Category Archives: Commentary

The Navy Isn’t Too Woke—It Is America

By Bill Bray

When I attended a small Catholic high school in the early 1980s, several teachers tried to dissuade me from pursuing a military career. In the shadow of the Vietnam War, some questioned whether military service could be reconciled with the moral demands of the Catholic faith, while others simply opposed me serving on social or political grounds. A Jesuit reassured me that a military protecting a free society must be led by virtuous men and women of conscience—the type the high school endeavored to cultivate.

Today, the U.S. military’s strongest domestic critics are not on the political and social left, but the right. There is a growing chorus of voices who claim the military is too “woke,” that it has become a vehicle for progressive social experimentation at the expense of developing warfighting toughness and skills.

Historically, woke was a term used in Black communities to signify a general social consciousness. Today, when I hear or read critics of progressive policies using the term as a pejorative, it is rarely clear what they actually mean. What I do know is that there is no such thing as a coherent woke ideology, just as there is no such thing as “woke capitalism.” Opponents of change in the military—specifically, diversity and inclusion initiatives—often ascribe whatever bothers them to the term. And they often fail to realize that many of their preferred politicians are deliberately capitalizing on the acute outrage the term “woke” provokes in certain constituents, and how these politicians are purposefully repeating and cultivating the term to simply harness these constituents’ outrage for political benefit. The supercharged emotions the term “woke” incites among its critics has proven ripe for political exploitation.

It is hard to make an argument against such generalized, unspecific attacks. In fact, as an editor it is not my job to do so. But it is my job to carefully consider counterarguments to articles promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives, and we will continue to publish well-considered, thoughtful counterarguments. We will not publish fact-free rants. What we get is mostly the latter.

Social policies are always being debated across the country. In that sense, the U.S. military has always been changing. And many, if not most, changes were vigorously opposed by traditionalists, who viewed them as paths to warfighting incompetence, indiscipline, or moral destitution (or all the above). All too often, however, resistance to change rested on strawman arguments, and traditionalists wound up arguing with themselves while the country moved on. This is true of momentous changes, such as racial and gender integration, and those of less consequence and controversy (although, I assure you, plenty of mid-1800s Navy officers believed abandoning “the lash” would lead to a plague of indiscipline and mutiny). In any event, the military adapted and moved forward, responding, as it must in a representative democracy, to the demands of the public as articulated through their elected representatives.

What is important, I believe—and I make this case as a retired Navy officer and not as an editor—is to address the ostensibly growing call from many on the right to discourage young people they know from joining the military. While reliable, hard data is never presented, in recent months some commentators claim progressive social policies are at least partially responsible for the military’s recent struggles with meeting recruiting goals. In October, Meghann Myers at Military Times dug into this problem. As you can read for yourself, while the charges of a “woke” military float free of any factual basis, the myth is gathering legs.

Recently, former Navy officer J. A. Cauthen attacked the U.S. Naval Academy’s diversity, equity, and inclusion policies and directives as “ideological (re)education” and “wokeness.” The essay is poorly supported by real data, embarrassing in its frequent digressions into partisan jeremiads, and infused throughout with absurd assumptions and well-worn exaggerations, such as that they are teaching that America is “irredeemably racist.” It also features non-sequiturs, such as how any diversity training is at the expense of warfighting training and weakens warfighting culture (while there is a multitude of other things the Navy has done that have come at the expense of its warfighting training and culture). Former naval officer and undersecretary of the Navy Seth Cropsey made a similar argument more recently in the National Review.

Since I also teach an ethics course at the Academy, I found both Cauthen and Cropsey’s description of its curriculum and culture completely unrecognizable. And they, like so many likeminded critics of the Academy, dismiss the Brigade of Midshipmen, some of the brightest college students in the nation, as incurious followers incapable of earnestly considering all sides of an issue, thinking critically about it, and making up their own minds.

The Training Sailors Actually Get

Curious about what had changed in the Navy that is triggering charges of wokeness, I looked at what a typical sailor gets in terms of formal training in his or her first two years in service. Between eight weeks of basic training, follow-on special skills training (what the Navy calls A-school, or military occupational specialty training), and one full year of mandatory general military trainings (GMTs) at their first ship or command, I could not locate anything that qualified as “woke” training beyond annual equal opportunity training (EEO training). Perhaps some would include sexual assault prevention and domestic abuse training, but I have never heard or read a complaint against those in the context of wokeness.

