The Role of Public Affairs in U.S. Seapower, Pt. 1

By LCDR Arlo Abrahamson, USN

Introduction

The technological innovations of the twenty-first century are transforming mass communications on a global scale. Organizations are competing in a hyper-competitive and increasingly diverse information environment that demands continuous communication engagement to affirm truth and facts while deterring adversary misinformation.1 This global transformation in mass communication practices is also changing how the world’s militaries are devising their strategic messaging and these changes will have a significant impact on the U.S. Navy’s mission. Public affairs is a command function with responsibilities for commanders at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels that require astute vision, collaboration, and synchronization of messaging and information dissemination.2 The underlying question remains, “How can the Navy’s public affairs program successfully support the U.S. maritime strategy for twenty-first century seapower?”

To achieve success, the Navy must enable public affairs to function as a tool of credibility versus persuasion and spin, it must embody the principles of transparency, and it must better synchronize public affairs with other elements of U.S. information power such as information operations and public diplomacy. The modalities of maritime strategy and the information environment must be examined to provide sufficient context for a discussion about the aforementioned challenges of the Navy’s public affairs program. 

External Influences of Maritime Strategy

The Navy’s Cooperative Strategy for Twenty-First Century Seapower and the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority affirm the core tenets of projecting forward naval presence and enhancing maritime partnerships.3 Due to the external nature of these operations combined with a frequent focus in support of U.S. diplomacy, a successful maritime strategy will require sustained and comprehensive communication strategies that are supported at all levels of command. Edward Luttwak notes the unique capability of seapower as a tool for strategic communication given how naval presence and security partnerships convey important political messaging.4 In his critique of the U.S. maritime strategy, Geoffrey Till notes that the “variation and complexity” of such an initiative centered on generating support domestically and internationally to sustain forward presence and security partnerships will require the Navy to “devote significant effort to their strategic communication plan.”5 Admiral John Kirby, the former Pentagon press secretary and spokesperson for the Department of State, argues “the Navy is historically one of the least understood branches, and yet one of the most capital-intensive.”6 As a result, Kirby posits that “any strategy which defines the way the Navy will fight and win” will fail if not supported by domestic stakeholders along with allies and partners, considering how long the U.S. maritime strategy actually takes to render results. 

This challenge compounds the importance of commanders understanding the functionality of public affairs within the context of the information environment, to promote transparency, and ensure messaging is synchronized with other elements of information power in support of the maritime strategy.

The Changing Information Environment

The Joint Publication 3-13 Information Operations describes the information environment as “the aggregate of individuals, organizations, and systems that collect, process, disseminate, or act on information.”8 Kirby further characterizes the public domain of the information environment as an evolving space where allies, partners, and adversaries are contending for narratives in real-time on new media platforms such as Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and a growing portfolio of interconnected online venues.9 With the diffusion of actors and contributors to the modern information environment, and the speed at which information travels, this compounds the notion that tactical actions can have strategic consequences.10 Consequently, operational and tactical commanders must be aware that their units increasingly operate in an atmosphere that is exposed to the public domain via technological innovations of the information environment, and every ship, unit, and headquarters is critical to communication success through their credible and transparent actions.

Optimizing Public Affairs to Support U.S. Maritime Strategy 

The function and utilization of military public affairs within the complex information environment is often misunderstood by commanders and organizations alike, which undercuts the enduring value of the discipline to support initiatives such as the maritime strategy. There are well-intentioned commanders who favor more of a shaping or salesmanship function of public affairs operations, a role more attuned to the hybrid public relations-information operations construct of U.S. adversaries.11 Moreover, Kirby argues that commanders often view the information environment as “one they can own and shape at will, one of kinetics,” – which underestimates the complexities and dynamics of an environment that requires comprehensive and persistent communication strategies.12 Kirby further posits that while “rapid reaction and cyber agility” are necessary to counter adversary information, these qualities alone are insufficient:

“Our approach must be bolstered by an unfailing commitment to truthful context and imagery, aggressive transparency and a willingness to overwhelm fake news and media manipulation over time.”13

While Kirby does not discount the need to shape the information environment, he notes that commanders should utilize their public affairs capability as a long-term strategic communication initiative that achieves desired effects with sustained engagement.14 Jeff Davis, a career Navy public affairs officer and former Pentagon spokesperson, argues that the information power of the Department of Defense is harnessed by providing persistent strategic messaging that is “credible, sober, and factual” and grounded in matching deeds with words.15 When this action-communication sequence does not align, it can affect the Navy’s organizational credibility and degrade public trust in the Navy’s forward presence mission. For example, in 2017 the U.S. Third Fleet promulgated a news release announcing the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group departed Singapore and would “sail North” leading media outlets to assume the aircraft carrier was expeditiously headed to waters in Northeast Asia as a show of force to North Korean provocations occurring at the time.16 The news release declined to note the strike group would make an intermediate routing for an exercise near Indonesia and Australia, inadvertently provoking allegations of U.S. misinformation among international media stakeholders and umbrage from key U.S. allies in South Korea and Japan who perceived a deeds-words mismatch in their commitment to their respective alliances.17 

Beyond being credible and accurate, public communication must also be persistent to effectively support the maritime strategy. Collin Koh, a maritime security researcher at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, notes the information environment demands continuous public communications of U.S. naval presence to demonstrate resolve to allies and partners and deter adversaries from filling in information voids.18 Koh and Dzirhan Mahadzir, a naval analyst, characterize this persistent communication engagement as “normalizing the narrative.”19    

