and “adopt the kinds of plans needed to abate carbon emissions.” But he offers few specifics to flesh out any of these proposals.

Control of the sea will be the defining factor of the next century.

Easterbrook likewise advocates maintaining U.S. maritime dominance, but he takes a different tack. He is clearly writing for people on the political left. “Many people do not like military organizations,” he declares. “The reasons to dislike them are self-evident, and we can dream of the day when no nation requires an army or navy.” Nonetheless, Easterbrook wants to make “a liberal case for the U.S. Navy” on the basis that its power has produced “an amazing reduction of poverty in the developing world . . . and higher material standards almost everywhere.” Easterbrook argues that beyond maintaining U.S. naval dominance, Washington could seek to enhance the U.S. Navy’s global reach by having its ships make more port calls, establishing more bases to defend allies, and enforcing freedom of navigation. But he undercuts his argument by concluding that the U.S. national debt is already too large to make such steps fiscally attainable.

Easterbrook, like Jones, offers a number of policy prescriptions, but he makes little effort to evaluate alternatives. Easterbrook is even more utopian than Jones, proposing the establishment of a “World Oceans Organization” that would provide “a true global governance system” to protect worker rights, restrict weapons, regulate offshore energy projects, enforce free trade, and guarantee environmental standards throughout the world’s waters. 

Both authors make faulty assertions that dent the credibility of their analyses and prescriptive ideas. Contrary to Jones’s interpretation of the 1956 Suez crisis, it was not “one of the first moments when the Cold War might have escalated into actual conflict”: the 1948–49 crisis over the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the Korean War fit that description more closely. For his part, Easterbrook wrongly states that “the United States has nearly the same number of deployable modern naval vessels as do all other nations combined,” when China alone has a larger navy than the United States. He also blames friction between China and the United States on “threat inflation by the military-industrial complex and alarmism by journalists,” absolving China of any responsibility. Regarding the South China Sea, where China has routinely violated other countries’ territorial sovereignty and created artificial islands to establish military bases, Easterbrook concludes: “So far these waters are mostly peaceful—for which China receives no credit in the West.” 

boiling the ocean

Despite their flaws, both books are admirable attempts to lure general readers into specialized waters. For the United States to meet the challenges of globalization, the rise of China, and climate change, ordinary Americans will need to develop a better grasp of maritime issues and of their own country’s role as a naval power.

To preserve the decaying international order that Jones and Easterbrook laud, the United States will need to restore the military and civilian maritime power that it has allowed to atrophy. The global interconnectedness that both authors praise has enabled the rise of enormous private logistics conglomerates that now dwarf the U.S. merchant marine fleet, which is essential for the United States’ capacity to mobilize for military purposes in times of war. In 1950, the U.S. merchant marine fleet accounted for 43 percent of global shipping; by 1994, that share had dropped to four percent, despite a 1920 law requiring ships passing between U.S. ports to be built and registered in the United States and operated by a crew of mostly U.S. citizens. The current U.S. merchant fleet of 393 vessels ranks just 27th in the world. By contrast, China has the world’s second-largest merchant marine fleet, and that doesn’t include the notorious paramilitary fishing fleet it uses to launch incursions into disputed waters. 

A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Philippine Sea, April 2017
A U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in the Philippine Sea, April 2017
U.S. Navy / Reuters

The United States’ lack of an extensive merchant fleet makes the country more reliant on its navy, whose fleet has also shrunk precipitously. The U.S. Navy had more ships in 1930 than it does today; China supplanted the United States as the world’s largest naval power in 2020. And the Pentagon’s goal of increasing the size of the fleet from 306 to 355 ships has a target date of 2034—a far-off objective for which Congress has not yet provided funding.

The United States’ current military strategy puts a severe operational strain on this already limited force. Given Washington’s preparations for a potential conflict with China, its commitment to send troops to Europe in the event of an attack on a NATO ally, and its use of diplomatic port visits and military exercises as a way of solidifying relationships with American partners, the U.S. military is stretched very thin. And on a number of occasions, President Joe Biden has seemed to add to the burden by publicly committing the United States to the defense of Taiwan—coming close to ending Washington’s decades-long policy of “strategic ambiguity” about whether the United States would come to the island’s aid in the event of a Chinese invasion. That is a demanding set of responsibilities—and one that U.S. forces cannot currently handle. 

Further straining the U.S. military is the fact that, as the defense analyst Mackenzie Eaglen has written, commanders responsible for crafting war plans “make substantial (and outsized) demands for forces that outmatch or over-tax supply.” Even a fleet of 500 ships would fail to satisfy combatant commanders’ impossible requests. This discrepancy between the supply and the demand of U.S. naval forces takes a toll on service members: every year, an average of 20 ships have their deployments extended, and aircraft carriers regularly conduct back-to-back deployments without pauses for maintenance. 

The contest between Beijing and Washington will increasingly become a struggle for naval power.

The gap between maritime obligations and fleet capabilities is wearing down the U.S. Navy, as evidenced by an increasing number of accidents at sea. The USS Connecticut, an attack submarine, recently struck an unidentified object while operating at depth in the South China Sea. And last year, the USS Bonhomme Richard had to be scrapped after a fire (allegedly set by a sailor) ravaged the ship and the crew proved unable to extinguish it; dozens of sailors and civilians were injured. Two U.S. Navy destroyers have collided with merchant ships in the past four years, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. In 2021, the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog, blamed these failures on the undermanning of crews, fatigue, and a lack of training. In 2018, an internal navy assessment found that 85 percent of junior officers were deficient in the skills they needed to handle ships.

