America’s Elegant Decline

Hulls in the water could soon displace boots on the ground as the most important military catchphrase of our time. But our Navy is stretched thin. How we manage dwindling naval resources will go a long way toward determining our future standing in the world.
The 1,000-Ship Navy

By necessity, the American Navy is turning from Mahan to Corbett. “Where the old ‘Maritime Strategy’ focused on sea control,” Admiral Michael Mullen, the chief of naval operations (recently promoted to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), said last year, “the new one must recognize that the economic tide of all nations rises not when the seas are controlled by one [nation], but rather when they are made safe and free for all.”

He went on: “I’m after that proverbial 1,000-ship Navy—a fleet-in-being, if you will, comprised of all freedom- loving nations, standing watch over the seas, standing watch over each other.” Subtract the platitudes, and it’s clear that Admiral Mullen is squaring a number of circles to contend with the difficult reality he’s up against.

A grand maritime coalition that policed the seas and provided disaster relief would allow for such possibilities as joint American-Chinese antipiracy patrols in MALSINDO (the Malaysia-Singapore-Indonesia archipelagic region, as an American Navy acronym labels it). In fact, national navies tend to cooperate better than national armies, partly because sailors are united by a kind of fellowship-of-the-sea born of their shared experience facing violent natural forces. Such coalitions would likely get along better than the land-based ones we have seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo. Requirements for membership would be minimal: Any navy could join, provided it were willing to share information. Leading a cooperative international enterprise like this to interdict terrorists, pirates, and smugglers in coastal waters and to deter rogue states would help the United States improve its deteriorating reputation in the wake of Iraq.

Mullen’s emphasis on a coalition of freedom-loving nations is itself an indication of diminished resources. During the Cold War, we had crucial naval allies whose bases could always be depended upon—Japan, Great Britain, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and several others. With their help, we held the Soviet navy in check under the polar ice. But given current public opinion in Europe, perhaps the only one of these allies we can rely on in the future is Japan, which—as an island civilization still hated throughout Asia and beset with security dilemmas of limited interest to Europeans—may be the loneliest country in the world except for Israel. (Experts I spoke to for this article worried about the prospective loss of allied basing and advocated sea basing. One of the Navy’s earliest proposed designs was a device resembling a self-powered oil rig with massive platforms for UAVs—unmanned aerial vehicles—and other air assets.)

With no core group of allies, commerce has to be protected by all, for all. That’s no easy challenge. Whereas airplanes are monitored and regulated from takeoff to landing, merchant ships are on their own in the anarchic seas. But in a post–9/11 world, with the possibility of nuclear terrorism abetted by ocean-based piracy and smuggling, the anarchy needs to be quelled, and the seas and the ports policed. Hence the benefits of a multi­nation piracy patrol.

Stanley Weeks is a Washington-based naval and defense-policy analyst for a Fortune 500 commercial consulting company. Over the course of his career, he has done everything from mentoring the new Albanian navy to advising U.S. combatant commanders about how to defend against missiles. When I spoke to him in his office in McLean, Virginia, he told me about other possibilities for Admiral Mullen’s 1,000-ship fleet-in-being. “Boots-on-the-ground in most cases is a loser,” Weeks said. “On land, we’re not playing to our advantage, because there is an endless demographic supply of young male religious fanatics.” He emphasized that naval operations can lower America’s profile, since they attract less attention than Army operations, making our military less vulnerable to media attacks—and therefore also making it easier to carry out operations that might otherwise become lightning rods for criticism. Offshore maritime capability also enables us to “take out selected individuals and insert small groups of special forces,” Weeks says, adding that leveraging other powers by operating as part of an international 1,000-ship navy would certainly help with all this.

A multi­national fleet-in-being would also lead to greater intelligence sharing and allow us greater forward presence, closer to enemy shores. This would make it easier to identify key targets. In fact, the 1,000-ship multinational navy is essentially the seagoing equivalent of counterinsurgency.

But while the 1,000-ship navy would help cut down on smuggling and piracy, and possibly terrorism, it doesn’t really deal with the basic strategic function of the U.S. Navy: the need to offer a serious, inviolable instrument for inflicting great punishment—a stare-down capability. Nor does it address the need to quickly transport troops and equipment to distant conflicts.

“The Navy is not primarily about low-level raiding, piracy patrols, and riverine warfare,” Jim Thomas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, told me. “If we delude ourselves into thinking that it is, we’re finished as a great power.” Piracy, for example, has been a scourge for hundreds of years in some of the very same places we say it cannot be tolerated, like off the Horn of Africa or in archipelagic Southeast Asia. As the late Vice Admiral and Navy futurist Arthur Cebrowski once told me, with a dismissive wave of his arm, “Piracy is just part of the noise.” No matter how the Pentagon spins it, the reality is that development of a 1,000-ship international navy is not a way of maintaining our current strength; rather, it’s a way of elegantly managing American decline.

But let’s remember that while the relative decline of the British Royal Navy helped produce World War I, Britain and its allies still won that war, thanks in some measure to sea power—and that Britain would go on to triumph in an even greater world war two decades later. Our own growing relative weakness need not mean that our adversaries gain advantage. Decline can be overrated.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, is the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy. His most recent book, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, was published in September.

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