Tag Archives: Strategy

Bow to the Hegemon – Dr. Kori Schake on a Peaceful Transition of Global Power

By Christopher Nelson

Recently I had the chance to talk to Dr. Kori Schake about her new book, Safe Passage: From British to American Hegemony. Her book describes the only case of a peaceful hegemonic transition between two nations. In this instance, it was the gradual transition from British to American hegemony beginning in the 19th century and ending at the end of World War II with America firmly situated as the global leader.

We spoke for over an hour about her book, history, the great Tom Schelling, and of course, what she’s reading these days. It was a fun and fascinating discussion. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

Christopher Nelson: Professor Schake, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Before we get into details of the book, I want to start by asking you about the book’s cover. It’s a fabulous picture and I got to say, it stands out in the sea of books on international relations and national security. Having listened to you speak on a panel before – full of energy and jazz –  I’ll admit that the picture reminds me of a 19th century Kori Schake. Did you discover it? Your editor? Where’s it from?

Kori Schake: [Laughter] Yes! It’s a 19th century portrait of me! You are exactly right. I did pick it. I found it when I was doing the research for the book. And I love the way it’s what we look like to Britain when America was a rising power: she’s confidently assessing her appearance in the mirror, adjusting a battleship hat, and the accoutrements of war are literally hanging off her purse strings.

Nelson: I’m a big believer that a book’s dedication is important. Quickly skipped by many, but important. You dedicated this book to Tom Schelling. Many readers will recognize his name and have read his work, some have not. I discovered Arms and Influence much too late in my naval career. It’s fantastic. Who was he, but more important, how did he mentor you as an academic, as a thinker, as a student?

Schake: I was so lucky to have the privilege of learning from Tom. He was not at the University of Maryland when I went there to do my graduate work. But he came there and he was such a warm, fostering, generous soul. It was such a privilege to learn from him. But I have to tell you, Tom Schelling gave me some of the best advice about life.

He rushed me through my PhD dissertation because I had been A.D.D for six years. I was a year into my dissertation research when I got a posh fellowship to go work as a civilian in General Powell’s Joint Staff in the summer of 1990. This was two weeks after Iraq invaded Kuwait. I went off to work with General Powell for a year and stayed in the Pentagon for six years. And Tom, bless his heart, kept writing letters to the chancellor of the university who was understandably trying to clear me off the rolls of the PhD program because it was so obvious I was never going to finish. Tom kept writing these beautiful letters saying, “She’s not working in a shoe store, she’s doing the kind of jobs we would want someone who held a PhD from this institution to be doing.” So he kept them from throwing me out.

When I left the Pentagon I wrote my PhD dissertation in six months. It’s terrible. What Tom kept saying was, “Get the dissertation done and make the book perfect.” He understood what a flight risk I was. And so I am living proof that if the minimum wasn’t good enough it would not be the minimum. I got my dissertation done and went on doing work that I liked and wanted to do.

Tom eventually brought me back to Maryland for my first teaching job. There is never going to be a better day in my professional life than the day of my PhD defense. At the end of it Tom thanked me for teaching him something about strategy.

Nelson: What did you teach him?

Schake: I didn’t teach him anything. It’s proof of what a gentleman he was. I wrote my dissertation on strategy and the Berlin Crisis in 1958 and 1961. I did not realize when I chose the topic that Tom had been an advisor to the Kennedy administration in 1961. The conclusion of my dissertation was that the Kennedy administration had actually made a delicate situation much worse by treating the crisis as a problem about the risk of war with the Soviet Union rather than treating it as a problem of how to keep Germany voluntarily allied with the West. So I ended up being very critical of the policy choices the administration he was advising had come to. He could not have been happier [Laughter]. He said it was wonderful that I thought for myself on the subject and agreed with me in retrospect. The frame of reference that the Kennedy administration put on the problem led to worse solutions than the policies the Eisenhower administration had taken.

Nelson: How did the idea come about to write the book? What is it about the transition between British and U.S. global hegemony that interests you?

Schake: The idea was germinating for a long time. With all of the talk of the rise of China and whether it can happen peacefully and what it means for the U.S., I kept wondering: What are the precedents?  What worked last time and what didn’t? I didn’t even know enough about the subject when I started writing to realize that there was only one peaceful hegemonic transition in history. I thought I was going to be looking at whole bunch of case studies. And when I started doing the research for the book I realized I couldn’t write it as a political science book because there are no case studies. There is a single case study if you’re looking at peaceful transition.

Nelson: So what would a statistician say?

Schake: If N=1 you can never draw a conclusion, that’s what a statistician would say. But history does not give us the luxury of an N sufficiently large to draw a robust conclusion. History gives us what it gives us.

If, for example, you read Graham Allison’s book on the rise of China, what Graham tries to do was force the problem into a political science framework by expanding the definition of hegemonic transition to get more than one case of a peaceful transfer. And I think that is much more problematic. For example, one case of hegemonic transition he uses is the shift of power from Britain and France after World War II towards Germany. But of course all three of those countries have the same security guarantor.

So first of all, it’s not a hegemonic transition. There was a hegemon setting the rules. And second of all, it wasn’t a hegemonic transition because we imposed the rules on our three close allies because we were worried about an entirely different problem.

I thought about the question of hegemonic transition a long time – years in fact. I kept worrying that somebody smarter than me was going to write this book before I got to it. I watched the book review section with enormous trepidation that someone like Aaron Friedberg would have turned his attention to this or anyone of the dozens and dozens of people who could do a better job than I did in the writing of this. But nobody got to it before I got to it!

Punch cartoon after the conclusion of the Tribunal of Arbitration that sought to settle the Venezuelan crisis of 1895. PEACE AND PLENTY. Lord Salisbury (chuckling). “I like arbitration — In the PROPER PLACE!” (Wikimedia Commons)

As you know, Chris, I’m not a historian of the 19th century. But I got obsessed with this question of peaceful hegemonic transition and I had to learn the history of the 19th century in order to answer the question I was interested in. My other big worry was that historians were going to point out that I wasn’t part of the tribe. You know, the thirty-seven things I ought to have understood about this period of time that anybody knowledgeable on the subject would know but I didn’t’ know – I kept waiting in agony that that would be the verdict. I feel like I got away with the jailbreak of the century, but so far the reviews have been good.

Nelson: Fascinating. How does this fit with the idea that there’s a list of smart, well-read, popular writers out there that are writing about topics as non-professionals, in the sense they may not have an advanced degree in the specific subject – and here I’m thinking of people like Malcolm Gladwell, Nicholas Taleb, David McCullough and many more – but they are able to connect different ideas, sometimes across different disciplines, and convey them very well.

Schake: I hate reading history where somebody avalanches everything they know on a subject at me; historians are curators, that’s what they do. I want someone to tell me what is relevant and interesting about a particular problem. As General Powell used to tease me all the time when I worked at the Joint Staff that there were lots of reasons to fire me but there were two reasons not to. The first reason not to fire me was that it was kind of funny to watch me do my job. And the second was because I was the only NATO expert he ever met that when he asked what time it was, I would just tell him what time it was [Laughter]. Yes. I wouldn’t start with first the earth cooled, and then sun-dials, and then clocks…

But back to your question, they ask interesting questions and then they tell a story. They’re engaging storytellers which is what every good teacher is.

Nelson: How do you research and write? For instance, are you a longhand writer that finds a few hours every morning to write and then transcribe it to a computer? What’s your process?

Schake: I basically break it down into three stages.

The first stage is just thinking about what’s the right question. What’s the right question that unlocks understanding about an important subject?  Many books that I’m bored reading are books that are about a subject, not about a question. I try to always discipline myself to think about issues in terms of what is the right question because then I can figure out what does it take to answer the question.

For me the second stage is trying to figure out what would prove the answer right and what would prove it wrong? What is the discriminating data that would help me figure out if I have the right answer or not. I’m extremely Germanic in my approach to writing. The architecture actually matters to me because I find that I’m a poor editor of my own work. Once I write it it’s hard for me to throw it all away, so unless I’m disciplined enough to structure it in ways that are not just driving down a rabbit hole, I need to understand this to explain this, and here’s the place to talk about this, that sort of thing. Unless I force myself into the discipline of structure I just walk around the house in my pajamas talking to myself and it doesn’t end up being something that is valuable to anyone.

The last third of it is the actual writing of it.

Nelson: So you’re the person who has to do the outline with pen and paper?

Schake: Yes. When I’m researching I start building blocks of research. As I look at flows of bits of information I am trying to figure out how to tell the story. I outline the book, the details are outlined, the research is plugged into the outline, and then I write to stitch the pieces together. It’s unimaginative and Germanic. But unless I do that I’m way too self-indulgent and I end up with a lot of stuff that will end up on the editing floor.

Nelson: Throughout the book you introduce different international relation perspectives when you outline how historians, political scientists, and others have tried to describe the relationship between the U.S. and Britain during this period of transition. In the international relations field, what do you consider yourself? Simply, what’s your worldview? Are you a Realist?

Schake:  I am badly trained in several disciplines.

Nelson: [Laughter]

Schake: No, that is the honest to god truth, Chris. My degrees are in political science, yet I write history and I was trained by an economist.

Nelson: [Laugh] That’s a lovely dodge. But seriously, I’m curious, what’s Kori Schake’s worldview?

Schake: I had the privilege of being with an extraordinary group of people a few months ago in something called the Civic Collaboratory. It’s run by an outstanding American by the name of Eric Liu who is dedicated to rebuilding the bonds of affection and cooperation among Americans.

The Collaboratory is something where everybody who goes is the head of an organization in the public sphere, for example, one person is the head of the 92nd Street Y in New York City. Eric uses a diverse group of people, some of whom will pitch the next idea for what they are working on. Everybody else in the group tries to come up with ways to help. It can be big, it can be little, but the point is to try to help each other.

One of the most inspiring people I met in this amazing group of people was a woman who was teaching history. She told me the motto of her organization. It is now the motto of my worldview, which is this: people make choices, and choices make history. For me that really is how I think about it. I don’t believe in immutable forces of history like the crushing burden of economic determinism, or religious determinism, or political determinism. I think we have wide latitude to craft our fate and so I think the only thing that the Realists have right when talking about American foreign policy is that they were incredibly smart to choose the best name. Because if you’re the realist everybody else is unrealistic.

Also, the Realist description of how governments make choices don’t correlate with what I think of America in the 20th century. For me, the most powerful thing I learned when writing Safe Passage was that as the United States grew more powerful it grew more liberal. We reversed the trend that governed every other powerful state, which is as other countries became more powerful they bent the rules to their advantage. In contrast, when we became more powerful we gave wider latitude to others to affect our choices and legitimatize our power. That really does make America in the time of its hegemony unique. As an American I found it incredibly touching.

