Tag Archives: Realism

The Mythical Foundation of the Post-Modern Navy

First things first. If your at all interested in maritime security and have not picked up Geoffrey Till’s Seapower (2009), do it now. It is a great “Twenty-First Century Navy” primer, exploring the myriad influences, theories, and issues affecting seapower in the modern world.

In the first chapter, he explores the ideas of post-modern and modern navies. The concept is not new, extending to a similar distinction found in general discussions of the future of defense. Post-modernists believe the world has moved away from more traditional forms of competition and military rivalry, entering into a novel world replete with new security challenges that require international mutual understanding and powerful, lasting partnerships. Modernists, however, believe warfare is a permanent feature of human nature and that old-school inter-state conflicts will reemerge as the focus of state security.

The intersection where these two theories diverge is over competing interpretations of globalization’s survivability. Again, post-modernists believe globalization has fundamentally altered through a progression away from more primitive historical narratives and has therefore also altered the way naval strategists should view the world. Free trade, economic interdependence, and the decentralization of communication from the state to the individual are all hallmarks of a new era in which the system will trump the state as the focus of strategy. Modernists dispute this using the lengthy history of previous eras of globalization devolving into periods of major warfare and global violence, such as the Mongol conquest of Asia and Pax Britannica. This, for objectors to post-modernism, is proof that global rational economics are by no means the only driver for human, and therefore state, action.

In any case, the economic system over which these camps bicker is built upon seaborne trade. This trade requires the free flow of goods upon open and secure sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Only the consistency of this maritime reality allows ships to remain predictable in their routes and schedules. Both post-modernists and modernists have long concerned themselves with the availability of secure and open SLOCs. The former require them to maintain the stability of greater economic and inter-state systems that assist in raising the world towards a more comprehensive peace, while the latter hope to avoid the destruction of national power any disruption may cause through the excessive sensitiveness [1] of this interconnectivity.

Such divergent positions lead to distinct interpretations of seapower. Till defines the missions of the post-modern navy as thus [2]:

  • Sea Control: Littoral control operations most likely taking place inside wars of choice.
  • Expeditionary Operations: Defending the conditions for trade by interdicting sources of maritime disorder on land via operations from the sea.
  • Good Order at Sea: Low-level policing operations, usually in an away environment and in support of weak states unable to support the protection of maritime trade and resources.
  • The Maintenance of a Maritime Consensus: Creating institutions that decrease the likelihood of violence and constrain national behavior, promoting regional economics and international cooperation.

Of course, the missions of modern navies differ:

  • Nuclear Deterrence and Ballistic Missile Defense: The maintenance of an at-sea nuclear deterrent and capable ballistic missile defenses.
  • Sea Control: Preparation for successful engagement in symmetric, fleet-versus-fleet combat on the open-ocean.
  • Narrow Concepts of Maritime Power Projection: Naval power in pursuit of relative and absolute strategic gains against a conventional adversary, most likely a state.
  • Good Order at Sea: Focus on the exclusive defense of national interests, sovereignty, and home waters.
  • Maritime Consensus: Preference for bi- or at times multi-lateral arrangements on a specific issue.

There are, of course, deep veins of compromise between these positions. As Till points out [3]:

These modernist and post-modernist paradigms of national state and naval behavior are very crudely drawn; the differences between them are fuzzy matters of degree and decidedly not pole opposites. Nor do such visions necessarily imply a set of naval roles and capacities that are mutually exclusive alternatives. Indeed, such naval capacities as amphibious warfare ships and load-carrying ship-borne helicopters can be as valuable for humanitarian relief operations as they are for kinetic types of maritime power projection.

I concede that among Western democracies, there has been a great deal of interconnectivity heretofore unseen between the world’s navies. Beyond economics, there appears to be a common theme of security concerns. There have been challenges to NATO cohesiveness and intra-West security cooperation, most notably Libya. If the US loses its global naval hegemony, even in one region, it will be interesting to see how an increased parity among Western nations will affect the post-modern agenda;  a blog post for another time. Regardless, I challenge the view of post-modernists that seapower in defense of global maritime trading as a system is sustainable. The missions of post-modern navies are maritime luxuries, only able to garner the attention received since the mid-90s due to the absolute dominance of the US Navy that continues to underwrite the seapower needs of much of the world.