Accordingly, Koh and Mahadzir contend that persistent narratives of operations can help deescalate the news cycle over time and thus lower the perception of provocative actions resulting from freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea if the action-communication is routine and clear in its message.20 It can also be a detriment to commanders when communication is not executed consistently. Lynn Kuok, a security analyst and Yale international fellow, believes the U.S. should routinely release clear details about operations in the South China Sea, i.e. where the operation took place, what the operation did, and what right(s) the U.S. was asserting—simultaneous to or very soon after the conduct of such operations.21 The impact, security analysts note, is to ensure that U.S. forward naval presence can generate favorable strategic outcomes that strengthen the U.S. maritime strategy by publicly affirming navigation rights under international law while deterring China’s public overtures aimed at transforming norms and asserting new customary laws through its shaping of regional and international public opinion.22

Transparency as a Secret Weapon

An emerging concern for external stakeholders of DoD and the Navy is a perceived tilt toward less transparency and openness.23 These concerns are generating contention among journalists, citizens, and analysts of the Navy’s maritime strategy alike with veteran observers such as Thomas Ricks, a former defense reporter for The Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, arguing its negative effects on U.S. national security.24 Ricks points out that commanders tend to operate in a low risk posture as they perceive transparency and openness offer few tangible incentives, particularly at the operational and tactical levels where public affairs release authority is often narrower.25 This growing perception among commanders of a zero-defect environment with public communications limits the potential of U.S. information power.26 Moreover, Davis notes that transparency in public communication provides the U.S. military with an asymmetrical advantage in credibility: 

“A transparent, accountable military is our secret weapon. It is what has given us such high levels of trust, both at home and internationally. But that trust is now at risk.”27

Minimizing transparency and engagement with the media, veteran naval reporter Chris Cavas argues, degrades the maritime strategy by limiting the Navy’s ability to use information to “deter adversaries and portray expertise, readiness, and commitment.”28 The Navy recently issued a series of guidance cautioning commanders to limit discussions on capabilities to protect operational security.29 While the guidance does not prohibit commanders from engaging with the media, Cavas contends these overtures are creating a “chilling effect” on the frequency of press engagements and embarkations domestically and overseas among critical allies and partner-nation constituencies.30 As a result, there is a growing cohort of public stakeholders, many who directly impact the sustainability of the maritime strategy, who believe the pendulum of security versus openness in the Navy has swung too far toward secrecy. Representative Mike Gallagher, a member of the House Seapower and Projection of Forces Subcommittee, notes the risk of tepid public communication in the context of sustaining longer term, capital driven initiatives such as the U.S. maritime strategy:

“Despite the old adage that ‘loose lips sink ships,’ non-existent strategic communications can sink entire navies. If the bias is towards silence to prevent adversaries from finding out about unique capabilities or potential weaknesses, guess what, there will never be a public constituency for acquiring or mitigating them. And, oh by the way, our adversaries probably have a decent idea of what we’re up to anyways.”31

These critiques present a difficult, yet necessary balancing consideration for the Navy’s leadership that will require increased attention and risk-benefit analysis. However, Admiral James Stavridis (ret.) posits that commanders still have many opportunities to foster transparency with the media and public within the Navy’s current guidance.32 Limiting press engagement, Stavridis argues, strips commanders of an important tool to enhance their mission and ensure that tactical and operational successes lead to strategic value.33


In Part 2, we will explore how to synchronize information power to enable maritime strategy, along with several counter-arguments and perspectives.


Lt Commander Arlo Abrahamson is a recent graduate of the Naval War College and a career Navy public affairs officer. He has served globally supporting strategic communication, security cooperation, and public diplomacy initiatives for the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of State. These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the U. S. Government or the Department of Defense.

Endnotes

1 John Kirby,  “The Information Environment Today,” lecture filmed May 2016 at the Naval War College, Newport R.I., video, 30:58, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYyoRo5_Alw

2 Secretary of the Navy, Department of the Navy Public Affairs Policy and Regulations, SECNAV Instruction 5720.44C, 1-1 through 1-12, February 12, 2012, https://www.navy.mil/ah_online/opsec/docs/policy/secnavinst-5720_44c_pao.pdf.

3  U.S. Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, 2015,1-2,  https://www.navy.mil/local/maritime/150227-CS21R-Final.pdf

4 Edward Luttwak, “Political Uses of Seapower,” Studies in International Affairs, (The Johns Hopkins University Press), (1974), 1-3.

5 Geoffrey Till, “The New Maritime Strategy: Another View from the Outside,” The Naval War College Review, vol. 68, no. 4, (April 2015): 10.

https://digitalcommons.usnwc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1265&context=nwc-review.

6 John Kirby, Rear Admiral (ret), email correspondence with the author, April 16, 2019.

7 John Kirby, Rear Admiral (ret), email correspondence with the author, April 16, 2019.

8 Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-13, Information Operations, (Washington DC: GPO, November 2012), 27.

9 John Kirby, “The Information Environment Today,” lecture filmed May 2016 at the Naval War College, Newport R.I., video, 30:58, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYyoRo5_Alw.

10 Ibid.

11 Michael Parkinson Shannon Bowen, Kenneth Plowman, Robert Pritchard, John Schmeltzer, Mark Swiatek, “Military PAOs and the Media: Conflicting Systems of Ethics,” Institute for Public Relations Research Paper, (March 10, 2012): 3-4, https://instituteforpr.org/wp-content/uploads/Military-PAOs-The-Media.pdf.

12 John Kirby, Rear Admiral (ret), email correspondence with author, April 15, 2019.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Jeff Davis, Captain (ret), email correspondence with author, April 10, 2019.

16 Ryan Pickrell, “The Aircraft Carrier Carl Vinson to Korea Saga, What Happened,” The National Interest, April 20, 2017, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-aircraft-carrier-carl-vinson-korea-saga-what-happened-20278.

17 Ibid.

18 Collin Koh, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, email correspondence with author, April 15, 2019.

19 Collin Koh, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Dzirhan Mahadzir, Maritime Institute of Malaysia and U.S. Naval Institute contributor, email correspondence to author, April 15, 2019 and April 2, 2019.