Nelson: Your book details nine historic moments between the U.S. and Britain, from 1823 to 1923, that you use to illustrate as pivotal points towards hegemonic transition – but it wasn’t smooth. What were some of the more significant points of friction between the U.S. and Britain during this time that could have led to conflict?

Schake: I love that question, especially because the answer is so obscure. The moment at which things were likely to result in war between Great Britain and the U.S. was the 1895 Venezuelan debt crisis – which nobody knows anything about, it’s lost to history. It’s the moment when war was likeliest, when a rising U.S. was breathtakingly reckless.

U.S. President Cleveland twists the tail of the lion (Britain). (Puck cartoon 1880s via Wikimedia Commons)

The basic story goes like this: Venezuela and Great Britain had been disputing the boundary line along the Orinoco river (which is in Venezuela) for 45 years or so. It becomes a crisis because the British get greedy, the Venezuelan cadillo defaults on loans that for British companies build infrastructure. As an aside it is important to understand that in judging the Venezuelan choices in this, they are only rudimentarily a state at this point. The quality of government is very poor. The British get predatory and they want the mouths of the Orinoco river in return for Venezuela defaulting on their debt. And again, none of this matters to us, except for the fact that the Monroe Doctrine had been American policy for over 70 years and the Venezuelan government had an American lobbyist working for them that wrote op-eds in newspapers all over the U.S. drawing attention to this issue.

Grover Cleveland who was the President at the time was so opposed to imperialism that he refused to proceed with the accession of Hawaii as an American territory. He considered the Monroe Doctrine troublesome. Yet this American lobbyist working for the Venezuelans forced it onto the political agenda by challenging that Cleveland was failing to enforce the Monroe Doctrine. Grover Cleveland, who runs a cabinet-style presidency where he exercised loose control, allows the American Secretary of State to write a 12,000 word demarche to the British that concludes that American law is fiat on this continent. The British don’t even respond to such a ridiculous proposition. Grover Cleveland is then offended that we aren’t being treated more respectfully because we’re a rising power. So he starts to get more engaged and he defends the Secretary of State.

The British reply after another round of this, and they say that they control more territory on the North American Continent than we do – which adds insult to injury. Cleveland then does what every good American President does in foreign policy: he appeals to the recklessness of the American Congress. He gets an unanimous endorsement from Congress to go to war with Great Britain!

Great Britain was the dominant military force in the world at that time. The American Navy’s Caribbean squadron was six ships – and yet we were ready to fight the hegemon of the international order. The British flipped on the issue. In the space of six months they go from derision to Prime Minister Salisbury being cheered in the House of Commons when he announced that there is no greater supporter of the Monroe Doctrine than her majesty’s government. It’s a wonderful case study because why did it change? I found it a very poignant story because civil society in these two democracies is what changed their positions. The United States was an illiberal democracy in the 19th century. Britain wasn’t a democracy but had a more liberal government than most in the international order at the time.

What happens is civil societies reach across cultures. 354 members of the British Parliament write an open letter to the U.S. Congress encouraging peaceful arbitration to resolve the dispute between their countries. American newspapers initiate a write in campaign. The Prince of Wales – the husband of Queen Victoria – writes one of the letters suggesting that war between our two countries is fratricide. That sentimental connection, the sense of being the same, creates space for political compromise that avoids the war.

Nelson: Along that point, when you studied this through an entire century, when was there, as a culture, a sense of collective self-consciousness about the transition? Did the leaders or the populations sense this hegemonic shift?

Schake: I love where you are going with this. Nobody’s ever asked me that question. Yes – when did they know? One of the interesting things I learned when doing the research is that Britain was never a comfortable hegemon in the way the United States wears its power with ease. I think because the successes that made Britain the ruler and enforcer of the international order were all coalition victories. Britain had to work with Spain and Portugal in the fight against Napoleon, and they had to bring the Prussians into the fight. All of their defining victories are coalition victories. So they never think of themselves with the ease of power that the U.S. does after World War II. They always worry that it is too expensive, that it is not worth it. There’s never a moment that they aren’t thinking it is slipping away from them – they are always worried it will.

That’s the biggest difference in my perspective from Aaron Friedberg’s brilliant book Weary Titan. He looks at a tight timeframe of about ten years when the transition actually occurs and he ascribes characteristics to the British in the twilight of their hegemony that were actually true of them in the entirety of it.

Nelson: Moving to contemporary issues and themes. Your book is timely, because in one way it is juxtaposed to Graham Allison’s recent book on the Thucydides trap, that we’ve already briefly touched on. So two questions regarding that: What are your thoughts on the concept of a Thucydides trap? And second, what do you want readers to take from your book, namely, if peaceful transition is possible, but rare, how do see the future of great power conflict?

Schake: Sir Lawrence Freedman wrote a review of Graham Allison’s book, that if anyone writes a review like that of my book, you can find my body floating in the river – way down [Laughter]. It’s devastating.

My view is that Graham should be laughing all the way to the bank because whether you agree with his argument or not, he defines Thucydides in a really interesting and important way. He and I are firing salvos at each other on the Cato Institute website right now. I wrote an essay on how to think about the rise of China that Graham and several other people critiqued. So now I’m getting ready to fire my second salvo at them. It’s really fun. I’m learning a whole bunch from other people’s perspective on the problem.

My sense of the Thucydides story is different than what comes across in Graham’s book. Having talked to him about it several times and debated it with him several times, he doesn’t think that’s all that Thucydides says . There’s so much you can take from Thucydides. The way it comes through Graham’s telling of the book is a more narrow reading of Thucydides than I think is fair to Thucydides – which is a big beautiful canvas of a story, and I think Graham agrees with that.

I don’t think it is a trap because, again, people make choices. The Athenians make choices, Pericles is playing a dangerous game, there’s a lot going on there that makes it interesting. I also don’t think it describes the United States, which after all has encouraged the rise of the rest of the world. We have encouraged an international order where our power is constrained by rules and institutions, and patterns of cooperation that are mutually beneficial.

John Ikenberry gets America in the time of its primacy exactly right. We shape the international order as a microcosm of our domestic political order. That’s why we face so few challenges to our dominance. That’s because most other countries think the current international order is better than they would get any other way. And that’s what we see playing out with China right now. Everyone wants the American order.

Nelson: This gets to your conclusion in your book. If peaceful transition is rare but possible, what do think happens in the next decade?

Schake: I think the way to bet your money is that hegemonic transitions will be violent. The only exception is the Britain-to-American transition. Because of the U.S.’ westward expansion, the consolidation of the American continent, after fighting the Indian Wars, we become an empire in our own minds. We come to have imperial reflexes because of our conquest of the West. So during this 20th century transition, Britain has become a democracy while we are becoming an empire. So we look similar to each other but different to everybody else. That sense of sameness created space for policy comprise. Political scientists hate squishy stuff like this – and they’re right, it’s not rigorous, it’s impressionistic. But what I learned trying to understand this one transition in great detail is that that was what mattered. That sense of sameness, that sense we were like each other and different from everybody else allowed for compromise.

So what to look for in future hegemonic transitions is that squishy intellectually unsatisfying definition of sameness, which takes us to Hegel and Frank Fukuyama, because China doesn’t feel similar to the U.S. right now. And if you think China can continue to rise without playing by the rules of the American order, and if you think as has been the case for the last 40 years that China can continue to rise without liberalizing, then it is very likely to be a violent transition.

I’m skeptical China can continue to rise without liberalizing because I think the law of gravity applies to them as well. It seems to me that, like Maslow’s pyramid, as people’s basic needs are met they become more demanding political consumers. So the challenge to China will be things like moms demanding safe baby milk, and parents infuriated that corruption meant building codes weren’t followed so schools collapse in earthquakes and kids get killed. You see an awareness of that risk in the anti-corruption campaign in China. I don’t think authoritarian societies get honest enough feedback to stay ahead of problems. In free societies you are always having to answer the question, for example, if you want to confiscate somebody’s property to run a high-speed train through it, you have to win the argument; in authoritarian societies where you don’t have to win the argument, I don’t see how they stay honest. I think the question is less about a hegemonic transition with a rising China, but rather: can China be successful in light of what its own citizens want?

Nelson: What would you recommend others read about this topic after they’ve finished your book? Specifically, what would you recommend someone read on this topic that takes a contrarian view?

Schake: There’s so much good material on this subject. Walter Russell Mead’s God and Gold is a great book that has a very different take than I do. He’s much more of the belief that British and Americans considered themselves similar. I think it is a late-developing consciousness. Walter treats it as having the model right and passing it from one to another with a certain inevitability of its success.

But when I read World War II history it makes me derisive when contemporary policy makers say today is way more complicated than it ever was and nobody has had challenges as difficult as we do. Man, a lot of American leaders back then would trade their problems with some of our challenges. Fighting Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany simultaneously is a lot harder than what we’ve been called to do today. This is a long circuitous route to tell you where Walter and I disagree: Walter gives a sense of inevitability. I think the story is so much more interesting when you realize how fearful the leadership was in the 20th century that they would lose.

We think of World War II in broad, heroic terms because we know the outcome. But the people who had to make decisions at the time – for instance, whether you go to Europe first or fight the Asian campaign first – was a question of enormous consequence and the continuation of the Republic hung in the balance.

Bob Kagan’s work on America and the liberal order and Walter Russell Mead’s work – I admire them both so much – but in both cases I think they failed to embrace how close-run American successes have been. I also think, including John Ikenberry, who writes so beautifully about America in the 20th century, they don’t get their arms around the brutality of the U.S. in the 19th century. We were a democracy, but Britain was right, we were an illustration of what was to be feared about a democracy because we were profoundly illiberal. And not just on the slavery issues. The Indian Wars go on for 50 years after the abolition of slavery and almost nobody blanched about the barbarity of that. In the great state of California, it was legal up into the 1920s to take Native American children away from their parents.

One of the questions that animated me to want to understand this American history better was trying to understand how a political culture so proud of our Republican values could live the history we lived in the 19th century and still become what we are in the 20th century. That animates a lot about how I try to tell the story in the book.

Nelson: Professor, to close on a lighter note, and not related to your book, what have you been reading lately – fiction, non-fiction – that you’ve particularly enjoyed? Articles, books? Longform journalism?

