A liberal case for seapower?

A liberal case for seapower?

Editors note: This essay is the third in a series of eight articles, “Maritime Strategy on the Rocks,” that examines different aspects and implications of the recently released tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. Be sure to read the first article and second article. We thank Prof Jon Caverley of the US Naval War College for his assistance in coordinating this series.  This article was first published here.

February 25, 2021 | War on the Rocks
SOUDA BAY, Greece (Feb. 20, 2021) Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Bradley Holloway, right, and Fire Controlman 2nd Class Matthew Hayes man a M2HB .50-caliber machine gun as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) departs Souda Bay, Greece, Feb. 20, 2021.
Jonathan Caverley and Sara McLaughlin Mitchell
February 25, 2021
War on the Rocks

Given the many nakedly self-serving, politically desperate, and anti-liberal foreign policy moves of the lame duck administration of former President Donald Trump, the incoming team of President Joe Biden might understandably treat the recently released tri-service maritime strategy in a similar fashion to Trump’s proposed 2022 budget: with skepticism. America’s sea services have been at the forefront of the Trump administration’s last-minute national security maneuvers with the December releases of both a new 30-year shipbuilding plan and the new maritime strategy. Trump loved talking about building ships (although he did little to advance this goal), shattering precedents by sending his National Security Advisor to campaign on naval construction in battleground states and openly suggesting that the Navy consider his political prospects when choosing to build its new frigate in Wisconsin. But, despite this, the new administration should take the new strategy document seriously, as the three naval services have produced a strikingly liberal vision.

By “liberal,” we do not mean “Democratic” (or even “democratic”; there is no mention of democracy in the strategy), but rather, the suite of policies and beliefs associated with the long term and largely bipartisan American approach to foreign policy. While the Pentagon prefers the term “rules-based” to “liberal” to describe this international order, both terms are synonymous with the system of alliances, free trade, open global commons, conflict management, international institutions, and the more than-occasional bout of coercion that has been central to America’s approach to international politics since the end of World War II. The Biden administration has clearly signaled its intent to steer American foreign policy back in this direction as an intrinsic component to competition with China, reacting to Trump’s internationally confrontational “America First” policy.

Granted, with the strategy’s focus on great-power competition, there is plenty of muscular realism in the document, especially when compared to the last one, which was published in 2015. For cultural, budgetary, and strategic reasons, the Navy has always prioritized an offensive “sea control and power projection” approach to the Western Pacific as its core mission as opposed to a more presence- and denial-focused fleet deployed around the world. The Marine Corps’ signature initiative is deploying newly developed Marine Littoral Regiments to fight in “actively contested maritime spaces” in the Pacific. Nonetheless, we argue that the same forces posited by the strategy (and its associated shipbuilding plan) for a Sino-American slugfest can also serve a less directly confrontational approach to great-power competition, and indeed, the strategy clearly lays out a liberal logic for seapower. Barring catastrophic war, competition with China will likely take place around the world over goods and issues held in common across many states. Managing conflict in this system, providing public goods, and protecting sea lanes is facilitated by building a larger US Navy.

More Ships Allow for More System Management

Institutions write strategy documents, in no small part, to plead for more resources, selling their centrality to US security. But much of the maritime services’ case, however self-serving, happens to be true, backed up by data on 270 interstate maritime conflicts. The data show that US naval power correlates to a strong downward effect on the frequency and escalation of maritime conflicts (Figure 1) and that maritime conflicts are increasing relative to territorial disputes. The future of conflict is likely to be maritime. This is especially the case if one holds the liberal belief that great-power competition is as much a matter of international system maintenance, conflict management, and public goods provision as it is direct military confrontation between superpowers.

The most likely friction points between China and the United States will be at sea, in the air, and in space: the global commons. China is involved in 10 ongoing maritime disputes (Russia in nine). But that leaves 77 disputes around the world — 80 percent — that do not involve a great-power opponent of the United States. Actively managing, if not resolving, these potential crises is an important part of maintaining a liberal order, making the world safer for commerce, and making other states more amenable to US leadership. A hallmark of US liberal grand strategy is dispute resolution and conflict management, and in the modern era, these clashes occur more often at sea than on land. Territorial disputes (eg, Kashmir and Nagorno-Karabakh) have declined over the past two centuries, but contentious maritime claims (eg, the Spratly Islands and the Aegean Sea) have increased significantly.