EEO training is one of seven mandatory GMTs (another 11 can be assigned at commanding officers’ discretion, and most are probably held annually). EEO training is a thorough review of current U.S. law, Department of Defense, and Department of the Navy policy on equal opportunity and discrimination (based on race, color, religion, gender, age, etc.). It would be hard to argue that sailors and officers should not be educated on what the rules are, and what they can and should do if they believe the rules are being violated. Perhaps the only part of EEO training that could be controversial is the final barriers section, which aims to illuminate more subtle obstacles to minority opportunity and advancement. In a rough approximation, in the first two years in the Navy, less than two percent of a sailor’s formal training could even be remotely described as progressive social training.

Then there is Task Force One Navy, established in 2020 in the wake of nation-wide social justice protests to take a comprehensive look at the Navy’s progress and continued challenges in diversity and inclusion. It is beyond the scope of this essay to comment on the entire report. It contains many recommendations along five lines of effort. Not all will be implemented, but many will have at least some effect on Navy policies and processes in the future. It should be noted that the report contains many positive findings, acknowledging much progress the Navy has made in the past 20 years. Its fiercest critics seem to anchor on implications the service still harbors systemic barriers to inclusion, as evidenced by disproportional equity outcomes in promotion demographics and the like. However, for the Navy to acknowledge these outcomes and continually examine itself seems a responsible and unavoidable approach, not one beholden to any ideology. Warfighting in defense of a free society is not just about competence, training, and technology. It is about the will and support of the population, and that requires a military in whose ranks the population is more broadly represented.

Service before Politics

Whatever one thinks of the Navy’s diversity and inclusion initiatives, attempting to equate patriotism and service with partisan politics is wrong and harmful to national security. Unfortunately, it is becoming all too common by those who should know better. Anti-woke warriors such as Cauthen give away the game when he writes the following to explain the Naval Academy’s implementation of diversity and inclusion policies and programs, “Willing collaborators all too eager to appease their political masters are accomplishing this transformation through directives, policy, training, and the creation of new offices and positions staffed to advance the agenda of wokeness.” It seems Mr. Cauthen would have no problem if the Navy’s willing collaborators appeased political masters for whom he voted and approves. In his warped understanding of civil-military relations, civilian control is conditional—it depends on the political masters’ affiliation and viewpoint.

That a Naval Academy graduate who took a commission and swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution would write such a line is unfortunate. But he is one of many who cannot see, or refuse to see, the problem with such a view. My generation of Academy graduates from the 1980s has no business lecturing on this point. The shift to an all-volunteer force nearly 50 years ago always had the potential of a military gradually cultivating leaders who supported the political party that favored it more, both fiscally and culturally. This seems to have happened during the Reagan years.

Indeed, what today’s right wing seems most furious about is that they can no longer count on the military being a reliable constituency for their political positions and views. For years it counted on this, routinely trotting out claims that a socially conservative military would be weakened and possibly even destroyed if progressive policies infect it (never were such claims based on anything remotely close to real evidence). There is some truth to the view that military personnel tend to be socially conservative, but that often obscures how the views of servicemembers shift over time in step with society’s shifting views. The drastic change from the early 1990s until the 2010s of the percentage of Americans in favor of gays serving in the military is a case in point. As young Americans from different backgrounds join year after year, the military is constantly changing its makeup in many ways. The military is not some monastery insulated from society. It is society.

For those that claim wokeness is hurting recruiting, they should examine the demographic data from the 2022 midterm elections, even in the reddest states. Younger voters skew progressive, in some states more than 60 percent. Also, as Risa Brooks recently noted, 41 percent of military personnel identify as coming from a minority group. Not all minorities favor progressive policies of course, but they are statistically more likely to at least be more open to them. The notion that the military can solve its recruiting problem by renouncing wokeness and targeting red constituencies is fanciful, and a move that would harm its nonpartisan ethic.

What the Navy needs—what it has always needed—is patriotic Americans from all walks of life willing to serve with the comfort of knowing their personal political views are irrelevant. Servicemembers are free to believe what they want and vote any way they want. They are not free to cherrypick the policies and initiatives they will support.

