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The Case for Maritime Realism

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The U.S. Navy has yet to fully integrate realist principles into developing its strategy, even amid today’s world of strategic competition.

Realism is back. From arguments over Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine to the 2024 U.S. presidential election cycle, realist concepts dominate foreign policy discussions. Should Western countries continue to supply munitions to Ukraine even as their stockpiles diminish? If China looms as the more dangerous threat to U.S. interests, what can Washington do to counterbalance it? These are the kinds of foreign affairs questions that some realists are asking.

It is not surprising, then, that the U.S.-led response to the Houthi attacks on civilian shipping in the Red Sea has drawn fire from realists, who are annoyed at U.S. Central Command’s use of precision-guided munitions on Houthi targets. In the name of protecting freedom of the seas, the United States appears to be drawn into yet another Middle East conflict. In contrast, realists argue it should prioritize the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific and the Russian threat in Europe. After all, why should the U.S. Navy protect Chinese shipping in the Red Sea when even Beijing refuses to defend it?

The Red Sea attacks highlight how difficult it is to police the seas and guarantee safe passage through them. This fact suggests that current naval policy is particularly ripe for re-examination. Indeed, what makes the maritime domain unique is that it is realist in nature. This is a place where hard powerpredominates, where actors more freely conceal their behavior and deceiveadversaries, and where the best information about close calls between vessels are grainy images. Ultimately, actors on the high seas follow international law only if they know someone is willing and able to hold them accountable, a task that is often difficult to accomplish.

Realist theory, therefore, ought to inform U.S. naval strategy. Commentators have recently accused the U.S. Navy strategy of floating adrift, propelled only byinstitutional inertia. Could the apparent lack of a clear strategy be attributed to a faulty theoretical basis?

In the post-Cold War era of the 1990s and 2000s, the Navy began to take on the characteristics aligned with the liberal ideals of that time. Naval strategic documents, for example, began emphasizing presence operations, humanitarian assistance, power projection, and protection of neutral shipping. Is it the case that these liberal tenets have always been at odds with the nature of naval operations?

Realism of the Sea

From Thucydides to Machiavelli to Waltz, the realist school of foreign policy over the years has asserted three key principles: first, the international system is anarchic, and its principal actors are states; second, states tend to pursue their own interests over collective ones; and third, hard power is the ultimate arbiter of disputes among states. Each of these conditions is especially true in the maritime domain, which by definition is a global common situated outside state borders.

First, take the anarchic nature of the high seas. This is international territory and belongs to no state in particular; thus, it is a place where states have no territorial legal jurisdiction. There are customs that good mariners follow, but nothing legally binds them to do so. Indeed, many mariners on the sea do break international law, as evidenced by the widespread occurrence of “illegal,” unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing in various regions worldwide. This highlights just how lawless the seas can be. With relatively fewer eyes watching, dubious mariners have little incentive to follow the international law that only powerful navies and coast guards can or will enforce.

Second, most states utilize the seas to pursue commerce, communications, or defense interests. The current conflict in the Red Sea serves as an exception that proves the rule. Beijing is content to free ride, allowing the U.S. Navy to protect Chinese-flagged ships from the Houthi threat. Such behavior wouldn’t be acceptable within a state’s own borders if the government possessed the capability to protect its people from external harm but blatantly refused to do so since the populations living within those borders would not tolerate it. However, free riding is all too common on the high seas, where no people live and no constituencies to consider.

Third, naval power embodies the realist principle that hard power matters most in international conflict. This is evidenced by China’s efforts to develop and build powerful anti-ship ballistic missiles, establishing an anti-access area denial (A2AD) weapons engagement zone in the South China Sea. It is why the central focus of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) deal was the agreement to supply Australia with nuclear-powered attack submarines. Nations involved in the strategic competition in the Western Pacific are behaving in accordance with the realist principle that when it comes to war at sea, hard power is what deters.