20 Ibid.

21 Lynn Kouk, Yale International Fellow and Security Analyst, email correspondence with author, May 2, 2019.

22 Ibid.

23 Adam Smith, “The Pentagon is getting more Secretive, and its hurting Nation Security,” Defense One, Oct 28, 2018, https://www.defenseone.com/ideas/2018/10/pentagons-getting-more-secretive-and-its-hurting-national-security/152345/.

24 Thomas Ricks, email correspondence with author, April 12, 2019. 

25 Ibid.

26 James Stavridis, “It’s been over 300 days since a Pentagon Press Briefing: That should concern all Americans including the Military,” Time Magazine, April 16, 2019, http://time.com/5571643/pentagon-press-briefings/.

27 Jeff Davis, Captain (ret), email correspondence with author, April 10, 2019.

28 Chris Cavas, “Does the U.S. Navy have a Strategy Beyond Hope,” Defense News, January 4, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/surface-navy-association/2018/01/04/does-the-us-navy-have-a-strategy-beyond-hope/.

29 Justin Doubleday, “CNO Directs Navy to Curb Warfighting Discussion on Capabilities,” Inside Defense, March 2, 2017, https://insidedefense.com/share/185155.

30 Chris Cavas, “Does the U.S. Navy have a Strategy Beyond Hope,” Defense News, January 4, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/surface-navy-association/2018/01/04/does-the-us-navy-have-a-strategy-beyond-hope/.

31 David Larter, “Lawmakers Chide Navy, DoD, on step back from Transparency,” Defense News, January 10, 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/digital-show-dailies/surface-navy-association/2018/01/10/lawmakers-chide-us-navy-on-step-back-from-transparency/.

32 James Stavridis, “Admiral Stavridis on the Importance of Engagement with the Press,” U.S. Naval Institute Online, April 30, 2019, https://blog.usni.org/posts/2019/04/30/admiral-stavridis-on-the-importance-of-engagement-with-the-press.

33 Ibid.

Featured Image: VALPARAISO, Chile (Aug. 24, 2014) Capt. Robert A. Hall Jr., commanding officer of the future amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), addresses the media during a press conference on the flight shortly after the ship moored in Valparaiso, Chile, for a scheduled port visit. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Vladimir Ramos/Released)

In Grateful Memory: Andrew Marshall and His Quest for Questions

By Mie Augier and Wayne Hughes

Introduction

In the outpouring of appreciation following the passing of Andrew W. Marshall, many people paid tribute to different parts of his work, to include understanding the weaknesses of the Soviet economy, net assessment as a way of thinking, and the emerging power of China. His many friends and admirers wanted to give credit where credit is due.

This brief note complements the many tributes. We aim to capture elements of how he was thinking more than what he was thinking. We emphasize a few key characteristics: How he viewed the world, the nature of his interdisciplinary mind that focused on the importance of questions, and reflections on what future generations of scholars and practitioners can learn from and be inspired by.

Already in his youth, Marshall had an extraordinarily open mind, a lasting appreciation for history, and a Midwestern humbleness and modesty that stayed with him.1 As a child, he read widely at the public library, and bought books when he got a little money. Always respectful of people, he treated everyone alike; ideas and thinking had no rank or titles. Living through the depression and interwar years, he was aware of the broad societal and geopolitical underpinnings and implications of war and peace, and the centrality of human nature. He came close to becoming an academic after studying at the University of Chicago with scholars such as Milton Friedman, Frank Knight, and Rudolf Carnap (and meeting other emerging social scientists such as Herbert Simon and Kenneth Arrow).

But his interests were always broader than what one or two disciplines could encompass. At RAND, he found an institution that could accommodate his broad range of interests and his passion for helping the country think better about matters related to national security, and where he could begin developing an intellectual framework for that. There he found individuals with similar and complementary interests such as Herman Kahn, Herbert Goldhamer, Nathan Leites, and James Schlesinger. He also came to see the importance of organizations both as a lens for understanding the behavior of nations and national security players, and also as facilitators (or sometimes, inhibitors) of better strategic thinking. 

A Quest for Questions

Andy Marshall’s work at RAND provided important insights into key strategic issues – a focus that he would continue and develop later at the Pentagon. For example, he developed the early elements of the long term competition framework, and worked with Graham Allison, James March, and others to develop different lenses (rational, organizational, and bureaucratic) for understanding governmental decision making. He was involved in the early developments of scenario planning and wargaming exercises at RAND that emerged in large part in reaction to other major developments at RAND: systems analysis and game theory. 

What is important is not just what he did and the studies he worked on or who he mentored, but also how his character and style helped him think the way he did. Underlying Marshall’s perspective was an emphasis on questions. Focusing on questions helps one get the right diagnosis of a situation because one is less inclined to reinforce what one already believes, and researching the empirical issues one is naturally led to also cross disciplinary boundaries. As he began to look into academic underpinnings for long term strategy and strategic thinking, he began to challenge existing ways of thinking about strategy and behavior to develop a broader view.

Essential in Marshall’s mind was the centrality of human nature and insights from organizational behavior. Very early on, Marshall and his close friend Herman Kahn would go on long walks on the weekend in the Brentwood area, talking about the importance of human nature to understand conflicts. Many colleagues at RAND didn’t share their enthusiasm for trying to generate empirical insights, preferring instead to apply existing theory – especially systems analysis. Over time, Marshall found research from bio-social anthropology, zoology, psychology, organizational behavior, business strategy, and cultural studies to be useful in developing insights about how culture influences individuals, organizations, and the behavior of groups, which was often quite different from theories of opponents’ strategic cultures. He engaged the work of Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox on understanding ‘men in groups.’