Yet so little of what happens in the daily life of a Navy sailor can be attributed to a woke agenda. Even those with the most socially conservative views should have no trouble elevating the virtue of service above partisan politics. That many conservative commentators believe they should not (or cannot) do so speaks far more to those commentators’ fragile sensibilities than to a real problem.

It is worth reminding those who claim a woke military is a hostile place to serve the nation that at one time many Black Americans still chose to serve their nation in a segregated military, where discrimination was overt, entrenched, and legalized. Yet today, are socially conservative Americans actually going to refuse to serve because they must take EEO training or an FDA-approved vaccine, or are encouraged to use a gender-neutral pronoun as an act of respect, or must report to a ship or base no longer named for a Confederate traitor to the United States? While critics of wokeness in the military often claim they want to depoliticize the military, what they really want is to politicize it in their favor. This can even feature partisan loyalty tests, particularly for senior officers. This is inappropriate and dangerous, and military leaders have correctly resisted it.


In the 1970s and early 1980s, it was not uncommon to find critics on the left disparaging military servicemembers in terms that cast them as immoral and bloodthirsty agents of the American war machine. These attacks were unjustified and well beyond reasonable debate about the size and shape of, or even the need for, the armed forces. They fed a distorted narrative about American military life that deterred many young people from even considering service. Critics on the right who claim without evidence that the military is now corrupted by wokeness are committing the same sin. In fact, the military is full of smart, dedicated, and tough men and women. The true corruptors are those who refuse to rise above partisan politics to serve the nation and a greater cause.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured Image: Sailors man the rails aboard the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford in June 2021. (U.S. Navy photo)

A Holiday Message from CIMSEC

By President Christopher Stockdale-Garbutt

Dear CIMSEC audience members,

On behalf of the Center for International Maritime Security, I would like to wish you all a very happy festive season and to thank you for being a member of the CIMSEC community and for your support and contributions this past year. 2022 has witnessed many international maritime security developments and challenges and we hope that you have enjoyed listening to our podcasts and reading our many articles analyzing these events and many other issues.

The team and myself are looking forward to what 2023 will bring as we continue to expand and develop the group. We have lots of exciting projects and developments on the horizon and will continue to engage with professionals, academics, and forward thinkers through our articles, forums, events, podcasts, and other platforms and content.

I would like to close with a personal message of thanks to all our volunteers and officers that willingly give up their time to help make CIMSEC such a great organization. It has been an honor to serve as President this year and I look forward to continuing to lead the group throughout 2023!

Once again we wish you and your families Happy Holidays!

Best Wishes,

Christopher J. Stockdale-Garbutt

President of the Center for International Maritime Security

Featured Image: Port de Grave Boat Lighting festival for Newfoundlanders to celebrate their Christmas. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Renaming Military Bases Is “History Correcting Itself”

By Bill Bray

In the past year or so, there seems to be more than usual public commentary about America’s past, particularly concerning racial and social justice. Some believe the past is being distorted and “canceled” to serve a progressive social agenda. Others believe as a nation we have never honestly reckoned with it. Still others seem to want to ignore or forget it. Move on.

As the Department of Defense Confederate naming commission continues its work and prepares to make its recommendations on what bases, buildings, sites, and perhaps even ships should be renamed, it is instructive to read and reflect on how humans understand and interpret the past. Social scientists and artists, among others, have long wrestled with this phenomenon. Both know that the past is not something we can simply know, as if we were looking at it objectively from a distance. Instead, it is something we never fully know or escape. To a large degree we interpret the past through what we want to believe, and that insistently informs how we think about the present.

However, acknowledging that we cannot fully know the past does not mean trying to know it is a hopeless endeavor. On the contrary, societies must never stop trying to understand their pasts. The quest for a strong, shared understanding of the past is an important component to living harmoniously together. The past can never be forgotten. Claiming otherwise is delusional or disingenuous. Forgetting is impossible. The past matters more than most realize or want to acknowledge. History is more than perspective. There are facts. But contemporary human experience is meaningless without memory—without a past. The past is in the present as oxygen is in water.

