Maritime Statecraft Is a Process, a Habit, and a Culture

I see maritime statecraft as a process, a habit indispensable in officers and officials, and a way of life for a society that aspires to do business in great waters.

A society such as our own.

Maritime statecraft is a process of wielding levers of state in a concerted way to fulfill national purposes relating to the sea. It’s an approach to doing things. This process spans vastly more than building and deploying a navy, or a corps of marines, or a coast guard. If we do it right, maritime statecraft will bring together not just the naval services but fellow services that operate from land. In this age of joint sea power the U.S. Army and Air Force are sea services as surely as the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard are.

We will fail unless we act in unison.

But maritime statecraft goes beyond choreographing the actions of armed forces to shape events on the high seas. It’s bigger than the merchant fleet that transports American-made products overseas or brings imports back home. It’s even bigger than naval or mercantile shipbuilding, a maritime sector whose health rightly preoccupies all of us present here today.

Properly understood, this is an all-consuming process that rallies officialdom, the armed forces, private industry, and rank-and-file Americans behind common interests and purposes relating to the sea.

Now, Alfred Thayer Mahan, our intellectual forefather and most renowned Newport alumnus, never uses the term maritime statecraft. He couldn’t have. This is a phrase of recent coinage, dating back to Secretary Del Toro’s address at the Kennedy School just last fall. But Mahan would instantly recognize and probably embrace the phrase. After all, it accurately describes the project he had in mind for America.

We think of Mahan as an apostle of high-seas battle. But two eminent twentieth-century historians of the U.S. Navy, Margaret and Harold Sprout, point out that Mahan’s writings operate on multiple levels and are not all about warfare. The Sprouts observe that Mahan fashioned both a “theory of naval strategy and defense”—that’s the operationally oriented part of his writings that commands the most attention among navalists—and—and—a “philosophy of sea power . . . a theory of national prosperity and destiny” that can help shape courses of action for the real world.

I consider maritime statecraft part of that Mahanian philosophy for how ambitious maritime powers ought to conduct themselves. Executors of foreign policy and maritime strategy then act on his philosophy, figuring out how to put implements of power to work in specific theaters under specific circumstances. In that way statecraft begets actionable policy, strategy, and operations.

To put his nautical philosophy into action Mahan urged the United States to cast a sea-power “chain” made up of three links. In that sense maritime statecraft is a forge for national purpose. His chain, which is akin to the “supply chain” familiar to economic geographers today, connected North America with regions of commercial and geopolitical interest. Industrial production and shipbuilding cast the homeward link. Merchant and naval fleets plying the sea span the middle link. Foreign harbors and naval stations constitute the distant link.

Forge all three links and you complete the connection between industry at home and markets far away.

Why mount an effort of such daunting magnitude? Well, Mahan postulated that nations took to the sea for commercial, diplomatic, and military purposes. Commerce was king for him. Commercial access to important rimlands was both the goal and the engine of maritime strategy. Facilitating access was the job of diplomats and naval and military folk.

Mahan believed America would prosper through overseas trade and commerce, enriching itself while in the process sluicing revenue into U.S. government coffers. The government in Washington would invest some of the proceeds it harvested from commercial interactions to fund a naval guardian for the merchant fleet traversing that middle link in the sea-power chain, and to pursue worthwhile geopolitical ends.

In short, Mahan perceived a virtuous cycle among commerce, diplomacy, and naval endeavors. Starting up the cycle and keeping it churning into the indefinite future constitutes the prime function of maritime statecraft.

But it’s more than that. If maritime statecraft is a process, it is also a habit of thought, sentiment, and deed. Human beings are bundles of habits. What we habitually do is who we are. It should come as second nature for leaders in maritime-related fields to think constantly about the sea, to devise actions that further our nation’s maritime cause, and to summon the resolve to see these undertakings through.

Dominant maritime powers excel at developing muscle memory within their leadership. Mahan alludes to that when he designates the character of the government as one of six basic determinants of a nation’s fitness for sea power. A century ago Admiral Wolfgang Wegener, who fought against Great Britain’s Royal Navy during World War I, declared that saltwater coursed through British veins “owing to their centuries-long (naval) tradition.” Maritime strategy was “instinctively . . . ingrained in their senses . . . .” Nautical pursuits were that central to Britain’s national life.

They were not in Germany’s, but they must be in ours. We should strive to make ourselves worthy of a compliment like Wegener’s today.

So part of maritime statecraft involves implanting a strategic ethos among top political, naval, and military leadership. A seagoing society possessed of such an ethos boasts an advantage over continental competitors such as imperial Germany in Wegener’s day, or Communist China in our own. Ingrained reflexes orient political and military leaders toward the oceans, seas, and inland waterways, and toward policies, regulations, and laws that keep the links in the sea-power chain stout. Statecraft helps them oversee the virtuous cycle among commerce, diplomacy, and armed force.

But there’s even more. Maritime statecraft is an art and science for officialdom for sure, but it should also nurture a national way of life centered on seaward pursuits. Mahan makes the character of the people another critical determinant of sea power. A venturesome people that goes to sea in search of prosperity and geopolitical gain tends to flourish where a people that turns inward tends to falter.

How do you bend the character of a people toward oceanic pursuits?

Look to the ancients for starters. The Athenian philosopher Aristotle ruminated about the “regime,” or best form of rule. Nowadays we tend to reduce his ideas to be all about governing arrangements for a Greek city-state in his day, or a nation-state in our own. We oversimplify his discourse to stress mundane things you learn about in middle-school civics class. Branches of government, how a law is made, and so forth.

That’s a dry and impoverished view.

His real discourse is much richer. By regime Aristotle meant not just government institutions or bureaucratic wiring diagrams but the way of life that prevailed in a city-state or other polity. He meant the prevalent customs and mores or, as we would say nowadays, the prevalent “culture.” Culture is who we tell ourselves we are, what we do, and what we aspire to. It’s how things are done here.

For Aristotle the job of wise political leadership was to enact policies, regulations, and laws that vectored the culture, nourishing desirable traits among the populace. In Athens, the predominant maritime power of Greek antiquity, that meant instilling traits hospitable to marine exploits.

In Athens the character of the people came to center on seafaring—seafaring broadly construed not just as naval warfare but also as domestic industry, which manufactured wares to sell overseas to satisfy foreign buyers’ wants and needs; fleets of merchantmen to transport exports across the deep and carry imports back home; a fleet of fighting ships to protect merchant vessels on their voyages hither and yon; and a foreign policy intent on burnishing the city’s commercial, diplomatic, and military fortunes.

In short, Athens was a Mahanian society millennia before Mahan. An Athenian way of life is congenial for maritime statecraft and is enhanced by it. Leaders who preside over a seagoing society can rouse public support for maritime enterprises. Popular fervor is crucial to any society that puts to sea. But it’s doubly important for open societies such as ancient Athens, or the Netherlands or Britain in their imperial heydays, or ourselves today. After all, the will of the people is sovereign. It determines what we do and cannot do.

A thriving nautical society is drenched in seawater. It permeates everything the government, military, and people think, feel, and do. That being the case, maritime statecraft is also cultural renovation and upkeep.

Foreign policy and strategy lie downstream of culture. If we succeed in the common venture we have gathered to debate at this Current Strategy Forum, maritime statecraft will reignite and turbocharge American society’s awareness of—and love affair with—the sea. And if that happens the right policies, regulations, and laws will follow naturally—helping us keep the virtuous cycle among commerce, diplomacy, and ships turning now and for all time.

Singlemindedness across American society will advance our mutual cause on the high seas. That’s what maritime statecraft is all about.


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