Schake: As it happens, I have six books on my nightstand at the moment that I am reading. The first is Emily Wilson’s splendid, sparkling new translation of The Odyssey. I think about Odysseus and his story differently because of her translation. If you think about the opening lines of Fagel’s translation of The Odyssey: “Tell me Muse of the man of twists and turns.” Emily Wilson’s translation of that line is, “Tell me Muse of a complicated man.” She conjures a completely different approach. I am just reveling in how differently to think about a book I know well because of a translation. It’s wonderful.

The next book on my nightstand is The War that Killed Achilles. It’s about the lessons from the Trojan War.

The third book on my nightstand is Emily Fridlund’s novel The History of Wolves. I haven’t started it yet, but my sister read it and thought it was brilliant.

The fourth is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad – it won the Pulitzer Prize. I love her writing.

Next on the list is Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. I believe Phil Klay, the great short story writer and novelist, said this was a book that was important to him.

Finally, Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence. The good and great Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson recommended this book to me.

Nelson: And websites that you like to visit from time -to-time?

Shacke: You know where I’m going to start. I really enjoy War on the Rocks. I also really like The Strategy Bridge, Divergent Options, and I read everything Mira Rapp-Hooper and Tamara Cofman Wittes write because I always learn from them.

Nelson: This was wonderful. Thanks again for taking the time to chat.

Schake: Thank you, Chris. I really enjoyed this.

Dr. Kori Schake is the Deputy Director-General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. She is the author of Safe Passage: the Transition from British to American Hegemony (Harvard, 2017) and editor with Jim Mattis of Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military (Hoover Institution, 2016). She has worked for the National Security Council staff, the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, and both the military and civilian staffs in the Pentagon. In 2008 she was senior policy advisor on the McCain presidential campaign. She taught Thinking About War at Stanford University, and also in the faculties of the United States Military Academy, the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and the University of Maryland. 

Christopher Nelson is a U.S. naval officer stationed at the U.S. Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. He is a regular contributor to CIMSEC. The questions above are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

Featured Image: Cover of Puck magazine, 6 April 1901. (Columbia’s Easter bonnet / Ehrhart after sketch by Dalrymple.)

The Navy Needs to Do More Than Rebuild for the Future, It needs to Reinvent Itself

It is time for a Navy-wide campaign to rethink force strategy, design, and culture for competition in a digitized world.

By Frank T. Goertner

When paradigms change, the world itself changes with them.1

— Thomas Kuhn

Return to great power competition; revisionist powers; renewed capabilities; rebuild our military: such phrases feature prominently in recent U.S. national security guidance. They convey an imperative to look to the past as the nation prepares for a potentially volatile future. For American navalists in particular, they offer nostalgic optimism. Three times in the 20th Century, the Navy confronted rivals to U.S. sea power and prevailed. As the world returns to similar heights of geo-strategic rivalry, it is tempting for Navy leaders to approach the future via plans to rebuild past success. With concerted effort, the Service can revise known strategies, renew forgone capacity, and return to prior postures for the contests ahead. This approach would appear logical. It would also be a mistake. 

The world and its competitive landscape are changing in profound ways. The advance and proliferation of digital technologies among interdependent societies has established digitized information as a new global commodity of unprecedented strategic value. This development is upending competitive norms across and within human enterprises around the world and inspiring new paradigms that will reshape future contests between them. We see this in markets and geopolitics alike.    

For the Navy, one such enterprise, this implies that the approaches most pertinent to its future may not be behind it, but around it. This is not to say history is irrelevant. But alongside its lesson, Navy leaders should account for how commercial peers and maritime rivals are preparing their own enterprises for the contests ahead. As important, they should do so free of any assumptions that could self-constrain the Navy’s ambitions for its future within paradigms of its past.

A glance around at the Navy’s peers and rivals suggests that an approach to rebuild for the future is not enough.  Navy leaders should promote new competitive paradigms to fully leverage digitized information and harness its strategic value. They need a campaign to rethink force strategy, design, and culture for the contests ahead. In sum, the Navy needs to reinvent itself as a digitized enterprise for the digitized world.

The Market and Its New Norms

“Data [is] to this century what oil was to the last one. . . It changes the rules for markets and it demands new approaches.”2

-The Economist

Information has always been a source of competitive advantage in the market, but digitized information in a globalized and digitized economy is something new. It is a global commodity that can assume unprecedented levels of strategic value. In industries around the world, control of digitized information has become as – sometimes more – determinative of competitive outcomes than ownership of physical space or manipulation of material goods. 

It is a phenomenon that Chris Anderson of WIRED magazine terms 21st Century Free,3 and Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT call the new economics of free, perfect, and instant.4 Digitized information, for decades one of many resources used by firms to enable operating efficiencies or assist in corporate planning, is emerging in the 21st Century as a driver of new competitive norms. It can be accessed and transmitted at unparalleled scale, scope, and speed. With near-zero marginal costs to produce, it can grant firms extraordinary levels of efficiency as they shift from material to digital infrastructure. It can assume considerable monetary value and hold that value across traditional industry and national boundaries. It can be harnessed for innovation and expansion into new, often unexpected, sectors. In short, a firm that can effectively amass, manipulate, and control digitized information can achieve unprecedented levels of command over what Michael Porter of Harvard refers to as a new competitive landscape of smart, connected products.5

To account for these new norms, firms in an array of industries are promoting new competitive paradigms. They are migrating from 20th Century corporate thinking based in competition for profits within material manufacturing or services toward new thinking that prioritizes competition for access, manipulation, and control of digitized information alongside – often in place of – traditional sources of profit. Some go so far as to completely invert previous paradigms. Firms that once saw digitized resources as means to achieve ends within a competition for physical resources now see physical resources as means to achieve ends within the competition for digitized information.6

Commercial Peers and Their Race to Reinvent

“If you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly… you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.”7

– Jeff Bezos

The challenge is that paradigms don’t change easily.  Moreover, if they don’t change fast enough, a firm risks obscuring its vision for the future within lenses ground in the past. Therefore, executives of the most successful firms are promoting their new paradigms with campaigns to rethink corporate strategy, design, and culture for the market’s new norms. In effect, they are reinventing their firms as digitized enterprises for a digitized world.8 What does this entail?

First, it takes executive commitment to reshape strategic perspectives to account for the new competitive norms of a digitized market.9 From the top down, executives and their strategic planners must embrace the fact that digitized information is no longer merely a means to enhance value of current service or production techniques. As a strategic commodity, it can often be the source of new value and innovation.10

Second, it takes a disciplined effort to redesign platforms and operations, not only within existing functions, but also into new frontier functions that command of digitized information can make accessible.11 One approach that has gained prominence is the digital platform approach; focusing design efforts on platforms that integrate digital and material resources, re-aligning current operations and investments to support those platforms, and posturing both to outperform competing platforms by beating competitors to market to learn early and learn fast from the environment.12 This is often complimented by a digital journey approach to iterative platform re-design; mapping theoretical customer journeys across each platform of a firm in order to identify both efficiencies to improve value and options to open new competitive fronts along the way.13

Third, it takes planning to evolve a digital culture or digital DNA14 of the workforce to ensure they build human-machine teams to engage in a digitized world. This includes experimenting with organizational balance between minds and machines15 as well as talent management models to develop leaders to translate digitized information into human action – leaders Robert Reich of Harvard calls symbolic analysts.16

For an idea of how this looks in practice, Marriott is a firm driving to reinvent. For five decades through the 1990s, Marriott was a leading owner of lodging and dining facilities. As of last year, it owned just 22 hotels worldwide; yet still claimed control of “more than 6,000 properties in 122 countries and territories.”17 In the two decades between, Marriott executives promoted a new competitive paradigm that prioritized digitized information as a global commodity and strategic priority on par with – sometimes superior to – material sources of value. As evidence of how comprehensive this paradigm shift has been, Marriott’s 2016 acquisition of Starwood Hotels was the biggest deal in hospitality history. Yet consider what aspect of the deal Marriott flagged to investors in its annual report: “With the acquisition, Marriott now has the most powerful frequent traveler programs in the lodging industry.”18 For Marriott, the deal’s value derived at least as much from the digitized information gained as in material resources. Since the deal, Marriott’s focus has been to harness the strategic value of that commodity. They use a platform approach to integrate material and digital resources across reservation, financial, and management systems. Executives are envisioning Marriott customers as digital immigrants, with planners evaluating each immigrant’s digital journey, “from searching for a hotel room . . . through and then after the stay.”19 And Marriott personnel are retooling practices to align human talents and machine tasks across the merged digitized enterprise.  

General Electric (GE) and Boeing offer additional examples somewhat closer to the Navy. GE is racing to preserve its claim as the last original American industrial firm in the DOW by reinventing itself around its digital platform – PREDIX. Boeing, for its part, now refers to “data as fuel,” and is proactively exploring how to design future systems, platforms, and workforces around its own digital platform – Analytx.20 Both, like Marriott, are racing to reinvent themselves as digitized enterprises for the digitized contests they see ahead.

The Maritime Operating Environment and Its New Norms

“A war of ideas can no more be won without books than a naval war can be won without ships. Books, like ships, have the toughest armor, the longest cruising range, and mount the most powerful guns.”21

-President Franklin D. Roosevelt

As in business, information has always been an integral part of military competition. The quote above from one of the 20th Century’s great navalists highlights this poignantly. Yet reread it substituting FDR’s books with today’s equivalent, digitized information, and the quote rises to a whole new meaning.

In the 21st Century, digitized information has emerged as a global commodity of unprecedented strategic value in the competition for sea power among maritime nations. With maritime communication, transportation, and national service networks reliant on digital infrastructure, the information they carry has immense geo-political value. Employment of digitized information in automated battle management systems, operational analytics, and cyber operations could drive down marginal costs and augment cumulative effects of military operations at exponential rates. Finally, networked digitized information offers the prospect of widely disbursed forces operating with nearly free, perfect and instant command, control, and communications (C3) with coherency and precision.

As a result, a fight for sea power in an operating environment where digitized information is a global commodity is not just a faster fight or more multi-faceted fight. It is a completely different kind of fight. The contest for Volume, Velocity, Veracity, and Value of Information becomes paramount – so much so that the strategic ends in future digitized conflicts may no longer be control or destruction of physical combat forces and facilities, but rather control of digital devices, connections, networks, and perceptions of those engaged in the contest.22 Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, recent Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, calls it 5th Generation Warfare and the Cognitive Battle.23 Dr. William Roper, recent Director of DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office, envisions it as digital blitzkrieg in which “whoever collects the most data on Day One just might win the war before a single shot is fired.”24 

In sum, digitized information in the 21st Century maritime operating environment is more than an operational enabler; it is a strategic resource that can be as – perhaps more – decisive to victory as the physical control of territory or the kinetic lethality of material weapons. These are the new norms of the digitized maritime operating environment, and navies around the world are taking note.