Critics who claim renaming U.S. military bases named for Confederate generals is tyrannical, “woke cancel culture” are—probably partially in ignorance—advancing a hypocritical argument deeply offensive to the thousands of Union Army, Navy, and Marine Corps veterans. Following the Civil War and well into the twentieth century, these men formed a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (there were GAR chapters across the northern states). While initially created to advocate for better veterans’ benefits, by the end of the nineteenth century the GAR chapters were engaged in a fierce public relations campaign to debunk the Lost Cause mythology narrative. They opposed pensions for Confederate soldiers, statues and memorials to Confederate generals in Washington and other northern states, and the display of the Confederate flag, among other things. While the term was not in use at the time, GAR members knew what many contemporary historians have since aptly demonstrated—the Lost Cause narrative was the greatest “cancel culture” campaign in American history. 

Take, for example, this statement from the Michigan GAR in 1903 in response to the widespread practice of putting Lost Cause literature in Southern textbooks: “There is a sentiment which endeavors more or less to place the disloyalty of the South upon the same plane with the loyalty of the North, which aims to make an act of disloyalty less disgraceful. I have no use for such sentiment. It is only a matter of time when history will correct itself and place them in the true light on its pages as traitors.” In 1914, the department commander for the Indiana GAR wrote, “While I have long forgiven my ex-Confederate brother for the terrible mistake he made in trying to destroy this Union of ours . . . you should remember and never forget it, that there was a right and there was a wrong . . . a government that fails to recognize the difference between a patriot and a traitor, a defender and a destroyer, would and should pass from the earth.” 

The GAR did not oppose forgiveness and reconciliation, only veneration built on a lie. They opposed what Major General Henry Thomas, a Virginian who stayed loyal to the Union, in writing to Ulysses S. Grant in 1868, called any effort to paint the “. . . crime of treason . . . with a counterfeit varnish of patriotism, so that the precipitators of the rebellion might go down in history hand in hand with the defenders of the government. . .” Sadly, just this year, the Confederate flag was brandished in the U.S Capitol during an attempted insurrection. History has still not corrected itself. Would it not be a wonder that the men of the GAR would be shocked that it has taken so long?

As the last of the Civil War veterans passed away in mid-century, the GAR had largely failed to counter the Lost Cause narrative and all that came with it for white and black Americans alike. For generations that came of age after World War II, including mine, in both the North and the South, the past was not understood independent of this narrative. It has infected both popular and academic literature. The long effort to resurrect the Confederacy as a noble cause has become part of the collective experience.

Thinking about the Past through Literature

One Southerner who would not be shocked at all began his writing career as this GAR campaign was in full fury. Perhaps no American writer dealt with the past more deftly and innovatively than William Faulkner. His technique of using inner dialogue across time—where past and present are intertangled and often indistinguishable, narratively—frustrates most first-time readers, but then, if they persevere, awakens them to how the past lives in all of us. Through so many unforgettable characters, Faulkner shows that experience is chaotic, disorienting, and often emotionally violent. Humans quickly order experience retrospectively to make sense of the world, a mechanism made possible only with memory—how they remember the past.

William Faulkner knew the past of his people well, but as an artist he was most interested in how they thought about the past, and how the past always lives in the present and determines the future. Past, present, and future are not neatly distinguished in the human mind, and Faulkner’s greatest achievement—the one that makes him perhaps the greatest writer in American letters—is how he demonstrated this narratively. In a 1956 interview with Jean Stein for The Paris Review, Faulkner remarked that, “The fact that I have moved my characters around in time successfully . . . proves to me my own theory that time is a fluid condition which has no existence except in the momentary avatars of individual people. There is no such thing as ‘was’—only ‘is.’ If ‘was’ existed, there would be no grief or sorrow.”

Most recently, Michael Gorra masterfully tackled how Faulkner dealt with how Southerners thought about the Civil War with his book, The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War. With racial and social justice so prominent in the news today, no book from last year seems more relevant to me. It is an intricate blend of Civil War history, biography, and literary criticism.

As Gorra shows, Faulkner rarely includes Civil War scenes in his oeuvre, yet the war is always there, its traumas swirling just beneath the surface of both scenery and dialogue. Most of his characters know the Civil War only as a fragmented labyrinth of memories and myths passed down to them. They feel the past as their truth, while acknowledging, as Quentin Compson, one of Faulkner’s recurring characters, does in Absalom, Absalom!, that they do not fully understand their own history.