In the 1960s, Marshall began a decades-long friendship with James Schlesinger, who started as Marshall’s research assistant at RAND, fresh out of the economics program at Harvard. The two of them embarked on a mission to develop broader strategic thinking at RAND and insights into how the Soviet Union really worked, as opposed to how it behaved according to game theory and systems analysis. They used elements of different conceptual frameworks including the studies of Herbert Simon, Richard Cyert, James March, and the psycho-cultural works of Nathan Leites. They suggested setting up a program or even a department of organizational behavior at RAND. They were convinced that a broader understanding of the Soviet Union would lead to understanding how poorly our intelligence estimates of the Soviet economy really were. They studied organizations both as a lens to understand our opponents and as something that would help develop better strategic thinkers.

As anyone who has tried to integrate work from different disciplines knows, mixing different perspectives while keeping the diagnostic focus is very difficult. Centripetal forces of academic disciplines meant working within single disciplines would produce failing prescriptions. Thus for Marshall, it could have been easier to ‘give in,’ but he always cared more about getting useful insights, not academic or political approval of his own career or bureaucratic survival. “We are here to inform, not to please,” he’d say.

He did not waver in challenging us, and himself, to think about national security in the broadest sense. No single theory or perspective has it right. Marshall believed if one looks for only one dominant perspective, one runs the risk of producing a trained incapacity for strategy and strategic thinking. He and Schlesinger thought about this in the context of RAND, for instance in advising the then-incoming president, Harry Rowen, how to restructure and better organize RAND. Rowen wrote to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara about his organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and Marshall and Schlesinger wrote several memos on how to get better strategic thinking at RAND along with some of the organizational trends to be aware of.2

Their emphasis on the importance of long term, interdisciplinary thinking is just as important for think tanks and educational institutions today. These issues of how Marshall thought about things are central to his later development of net assessment as an interdisciplinary approach.

Legacies and Lessons  

Pursuing better empirical insights into strategic issues was for Marshall a lifelong calling, in addition to his distinguished career of public service and time at RAND. While we can never replicate his thinking, his legacy gives us many things to consider and build on for the future, whether in the education of future strategists, in our own thinking and doing strategy, and in our service as U.S. citizens. Marshal’s work includes many profound lessons.

Understanding the world as it is, not as how we might wish it to be. Marshall found it important that we approach strategic issues from a variety of perspectives, including national and organizational culture and demography, as important drivers of the future strategic environment.3

Finding value in outlier ideas – and in others’ ideas in general. This may sound straightforward, but it is not easy, because it implies always questioning one’s own beliefs. Seeing beyond one’s own favorite perspectives, ideas, and biases implies always questioning one’s own thinking. Questioning oneself is not most people’s favorite activity. But it is important both as a way to achieve better insights and to foster innovative thinking in others. He thought organizations often tend to edge out people with different ideas. John Boyd is an example of an innovative thinker and outlier who Marshall thought highly of.

Appreciation for understanding and gaming unthinkable futures. Marshall knew from his days at RAND that we need not just understand the likely futures, but also, and perhaps especially, the less likely, less likable, and more unthinkable ones (a theme that Herman Kahn also elaborated; Kahn’s essay, “In Defense of Thinking,” speaks to that).4 Marshall exploited wargames and case studies as ways to explore alternatives and what they might mean. From the early gaming exercises, his focus was on being as realistic as possible by including people with a variety of backgrounds and expertise; and by focusing on processes, not goals. Games facilitate cross-disciplinary discussions and collaborations to help players with diverse backgrounds understand contingencies they would not otherwise have thought of. Games were ways to instill better, broader strategic thinking by forcing participants to think through and formulate strategies.

Marshall believed the discomfort that comes with uncertainty goes hand-in-hand with exploring the boundaries of what one knows. Gaming was one way he taught decision-makers to be more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. He believed in case studies and wargaming as participatory forms of learning and manifestations of an interdisciplinary approach. He knew that case learning can include counterfactuals, or ‘what ifs,’ and a way to learn from failures and avoid blind alleys.5   

Marshall appreciated the roles organizations play in national security, and also for fostering or hindering sound thinking about national security questions. Much insight could be gained from a better understanding of how peer competitors’ organizations work, how their routines and operational codes evolve, and how their organizational structures, cultures, and practices are interrelated. What strengths and weaknesses influence their strategic decision-making? A better appreciation for the importance of how we organize to nurture strategic thinking in military educational institutions is important today, especially in the light of the recent Education for Seapower report’s emphasis on developing better strategic and critical thinkers. Marshall was the exemplar of a great strategic thinker who thought critically, long term, and organizationally.

Conclusion

The passing of Andrew Marshall may mark the end of an era in the history of Cold War strategists because his role in shaping U.S. strategy lasted many decades and was unparalleled. So, too, was his modesty, his humbleness, his caring about others, and his always questioning mind. He combined devotion to thinking and to the country and the need to understand with a gentle and patient spirit. He exemplified the best that any era can hope to achieve when it comes to the difficult but vital vision of how to think more strategically to help his country.

Perhaps the most important lesson is how Marshall sought value from areas outside his own domain and expertise. Rooted in his genuine humbleness and curiosity, he did not follow the natural human instinct to ‘do what we know how to do best,’ and instead chose to pursue knowledge in areas he didn’t know well, and keep pursuing questions. When Marshall died, the country lost his strategic, human, intellectual, and moral compass. His quest for questions now rests upon us.

Dr. Mie Augier is a professor at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. She is interested in strategy, organizations, innovation, leadership, and how to educate strategic and innovative thinkers.

Captain Wayne Hughes, USN (Ret.) served thirty years on active duty, commanding a minesweeper, a destroyer, and a large training command. In retirement has taught, done research, and served as a Dean at the Naval Postgraduate School for over thirty years. He is a distinguished author of the U.S. Naval Institute.