Maritime Rivals and Their Race to Reinvent

“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”25

-Sun Tzu

It is hard to imagine a better resource than digitized information for a modern military in pursuit of Sun Tzu’s timeless ambitions. This is not lost on 21st Century rivals for U.S. sea power. Both Russian and Chinese military leaders are promoting new paradigms that effectively invert past thinking on military competition, migrating away from 20th Century doctrine focused on a digitally-enabled fight for control of the territory and infrastructure that have historically defined victory. Rather, they are strategizing for a materially-enabled fight to control the digitized information that could define victory in a future fight. In effect, like their commercial peers, each is racing to reinvent themselves as digitized enterprises for the digitized contests they see ahead. What does this entail?

First, Russian and Chinese leaders appear committed to reshape strategic perspectives to account for the new norms of a digitized operating environment. In both practice26 and in doctrine,27 Moscow has elevated manipulation and control of digitized information to an unprecedented level of prominence in their strategic planning. Information Confrontation is the Russian’s name for their new approach. Surpassing traditional information warfare, its ambition is to align missions and operations across digitized diplomatic, economic, military, political, cultural, and social enterprises such that national influence can be targeted with new levels of efficiency and precision, plus in new unprecedented ways.28 Similarly, China is advancing its sea power with a new approach the Department of Defense terms Low Intensity Coercion.29 Through precisely coordinated diplomatic, economic, and military ventures; they seek to integrate digitized and material resources under centralized command and control in what Admiral James Stavridis has called “a kind of hybrid war at sea.”30 Further, like Russia, their ambition is unconstrained by 20th Century concepts. In the words of Elsa Kania of the Center for New American Security, Beijing’s ultimate aim is to “fundamentally change the character of warfare” and thus seize “the ‘commanding heights’ of future military competition.”31

Second, both rivals are intent to redesign platforms and operations and evolve a digital culture to account for their new strategic perspectives and make best use of digitized information as a strategic resource. Russia’s hybrid social media tactics in Ukraine,32 emphasis on offensive cyber,33 development of deep-sea capabilities to hold sea-bed communications cables at risk,34 and alleged GPS-spoofing in the Black Sea35 offer a sense how they are retooling Russian forces, to include the Russian Navy, for the new norms of the digitized operating environment. Similarly, Beijing’s investments in unmanned air, surface, and undersea vehicles; advanced cooperative maritime surveillance and targeting systems; electromagnetic pulse weapons; and quantum technology offer an idea of how they too are retooling their military for digitized maritime contests.36 It also appears Russia and China have started to align toward a digital platform approach in designing for force-wide employment of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Russian President Vladimir Putin recently asserted that the nation and military that leads in AI will rule the world.37 The Chinese military sees it as their “trump card”  in leading progress from today’s ‘informatized’ ways of warfare to future ‘intelligentized’ warfare,” and Beijing has set a goal for China to be the premier global innovation center in AI by 2030.38 Both nations are aggressively investing in force-wide AI applications that range from surveillance and decision aids to fully automated lethal systems. Fully realized, a Russian or Chinese Navy redesigned around a force-wide AI digital platform could credibly overmatch rivals in employment of digitized information for unmanned systems; intelligence fusion, processing, and analysis; operational training, war-gaming and simulation; information warfare; and support to both strategic and tactical command and control. Perhaps of greatest concern, though, is that both appear intent on being first to learn early and learn fast in the operating environment.39 

The U.S. Navy’s Choice: Rebuild or Reinvent 

“The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.”40

-Denis Gabor

With peers and rivals racing to define their futures, the U.S. Navy is presented with a choice for its own — rebuild or reinvent?

Some will read this as a retread of the classic force planning calculus of capacity versus capability, and they will claim it’s nothing new. Others will say that it is a false choice, with the decision already made to do both.  The Service has committed to grow its force structure, reconsider its force posture, and upgrade its systems and personnel. Either argument misses the point. Before the Navy strikes for new capacity, new capabilities, or both, Navy leaders must decide what kind of enterprise the Navy will be for the contests they see ahead. Even if the targets for capacity and capability are clear, what is not is the lens through which the Navy will sight them. And that lens matters immensely. It will shape the assumptions from which its leaders depart, the questions its planners ask in charting the course, and the criteria for prioritizing decisions along the way.

A choice to rebuild is a choice to retain current paradigms or adapt incrementally from those of the past. It is a choice to keep strategic focus on a fight for control of territory and infrastructure, knowing that rivals have shifted their focus to a fight prioritizing control of digitized information as much – or more – than the physical geography it passes through. It is a choice to grow the force within current fleet structure, expand concepts rooted in current functions and missions, innovate within current program and budgetary decision processes, and adjust current personnel models – all of which were designed for contests in a pre-digital world. Ultimately, it is a choice to return to the type of force that America knows how to build and how to fight.

How would a rebuilt Navy look? It would be a Navy of digitally augmented Carrier Strike Groups and Air Wings to sustain manned power projection missions, digitally enhanced submarines to sustain predominately nuclear deterrence missions, digitally assisted surface action groups to re-attain capacity for sustained geo-spatial sea control, and maritime security missions with more and better data but still processed through human constraints on how to use it. It would be a Fleet with new digital resources, but still postured to defend and secure maritime infrastructure, trade routes, and allies prioritized within a pre-digital terrain where maneuver and coercion played by different rules. Finally, it would be a workforce of Sailors and civilians enabled by digitized resources such as AI and robotics to execute today’s requirements, but not necessarily teamed with them to define and explore new frontiers – frontiers such as fully or semi-autonomous long-endurance strike groups, offensive sea-based cyber operations, or non-nuclear deterrence forces for digitized coercion. 

A rebuilt Navy is fine if the fight the Navy sees ahead is the fight it sees behind. The challenge is that the Navy’s peers and rivals, embracing new paradigms, are assuring that won’t be the case. The rebuilt Navy may be suited for the fight the U.S. wants to fight, but how well can it secure victory in a materially-enabled fight for digitized information? As important, how well does it deny rivals their access to this new strategic commodity?

In the end, a rebuilt Navy in contest with reinvented navies could be precisely the right Navy for precisely the wrong fight. If Russia and China are right, and victory in a digitized world rests as much – or more – on command of digitized information as it does material resources, then this approach cedes strategic aperture to rivals choosing to reinvent instead of rebuild. Even if hypothetical, this is a mistake the U.S. Navy cannot afford.                 

The Navy Should Aim to Reinvent – Here’s How

“For 240 years, the U.S. Navy has been a cornerstone of American security and prosperity.  To continue to meet this obligation, we must adapt to the emerging security environment.”41

-Admiral John Richardson, CNO

The U.S. Navy should set its sights beyond rebuilding and aim to reinvent itself as a digitized enterprise for a digitized world. Fortunately if it does, there are initiatives already underway that move in the right direction.

The quote above shows Navy leadership has a healthy appreciation for the need to not just grow, but to change along the way. They also acknowledge the imperative to leverage digitized information as it does. Over the past decade, the Navy has developed an Information Warfare Community, stood up Fleet Cyber Command, established a Digital Warfare Office, and founded a Center for Cyber Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy. It has established Navy Information Forces, created a Navy Information Warfighting Development Center, and issued a Strategy for Data and Analytics Optimization. Alongside these, the Service has promoted a series of strategic plans and roadmaps for science and technology as well as directives and initiatives to promote a data savvy workforce. Moreover, there is a growing voice that further efforts are warranted to ensure these efforts deliver faster – even “exponential” operational effects.42

However, the Service has yet to progress from individual calls to action and policy initiatives toward driving the type of holistic campaign it will need to truly reinvent itself. The Navy’s functions and missions remain defined by a maritime strategy rooted in paradigms and assumptions of the 20th Century. Its program management, budgetary decision processes, and doctrine development remain confined within an organizational construct of “N-codes” largely static for the past two decades. Finally, the majority of its people – both civilian and military – continue to be led, organized and trained with personnel models and mindsets built for pre-digital contests between pre-digital navies.  

To reinvent, the Navy must move beyond piecemeal programs and calls for change. The Service needs a campaign to holistically rethink force strategy, design, and culture for competition in a digitized world; a roadmap to guide every N-code, every program, and every fleet through a decisive and conclusive migration to a new paradigm. Judging from peers and rivals around it, three lines of effort would offer a solid start:    

(1) Reshape strategic perspectives with a new maritime strategy for the digitized world. 

Navy leadership should promote efforts to aggressively rethink 20th Century paradigms of sea power. This should start with a new maritime strategy focused on defining new national-level ends and means for maritime contests in which digitized information is a global and strategic commodity. A component of this should be an analysis of how sea power itself may be changing, addressing hard questions head-on about the evolving nature and character of the Navy’s traditional functions. What is the nature of deterrence in a digitized and automated multi-rival competition? How do definitions of power projection shift with new options for digitized escalation that precede the traditional material kill-chain? How does the Navy balance spatial, temporal, and cross-spectral dynamics of sea control in a digitized fight? What types of maritime security regimes should the United States promote in a digitized maritime domain populated with ever-growing numbers of both humans and machines? Should the Sea Services pursue a U.S. version of interagency Information Confrontation or Low-Intensity Coercion? Most importantly, the strategy should not evade a blunt assessment on which of today’s naval missions will endure, which could become superfluous, and what new potentially unprecedented missions our Navy and Sea Services will need in order to fight and win as a digitized enterprise in a digitized world.

(2) Redesign the Fleet around platforms and journeys of a digitized fight

Navy force strategists and planners should be encouraged to re-envision Fleet missions, structure, and posture as operational components of a digitized Fleet. This implies moving past benchmarking approaches toward digital solutions as either an enabler or alternative to existing programs. Instead, the Navy needs to think of the future Fleet as a system of digital platforms for the future and experiment with ways to fight that system in new missions and innovative ways. It should then align and prioritize its investments and analytic processes to optimize the digitized missions – or journeys – of its future forces and Sailors on those platforms. This should prompt Navy force planners to invert traditional planning inquiries and collaborate toward optimizing both digital and material solutions between, and not just within, their programs. For example, instead of asking, “how can the Navy employ AI to improve program ‘X’?”  They should ask, “how can the Fleet as a system of digital platforms leverage AI to counter the Russian undersea cable threat or Chinese drone swarming?” Then, in building architectures for these solutions, they should think through the journey of each applicable weapon or payload along the kill chain, each Sailor or system along the deployment cycle, and each ally or partner that could interphase for the mission. A key part of this should also be experimentation on precise levels of velocity and veracity of information that commanders will need to conduct future Fleet missions, whether they be at the strategic, operational, or tactical level of maritime contest. Existing Navy initiatives to build a Fleet Tactical Grid and define a Future Fleet Design and Architecture for 2045 are notable steps in the right direction. But they need to be linked to a broader effort for Service-wide reform of operational doctrine, programs, and structures for the digitized contests ahead. 