Readers of The Sound and the Fury (1929) know that Quentin kills himself on 2 June 1910, following his freshman year at Harvard. Absalom, Absalom! (1936) begins the year prior, in 1909, with a tortured Quentin discovering who he really is, a terrifying journey of self-awareness. Quentin is the past—an incarnation of the pathos of a region defeated and desperate for the balm of Lost Cause mythology. He bears the burdens of the racial divide that intensified following the failure of Reconstruction, and the rarely-acknowledged secret of Southern plantation heritage that would become the cardinal sin in the Jim Crow South—miscegenation.

Absalom, Absalom! appeared the same year Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind, for which she would win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Mitchell presented a highly romanticized, white-washed Civil War history to a still deeply racist country, and Americans loved it. While William Faulkner’s many flaws and contradictions regarding race are well documented, he, unlike Mitchell, was not popular with Southern segregationists. Complex depictions of the South’s post–Civil War reality were not their cup of tea. Faulkner was the far more courageous writer in never ceasing to search, through his literature, for what the Civil War really means for who we are and where we are going. 

Those charged with deciding whether to rename military bases named for Confederate generals or remove Confederate statues could do worse than to read William Faulkner’s books. As his character Gavin Stevens, the lawyer in Requiem for a Nun (1951), remarks, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Should a member of the GAR be alive today to witness a Confederate statue coming down or a base being renamed, he would never view it as an injustice or affront to Southern heritage. He would view it as history correcting itself—finally.

Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain. He is the deputy editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine.

Featured image: Gettysburg Battlefield National Park. Photo by U.S. National Park Service.

Confused Seas: Searching for Maritime Security in an Insecure World

This article was originally published in the Australian Naval Review, produced by the Australian Naval Institute. Its reproduction here has been authorized by the Council of the Australian Naval Institute. The copyright of the article published remains with the author, and the copyright of the Australian Naval Review remains with the Australian Naval Institute.

By Jimmy Drennan

In 2008, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, argued the world was entering an Age of Nonpolarity. He suggested the world had progressed from the bipolar Cold War era, past the unipolarity that followed the United States’ victory, and even the multipolar era of multiple competing nation states that many believed had emerged in the early 21st century. Although Haass underestimated the rise of China, more than a decade later many of his assertions prove remarkably prescient. He identified cross-border flows (e.g., information, disease, people, energy, and lawful and unlawful goods) as primary drivers of power diffusion, and the importance of pragmatic diplomacy to form situational partnerships based on common interests. Haass’ nonpolar world depicted an international system governed by an undefined number of power brokers – none of whom would be able to establish enduring influence or leadership over the system itself. Much like a ship rocked by waves coming from all about, caused by strong, rapid shifts in wind direction, the international system is experiencing turmoil as a lack of global leadership exacerbates a number of destabilizing conditions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the maritime sector.

Almost all nations have a shared interest in international maritime security, but absent global leadership, individual actors myopically pursuing their own interests are making the seas less secure. The global economy depends on the free flow of shipping through key waterways and the world’s major ports, yet a few coastal states or even small militias could threaten access to these critical chokepoints. State and non-state actors alike exploit weakly governed waters for illicit gain, wreaking havoc on local economies. Beneath the sea floor, massive stores of natural resources invite confrontation among governments that claim dominion under various laws and precedents. Then, there is the ubiquitous power struggle between the United States and China that permeates all of these issues. The specter of armed conflict at sea affects all maritime nations. 

Leadership is necessary to steady this tumultuous international system, and since it may be impossible for a single nation to consistently influence the system in Haass’ nonpolar world, groups of nations and actors with common interests must form as needed. While it is impossible to achieve unanimity on any issue in international affairs, the idea that the high seas should be free for use by all is worth defending. 

The Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) exists to foster discussion on securing the seas. Granted, not all of the world’s problems can be solved with dialogue, but without it, solutions often tend to be messy, wasteful, and sometimes tragic. Just as confused seas will eventually yield to a prevailing weather system, today’s turbulent maritime security environment will certainly give way to the most dominant forces. Whether those forces are aligned with the principles most maritime nations share is decidedly less so. CIMSEC aims to facilitate the exchange of international perspectives in order to help establish organizing principles under which groups of like-minded nations and actors can pursue maritime security.