Endnotes

1. He almost never talked about his own work or approaches. His modesty was even embedded in his language (most of the time he said “we” or “one”, not me or I …). Not imposing his own views or perspectives or theories is a significant part of his approach to strategy and emphasis on diagnosis, rather than prescription, as it helps get a better understanding of the situation and what forces might shape the future. The combination of his humbleness, interest in diagnosis and a broad and questioning mind set him apart from almost everyone else, especially in academia.

2. They also suggested, in collaboration with Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, that the aforementioned organizational behavior department be instituted. While this and most of their suggestions didn’t materialize, they became grounds for Marshall and Schlesinger’s work on net assessment over the next decades.

3. Nathan Leites’ work on the operational code of the Soviet Union is a very relevant way of appreciating others; something that one could fruitfully develop with regards to China, too, especially in light of the national security strategy emphasis on peer competitors. How they organize; how they perceive; how they think, is all very central to our competitive advantage and how we might fare in war.

4. See for instance his piece “In Defense of Thinking” https://www.hudson.org/research/2211-in-defense-of-thinking

5. Teaching cases of historical failures also can help us be more comfortable by talking and learning from them.

Featured Image: Andy Marshall attends his retirement farewell ceremony at the Pentagon on Jan. 5, 2015. (Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Air Force)

Maritime Order and America’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Dr. Patrick M. Cronin

America as a Seapower

The United States is a “seapower” in all senses of the word. Its history, prosperity, and security are inseparable from the oceans. Even U.S. states without coastlines depend on global supply chains and markets that move primarily through the oceans.

The United States neglects its Navy at its peril. But military power must be accompanied by other types of power, both hard and soft. In his analysis of five maritime great powers, Professor Andrew Lambert explains how might and identity derive not exclusively from naval power, but also from the aptitude for using the seas cooperatively.1 The crucial distinction between seapowers and more insular continental powers is the art of perpetuating profitable economic and political ties with others. “A seapower, the ancient Greek thalassokratia,” writes Lambert, “was a state that consciously chose to create and sustain a fundamental engagement between nation and ocean, from political inclusion to the rule of law, across the entire spectrum of national life, in order to achieve great power status.”2

The oceans are not just the cradle of life, but vital arteries to tomorrow’s world centers of power. The continuous body of water that facilitates 90 percent of global trade and comprises about 72 percent of the Earth’s surface joins the United States with two major oceans and connects it to the dynamic Indo-Pacific region where the majority of twenty-first century wealth, trade, and population are concentrated.3

Because America’s peace and well-being depend on unhampered access and use of the oceans, order at sea is indispensable for U.S. global strategy and its vision of preserving and adapting a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the Trump administration’s vision for an expanded regional policy announced during the president’s first trip to Asia.4

The post-World War II international system enshrined the idea of “freedom of the high seas” in the 1945 United Nations Charter.5 Postwar challenges to commercial and military freedom of navigation, however, demanded further protection.6

In the midst of the Cold War, both Western and Eastern blocs along with nonaligned nations came together to support the multilateral negotiations that resulted in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea does not conform with the revisionist notion that the United States imposed its rules on others.7 Instead, as Singapore Ambassador Tommy Koh, who later served as president of the conference, put it, “You will find countries allied here that you will not find working together in any other international forum, such as Mongolia and Swaziland, or Jamaica and Iraq.”8 As U.S. Ambassador John Norton Moore said, freedom of navigation is the original “common heritage” of all humankind.9 

From the signing of UNCLOS, the United States accepted all of its provisions as customary international law. The sole exception was Part XI regarding seabed exploration and mining in international waters, outside countries’ territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs).10 In short, the United States helped to establish international law of the sea, and despite not ratifying UNCLOS, seeks to ensure its relevance, survival, and enforcement.

So, freedom of seas has been and remains essential for all Americans. However, maritime order is increasingly at risk and from both traditional and nontraditional threats. A critical question is whether we can sustain freedom of the seas into the future.

Rising Challenges for Maritime Order

Maritime order is a larger concept than maritime security. The maritime domain is defined as “all areas and things of, on, under, relating to, adjacent to, or bordering on a sea, ocean, or other navigable waterway including all maritime-related activities, infrastructure, people, cargo, and vessels and other conveyances.”11 Although security is the sine qua non for order, there is a symbiotic relationship between freedom of navigation on the oceans, for instance, and sustainable coastal communities where almost two-thirds of the world’s mega-cities are situated.12

There are at least four significant challenges to maritime order broadly conceived: over the international rules governing maritime behavior; from pirates, terrorists, traffickers, and other non-state actors and transnational criminal organizations; from mounting human exploitation of ocean resources; and from natural disasters and climate change. This essay focuses on the first but touches on all four risks, as a comprehensive policy for maritime order requires addressing the full panoply of challenges.

First, the seas are at risk from a growing competition over international rules and rule-making.