(3) Evolve a digital culture of human-machine teams, and equip them to lead the digitized Service. 

Navy personnel, both military and civilian, should be cultured to embrace the digitized force they will comprise – a force for which command and employment of digitized resources is more than just a means to win the fight at and from the sea; it might well be what the fight is all about. This means accepting that the optimal mix and dispersion of human and machine tasks within a digitized architecture may change dramatically from traditional models. How will the Navy recruit, train, distribute, evaluate, and ultimately co-evolve a workforce of human-machine teams? How will it tailor access and use of digital information for digitized operations? How will it grow and retain a cadre of symbolic analysts and innovators to drive it through the exponential change it seeks? And can they make use of digitized solutions to improve and accelerate learning and thinking along the way? In short, reinvention into a digitized force cannot give short shrift to the need to invest deliberately in tomorrow’s Navy Sailors, civilians, and the machines with which they will fight. 

For a Navy steeped in traditions, reinvention will not be easy. Even more challenging, it must beat two maritime rivals in a race to the future. It will therefore need to be deliberate, it will need to be fast, and it will need to be decisive. That calls for Navy leaders to launch a holistic campaign to guide the Service to the future it seeks to invent for itself and for its nation, without a moment to lose.    

Frank Goertner is a U.S. Navy Commander serving as a Strategic Planner in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Future Strategy Branch. The views and opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. Government.

[1] Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (The University of Chicago Press, Chicago) 2012, 111.

[2] “Fuel of the Future:  Data is giving rise to a new economy,” The Economist, 6 May 2017

[3] Chris Anderson, Free: How Today’s Smartest Businesses Profit by Giving Something for Nothing (New York: Hachette Books, 2015), 12-13.

[4] Andre McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2017), 137.

[5] Michael E. Porter and James E. Heppelmann, “How Smart, Connected Products are Transforming Competition,” Harvard Business Review, November 2014

[6] Jacques Bughin, Laura LaBerge, and Anette Mellbye, “The Case for Digital Reinvention,” McKinsey Quarterly, February 2017.

[7] Jeff Bezos, “2016 Letter to Shareholders,” Amazon.com, 12 April 2017.

[8] Jacques Bughin, Laura LaBerge, and Anette Mellbye, “The Case for Digital Reinvention,” McKinsey Quarterly, February 2017.

[9] Thomas M. Siebel, “Why Digital Transformation is Now on the CEO’s Shoulders,” McKinsey Quarterly, December 2017.

[10] Jaques Bughin Nicholas Van Zeebroeck, “Six Digital Strategies, and Why Some Work Better than Others,” Harvard Business Review (online), July 31, 2017.

[11] Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron, and Natasha Buckley, “Achieving Digital Maturity,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Summer 2017.

[12] McAfee and Brynjolfsson, Machine Platform Crowd, 166.

[13] Andrew Bollard, Elixabete Larrea, Alex Singla, and Rohit Sood, “The Next-generation Operating Model for the Digital World,” Digital McKinsey (online), March 2017.  

[14] “Building Your Digitial DNA: Lessons from Digitial Leaders” Deloitte MCS Limited, https://www2.deloitte.com/mk/en/pages/technology/articles/building-your-digital-dna.html.

[15] McAfee and Brynjolfsson, Machine Platform Crowd, 32-85.

[16] Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st-Century Capitalism (Alfred A. Knopf, New York) 1991.

[17] “Marriott International, Inc. 2016 Annual Report,” Marriott International 2016.

[18] IBID

[19] Peter High, “Marriott’s Digital Chief On The Advantages Of The Digital Immigrants.”  Forbes (online) 15 May, 2017

[20] Ted Colbert and “Data as jet fuel: An interview with Boeing’s CIO” McKinsey Quarterly, January 2018.

[21] Franklin Roosevelt, “Letter to W. W. Norton, Chairman of the Council on Books In Wartime”, December 1942

[22] Linton Wells, “Prepared for the Battle but Not the War,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Magazine. 143/11 Nov 2017.

[23] Kimberly Underwood, “Cognitive Warfare Will Be Deciding Factor in Battle.” The Cyber Edge (online), 15 August 2017

[24] Patrick Tucker, “The Next Big War Will Turn on AI, Says The Pentagon’s Secret-Weapons Czar.” DEFENSE ONE (online), 28 March 17.

[25] Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated by Thomas Cleary (Shambala, Boston, 2003), 108.

[26] Jim Rutenberg, “RT, Sputnik and Russia’s New Theory of War.

How the Kremlin built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century — and why it may be impossible to stop.” The New York Times Magazine, Sep 13, 2017.

[27] “Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations.” Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017 www.dia.mil/Military-Power-Publications


[28] IBID

[29] “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017.” Office of the Secretary of Defense, May 2017, 12.

[30] James Stavridis, “Growing Threats to the U.S. at Sea:  With Russia and China Expanding Their Naval Capabilities, What Can the U.S. Do to Prepare?” THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, June 2, 2017

[31] Elsa B. Kania, “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power.” Center for New American Security, Nov 2017, 4-5

[32] Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations.” Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017

[33] IBID

[34] Rishi Sunak, “Undersea Cables: Indispensable, Insecure.” Policy Exchange, 2017.

[35] Elizabeth Wise, “Mysterious GPS glitch telling ships they’re parked at airport may be anti-drone measure.” USATODAY, Sept. 26, 2017

[36] Ronald O’Rourke, “China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress.” Congressional Research Service, December 2017.

[37] “Putin: Leader in artificial intelligence will rule world.” AP News (online) 1 Sep 2017

[38] Kania “Battlefield Singularity: Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power,” 4-5

[39] Tom O’Connor, “U.S. Is Losing To Russia And China In War For Artificial Intelligence, Report Says,” NEWSWEEK (Online), 29 Nov, 2017.

[40] Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future. (Alfred A Knopf, New York), 1963, 207.

[41] John Richardson, “Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority,” U.S. Navy (online) , Jan 2016 www.navy.mil/cno/docs/cno_stg.pdf

[42] John Richardson, “The Future Navy,” Navy.mil (online), 17 May 2017.

Featured Image: United States Navy sailors monitoring radar and other instruments aboard the guided-missile cruiser Chancellorsville in the South China Sea. (Bryan Denton for The New York Times)

Sea Control 146 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 1

By Cris Lee

Join us for the latest episode of Sea Control for a conversation with Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.), former Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff, about the challenges of defining and conceptualizing maritime security. 

Download Sea Control 146 – Former German Navy Chief Lutz Feldt on Defining Maritime Security, Pt. 1

A transcript of the interview between Admiral Lutz Feldt (LF) and Roger Hilton (RH) is below. The transcript has been edited for clarity.

RH: Hello and moin moin, Center for International Maritime Security listeners. I am Roger Hilton, a non-resident academic fellow for the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, welcoming you back for another listen of the Sea Control podcast.

It is hard to deny the spoils of globalization. Consumer access to a near-endless range of products is sometimes taken for granted. Although the current success of globalization emerged through the exploitation of airspace, outer space, and cyberspace, this feature has led many politicians and experts alike to suffer into complacency when assessing the significance of the maritime domain. Dr. Chris Perry, of Redding University, echoed this sentiment by stating “The sea is the physical manifestation of the world wide web. The absolute engine of globalization.”

Here with us today to provide a tonic to the endemic sea blindness is retired Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt, former Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. Vice Admiral Feldt has had a distinguished career in the Navy. Since retiring, from 2007 to 2012, he was president of the German Maritime Institute, and has chaired Euro Defense Deutschland for four years, and now is a member of the steering board. As a director of WEISS Penns International, he is working with four retired admirals from France, Italy, Spain, and the UK, and an associate partner from Switzerland on almost all maritime security and defense topics. Admiral Feldt, welcome aboard today.

LF: Good afternoon and it’s a real pleasure to have this opportunity. And I think I very much like your tonic to see with more clarity. I will to create a better clarity for one or the other issues you mentioned and really looking forward to the questions.

RH: Admiral Feldt, you initially positioned your piece by arguing that the maritime domain is radically different today and no longer as well understood as it used to be. Specifically, you cite the introduction of a geographic-centric view of maritime affairs, like a euro-centric, or sino-centric view that is no longer promising or sustainable. To begin with, and to provide some historical context, how was the former maritime domain engaged and you in your professional opinion, what factors have led to changes in doctrine?

LF: Thank you very much. What we have to consider is the fact that for a long time, nobody was really aware of the complexity of the sea. Everything went right, and something went wrong nobody really got upset about that because it was so far away. But to look into the sea nowadays, I come back to your introduction where the sea is a manifestation of the web, I really believe that. That makes it really urgent to really look into these huge domains from a regional perspective. All maritime domains, we call them oceans but we can call them domains as well, they are very different. They have some things in common but most of the things are different. I think that if it’s somebody from Europe or from the West or China’s perspective they are thinking they’re doing something that is appropriate for their region that can be transferred to another region as a solution or an option, but I have my doubts that this will work. Regions are very different. The other point I want to make, is that every region has its own traditional ways to solve problems or to live with the problems. That does mean we have a global common on one hand, but we have multiple regions on the other hand. I am very much in favor of these principles developed to think globally but to act regionally and sometimes even locally.

RH: We touched on it a little bit. Returning to this Modus Operandi of the maritime domain in the 21st century, specifically on how it’s very hard to transfer, can you elaborate on the two major issues that arise within this concept?

LF: One major issue is that we have to solve problems between global perspective on one hand and regional and local perspectives on the other hand. There’s of course another point, which is very much related. The driver is not just the internet, and the networking activities, but the driver of different perspectives years and centuries ago, is of course the development of technology and it is not just the complication of technology, but it is old technology which is not only used in the shipping communities but the navies and the merchant navies as well. We have nowadays a lot of maritime infrastructures in the seas. In my experience, the maritime domain has changed a lot, but a lot of people are still looking into the maritime domain with a different, if I may say so, old-fashioned perspective.

RH: I think this idea of the maritime industry with an old perspective is expressed succinctly in your piece on how for a while it was an area that remained largely self-governing. And as you point out, in terms of the shipping industry, it was over-the-horizon, out of sight, and out of mind, which is no longer the case today, I think you would agree. What do you think is the ability to attract more attention and the catalyst for political policy makers who have been somewhat complacent on the sea and who have taken its importance for granted?