These operational challenges are exacerbated by administrative ones. A recent report commissioned by congressional Republicans led some to criticize a naval culture that “values administrative chores over training to fight, ship commanders that are micromanaged, and an aversion to risk.” The report’s critique affirms complaints from several naval officers that the brilliant World War II naval commander Chester Nimitz, who was court-martialed for reckless behavior early in his career but went on to become one of the most celebrated officers in the force’s history, would never have survived the bureaucratic culture of today’s navy. 

In his account of the decline of the British Royal Navy, the historian Andrew Gordon distinguishes between two types of military personnel: “ratcatchers,” who bend rules and win wars, and “regulators,” rule followers who work within the bureaucratic framework and advance in peacetime militaries only to subsequently lose wars. By prioritizing administrative tasks rather than the substantive skills necessary to win wars, the United States is creating a navy of regulators.

turning the tide

The cultural problem of inattention to warfighting proficiency in the U.S. Navy comes from the top. The Biden administration is channeling its energy to other priorities: its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued last March, prioritizes “a global pandemic, a crushing economic downturn, a crisis of racial justice, and a deepening climate emergency.” When announcing Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, Biden extolled the need for the military to distribute vaccines. Defense Department social media accounts stress the agency’s commitment to expanding diversity, ending sexual harassment, and tackling climate damage. These are all important issues, but they are not the reasons the United States has a military. Nor is there adequate funding in the Pentagon’s budget to include them without further displacing money needed for personnel, equipment, and operations. The Pentagon’s embrace of what it calls “integrated deterrence” emphasizes economic and diplomatic tools of defense and sounds a lot like a justification for not using military power to deter adversaries.

Biden’s security strategy pledges to make sure that “the U.S. Armed Forces remain the best trained and equipped force in the world,” but current funding for those forces calls into question that commitment. In Biden’s proposed budget for 2022, the Department of Defense was the only federal agency whose funding would not have been increased; other domestic agencies’ budgets were to be increased by an average of 16 percent. Meanwhile, the Biden administration declined to fund programs such as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which was proposed by a senior regional commander and outlined an investment in forces in the Indo-Pacific that most military experts consider critical to deterring China. (A version of the initiative was ultimately passed by Congress.) The overall spending that the Biden administration allocated for defense in its proposed budget was so inadequate that Congress ultimately added $24 billion to the administration’s request. 

China supplanted the United States as the world’s largest naval power in 2020.

But even with that addition, the current budget doesn’t come close to the level of spending needed to carry out U.S. obligations. The United States has for nearly two decades tolerated a growing gap between its military means and its stated strategy. Biden is not wholly responsible for the problem, but it falls to his administration to manage it. And managing it will require Washington to constrict its aims, increase its spending, or find revolutionary ways to improve military performance. 

The United States’ current strategy would require a defense budget of about $1 trillion a year (which would equal roughly five percent of U.S. GDP) and would also necessitate doubling the $59 billion budgeted for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Despite the gargantuan increases in domestic spending that the Biden administration has undertaken, its national security budget is unlikely to come anywhere near those levels. Allied contributions can defray some of the current funding deficiencies, but nowhere near all of them. 

sea change

British hegemony faltered in the late nineteenth century in part because the United Kingdom’s global dominance hinged on its control of the sea, and the emergence of railroads as a form of reliable land travel broke the United Kingdom’s ability to interdict commerce and communication. Today, the United States is similarly facing the risk that technological and operational breakthroughs could undermine its military dominance—or even render it obsolete.

For all their emphasis on the importance of naval power, neither Jones nor Easterbrook pays much attention to actual maritime warfare and how it is changing. Innovation ought to be the strong suit of the U.S. military, and U.S. defense spending should reflect that priority. The U.S. military has conducted an array of experiments in operations that have produced important adaptations: for instance, the Marine Corps’s return to amphibious operations and its investment in smaller and more mobile units. These kinds of developments are necessary to give the U.S. military the edge it needs to defend U.S. interests. But they are not enough, nor are they happening fast enough.

Washington’s waning interest in naval strength sends the wrong message to its allies and partners.

The Biden administration, much as the Trump administration did, sees China as the United States’ primary military threat—and the Indo-Pacific, where conflict is most likely to break out, is a maritime theater. Unless the Biden administration allocates substantially more funding to the entire U.S. military, defense spending will need to shift accordingly. The defense budget will need to prioritize the U.S. Navy over the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. Ensuring the strength of the navy is critical: without a capable and well-resourced naval force, the United States will be unable to defend its allies in Japan and the Philippines or to secure the theater more broadly in the event of a conflict. In this regard, Jones and Easterbrook are absolutely correct: control of the sea will be the defining factor of the next century.

The United States is an anomalous hegemonic power in that it is a reluctant participant in an international order of its own creation. Washington, for instance, drove the negotiations behind the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, developing “a constitution for the oceans” in order to establish standards for international maritime activity—but the United States itself never ratified the agreement. Concerns as varied as congressional anxiety over international treaties and commercial interests in deep seabed mining have made presidents despair of ever ratifying it, even though the Pentagon and the State Department have advocated doing so. Despite this formal reluctance to join the treaty, the United States not only abides by its terms; it enforces them on other states. What some countries have called the “exceptionalism” of U.S. behavior, as evidenced by Washington’s refusal to commit to the convention while reaping its benefits, fuels criticism that the United States has destabilized the international order and become an unreliable ally. Washington’s waning interest in naval strength sends the wrong message to its allies and partners. If the United States wants to continue setting and enforcing the rules of the international order, it should heed some age-old advice: never turn your back on the ocean.

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