Revisionist major powers like Russia and China, but also regional states such as Iran and North Korea, increasingly pose challenges to traditional maritime security. Iran’s shootdown of a U.S. surveillance drone in international airspace constitutes a direct threat to freedom of navigation and overflight around the globe and could lead other aggressors to miscalculate by challenging the U.S. interpretation of international law.13 

In the Indo-Pacific, the most pressing challenge to existing maritime rules and norms is being posed by China.14 For example, China’s willful disregard of the 2016 international arbitral tribunal judgment regarding the South China Sea is a direct assault on the postwar system and UNCLOS, the so-called constitution of the oceans.15

But brushing aside awards handed down from The Hague is not the only challenge to postwar maritime order. Revisionist powers are challenging accepted rules and norms in various ways. Reckless behavior at sea that endangers other ships is a direct violation of the 1972 International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGs).16 Yet in early June 2019, a Russian destroyer deliberately endangered a U.S. guided-missile cruiser, USS Chancellorsville, an incident that occurred on the heels of an unsafe air maneuver by a Russian fighter jet against a U.S. patrol aircraft.17 Chinese ships and aircraft have periodically conducted similar dangerous maneuvers to prevent lawful U.S. freedom of navigation and overflight in maritime Asia.18

As with North Korea prior to the signing of UNCLOS, China wants to ignore the right of military freedom of navigation and overflight, as suggested by Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior toward U.S. and other naval vessels operating peacefully within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The EEZ was designed by UNCLOS negotiators to grant coastal states control over resources adjacent to their coasts; it was not designed to grant sovereignty, which extends only in the 12-nautical mile territorial sea.19 Yet China has repeatedly violated this broadly accepted interpretation of UNCLOS.

From the 2001 incident in which a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 aircraft 80 miles south of Hainan Island to the more recent unlawful seizure of an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) 50 miles from Subic Bay in the South China Sea, to repeated harassment of Navy Military Sealift Command oceanographic and hydrographic survey vessels, China seeks to alter the rules through provocative actions.20 Admittedly, the issues involving certain types of Marine Scientific Research activities are more complicated (and UNCLOS interpretations have generally become more restrictive of some activities within a coastal nation’s EEZ). China wants it both ways: to preclude any military activities by claiming more limited rights of “peaceful navigation” not derived from UNCLOS within its EEZ, while conducting its own military maneuvers in the EEZs of other countries.21 In addition, while Beijing condemns every U.S. transit with warships, it lavishes praise on its proprietary and state-run mapping and measuring of the South China Sea and world oceans.22 

While states seeking to revise international rules at sea constitute a severe and growing threat to maritime order, there are other acute and chronic challenges.

A second source concerns non-traditional security threats from piracy, terrorism, and illegal trafficking by non-state actors, including transnational criminal syndicates.23  Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing alone “results in global losses in the tens of billions of dollars each year.”24 The cost and irreparable human and environmental damage of illicit trafficking in people, drugs, wildlife, and other commodities is enormous.

But there is an area where traditional and non-traditional threats such as transnational crime converge: lethal technology. Non-state actors are gaining access to more disruptive and deadly technologies. Acting either alone or as proxies of states, they are likely to pose increased risks to maritime shipping, navigation and overflight. The Houthi rebels who allegedly shot down a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper drone over Yemen and the plausible deniability about attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf in June 2019 suggest how non-state actors could significantly disrupt maritime order in years to come.25   

Thirdly, maritime order in the oceans is at severe risk from a growing global population’s use of the oceans, as we face problems such as massive overfishing. The oceans face multiple stressors, including increased human use of maritime resources as global population approaches an anticipated 9.8 billion people by 2050. As Greg Poling observes, in the South China Sea alone there is “a series of catastrophes piling on top of one another.”26 China’s island-building reclamation was enormously destructive to coral reefs, and a resurgence in giant clam digging is causing additional damage.27 This environmental damage comes on top of overfishing.

Finally, humanity is at greater risk from the seas themselves, including the impact of natural disasters on built-up coastal areas and the effects of climate change.

Littoral regions, where roughly 40 percent of the world’s population lives, are especially vulnerable to tsunamis and rising sea levels. But the entire world is dependent on the oceans in many ways: for instance, 25 percent of all species on the planet are thought to live in the biodiverse tropical coral reefs, even though these reefs comprise less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface. Sadly, warming oceans resulting from periodic El Niño heat waves are leading to large-scale bleaching and destruction of many coral reefs. Climate change projections suggest most coral reefs may cease to exist by the middle of the century, although some will be able to adapt because of local conditions such as internal waves.28

Faced with all of these risks, we must do more to find ways of cooperating on our maritime commons, while not flinching from protecting both freedom of the seas and the survival of our shared marine environment.

Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific

Maritime order is indispensable for preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region. The United States is approaching these issues within the vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific, as most recently described in the June Indo-Pacific Strategy Report.29 Although released by the Department of Defense, the report adopts a comprehensive approach.

The report’s introduction underscores the Indo-Pacific region’s economic centrality for the world and the United States: “The Indo-Pacific contributes two-thirds of global growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and accounts for 60% of global GDP.”30  Moreover, “nine of the world’s 10 busiest seaports are in the region, and 60 percent of global maritime trade transits through Asia, with roughly one-third of global shipping passing through the South China Sea alone.”31 Moreover, with five Pacific states and Pacific territories on both sides of the International Date Line, “America’s annual two-way trade with the region is $2.3 trillion, with U.S. foreign direct investment of $1.3 trillion in the region—more than China’s, Japan’s, and South Korea’s combined.”32 

Despite its significant economic holdings, the United States is worried by powers seeking to unilaterally revise agreed-upon rules and norms, especially in the maritime domain. The U.S. strategic vision sets forth principles congruent with ASEAN centrality and norms, including seeking the peaceful resolution of disputes, supporting a rules-based approach, and expanding cooperation. The goal of the United States is to help independent actors protect their interests while not allowing any one nation to dominate the Indo-Pacific.

At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, concern over the consequential U.S.-China relationship took center stage. Then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said the United States cannot stand aside when smaller actors face pressure and coercion (and that includes the Cross-Strait issue, too), nor can the U.S. fail to respond when revisionist powers seek to unilaterally change a rules-based system. The Law of the Sea and marine policy are caught up in the larger global resurgence of major power rivalry in which the basic contest centers on rules and rule-making.

