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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

How to Get Americans to Support a Bigger Navy

Sad to say, but rhetoric alone is not enough. It seems things must get worse in the commercial world before they get better for a U.S. naval buildup. 

U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier
U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier

A friend asks: how do you convince the American people to take the threat to seaborne commerce seriously and to support a bigger U.S. Navy to protect it

The Case for a Bigger Navy: How Do You Make It? 

I’m not sure you can. Not under current circumstances, anyway. The threat to shipping seems amorphous, abstract, and remote to your average Everyman on the street. Why, he would ask, should we sluice more taxpayer dollars into shipbuilding accounts to meet it? 

And yet my friend’s question is a sound one. Commerce represents both the purpose and the engine of maritime strategy, and maritime strategy is the natural choice for a seafaring republic like the United States. Commerce is the purpose because trading societies want to enrich themselves, and overseas trade charts a sure route to prosperity. That being the case, wise practitioners of statecraft enact laws and policies that nurture mercantile pursuits in important trading regions. The government harvests revenue from trade that it can invest in a navy to protect merchantmen hauling goods from port to port. 

That’s how commerce acts as the engine of maritime strategy: it produces the wherewithal to fund its own guardian. Setting the virtuous cycle between commerce and the navy in motion and keeping it churning forever ranks among the foremost tasks for the leadership of a maritime society. 

Sea-service grandees get that. A standard U.S. Navy talking point holds that 90 percent of global trade travels by sea. (The percentage varies depending on whether you’re talking about the bulk or the value of trade goods, but either way it’s a hefty percentage.) Safeguarding nautical thoroughfares is thus a national interest commanding the utmost importance. And yet the talking point always seems to fall flat with lay audiences. It has generated no groundswell of popular support for shipbuilding, at any rate. 

Why is that? 

Ask Aristotle. In his treatise on The Art of Rhetoric, the classical Athenian philosopher observes that to persuade an audience—which is what rhetoric is all about—you need to calibrate your message to appeal both to audience members’ intellect and to their emotions. A compelling argument sways them through fact and logic while getting them to feel its truth in their bones. Passion fuses with reason to prompt action. 

The argument resonates. 

What the Recent Past Tells Us

And yet appeals to sea-lane security have little Aristotelian resonance, even for the world’s predominant sea power. But this has happened before. The early Cold War was something like today in that no obvious or immediate threat to the shipping lanes had appeared on the horizon. The Imperial Japanese Navy and German Navy adorned the seafloor, while erstwhile enemies Japan and Germany were now loyal allies and trading partners. The Soviet Union was a fearsome rival on land, but the Soviet Navy was little more than a nuisance at sea. 

Public sentiment favoring a huge U.S. Navy wilted after World War II, dragging fleet numbers down with it. 

By 1954, in fact, Harvard professor Samuel Huntington had taken to counseling the navy to remake itself as a “transoceanic” force that concerned itself chiefly with projecting power onto foreign shores rather than guarding seaways against nonexistent threats. Only thus, opined Huntington, could the navy justify maintaining a fleet of meaningful heft in the absence of any pressing blue-water menace. 

That was political reality for the day. 

But not forever. Fast-forward to the late Cold War. By the 1970s the Soviet Navy had become a thing, and it had explicitly geared its strategy, doctrine, and fleet architecture to cutting the sea lanes connecting North America to allies in Europe and the Western Pacific. It boasted vast numbers after Fleet Admiral Sergei Gorshkov’s shipbuilding spree of the 1960s. U.S. Navy leaders were palpably shocked when the Soviet Mediterranean Fleet outnumbered the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Worse, Soviet ships of war were more youthful than their American counterparts. 

By the late 1970s the sea lanes had come under unequivocal threat, and the politics of shipbuilding shifted again. By the Carter and Reagan years, officialdom could frame an argument about threat and response that resonated with the American people. Spokesmen could rally intellect and passion in grand Aristotelian style, winning support to lay the keels for a 600-ship navy—more than double today’s inventory. 

And then another lull followed the Cold War, and for similar reasons. The Soviet Navy now sat rusting at its moorings, and once again there was no clear danger to high-seas traffic. The U.S. sea services shrank along with the perceived threat, and reverted to Huntington-esque transoceanic missions in places like the Persian Gulf and the Balkans. 

And today? Well, Communist China has built itself into a formidable competitor, but it differs from the Soviet Union in important respects. For one, it remains a major U.S. trading partner despite the acrimony of recent years, whereas the Soviets always stood apart from the West economically. That means Moscow had military options then that Beijing does not today. Everyman would look at you quizzically if you suggested that China would use naval and military might to interrupt its own trade, much of which travels in Chinese-built hulls. Everyman would reject that argument from the standpoint of reason. It would leave him cold from the standpoint of passion. And his skepticism would be warranted. 

Aristotle would frown. 

Now, if economic disentanglement between America and China continues, China may come to resemble the Soviet Union of the late Cold War years as a plausible hazard to commerce. If interdicting U.S. trade no longer harmed Chinese trade, Beijing might come to see it as a worthy course of action. Severing sea routes between North America and East Asia would cramp the United States’ economic power and in turn its military and diplomatic clout, as close and distant blockades have since time immemorial.  

At that point, China’s navy and array of ground-based anti-access weaponry would come to look forbidding indeed. Beijing would have matched an imposing arsenal with ill intentions, imperiling that 90 percent of world trade that figures so prominently in U.S. Navy rhetoric. And then senior leadership could put the question of shipbuilding to the American people with reasonable prospects of swaying their minds and hearts to the cause of a bigger navy. Reality would have come to back up rhetoric. 

Sad to say, but rhetoric alone is not enough. It seems things must get worse in the commercial world before they get better for a U.S. naval buildup. 

Biography of the Author 

Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone. Holmes is a Contributing Editor to this publication. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”