One major reason why maritime disputes will continue to increase is climate change. Unlike the most recent National Security StrategyNational Defense Strategy, and National Military Strategy, the sea services explicitly acknowledge its existence. The maritime strategy observes that climate change threatens “coastal nations with rising sea levels, depleted fish stocks, and more severe weather” and also claims that “[c]ompetition over offshore resources, including protein, energy, and minerals, is leading to tension and conflict.” Both statements are on firm empirical ground. Data show that climate volatility, especially variability in rainfall, exacerbates the risks for militarized clashes at sea. Warmer oceans increase scarcities in many fisheries stocks by changing migration patterns, increasing fish mortality rates, and changing water acidity levels, and thus, we may see greater escalation over contested fishing grounds in the future. The use of maritime militias by countries like China, Vietnam, and the Philippines to defend fishing grounds is not surprising as states expand security measures to protect their citizens’ access to fish stocks.

There are, of course, many causes for the relative increase in disputes at sea, but it is undeniable that the rise in maritime disputes correlates to a decline in US naval tonnage as a percentage of the world’s navies (Figure 1). Rising sea powers as diverse as Russia, Egypt, Indonesia, India, Iran, and North Korea have sought to expand sovereignty over maritime spaces, increasing risks for future conflicts. These regional conflagrations are risky, too, because major power wars often arise through alliance ties and the failure of extended deterrence.

The data show that, while maritime crises rarely escalate to open military conflict, naval power is the only maritime capability that deters escalation. No matter how capable or large a state is in terms of broader measures of power, naval forces are essential for this task.

Erik Gartzke and Jon Lindsay argue in a forthcoming article in this series that states that build more surface ships and submarines and challenge their neighbors’ maritime sovereignty claims fight in more militarized conflicts. By this logic, naval investments by China, Japan, and Taiwan would increase the risks for clashes at sea, and these have occurred. But, rather than the growth of individual fleets, it is the regional naval balance, and the role played by the United States in it, that matters most. Senkaku/Diaoyu conflicts have not resulted in war largely due to naval parity between these actors and the capability balance that the United States offers. The data show, more generally, that maritime disputes between evenly matched naval powers are more likely to be settled through peaceful negotiations. This supports the strategy’s claim that “[a]ctivities short of war can achieve strategic-level effects. The maritime domain is particularly vulnerable to malign behavior below the threshold of war and incremental gains from malign activities can accumulate into long-term advantages.” Plenty of evidence exists to support a larger fleet regardless of who is in the White House.

Figure 1: US Naval Power Share (based on total tonnage) and Annual Number of Ongoing ICOW Maritime Claims.

The maritime strategy envisions an expansion of the fleet to concentrate on the high-end fight, particularly against China. The services’ primary means of doing so is what the Navy calls “Distributed Military Operations”: using larger numbers of smaller combatants (manned and unmanned) to “mass overwhelming combat power and effects at the time and place of our choosing.” This capability is unlikely to be used. As in the Cold War, a direct conflict between China and the United States would be incredibly dangerous but also incredibly unlikely. The hot portion of the Cold War unfolded in locations where the two superpowers didn’t face each other directly: not only in wars like Vietnam and Afghanistan but in competitions for influence with countries like Egypt, India, and Yugoslavia. Unlike the Cold War, China and the United States appear somewhat more evenly matched in the economic, ideological, and security tools they can employ in a renewed superpower competition over proxies.

For all the focus on marshaling a larger, lighter, and cheaper Navy for a major conflict at sea, these ships are fungible and can do much of the day-to-day management of the maritime commons — conflict de-escalation, protection of trade routes, and humanitarian operations as well as power projection against smaller opponents. Similarly, the Marines’ divestment from heavy armor will make the Corps more agile in a Western Pacific fight but also optimize it for rapid deployment globally. Pushing white-hulled Coast Guard vessels further from the United States may help manage crisis without escalation.

The Liberal Services?

But beyond the larger number of ships, the roles the maritime services assign to themselves hew closely to many tasks a Biden administration will likely call for. A fleet can be a profoundly liberal foreign policy tool — for better or worse — and this is reflected in the language of the strategy.

The strategy describes five “lines of effort” for “operating across the competition continuum” with the term “combat” only found in the final one. The first, “advance global maritime security and governance,” declares an intent to “operate with allies, partners, other US agencies, and multinational groups to maintain a free and open maritime environment and uphold the norms underpinning our shared security and prosperity.” One would be hard-pressed to encapsulate the logic of liberalism and collective security in a shorter sentence. If you are mad about Trump damaging America’s standing in the world and plan on restoring US reputation and credibility around the globe, you are going to need a navy.

The second line of effort doubles down on alliances and partnerships. Throughout the strategy, the services employ the term “allies” more times than “China.” Naval diplomacy and reassurance of smaller states have long been an essential aspects of keeping alliances together. Beyond formal allies, the United States and China are clearly locked in a competition over who can provide the better package of economic and security benefits to small but strategically located states. All three maritime services can play a constructive and largely non-escalatory role. Evidence exists that military presence and coordination among states enhances deterrence.