However, big powers can pursue what Joseph Nye has called “cooperative rivalry” at sea—a reason why Acting Secretary Shanahan used his one-on-one discussion with his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe, to advance ideas for cracking down on North Korea’s illicit trading and strengthening mechanisms for avoiding unintended catalytic war.33   

The United States can also benefit from fashioning a larger bipartisan majority around halting IUU fishing—something the Obama administration elevated and which the Trump administration has recently shown stronger support for in the Pacific Islands and in its work with ASEAN. The same goes for the global challenge of slowing climate change and building resilient coastlines and islands.

In thinking about a more integrated approach, the United States should take note of what Taiwan has created. In 2018, Taiwan established a single cabinet-level agency, the Ocean Affairs Council, headquartered in the southern city of Kaohsiung, to help coordinate all policies affecting the oceans, sea-based resources, and the maritime environment.34 To mark this concerted effort to step up its oceans policy, Taiwan hosted a small, international group of scholars to visit Dongsha Island, the northernmost part of the South China Sea which is only an 80-minute plane ride from Taiwan’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung. The inaugural Dongsha International Conference followed, and this author was one of two American participants. In his opening remarks, Ocean Affairs Council Minister Chung-Wei Lee noted that the United Nations has proclaimed the decade beginning in 2021 a “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.”35 By hosting the 2019 Dongsha International Conference, Taiwan demonstrated that it, too, is a seapower in its own right, and it should be fully permitted to join in efforts to protect our global maritime commons.36

The United States should also prepare to harness and enhance existing contributions for maritime order—an appropriate priority for a major seapower state like the United States. As the Indo-Pacific Strategy Report makes clear, the United States is in the fourth year of an Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) designed to bolster the security of littoral states in Southeast and South Asia, especially near the South China Sea.37 The MSI represents only a portion of the activities the United States is undertaking to ensure that the oceans continue to support prosperity and peace. Existing investments in building a common operating picture, as well as plans to create interoperability and strengthen maritime capacity of regional partners, might be augmented with new public-private partnerships designed to foster the marine science and culture of the oceans which will be required to withstand the myriad challenges to maritime order now and in the future. These extant and new investments in time and money can ensure that future generations enjoy freedom of the seas and a sustainable ocean environment.

The bottom line is that security and maritime order are intertwined, rather than in opposition to one another.

Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Fellow and Chair for Asia-Pacific Security at Hudson Institute and is available at pcronin@hudson.org.

References

[1] Andrew Lambert, Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

[2] Ibid., p. 323.

[3] “Factsheet: People and Oceans,” The United Nations Oceans Conference, June 5-9, 2017, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ocean-fact-sheet-package.pdf.

[4] “Remarks by President Trump on His Trip to Asia,” Whitehouse.gov, November 15, 2017, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-president-trump-trip-asia/.

[5] James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo, The Free Sea: The American Fight for Freedom of Navigation (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018).

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] Few revisionists surpass the successful polemics of Noam Chomsky, who sees the United States as the root of all the world’s ills. For instance, see Noam Chomsky, Who Rules the World? (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2016); and for an informed critique of this book, see Adam Lebor, “US vs Them: A One-Sided Attempt to Blame the United States for Everything,” Times Literary Supplement, July 20, 2016, https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/us-vs-them/.

[8] “’Common Heritage of Mankind’—Interview: Tommy Koh,” Newsweek, September 25, 1978, p. 64, quoted in Vivek Viswanathan, “Crafting the Law of the Sea: Elliot Richardson and the Search for Order on the Oceans (1977-1980),” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard College 2009), p. 30, https://www.hks.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/centers/mrcbg/files/Viswanathan_2009.pdf.

[9] Ibid., p. 4.

[10] Ibid., p. 6.

[11] This definition is used in the U.S. National Security Presidential Directive-41 (NSPD-41)/Homeland Security Presidential Directive-13 (HSPD-13) (Maritime Security Policy, December 21, 2004), quoted in National Plan to Achieve Maritime Domain Awareness for the National Security for Maritime Security (Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security, October 2005), p. i., https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/HSPD_MDAPlan_0.pdf.

[12] “Factsheet: Climate Change,” The United Nations Oceans Conference, June 5-9, 2017, https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Ocean-fact-sheet-package.pdf.

[13] Some saw the precedent as so dangerous that they advocated proportionate military strikes; see Michael G. Vickers, “To Avoid a Wider War, Iran Must be Deterred with Limited U.S, Military Strikes,” Washington Post, June 21, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/06/21/avoid-wider-war-iran-must-be-deterred-with-limited-us-military-strikes/?utm_term=.4ab54725dc3e.

[14] For instance, see James R. Holmes, “When China Rules the Sea,” Foreign Policy, September 23, 2015, https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/09/23/when-china-rules-the-sea-navy-xi-jinping-visit/; more authoritatively and recently, see Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, May 2019), p. 7-8, passim.

[15] See “In the Matter of the South China Sea Arbitration before An Arbitral Tribunal Constituted under Annex VII to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China,” July 12, 2016, https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/6/2016/07/PH-CN-20160712-Award.pdf.

[16] “Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, 1972 (COLREGS),” International Maritime Organization, October 20, 1972, http://www.imo.org/en/About/Conventions/ListOfConventions/Pages/COLREG.aspx.

[17] See Mark D. Faram, “Both Russia and the United States Point the Fingers After Warships Almost Collide,” Navy Times, June 7, 2019, https://www.navytimes.com/news/your-navy/2019/06/07/both-russia-and-us-point-fingers-after-warships-almost-collide/.

[18] For instance, see Brad Lendon, “Photos Show How Close Chinese Warship Came to Colliding with US Destroyer,” CNN, October 4, 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/10/02/politics/us-china-destroyers-confrontation-south-china-sea-intl/index.html.

[19] James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo, The Free Sea: The American Fight for Freedom of Navigation, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018), p. 248-249.

[20] Ibid., p. 248-260.

[21] Ibid., p. 261.