Contributors to Maritime Insecurity

Perhaps the largest contributor to today’s maritime insecurity is the burgeoning competition between the United States and China. The ascendance of China is not necessarily to blame, but rather the fact that neither country seems particularly motivated to assume global maritime leadership, outside of escalatory naval activities and a burgeoning missile arms race. At the 2020 Singapore Summit in September, foreign policy and economic experts discussed how “a leaderless and divided world will be the new normal.” Ngaire Woods, Dean of the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, argued the struggle between the United States and China creates “an opportunity for other countries to start playing off those superpowers and push further for the changes they’ve been wanting.” 

This is causing instability in the maritime sector, and leadership will be required to unite these individual interests into actual progress. It remains unclear whether the United States will provide that leadership. Today, no one, inside Washington, D.C. or out, can meaningfully describe America’s maritime strategy. The U.S. Navy struggles to even settle on a future force plan amid the transition of Presidential administrations. The United States uses “preservation of the rules-based international order” as a rallying cry, yet refuses to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea due to dubious fears of sovereignty infringement. In the private sector, as John Konrad, founder of, put it recently, “American shipping interests are an anemic … waste” and “the shipping world is failing” as a result of “a total lack of … leadership.” 

Meanwhile, China appears more concerned with power and wealth accumulation, rather than global leadership, as its Foreign Minister recently stated China has “no intention of becoming another United States.” In fact, China contributes directly to instability through the activities of its commercial fishing fleet worldwide. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing is quickly emerging as a major problem for littoral economies, depleting a resource that has long provided for millions. Without effective international governance mechanisms, illegal fishing and other maritime crime (not just by China) could easily escalate regional tensions into conflict. In the Arctic, tensions are exacerbated as actual changes to the physical environment complicate the geopolitical environment. In Europe, entirely different factors pressurize the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, as Turkey competes with its neighbors over claims to abundant subsurface hydrocarbon resources, and threatens to rewrite the rules for international access to the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits. 

The 2015 migration crisis, which fueled such deep division in areas like the Mediterranean and Andaman Seas, threatens to resurface. Asyura Salleh, Special Adviser for maritime security to the Yokosuka Council for Asia-Pacific Studies, writes that Myanmar’s “increased violence is causing mounting civilian fatalities, displacing villagers and pushing migrants out to the Andaman Sea” while neighboring “countries reject migrants for fear of spreading unidentified infections.”

The COVID-19 pandemic of course drives enormous instability in the maritime sector. Opportunistic elements are taking advantage of global preoccupation with the pandemic and a perceived gap in ocean governance to pursue maritime crime and illicit activities. For example, as of August 2020, piracy and sea robbery incidents in Asia rose by 38 percent over 2019. Furthermore, the pandemic’s economic impact is not only damaging the maritime industry, but it is also forcing countries around the world to divert funds away from national defense, creating more space for instability and maritime insecurity. Aristyo Rizka Darmawan of the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy at the Faculty of Law University of Indonesia writes:

These effects are already being felt in the realm of maritime security. Indonesia has announced nearly $590 million in cuts to its defense budget. This significant budget reallocation from the defense sector will have a direct impact on the budget of the navy, which is at the forefront of Indonesia’s maritime security and maritime domain awareness. And Indonesia is far from alone—many countries in Asia have cut their 2020 defense budgets in response to Covid-19. Thailand, for instance, has cut its defense budget by $555 million. Other key maritime countries in the region such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines are also facing the same constraints.

Bucking the trend, Australia actually raised its defense budget by A$1 billion as part of a COVID-19 economic stimulus package, reflecting a strategic recognition of the need to support regional security in the Indo-Pacific.

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas

Amidst all of these destabilizing conditions, CIMSEC seeks to foster international discussion as a catalyst for desperately needed leadership in maritime security. In the spring of 2020, CIMSEC initiated Project Trident, a year-long series of topics covering the future of international maritime security. For each topic, CIMSEC partnered with leading maritime organizations to solicit articles from the CIMSEC community, and featured subject matter experts on its Sea Control podcast. Project Trident is ongoing, but the results so far are encouraging. The first three topics have produced 45 articles filled with creative, thought-provoking ideas, which in the aggregate, begin to set the conditions for collaborative leadership and illuminate a path toward improved maritime security.