This is not necessarily true of the land domain, where ideology and politics play more significant roles in human interaction. As Julian Corbett points out, people live on land, not the sea. Because land warfare occurs closer to civilians, political factors, not solely hard power, matter more than at sea. Moreover, the use of unbridled hard power in land warfare can even be counterproductive. On land, journalists and citizens with smartphones can capture and publicize war crimes, shifting public opinion at near-instant speed.

This is not to suggest that maritime activity does not influence public opinion but rather that it does so less frequently. At sea, where internet connectivity is spotty and vessels interact with one another from miles away, it is harder for the untrained eye to comprehend what is happening. While commercial satellites can capture images of armies massing on land borders, tracking fleets dispersed across a theater of operations is harder for the same satellites and analysts. The grainy image of a Chinese warship cutting off a U.S. naval vessel, the unprofessionalism of which a layperson may not even fully appreciate, engenders less outrage than the image of civilians suffering in a war zone. Less outrage, in turn, means less attention. Less attention means less political impact, and less political impact means that states feel less restrained from using force to achieve their goals.

For A Better Strategy, Embrace the Realism of the Sea

The maritime domain is a realist one, and the U.S. Navy must factor this into its strategic vision. To reverse the perception that the Navy is rudderless, it must reframe its strategic documents to reflect today’s strategic environment and, indeed, the sea itself. Adopting and embracing realism’s principles as guides would lead the Navy to three lines of efforts: building naval coalitions that focus primarily on combat power, doubling down on hard power investments for the goal of deterrence, and divesting from the mission sets that distract from the nation’s defense objectives.

The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO)’s Navigation Plan, most recently updated in 2022, underscores the importance of the U.S. Navy’s contribution to world peace, the rules-based order, and shared prosperity while acknowledging the aggressive behavior of revisionist powers aiming to “undercut” the rules-based system. Managing dual challenges simultaneously—protecting the rules-based trading order and enhancing lethality to deter China and Russia—is becoming more difficult than before.

The truth of the matter is that the Navy cannot be everywhere at once and must prioritize. Making things worse, many states from the Global South see the so-called rules-based order unfavorably, perceiving Chinese expansion as an opportunity for economic growth rather than the threat asserted by the United States. The Navy should, therefore, consider abandoning such focus on the rules-based order and instead adopt a realist focus on state interests.

This would have important implications for the Navy’s force structure and concept of operations. First, by prioritizing shared core interests over the shared liberal order, the Navy would enhance its ability to unite allies and partners against its strategic competitors. Instead of appealing to protecting the rules-based order, an appeal that China and Russia can distort and frame as modern American imperialism, the U.S. Navy can focus on building coalition combat power. This entails conducting more naval exercises and increased interoperability with partners, including non-traditional ones. These partnerships should not be based on the vague aspiration of shared ideals but on the more pragmatic common goal of preventing Chinese hegemony in East Asia.

The second implication of a realist maritime strategy would be that U.S. naval hard power would need to increase substantially. The naval enterprise must demand that Congress substantially increase the Navy’s budget to pay for many more missiles, ships, airframes, drones, and trained personnel. This entails clearly outlining that the United States’ maritime goal—and thus its priority—is to achieve the capability to outnumber and outpower Chinese naval forces. Similar to the U.S. naval buildup of the 1980s, today’s naval strategy needs to articulate the specific threat to American interests in East Asia and delineate a pathway to acquire the capabilities needed to meet that threat.

Like today, many academics accused the Navy of lacking a coherent strategy forty years ago. The Soviet Navy outnumbered the U.S. Navy, with over three times as many vessels. Concerns arose about the Navy’s diminishing ability to protect sea lines of communication while fighting a kinetic conflict. The Navy articulated the Soviet threat, developed a strategy to flow combat power into forward Soviet operating areas to neutralize that threat, and outlined a pathway to achieve the capabilities needed for that strategy. Although this naval buildup contributed to a significant increase in overall military spending during the 1980s, it was deemed essential to achieve the nation’s strategic goals.