[22] China’s propaganda is pervasive on this issue. For instance, see “Chinese Research Vessel Departs for Seamounts in Mariana Trench,” Global Times, May 15, 2019, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1150514.shtml; and more generally, “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative,” Xinhua, June 20, 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-06/20/c_136380414.htm. Meanwhile, China’s surveys of the oceans have specific military implications; see Steven Stashwick, “New Chinese Ocean Network Collecting Data to Target Submarines, The Diplomat, January 2, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/01/new-chinese-ocean-network-collecting-data-to-target-submarines/; and Andrew Greene, “China Increases Surveillance Near PNG Expanding as Australia and US Begin Manus Island Naval Upgrades,” ABC, April 20, 2019,  https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-04-21/china-increases-surveillance-near-png/11028192.

[23] For instance, see Joshua Tallis, The War for Muddy Waters: Pirates, Terrorists, Traffickers and Maritime Insecurity (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019).

[24] “Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing,” U.S. Department of State, Office of Marine Conservation, https://www.state.gov/key-topics-office-of-marine-conservation/illegal-unreported-and-unregulated-fishing/.

[25] David S. Cloud and Laura King, “Pentagon Accuses Iran of Shooting Missiles at U.S. Drones,” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 2019, https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-iran-drone-attack-20190616-story.html.

[26]  “South China Sea Threatened by ‘a Series of Catastrophes’,”PBS Newshour, May 18, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/south-china-sea-threatened-by-a-series-of-catastrophes.

[27] See Viola Zhou, “China Puts a Stop to Commercial Land Reclamation After Damning Environment Reports: But Key Defence and Infrastructure Projects Likely to Get Green Light,” South China Morning Post, January 2, 2018, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2126567/china-puts-stop-commercial-land-reclamation-after; and John W. McManus, “Massively Destructive Coral Reef Damage from Giant Clam Shell Digging in the South China Sea: Birth, Death and Rebirth,” Webinar published on OpenChannels.org, June 13, 2019, https://www.openchannels.org/webinars/2019/massively-destructive-coral-reef-damage-giant-clam-shell-digging-south-china-sea-birth.

[28] Dr. Anne Cohen, Associate Scientist with Tenure, at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, has brought attention to “Super Reefs” that appear poised to be better able to withstand temperature changes than most coral reefs. For an overview of her recent research, see “Super Reefs” on the Woods Hole website: https://superreefs.whoi.edu/quest-for-super-reefs/.

[29] The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region (Washington, D.C.: DoD, June 1, 2019), https://media.defense.gov/2019/May/31/2002139210/-1/-1/1/DOD_INDO_PACIFIC_STRATEGY_REPORT_JUNE_2019.PDF.

[30] Ibid., p. 2.

[31] Ibid., p. 1.

[32] Ibid., p. 2.

[33] Speaking to the press after meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned of a possible “accidental conflict” breaking out from rising tensions, mutual suspicions, miscalculation, and the possible role of third parties, including non-state actors. See Amir Vahdat, Aya Batrawy and Jon Gambrell, “Japan Premier Warns US, Iran ‘Accidental Conflict’ Possible,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/iran-newspaper-to-japan-how-can-you-trust-a-war-criminal/2019/06/12/d538abc8-8cdd-11e9-b6f4-033356502dce_story.html?utm_term=.aa9d9e1e401d.

[34] See Duncan DeAeth, “Taiwan’s New ‘Ocean Affairs Council’ to be Headquartered in Kaohsiung,” Taiwan News, April 26, 2018, https://www.taiwannews.com.tw/en/news/3415182.

[35] “United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030),” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2018, https://en.unesco.org/ocean-decade.

[36] See Lin Chia-nan, “Dongsha Meeting Urges Conservation, Cooperation,” Taipei Times, June 15, 2019, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2019/06/15/2003716964.

[37] The Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Security, p. 49.

Featured Image: SANTA RITA, Guam (May 24, 2019) The Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) departs Guam for exercise Pacific Vanguard (PACVAN). PACVAN is the first of its kind quadrilateral exercise between Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, and U.S. naval forces. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. j.g. Emily Bull)

Call for Articles: Securing the Gulf

Submissions Due: July 29, 2019
Week Dates: August 5-9, 2019
Article Length: 1000-3500 words
Submit to: Nextwar@cimsec.org

By Dmitry Filipoff

A recent spate of attacks in the Persian Gulf is highlighting the fragile security environment within this strategic body of water. The Gulf, filled with commercial ships carrying much of the world’s oil supply, narrowly separates two adversarial factions composed of Arab states and Iran. As economic disturbances stem from the recent attacks, world leaders are debating how to respond, how to shore up deterrence, and how these attacks figure into Iranian strategy.

The U.S. Navy has long policed the Gulf for the sake of protecting international security, economic stability, and American interests. In 1988, American naval forces engaged in combat operations against Iranian forces to secure Gulf shipping in Operation Praying Mantis. In recent years, the U.S. Navy always maintained a carrier strike group on station in the Gulf, ready to respond. But in the face of chaotic maintenance problems, the emergence of great power competition, and overbearing demands coming from U.S. Central Command, this high-strung requirement for forward naval presence was removed. The naval balance of power in the region has shifted as a result, while making the U.S. far more dependent on local allies.

An American surface warship engages an Iranian oil platform during Operation Praying Mantis in 1988.

Among the solutions being debated include a multi-national coalition, ostensibly under the name Sentinel, that would help maintain situational awareness in the Gulf. How else could the international community secure the Gulf? How could the naval balance of power between Arab states and Iran affect the nature of conflict? Could the U.S. augment its presence in the region? Authors can answer these questions and more as things heat up in the Persian Gulf.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at Nextwar@cimsec.org.

Featured Image: The Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman from space. (Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.