First, Project Trident set the geopolitical stage with the Chokepoints and Littorals Topic.

Chokepoints and littorals magnify the influence of nearby states, or even non-state actors, who are traditionally viewed as less influential than global powers. Yet in times of conflict or crisis, global powers could very well come to depend on these littoral nations for critical support and access, nations whose political sensitivities can powerfully constrain diplomatic, economic, and military options. For example, Colonel Kim Gilfillan, Commander of the Royal Australian Army’s Landing Force, discussed on Sea Control how the ability to project power into the Indo-Pacific littorals is crucial to Australia’s economic prosperity and national security strategy.

The world is also witnessing major changes that are redefining the chokepoint and its value. For example, Turkey’s plans to build the Istanbul Canal to bypass the Bosporus Strait between the Marmara and Black Seas could alter the regional balance of power by giving Turkey greater control over which nations can access the Black Sea. In fact, Paul Pryce, the Principal Advisor to the Consul General of Japan in Calgary, suggests “the Istanbul Canal may have been introduced to circumvent the Montreux Convention, the longstanding international agreement that regulates naval access to the Aegean and Black Seas through the Turkish Straits. 

To the north, the Arctic is melting away, revealing a complex mosaic of chokepoints and littorals that will lend themselves toward new lines of communication for global commerce, as well as new zones of competition. Robert C. Rasmussen, a Foreign Affairs Specialist with the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, recommends a three-fold policy for the United States to shape the Arctic: increase funding for scientific research; invest with allies in the economic development of the Northwest Passage to compete with the Russia-dominant Northern Sea Route; and establish NATO military superiority over the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap and Aleutian Islands. Rasmussen astutely notes “promoting consensus prevents room for conflict.

Next, Project Trident continued with the Ocean Governance Topic. 

Maritime powers are employing hybrid tactics that seek to exploit the seams of legal frameworks and norms that constitute ocean governance. Non-state actors such as pirates, smugglers, and others are constantly innovating to advance nefarious activity. On Sea Control, Professor Christian Bueger described the need for a “Blue Crime framework that integrates all of these activities to help states more effectively govern the maritime domain. Indeed, the trends are troubling. Dr Ian Ralby, Michael Jones, and Errington Shurland used a variety of maritime domain awareness techniques to show that maritime crime in the Caribbean Sea has actually increased amid an overall drop in legitimate activity during the COVID-19 pandemic. They concluded that “maritime criminality is relatively unimpeded by the restrictions that have curtailed legal activities during the pandemic, and “economic hardship may in fact be a growing driver for illicit activity.

The rules and standards that underpin good order on the high seas must keep pace with those who are keen to exploit them. For example, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing is rapidly emerging as a major driver of instability. According to US Naval Academy professor Dr. Claude Berube, 40 percent of the world’s population relies on fish as a protein source, and 20 percent of global fish is caught illegally (worth as much as US$23.5 billion). Though not the only culprit, China’s fishing fleet is the world’s most aggressive and is fishing contested waters throughout Asia, Africa, South America, and elsewhere. If revised regimes and norms cannot restore the world’s fisheries, dwindling fish stocks may trigger conflict in regions already suffering from tension. U.S. Marine Corps Captain Walker Mills points to the late 20th century Cod Wars between allied Iceland and the United Kingdom as an example that fisheries can be, in the eyes of some, sufficient justification to go to war. 

Likewise, illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing could be an ideal catalyst for multiple nations to pool enough resources and national will to provide a stabilizing influence on maritime security, banding together and pushing back against economically and environmentally destructive behavior. The Pew Research Center’s Gina Fiore and Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted on Sea Control that the world’s exclusive economic zones are far too vast for individual states to patrol and enforce jurisdiction on their own, even with contributions from larger navies. States must employ information sharing agreements like Fish-i Africa, a partnership of eight African countries to fight illegal fishing in the Western Indian Ocean, and commercial remote sensing services such as OceanMind to improve maritime domain awareness and tackle this growing issue.

