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Aug 5, 2008 | 22:10 GMT

5 mins read

U.S.: Naval Dominance and the Importance of Oceans

AFP/Getty Images
Summary
The geographic position of the United States, situated comfortably between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, is a critical dynamic in its fundamental security, and U.S. naval dominance in the world's oceans is a key dynamic of the international system.
Our statement that control of the world's oceans is a cornerstone of U.S. geopolitical security and keeps any potential adversary half a world away sparked extensive comment. This is a long-standing STRATFOR position, not a casual assertion, and is crucial to the way we see the world. In his 1890 classic "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History," U.S. Naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan examines the decisive role superior sea power played in geopolitical competition and conflict from 1660 to 1783. His work has made him perhaps the foremost theorist of naval power in the United States. At the risk of oversimplification, Mahan's thesis is that control of the sea can be decisive in both peacetime and wartime, and has far-reaching military, economic and geopolitical ramifications. Mahan is required reading at STRATFOR. The world has changed quite a bit since the time of Mahan, who wrote as sail was giving way to steam as the principal method of naval propulsion. Indeed, a common question from our readers has been about the applicability of the oceans to U.S. security in the 21st century, particularly in the context of globalization. In essence, readers have asked us whether oceans still matter after globalization has so reduced transit times and increased interconnectivity that transnational terrorism and cyberspace have come into existence. While aviation, the intercontinental ballistic missile, satellites and the Internet have all fundamentally altered the way the world interacts and how wars are fought, Mahan's analysis holds true. (click image to enlarge) Over the course of a century, but particularly during and after World War II, the United States honed and perfected expeditionary naval operations. Washington's ability to function on the other side of the planet from home port is unparalleled and has surpassed the sea power of the British Empire that Mahan so admired. The importance of this cannot be overstated, and has broad applicability. Globalization has massively increased, not decreased seaborne commerce. As the dominant global naval power, Washington exercises a decisive influence over the principal avenue of both international trade and the flow of the world's oil (and, increasingly, natural gas). In addition to wielding this as a lever over other countries, the U.S. Navy is the guarantor of America's global supply lines. That Washington has claim to both the world's foremost navy and the world's foremost economy is no coincidence, and it is a key dynamic of the entire international system. From a military perspective, the last shooting war in the Western Hemisphere of any strategic significance for the United States was the Spanish-American War. That conflict resulted in the expulsion at the end of the 19th century of the last Eastern Hemispheric power from Washington's periphery. For more than a century now, the United States has fought its wars abroad, with the only strategic threat to the homeland being Soviet (and to a much lesser extent, Chinese) nuclear weapons. Indeed, the fundamental value of naval dominance was demonstrated in 1962. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington was able to prevent the re-emergence of an outside power's beachhead in Cuba because U.S. naval dominance made the situation untenable for the Kremlin. The Russian navy was not in a position to sustain forces there in the face of concerted U.S. naval opposition. And while the notion of "invasion" in the 21st century may seem anachronistic in the U.S. perspective, the rest of the world sees things very differently. That apparent anachronism is symptomatic of fundamental U.S. geopolitical security. Across the oceans, even much of Europe still looks east over the open Northern European plain and remembers columns of Soviet armor. Nations the world over continue to struggle day in and day out with their neighbors. Pakistan, India and China continue to squabble over Kashmir, which they each consider core to their geographic security. Russia's foremost geopolitical struggle is the re-establishment of some semblance of a peripheral buffer in Europe and the Caucasus — necessary buffers, but a poor compensation for unfavorable geography. These issues — crucial geopolitical objectives — keep Eurasia divided and restrict (but obviously do not eliminate) other countries' bandwidth to deal with global issues farther afield. The ultimate consequence of this division is the prevention of the emergence of a potential challenger to the United States. By this, we mean the emergence of a country so secure in its geopolitical position that the mustering of resources necessary to project military force across the Atlantic or Pacific to meaningfully challenge the strategic security of the North American continent becomes a possibility. More simply, U.S. naval dominance allows Washington to keep the costs of projecting hostile military force across the world's oceans prohibitively high. The countries of the world are thus largely left confronting geopolitical challenges in their own backyards, unable to militarily challenge the United States in its backyard. All the while, the U.S. Navy conducts operations daily in Eurasia's backyard. This is a secure and enviable geopolitical position. This is not to say that threats to the United States do not exist. But while hijacked airliners, rogue ballistic missiles, smuggling in shipping containers and cybercrime are all legitimate security threats that must be defended against, they are generally not strategic security threats. That the United States has the bandwidth to confront them is emblematic of the fundamental strategic security — not insecurity — of the American position, insulated as it is by the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific.

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