LF: I think there are different interests. I think we need more awareness in our society because we are totally depending on what happens on the sea and under the surface. We need a better knowledge of what is happening at sea, by our political leaders, some scientists who are looking into environmental protection. I think what we need is a better awareness, better understanding of what is happening. If something is happening in the North Sea, this has influences on other regions immediately. And we have some examples for that. If something is happening in the South China Sea, the impact is eight to ten days later in Europe as well. If we are knowing that, perhaps we can think about it, and perhaps we can create some kind of awareness, and we will not always be surprised with that. Therefore I think that to think globally but act regionally is of utmost importance again.

RH: I couldn’t agree with you more. And unfortunately it usually takes a massive natural disaster, or a human disaster, to really attract the attention of the political elite and policymakers. As you state, challenges become more pronounced when problems arise beyond the capabilities of a single nation which is extremely important to recognize. You cite specifically incidents like the Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico as well as the Ominco Cadez off the coast of Brittany, France. Consequently you have deduced we are all suffering from sea blindness, potentially not just politicians. Can you elaborate on this powerful metaphor and what this blindness entails?

LF: Sea blindness explains in two words what is our challenge. When some manmade or natural disaster is happening everyone is looking to the sea and asking what have we done to allow this and why have we not done this or that but the sea blindness is going even further. It’s the fact that in our nations, the knowledge about the sea is very limited. Even when we are looking into the huge numbers of people enjoying sea cruises this is only a very small portion and I have my doubts that during their sea cruise they are really learning the importance of the sea as a global commons. I think sea blindness can only be changed and improved by a permanent discussion. I think what we are doing is important to overcome this sea blindness, to give some information. The real thing about that is, the people living ashore are so much depending on very secure sea lines or lines of communications, the highways of the sea as we call them, we are so heavily dependent that we cannot live on with the sea blindness.

I can tell you there is another aspect, of course this is something more political process, I can see in the global context that two or three big countries, for example such as the Russian Federation and China, they have recognized that if they want to live in a safe and secure environment, they have to overcome the sea blindness and they have taken a lot of steps to do that. Western nations are very reluctant to understand that, and this concerns me.

RH: Based on everything you said, I think for our listeners, the two major ways is that we need to educate people not just in maritime security but in the role the sea plays and it also seems important that we need to get individuals with maritime security more involved into civic and political duties. More often leaders and political chiefs are often landsman who lack any type of maritime experience.

LF:May I think when you talk about how to overcome sea blindness, we need what we call a comprehensive view. We need to not only focus on one specific topic like container traffic or the transport of oil and whatever, we have to look at the maritime domain as a whole. And everything that is tackled has an impact on other elements as well. We need a comprehensive plan too, and this makes it really challenging for everyone dealing with that.

RH: Now that we have gone from a broad idea, when dealing with something as global and complex as maritime security, which includes a lot of topics, what is implied by security? And moving forward, how can we define safety and defense in this context?

LF: I think we always trying to make it easy to understand even for ourselves. We have these: safety, security, and defense. It’s very clear. Defense is the responsibility of the navy, maritime and of the air force and naval air arms. Safety is clearly the responsibility of the international maritime organizations, and its well-handled there. I think we have a lot of legal systems which are dealing with them. I have no concerns about safety and some concerns about defense. In the middle of both of them is the issue of security. Security is a mixed issue. It is civilian and military together. On one hand it is where more civilian maritime service s are in the lead, and on specific situations, it is the military that leads with brilliant participation. We have located a definition, where there is no common understanding of what security means in the international community, so everyone is looking for their own understanding and definition, but in essence it is where both parts, civilian and the military community, have to coordinate and cooperate.

RH: Do you think the civilian aspect should take more of a role in governing security as opposed to the military?

LF: It is clear in a lot of operations, which are ongoing around the world, not only the cooperation but coordination is essential for success. Some military, some naval commanders, think they are the only ones who can fix the problem, which isn’t right, if I may say clearly. They need a civilian contribution and I imagine that for a lot of situations, for example if it is a civil-military operation, the civilian part, the coast guard or the law enforcement agency, is in the lead, and the military is in support of that.

RH: Some of your findings resulted in an interesting recasting of the subject matter, as maritime insecurity issues as opposed to maritime security issues. Would you like to defend this recasting to the audience?

LF: If we look into the actual maritime domains, we found more insecurity than security. We are not only talking about European oceans and seas, but we are talking about other areas as well, where the insecurity comes from the lack of willingness to cooperate and to coordinate. To be able to cooperate and coordinate you need a well-functioning information exchange system or mentality. This is something which takes a long time. We need a mindset change going from what we need to know to need to share, where need to share is something different from need to know. We can even go a step forward and say there is a responsibility to share critical information not only within your fellows in the navy or customs or fishery protection. We need a better information exchange that includes all maritime services. And of course it is the responsibility of every community.

RH: Well as we try to rectify this perceived maritime insecurity, your piece makes the argument that there is a perception that the concept of security is not so much a definable condition as it is but an essential feeling. Specifically, as a conditional state of something that may happen, rather than an existential danger. As we know, the term security, and its integration into the lexicon of international relations jargon and institutions like NATO and EU has to some degree been mischaracterized. With all of this apparent confusion, can you clarify how we should be using the word security?

LF: The word security is very popular. There is an inflation of who uses it .Security has everything to do, in the first role, as something to protect and secure the life and wellness of the people of your country. I think this is very important. The second one is of course, if you go further out, it is the well-being of your neighboring nations and of your partners in an alliance. In the third role you are talking about global security. Global security is founded in part on treaties, agreements, and conventions and in this case I think the International Maritime Organization is a good provider for the global part, and some regional organizations are good providers for the regional parts. But on the other hand I think the real important thing about that is, you are aware that there is a responsibility to secure the nation’s territory and citizens from all threats which are coming from the sea, which has a real impact on their well-being and their lives and on their security. For example piracy is something that had happened far away from the European countries but it had a direct impact on our lives, not only on the lives of the seafarers who have been captured and very badly treated by the pirates, but on the impact of our lives as a whole. The same for smuggling and human trafficking and now for the Europeans it is a challenge to find a way to save the big numbers of migrants who want to join Europe using Mediterranean as a sea which they want to overcome to go to Europe, to Italy, Spain, Turkey, and Greece.

RH: As we established consequently, security in the maritime encompasses elements of safety and defense that expand both into civilian and military domain. But, as we continue our deep dive into the issue, any discussion and analysis will be incomplete without acknowledging risk assessments. Can you describe the four criteria used to describe maritime risk, why should landlocked states care about these assessment factors?

LF: I think we are all connected in a global economy, on cultural issues as well. Of course economy is where it’s easy to understand. Landlocked countries of course need the global logistics chain, a port in which goods are coming by sea into the port and then following the railroad track or the truck track into the country. As we know, most goods, at least for a certain amount of time are transported by sea so I know that for example, one important port for landlocked countries is Hamburg, others in Poland. These landlocked countries have good relations with the ports and in history, even some ownership parts in these ports. This has now changed with the European Union with free access and they can do treaties and the logistics is working very well. So I think the landlocked countries are really benefiting from safe and secure maritime domain directly. For example, one very landlocked country like Luxembourg contributed to the anti-piracy operation by donating a plane for sea surveillance which we all appreciated very much because it is not just that they are benefiting from the sea but they have to contribute as well.

Yes, the risk assessment, it’s different from region to region. If you ask the people in Greenland what their greatest threat is, they will say oil spill. If you go to other regions, it is terrorism. Now for Europe, a big risk, and if we do not handle it the right way, is human trafficking and illegal immigration which is something that can endanger the stability of our nations as well. My point is we have to handle this in the right and appropriate way in line with all of our human rights and interests. Narcotics and arms trafficking is a real big deal and will continue to be. And I have to say, some years ago perhaps I wouldn’t have said, we have to look to the Navy-to-Navy engagements at small- to medium-sized fleets as well. That is something of a real concern. If you are talking about maritime interests, it is the importance of securing the exclusive economic zones, the different countries, and the huge amounts of dispute between countries, not just the South China Sea, but in other areas as well, something which can create a risk, which can become a threat. And as I’ve mentioned, environmental degradation and dumping of toxic waste, or illegal pumping of oil water into the sea and all these kinds affect maritime insecurity, collisions, and wreckings from bad navigation and bad training, those are all risks and some of the risks can become greater threats as well.

RH: Some important figures I wanted to share for our listeners specifically for those living in the EU. According to the European Atlas of the Sea and its examination of Europe’s eight sea basins, it found the following statistics which are very important to recognize. The EU has 70,000 kilometers of coastline. Almost half of the EU citizens or roughly 371 million people, including the United Kingdom, live within 50 kilometers of the sea. Almost 40 percent of Europe’s GDP is generated from its maritime regions. 90 percent of the EU’s foreign trade is conducted through sea. Against this backdrop and figures and our previous discussion on risk assessment, how do these criteria affect the current European theatre?

LF: I can tell you, it’s creating a big impact. What is good news in this case, it took some time for the European Union and member states to recognize the importance of the sea. I will come back to sea blindness, but of course they were focused on other internal issues. The financial reasons were very high on the topic. The first step taken by the commission, together with the parliament and the council, was the development of an integrated maritime policy. That was focusing on all aspects that we have already mentioned, not only the commercial ones but the environmental ones. This integrated maritime policy excluded the defense part of the whole maritime domain due to the fact that this has been changed with the Treaty of Lisbon, until then there was a clear division between the European common defense and security policy. But this has changed now and for good reasons. One reason for that is what you have mentioned. Therefore I think the geography of Europe is like a peninsula. If you look at a map you can see this. We have ports in the south, in the north, and in the middle. We have all we need, but it must function well; it must be secure. Therefore the combination of what I have mentioned before; a lot of civilian economic actions are important, but you must include in these commercial approach the coast guard on one hand, and the navy on the other hand as well. If somebody is thinking he can increase security only by civilian means and by diplomacy, I think that will not improve security, it will bring us back to insecurity.

RH: I couldn’t agree with you more. Just for the listeners: think about how access to the ports are easy, it also makes it easy to complicate global freedom of navigation and we’ve touched on this topic without discussing security threats, specifically how your piece recognizes that of A2/AD. Keeping with the EU theme, admiral, Brussels must coordinate with an extensive list of authorities in the maritime domain with the objective of protecting a maritime picture in the local, regional, and global level. Can you identify the six functions you’ve mentioned as they relate to maritime safety and security in the member states?