The third line of effort, “confront and expose malign behavior,” assigns great political power to the services’ ability to provide transparency to international politics around the world. The practice of international “naming and shaming,” while optimistic about its effect on international politics, is a tool firmly associated with a liberal approach.

Perhaps even more striking for a liberal reader is the strategy’s mention of the International Maritime Organization. Not many other recent Pentagon documents give such prominence to an arm of the United Nations. A new administration should pair this approach with a renewed effort to ratify the Law of the Sea Convention given its effective record in preventing and deescalating maritime conflicts. After all, maritime conflicts often occur between democratic countries, and thus, the United States must be prepared to mediate maritime clashes between allies to keep both alliances and the liberal international order intact.

To be sure, while the strategy and the fleet itself contain the components of a liberal approach to security, Democrats may take a different approach than the one laid out in the strategy. Ships are not cheap. The Trump administration’s proposal calls for an 86 percent increase in Navy ship numbers and a 44 percent increase in shipbuilding funds over the next five years. Then again, the Coast Guard, perhaps the only popular part of Homeland Security among progressives, could be boosted outside of the defense budget in ways more acceptable to congressional Democrats. The strategy’s advocacy for recapitalizing an undersized American merchant fleet that can be mobilized for wartime logistics also seems an easier sell. And let’s not forget that many of these new ships will be built in battleground states such as Wisconsin and Maine.

Beyond budget concerns, the Navy continues to struggle with managing basic dilemmas and will need strong and careful civilian leadership from the new White House and Office of Secretary of Defense. These dilemmas were not solved by the Navy or Trump, and now they fall squarely in the new administration’s lap.

First, the Navy has yet to figure out how to balance between operating day-to-day and preparing for war, the age-old dilemma of a great-power fleet. A large naval force capable of coalescing in a high-end fight is also a flexible one. The new administration will need to referee between them. Using the fleet for system management as part of a liberal foreign policy can be effective for maintaining peace abroad, but that will entail a tradeoff in developing and conserving decisive combat power for deterring (and ultimately fighting) a great power like China. The Navy is currently suffering from severe overuse, and an activist, liberal foreign policy will need to suppress its appetite.

Second, the strategy claims “ready, forward-deployed naval forces will accept calculated tactical risks and adopt a more assertive posture in our day-to-day operations” without defining what these risks might be. Increased deterrence rarely comes for free. These risks can also lead to crisis instability and escalation. The Navy must be honest with civilian leaders about what this entails, and these leaders must take the time to understand them.

Third, both the strategy and Trump’s 30-year shipbuilding plan bet heavily on unmanned systems. The Navy and Marine Corps accept that unmanned systems will play an important role in the future fleet but have struggled to incorporate them into concepts of operations or decide what capabilities need to be placed on these platforms. Moreover, the services have found themselves caught between an enthusiastic Office of the Secretary of Defense and a skeptical Congress. While the wartime role for these weapons seems somewhat apparent, how unmanned systems contribute to the more liberal, system maintenance role envisioned by the strategy remains a mystery.

Finally, while the data make clear the role a fleet can play in conflict management, analysis fails to support one core aspect of systems management favored by presidents from both parties as well as the Navy: freedom of navigation operations. The maritime forces and their bosses will have to come up with more creative ways to compete in the “gray zone.”


A strong naval service operating routinely around the world has historically been viewed as the prerequisite for a liberal international order. Data support this idea, showing that maritime conflicts between countries are less frequent and managed more effectively when the US achieves sea power dominance and helps to maintain naval parity in allies’ conflicts. Even eloquent advocates of moderating US foreign policy ambition view the Navy as the military capability most essential for protecting America’s national interests. It’s no coincidence that the cover for Barry Posen’s book Restraint features three US surface ships on the cover.

The Biden administration should not confuse Trump’s enthusiasm for ships with a coherent vision of the naval forces’ role in his “America First” approach to the world. The writers of this tri-service strategy certainly did not. Trump wasn’t much of a globalist, but curiously, the maritime strategy published at the end of his administration is well-suited to support a liberal approach to international politics.


Jonathan D Caverley is a professor in strategic and operational research at the United States Naval War College and a research scientist in political science and security studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His views do not reflect official positions of the United States Naval War College, Navy, or Department of Defense. 

Sara McLaughlin Mitchell is the F Wendell Miller Professor of political science at the University of Iowa. She is co-director of the Issue Correlates of War Project.