Senator Marco Rubio’s (R–FL) foreign policy speech today at the Brookings Institution included a standout sentence that should be thoughtfully considered:
Even in our military engagements, the lasting impact of our influence on the world is hard to ignore. Millions of people have emerged from poverty around the world in part because our Navy protects the freedom of the seas, allowing the ever-increasing flow of goods between nations.
From time to time, however, we are reminded of just how quickly that could change—for example, when Somali pirates redouble their sea raids on passing ships; when Iran threatens to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil exports pass; or when China threatens military confrontation over trade routes in the Pacific. While the necessity of naval power to protect U.S. interests has been evident since the Founding, strengthening U.S. naval power today can be neglected only with the direst of consequences.
In the current issue of World Affairs, Seth Cropsey and Arthur Milikh offer an incisive and timely account of Alfred Mahan’s seminal work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890), and its effect on 20th century American strategy. They point out that as a result of America’s commitment to sea power since 1945, the “US navy has created a status quo that we now believe is natural, and we take for granted the origins of this liberal regime on the water.”
But the idea of naval power as a necessary element of U.S. foreign policy—fostering greater commercial freedom abroad and prosperity at home—was first espoused by America’s Founding Fathers. Most notably, George Washington, who hoped the blessings of liberty and “the humanizing benefit of commerce would supersede the waste of war and the rage of conquest,” was careful to emphasize the prudence of military preparedness in peacetime. “The disturbed situation of Europe,” he cautioned Congress in 1790, “reminds us…of the circumspection with which it becomes us to preserve these blessings.”Washington’s strategic approach was clear—military preparedness: “it is better to reduce our force hereafter, by degrees, than to have it to increase after some unfortunate disasters.”
According to Washington, offensive naval power was vital to American statecraft because it helped ensure stable commerce, which in turn “assures us of a further increase of the national respectability and credit.”These were not hard and immediate security considerations, such as would warrant protection in keeping with a strict non-interventionist approach; they were national aspirations and forward-looking goals furthered by respectable military strength.
Washington’s words were heeded, and in 1794, Congress passed the federal government’s largest and most expensive program to date: building the U.S. Navy’s first warships. America’s early emphasis on military strength as a necessary condition for peace and prosperity helped form a strategic culture that embraced the idea of naval power and paved the path for America’s global leadership role in the 20th century.
Alas, however, in recent years, the importance of a navy in U.S. foreign policy has not enjoyed the attention it should. The Obama Administration’s much-announced focus on the Pacific theater and U.S.–Chinese relations is lacking in both conviction and capabilities. The absence of a rhetorically firm, well-coordinated, and multifaceted policy toward China’s deviations from liberal economic practices and abuses of human rights has been noted elsewhere, but of material concern is the inadequate defense structure that is taking shape in the midst of strategic ambiguity and looming, indiscriminate budget cuts.
By contrast, China’s military spending steadily increases. This is particularly concerning when one considers Chinese intimidation in the region. And now, China appears complicit in materially destabilizing the region’s security; evidence points to continued Chinese assistance in North Korea’s efforts to build a successful long-range missile program.
Working to keep America in a position of dominance where the U.S. remains free from foreign coercion is not warmongering or reactionary. It is simply responsible statecraft guided by a commonsense understanding that independent American naval strength has been, and will likely continue to be, necessary to protect peaceful commercial freedom. We can thank Senator Rubio for highlighting this reality.