LF: I think we have a lot of maritime services, but I would like to mention the six of them which are the key players. This is of course customs, fisheries protection, border control, law enforcement, and also it is the marine environmental protection. I think these are the big players if they are establishing a good and trustful exchange of information. Even with a little bit of specific tasks, safety and security will increase. And of course, I didn’t mention the defense issue. Then of course, the defense will have only a preventive task. And if all the others are exchanging their information and doing their job together and not in a stovepiped manner, then of course it will be much more easier for the navies to participate and to act in accordance with their really core tasks to protect citizens and their national interests, and in this case, EU interest.

RH: As we’ve established how the EU is trying to create a picture on the local, regional, and global level, you stated in your piece how the sixteen maritime surveillance-related initiatives sadly work in isolation from one another. Consequently, what is the impact of this disjointed surveillance on the EU?

LF: This is something where I can say we have reached a lot of progress. The fact that it really worked in isolation, and the fact that this was no longer acceptable and the fact that the Commission was developing this integrated maritime policy, that all started a process for better information exchange, better surveillance in the European Union. Therefore, for example, the fisheries protection, border control, and customs already reached a much higher level of information exchange then it was two or three years ago. That is a really big improvement. I am in this case very optimistic, that the current situation in the Mediterranean, and other maritime domains, will help to even improve it further on. We have reached more than I expected in a limited time. We all have to accept that the still 28 and possible future 27 members of the European Union are sovereign states with their own decisions. It takes some time to bring them together and convince the participants to change their minds from the need-to-know to the responsibility to share mentality, but this needs time. And if someone is pressing too much, too high, then the outcome will not be better. It has achieved a lot and I am optimistic that this progress will continue. There is room for improvement. It is still on the way of the right direction.

RH: Just for the record, as we spoke about earlier, as in this case again, it has taken a disastrous migration crisis for the EU and other areas to coordinate and better implement maritime policy. With so much dysfunction though, what has been the response from the European Commission to rectify this?

LF: You’re right. This is something where it’s not a functional problem. It is a problem of, if I may say so, a problem of political will, to do something before the crisis arrives. The EU has a very far developed crisis management system. But if the member states are not providing the essence, the political will to participate, then of course, it would be very difficult to get the crisis management process working. The loss of so many lives in the Mediterranean, and in certain degrees in other areas as well, is what brought the commission and the parliament and the council together to these initiatives with the Operation Sofia in the Mediterranean in the one hand and Operation Sea Guardian by NATO on the other hand. And the frontline operations in the Italian coasts as well. But the dysfunction, if I may say so, I wouldn’t call it a dysfunction. This has been taken over by events, and the cooperation as I mentioned, there is room for improvement, but the actual situation and the actual operations are as good as they could be. But there is a lack of units, a lack of aircraft to survey and to identify the people who are distressed, and this is a decision, a sovereign decision by the member states, what they contribute and if they contribute. This is something at the moment where all the navies are very short on capacity, the boats and the aircraft, and this is something that is a real concern. So what we need is not only better coordination and collaboration, we need more assets to do our business. We have missed the turnaround point, and now we need some time before we get the capacity.

RH: Keeping on the issue of burden-sharing and improving performance, recently the European parliament proposed the formation of a European Coast Guard. It was met with mixed reaction from the member states as you said earlier, in terms of the sovereignty being guaranteed. What is your take on the initiative, and will its creation serve to help manage the maritime domain with more efficiency based on our previous discussion?

LF: I think the coast guard is an important player in all the issues which we have mentioned. They are acting already as a link between the navies and the civilian authorities and they are doing great work not just in the Mediterranean but in other parts of the world as well. But in Europe with 27 member states, we have different solutions for coast guard functions. If you go for a European Coast Guard, you have to consider that all of the European nations have different constructs. For some nations, the coast guard is part of the defense ministry, in others its part of the ministry of the interior, in some it’s on their own. So it is very difficult in such a federated situation to have the idea of a coast guard as one. If I look at my country, in Germany, we do not have a coast guard. We have the combination of different issues, you can call them a coast guard but from an organizational and responsibility view, it is not a coast guard like the U.S. for example. And there is another point which you can make. The coast guard function, which is the approach taken by the EU, I appreciate that, some countries are using their maritime assets, navy assets, law enforcement, they use them and task them to do coast guard functions. In France for example, this is a very successful thing, but France as a country is differently organized, not federally organized, centrally organized, and then things are different. And so, I think it is a good idea for a European Coast Guard, but in this case, the devil lies in the details.

RH: Well from hearing about most EU projects, I think there is a disconnect between theory and what will happen in implementation. But still an interesting thing for listeners to keep at the top of their head. Finally, can you just comment really quickly on the informal meetings between the European navies, Chiefs of the European Navies (CHENS), and how they’ve evolved since its original meeting in 2003?

LF: I have learned that informal meetings are sometimes producing more outcomes than formal meetings. I appreciate these chance meetings. I was part of that for some time and I can tell you that these discussions which we have inside the heads of the European navies, and always having invited the U.S., Canada, and for a certain time Russia as well, which is now not the case. That was a very good exchange. The big thing about this: it is informal, and you can really achieve trust and confidence building, and you can create a network at the highest level. And this is something which cannot be overestimated. The value of informal meetings is much higher than a lot of people realize as many are in favor of formal meetings.

It’s not just the heads of the European navies, there are several coast guards, as well as in other regions, we have the North Atlantic Coast Guard forums, Arctic Coast Guard forum, the Mediterranean coast guard forum, so during these meetings of the coast guard forum, the navies are always invited. Today, even other maritime services are invited. They are executing this comprehensiveness, and the outcomes are studies, sometimes documentation, which do not have a formal character, but which influence the processes to achieve better cooperation and therefore I am very much in favor of these informal meetings.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Vice Admiral Lutz Feldt (ret.) served in the German Navy for 38 years and served as Commander-in-Chief of the German Fleet and Commander-in-Chief of Naval Staff. Since retiring in 2006, Vice Admiral Feldt has taken over several different posts of honor: he was the President of the German Maritime Institute, Bonn, from 2007 to 2012 and is now a member of the Board of the German Maritime Institute, a member of the “Bonner Forum”of the German Atlantic Association; from 2005 until March 2010 he was a member of the advisary board of the “Evangelische  ilitärseelsorge”(evangelical miltary religious welfare) and he is still a member of the advisary board of the publication “Schiff und Hafen”, an International Publication for Shipping and Marine Technology. He is director of WEISS Penns International.

Roger Hilton is from Canada and a graduate of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna where he holds a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies. He has previous experience at the Office of the State Minister of Georgia for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration as well as with the delegation of the Kingdom of Belgium at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since 2017 he is a Non-Resident Academic Fellow at the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University in Germany. His research publications concentrate on transatlantic affairs and the post-Soviet sphere. 

Cris Lee is Senior Producer of the Sea Control podcast. 

Reconsidering the American Way of Strategy

CIMSEC is committed to keeping our content FREE FOREVER. Please consider donating to our annual campaign now so we can continue to provide free content.

By John T. Kuehn

Introduction

The ship of state that we call the United States is adrift at the political-strategic level or what some may call the grand strategic level. 24-hour news cycles, a president (and Congress) addicted to tweeting and posturing, an ambivalent and often ignorant public, and a complete failure by the national and sometimes international media to discern what is of value from what is pabulum has led to strategic gridlock in the foreign policy of the United States.

First, there are two caveats that must be addressed. The first caveat acknowledges that these ideas regarding a strategy for the United States of America are wholly unoriginal and derivative from those of Barry Posen, principally those in his article “Command of the Commons” (2002) and his book Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (2014), and similarly focuses on concepts like grand strategy, command of the commons, and “liberal hegemony” (defined below).1 Secondly, ideas “on strategy” comes from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War. Book Three of that work addresses what we today call operational art more than it does grand strategy, but the elements of thinking about strategy at that level are not significantly different from thinking about it at the higher levels.2

On Strategy

A cursory structural examination of On War’s section “on strategy” reveals that when one turns to the index the first thing one reads is a list of topics, including a discussion of just what strategy is, or strategy as Clausewitz defines it. In today’s terminology Clausewitz expounds on campaign strategy, i.e. operational art at the operational level of warfare. Next, Clausewitz addresses some factors one does not normally associate with strategy writ large: virtue, moral factors, and things like boldness and “perseverance” (patience). Clausewitz is really discussing the attributes of the military strategist, although perhaps his comments can be extrapolated up the levels of war to the policy strategist in charge of overall events and national well-being or even survival. It closes, after a review of essentially Jominian operational considerations, on what might seem an odd pair of notes: “the character of contemporary war” and a discussion of “tension and rest.”3

These last two have particular importance for today because they get us from the operational level to what is normally now thought of as the strategic, or even grand strategic, level—the levels where ends are decided and acted upon. First the issue of tension and rest: “…in most campaigns, periods of inaction and repose have been much longer than periods of action.”4 This supports the claim made here that Clausewitz’s strategy here is really minor strategy, or campaign strategy. He is referring to the concept of culmination of action in war and that sooner or later exhaustion occurs at which point overt military activity (combat) diminishes or ceases while the protagonists build up combat power, will, political will, or all of the above to resume active operations. This has real implications for American policy today since the U.S. military has figured out how to keep the operational train moving with little suspension of action in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria and Yemen. It has also figured out how, by using an all-volunteer force, unmanned aerial systems (i.e. “drones”), long range missiles (Tomahawks), and Special Forces to continue to get around this “dynamic law of war.” The naval aspect here is particularly important because U.S. naval forces have, since World War II, been primarily used for the purposes of power projection, not sea control or large scale fleet actions. This in turn has caused the application of naval power to be “a part of the problem” of maintaining the status quo of “permanent war for permanent peace.”

The U.S. military – and one must include CIA drone warfare and naval forces as mentioned above – keeps operations relatively constant, albeit at low levels, but still lethal. Interestingly, this steady state of activity does little to achieve long term political results and in Afghanistan in particular has led to what may be called a “declining status quo.” That is, a situation that over time gets worse. This is because the enemy – the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda, and the Islamic State (ISIS)—all in Afghanistan, do not violate this law. They suspend operations and rest and then apply the tension at times and places of their choosing, slowly sapping the political will of their much more powerful, but ironically impotent, foes. They fight each other, too, but nonetheless they obey the law while “we” violate it. A similar dynamic is also witnessed in the ongoing conflicts in East Ukraine as well as the Syrian Civil War and a number of other conflicts around the globe in Asia and Africa.