First, the historical record is not on the side of the post-modernist. England’s unquestioned maritime dominance of the world’s SLOCs brought about the Pax Britannica. This period, from just before the end of the 19th century until the First World War was defined by global economic interconnectivity previously unknown to the world. Scholars such as Norman Angell saw this globalization as a sign that a new world had dawned wherein humanity had tied itself so closely together as to successfully, and permanently, restrain its natural impulse to competition and war. John Keegan wrote of Angell’s The Great Illusion [4]:

Europe in the summer of 1914 enjoyed a peaceful productivity so dependent on international exchange and co-operation that a belief in the impossibility of a general war seemed the most conventional of wisdoms. In 1910 an analysis of prevailing economic interdependence, The Great Illusion, had become a best-seller; its author Norman Angell had demonstrated, to the satisfaction of almost all informed opinion, that the disruption of international credit inevitably to be caused by war would either deter its outbreak or bring it speedily to an end.

Britain was, as is America today, the home of an intense debate regarding liberal interventionism, a concept that had grown in the peaceful space provided by British naval hegemony. Supporters saw interventionism as an opportunity to export democratic ideals that would make foreign nations naturally supportive of England and her ends. Opponents believed that only through the continued focus on national power would the tranquility of the system be guaranteed in the future. Within this previously unknown cooperation and globalization, the German Empire sought to challenge Britain for dominance, with Admiral Tirpitz inciting a naval arms race. The assumed hinderances to war, cooperation, perpetuation of tranquility, and open sea lanes, failed to keep Germany from asserting itself according to the capabilities of its new found power. Interest, greed, honor, and other such self-serving, traditional drivers justified Germany’s actions. Post-modern naval power was, as shown, unsustainable as a strategy for international peace. Nations still rise and challenge the throne of those naval hegemons who grant the freedom of secure SLOCs upon which these new powers themselves grew.

The same tired script is being played out in the modern Pax Americana.

Ever since the end of the Cold War and the “unipolar moment”, the naval prowess of the United States Navy has gone unchallenged. Not only does the USN provide Mahan-style sea control in every ocean on the planet, but it is able to project immense power onto land through its carrier force, amphibious assault ships, attack submarines, special forces, and other capabilities. Because of this, the maritime security community has been able to release themselves from the pessimistic, dreary concerns of so many naval planners past. As long as this dominance remains in place, there is significant room for naval operations in pursuit of post-modern objectives. A powerful example is the concept of a “Thousand Ship Navy” as laid out by Adm. Mike Mullen (then CNO) that sought to combat global threats to maritime shipping and provide various services such as rescue and humanitarian assistance through international cooperation with foreign navies. However, this space only exists as long as a singular, ideologically congruent maritime superpower can guarantee it.

The effects of eroding dominance can already be seen in East Asia. The rise of China has led security thinkers to sound a quick retreat from the glass house of economic interdependence as a guarantor of peace, returning their faith back to the conventional power of the carrier, submarine, and destroyer. Vietnam is seeking closer ties with both the US and India to counteract a growing absolute power gap in the Sino-Vietnam rivalry. Australia is concerned about whether it is too dependent on US protection due to the dark lessons learned from the last large Asian war, and what it can do to ensure its own protection outside of accepting US bases and multilateral alliances. The US is considering arming the Philippines amid increased tension with China. Bellicose activity from China and North Korea has caused Japan to see support for US bases increase. ASEAN, the most powerful multinational security organization in the region, can trace its recent unity to China’s aggression, not humanitarian assistance or terrorism. The US Navy is increasingly challenged in its ability to fulfill the requirements of absolute sea control in the traditional sense, causing regional nations to make sure their strategic positions are maximized, sacrificing the luxuries of multinationalism and system protection for want of guaranteeing their own survival and prosperity.

Global naval domination, provided by the United States Navy, is, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, being questioned. Even if this challenge is still in its development stage, and maintains a littoral theme, it is still an outlier for the past 25 years of hegemony. Younger strategists, diplomats, and scholars, have little recollection of the US-Soviet maritime rivalries. For my generation this challenge is by far the largest we’ve faced in a lifetime, and it is undermining the post-modern naval theme with which we grew up. Instead of providing international maritime security welfare and busying ourselves with the luxuries of moral wars of choice, strategists must be honest with the US public and the world regarding the conditions of the past quarter century and the reality we face if the trend continues. Post-modern naval thinking is empirically unsustainable, and the need for navies that can fulfill modern functions has once again returned for nations the world over.


[1] “Excessive sensitiveness” was coined by Mahan over a century ago to describe the fret with which realists saw the levels of interconnectivity in his time. A slight disruption of the maritime environment would have a magnified consequence upon the economy ashore, a vulnerable position for any nation.

[2] Till, Geoffrey (2009). Seapower. Routledge. p.2-19.

[3] Ibid, p.17.

[4] Keegan, John (1998), The First World War. Wikipedia’s entry on The Great Illusion provided this quote. Although it is an apt quote, don’t tell anyone.


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