By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
The course of history rarely changes in short order; rather it shifts slowly until that one swift moment when change becomes undeniable. On June 24, President Trump took to Twitter following the downing of an unmanned U.S. drone. He expressed his dissatisfaction that the U.S. was not being compensated for keeping international shipping lanes open, and was thus taking risks.
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The Strait of Hormuz, through which passes a substantial amount of the world’s oil, is protected by the U.S. military. Iran frequently threatens to close the strait as a negotiating tactic, but the U.S. naval presence has long served to mitigate that risk. The series of tweets from the President demonstrate that history is not changing, but that the status quo of the last 70 years is no longer necessarily in the interest of the United States. In essence, President Trump is threatening a return to the historical norm.
US Foreign Policy Was Reconfigured as US Energy Demands Changed
Indeed, in an article I wrote one year ago, I stated that U.S. foreign policy was going to be reconfigured as U.S. energy demands changed. This is a theme I’ve discussed during the past 10 years on In Homeland Security because these once-subtle shifts are becoming more profound.
Even during the recent Democratic presidential debates candidates aired themes consistent with this shift. Whether Trump is re-elected or the U.S. chooses a new chief executive, the challenges facing the U.S. will remain the same and whoever is President will still be required to adhere to the Constitution.
But there is an aspect of Trump’s tweets that require further discussion. The U.S. Navy is the prime guarantor of international commerce on the high seas. Although other nations do not compensate the U.S. for this security, the U.S. benefits greatly from this arrangement. Should this change, other nations with the capacity to build a capable navy will have to take over and this will lead to further contested waters.
The Chinese and Russian Navies Have Challenged the US Navy
In recent years, the Chinese and Russian navies have challenged the U.S. Navy — dangerously in some circumstances — in contested as well as in international waters. Should the U.S. decide to forgo its protection of the world’s oceans, such encounters will become increasingly common.
Additionally, the major buffer that the U.S. enjoys by keep threats from other nations far from U.S. shores would no longer exist. The added economic benefit of protecting the United States’ ability to import and export products unmolested is equally important. Scaling back U.S. naval dominance would be an economic disaster in the long term.
Writing in Bloomberg, retired Admiral James Stavridis made this point by discussing two famous treatises on geopolitics, H. J. MacKinder’s Geographical Pivot of History and A.T. Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History.
MacKinder posited that domination of Eurasia under a single polity would allow that governing entity to control the world. Mahan believed that domination of the world’s oceans could allow peripheral powers to contain Eurasia.
Stavridis points out the cozy relationship between Moscow and Beijing of recent years, suggesting that both nations are making a play for MacKinder’s “World Island.” The Admiral believes that China would hold the upper hand in the relationship, but the relationship itself would create a direct challenge to the United States.
If this Russia-China relationship does indeed challenge Washington in the long run, it would be unwise to scale back U.S. naval involvement, if not the continued naval dominance over the world’s oceans.
Trump doesn’t outright suggest that he wishes to scale back U.S. naval dominance, but he must articulate his strategy fully. Otherwise, his tweets might embolden others to challenge the United States in the world’s oceans.