Which brings us to Clausewitz’s second-to-last, and perhaps most compelling chapter in his book on operational strategy—which is what we can now properly characterize it as. He discusses the “character of contemporary warfare” in his day. The lesson here is not to draw lessons from Bonaparte’s 1812 Russian campaign, as he does in order to set up his law of “tension and rest,” but rather to tell the prospective operational artist or strategist that he or she, too, must assess the contemporary character of warfare as they craft a campaign strategy. He contrasts the nearly absolute wars of his day with those more limited wars of previous times: “Wars waged by both sides to the full extent of their national strength must be conducted on different principles from war in which policy was based on the comparative size of regular armies.”6 The lesson for today is that the character of contemporary wars must be assessed, on all sides – not just both sides since most wars these days have multiple protagonists, not a clearly delineated Axis versus Allies paradigm as in World War II.  

The strategist must study contemporary warfare along with the other things Clausewitz says he must develop (patience and boldness) or study of the enemy (threats). This means understanding not just warfare locally, but one’s own cultural context for war. Perhaps the key character of contemporary American warfare — as opaque as it is to the majority of the American public — is that it is maintained by a political will unconnected to most Americans, in other words they are choices made by policy elites, choices most Americans either feel unable to affect or simply do not care about. This is dangerous. It cedes the initiative at the strategic level to the enemies we have chosen to engage with. Simply, policy elites have more skin in the game. It also increases the chance that the strategist will make choices disconnected from national interests and policies and more narrowly focused on the biases and preferences of the strategist himself. This also opens the door for irrational forces associated with emotions and neuroses of the strategist, rather than rational policy considerations, to influence decision-making. As Clausewitz emphasizes in his “fascinating trinity,” war is a team sport, not a solo event or just for a group of special insiders.7

Strategic Restraint

Here is where we bring in Barry Posen’s ideas about grand strategic restraint. First we must understand what he argues against. He does this by clearly outlining the existing grand strategy of the United States as something he calls liberal hegemony — and not a mild form either, but an aggressive, proactive form that emerged with the end of the Cold War. However, in the 1990s it was a more moderate form of what we have today. 9/11 caused a group of policy makers known as neoconservatives to adopt the more extreme elements of a liberal hegemonist agenda: muscular cooperative security and something Posen labels “military primacy.”8 Cooperative security was manifested, especially during the Clinton Administration, by the expansion and employment of NATO in the 1990s. Those who doubt this should consult Operations SHARP GUARD (Adriatic Sea 1993-1996), DELIBERATE FORCE (Bosnia 1995), and ALLIED FORCE (Kosovo 1999 ). More recently the implications of NATO’s expansion to include nations along the Baltic littoral have influenced how U.S. naval officers have had to think about meeting NATO obligations in that body of water with U.S. naval forces to continue the status quo of power projection. This has further stressed the capabilities of the U.S. Navy in ways that policy elites had not anticipated, nor adjusted force structure in the long term to address.

The NATO 1990s air campaigns highlight Posen’s second component—military primacy. But this primacy most forcefully manifested itself after 9/11. It was then demonstrated again with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. Even so, it had been conceived of years earlier, by President George H.W. Bush:

“Our first objective is to prevent the reemergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union. This is a dominant consideration…and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power.9

Liberal hegemony characterized by the maintenance of military primacy is the source of many of our problems vis-à-vis contemporary warfare. As long as this remains the policy of the United States, and there is nothing coming out of the current Trump administration to indicate otherwise, this is the United States’ strategy, like it or not.

So what is the way ahead? It all begins with persuasion. People made these decisions and people will make decisions that can ameliorate and perhaps get the United States to a position of relative “rest” in the current global system. Current moderation of strategy may be temporary and we could only be one crisis away in today’s 24-hour news cycle from another iteration of the more extreme approach in use since the end of the Cold War. Making restraint a habit takes time and practice.

Good News Bad News

A position that has merit is to return to the policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) of the 1930s, armed neutrality with a build-up of naval and air forces to dominate the air and sea commons around the North American continent. Additionally, he was willing to make America serve as the “arsenal of democracy” to support those states who needed it against totalitarian and militaristic regimes.10 It was not his fault those states badly mismanaged the problem posed by the Axis causing FDR to more forcefully plan for war. Yes, FDR did not have to deal with intercontinental ballistic missiles, but during the Cold War the U.S. had some “good enough” strategies in place to manage this very scary scenario. But it is best managed by engagement with Russia, China, and even North Korea. Setting aside the nuclear case, let us return to the idea of “command of the commons” by primarily naval and air forces.11 That means efforts to better command, or influence, the space, air, ocean, and cyber commons. There is plenty to do in these domains, little of which requires “boots on the ground.”

However, liberal hegemony in its current state is looking more like “illiberal hegemony”—a reference of course to the rise of demagoguery and authoritarian personalities in traditionally democratic states. Said another way, U.S. grand strategy is on autopilot because of the current, self-induced presidential crises. Thus, the diplomatic-military-congressional-industrial complex continues doing what it was doing—maintaining liberal hegemony via primacy and cooperative security— and keeping its head down in Washington while servicing its agendas abroad.12 Meanwhile, policy elites bemoan a false change in U.S. strategy, claiming that restraint, or neutrality, or whatever one wishes to call it, has lost ground for the U.S. globally, first under President Obama and now accelerates with Donald Trump’s election.13 What has lost the U.S. ground globally is 16 years of indecisive and expensive military operations combined with an ongoing leadership crisis in Washington, not that leadership’s change of the current strategy. Posen himself has said as much in a recent interview.14 

A metaphor will help explain the situation. The current “ship of state” for the U.S. is like an aircraft carrier that has lost the ability to control its steering from the bridge, and changing course from the bowels of the ship in auxiliary control (auxcon) has not occurred, thus the momentum of the current strategy continues to keep the ship on its last commanded heading — the failing and failed strategies of the past. There is no way to give orders to the helm to change the course of the ship of state on the bridge by the captain (president) — and no one has any idea how to regain control, some in fact prefer the rudderless ship.

Now for some good news — ironically, the ongoing loss of presidential power is a positive force for actually empowering changing the course from below.15 But there must be a will to change course “from below,” that is by the people executing (and making) policy in Congress as well as in the various executive bureaucracies. Donald Trump’s loss of power undermines effective execution of the strategy to some degree, but it does not change it. First we must admit that the overall strategy is misplaced. That is going to take some doing and it is not going to happen quickly. Thus, today’s strategists in America must get their heads out of the operational sands overseas, and turn their attention to the policy debates and battlefields back home.

Conclusion

Deploying three aircraft carrier groups into a sea-denial environment in the Sea of Japan—as was recently the case vis-à-vis North Korea—is not the best use of U.S. resources. Never, at any point in time has the leadership of the Navy been in a better position to drive strategy from below by dissenting on these meaningless, some might even call them reckless, displays of naval power. Admirals John Richardson (the CNO) and Admiral Harry Harris (PACOM) could set an example, and perhaps educate the civilian leadership (Jim Mattis and H.R. McMaster) in shepherding liberal hegemony by “just saying no.” They may be relieved in any case because of all the high profile Navy accidents, so why not make it count for something?16 Perhaps the Navy, and the nation, need another “revolt of the admirals,” as was seen in 1949 when the strategic ship of state was on the wrong heading.17 We do not need to create new frameworks and theories of strategy. We do need to think through the wisdom that is sitting already on our bookshelves and in the past. It is not too late to change course, if only we would. A good place to start is with naval forces. Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, this might no longer be true.

Dr. John T. Kuehn is a former naval aviator, retiring as a Commander from the U.S. Navy in 2004. He is professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. Dr. Kuehn was awarded the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008) Eyewitness Pacific Theater (2008) with D.M. Giangreco, A Military History of Japan (2014), and Napoleonic Warfare (2015). His latest book is America’s First General Staff.

The views are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

References

[1] Barry R. Posen,  Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), xii; see also Posen, “Command of the C)ommons, The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Summer, 2003): 5-46.

[2] Carl von Clausewitz,  On War, edited by Peter Paret and Michael Howard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 175; see also Clausewitz, “Two letters on Strategy,” located at http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/cgsc/carl/download/csipubs/carlvonc.pdf (accessed 11 June 2017).

[3] Clausewitz, On War, vi, 177, 184, 186, 220-221.

[4] Clausewitz, 221.

[5] This discussion based on recent scholarship by the author on the organizational culture of the US Navy, soon to be published as a chapter on the Navy since 1941 in anthology edited by Peter Mansoor and Williamson Murray by Cambridge University Press; the permanent war for permanent peace reference comes from Michael Howard’s discussion of Immanuel Kant’s ideas on collective security in War and the Liberal Conscience (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994), 25-26.

[6] Ibid., 220.

[7] Clausewitz, 89.  “Fascinating” is a better translation, according to Christopher Bassford, than “paradoxical.”  See Clausewitz Homepage, https://www.clausewitz.com/readings/Bassford/Trinity/TrinityTeachingNote.htm (accessed 10/02/2017).

[8] Posen, 6-7.

[9] Defense Policy Guidance of first Bush administration, cited in Posen, 8.

[10] See David Kaiser, No End Save Victory (New York:  Basic Books, 2014), 25-30, 155. Kaiser also highlights how FDR’s “four freedoms” contributed, via the crucible of war, to the adoption of liberal hegemony (157), although he perhaps did not intend to do this.

[11] Posen, “Command of the Commons,” passim.

[12] Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010),   32; Bacevich implies the Congressional component on page 228.

[13] See for example Ben Miller, “Will Trumpism increase the Danger of War in the International System?” at https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/discussions/176888/policy-series-will-trumpism-increase-danger-war-international (accessed 14/06/2017); see also Kyle Haynes, https://networks.h-net.org/node/28443/reviews/183005/haynes-lieber-retreat-and-its-consequences-american-foreign-policy-and (accessed 14/06/2017).

[14] See, http://cimsec.org/barry-posen-draft/30281 (accessed 14/06/2017).

[15] See John T. Kuehn, “Problematic Presidencies” at Proceedings Today, https://blog.usni.org/posts/2017/08/18/problematic-presidencies-are-not-necessarily-a-bad-thing (accessed 10/03/2017).

[16] The reference here is to the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald collisions, among others, “Previous Collisions Involving U.S. Navy Vessels,” by May Salam, 21 August 2017 in New York Times, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/us/navy-collisions-history-mccain-fitzgerald.html (accessed 10/27/2017).

[17] The CNO Admiral Louis Denfield dissented from existing Administration strategy and policy and was relieved by the Secretary of Defense.   See Jeffrey G. Barlow, Revolt of the Admirals (Washington, DC, 1994), p. 288; Love,  History of the U.S. Navy, p. 379.

Featured Image: Secretary of Defense James Mattis meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2017. (DOD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)