Most recently, Project Trident ran a Regional Strategies Topic to examine small and medium maritime powers.

The global competition between the United States and China is profoundly affecting smaller powers who, in today’s chaotic maritime security environment, can in turn disproportionately influence geopolitics by seizing the opportunity to advance their own interests. For example, Turkey is leveraging its relative superiority in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to claim ownership of contested hydrocarbon resources beneath the seabed. Retired U.S. Naval War College Professor of Maritime Security Andrew Norris and his son, Alexander, explain that “this hegemonic strategy, domestically referred to as ‘Mavi Vatan’ or ‘blue homeland’ … manifested itself in Turkey’s deployment of the seismic vessel Oruç Reis with a naval escort to disputed waters south and west of Cyprus, which led to a collision between Greek and Turkish frigates. 

Turkey appears to be exploiting a vacuum in maritime leadership and although it faces international condemnation, one wonders if it would even attempt to execute Mavi Vatan, particularly against a fellow NATO member, if the United States were not preoccupied elsewhere. Ultimately, all of the nations involved have an interest in avoiding conflict and have expressed desire to negotiate; however, resolution will likely require Turkey to accommodate the Republic of Cyprus (which it does not recognize). This is a prime example of how the leadership of a few like-minded nations could advance international maritime security.

Finally, India’s strategy for securing the Indian Ocean has taken the limelight due to the confluence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the June 2020 border skirmish with China in the Galwan valley of the Himalayan mountains. David Scott of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies writes

“Paradoxically, though COVID-19 has weakened India’s economic ability to fund its naval infrastructure and assets program for the Indian Ocean, it has enabled India to strengthen its links with Indian Ocean micro-states through the humanitarian assistance delivered by the navy. Meanwhile, land confrontation with China at Galwan has encouraged India to deepen its military links with other maritime powers operating in the Indian Ocean.”

Even though the pandemic has hindered India’s naval buildup, its apparent willingness to contest Chinese aggression and act as a guarantor of maritime security in the Indian Ocean have attracted international partners. On Sea Control, Abhijit Singh, Senior Fellow and the Head of Maritime Policy at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, and Collin Koh, Research Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, point to the strategic value of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Already used by the Indian Navy, these two chains of 572 islands in the eastern Indian Ocean could serve as international economic and naval outposts with southeast Asian partners, providing a key opportunity for cooperative maritime security. 

Meanwhile, India’s cooperation with other international partners has accelerated recently, highlighted by separate trilateral talks with Australia, France, Japan, and possibly Indonesia, and a potential invitation for Australia to join Naval Exercise “Malabar with India, the United States, and Japan. The increased cooperation between India and Australia reflects a mutual strategy of extending maritime security throughout their respective areas of influence and, as David Scott points out, “it reduces naval dependence on just cooperation channeled via the United States. This is a prudent approach, especially if one accepts the premise that the world has transitioned from a unipolar, or even multipolar, to a nonpolar era.


Regardless of how many poles comprise the international system today, the turbulence and insecurity in the maritime sector clearly point to a crisis in leadership. The two most capable candidates, the United States and China, seem to have other priorities in mind, and regional powers like India and Turkey adapt to or exploit the leadership void. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic and hybrid challenges to longstanding ocean governance regimes, including smuggling, migration, piracy, and illegal fishing, these factors could be a recipe for disaster. And as 21st century great power competition begins to take shape, one can look to the world’s maritime chokepoints and littorals for potential flashpoints. 

Building consensus based on common interests will be critical to advancing maritime security in such a volatile world. Free and open exchange of ideas is the first step, and CIMSEC will always use its platform to foster discussion on securing the seas. To this end, Project Trident is continuing in 2021, addressing topics such as maritime cybersecurity, infrastructure and trade, and emerging technologies. The project will not produce maritime security straight away, but CIMSEC hopes it will expose the ideas and generate the dialogue necessary to align maritime powers to the goal of free, safe, and secure seas.

Jimmy Drennan is the President of the Center for International Maritime Security. Contact him at

Featured Image: ATLANTIC OCEAN (July 24, 2008) The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) prepares for flight operations under stormy skies. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is participating in Joint Task Force Exercise “Operation Brimstone” off the Atlantic coast on July 24, 2008 . U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Laird (Released)