As this week’s addition to the USNI Blog series in the run up to the release of LCDR BJ Armstrong’s book “21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era” we are republishing this post from USNI NEWS. First published July 7th of last year, it remains a relevant discussion today. The potential for negative impacts from globalization was the subject of ADM James Stavridis’s oped “The Dark Side of Globalization” in the Washington Post on Sunday, and it reminds us of the dangers that Mahan saw in an interconnected world.
“It seems demonstrable, therefore, that as commerce is the engrossing and predominant interest of the world to day… The instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy.”
— CAPT Alfred Thayer Mahan
Much of today’s discussion of international relations is based around the core idea that globalization has radically changed the political landscape of the world. Today’s thinkers, writers, and strategists tell us that because the world is flat, and we are closer to each other than ever before, we are in uncharted seas. In 2011 LCDR Matt Harper suggested in an award winning article in the pages of Proceedings that the economic ties between China and the United States, the “WALMART factor,” made military conflict almost impossible. Recently the discussion has once again been taken up in the pages of Proceedings. In the April issue LCDR Rachel Gosnell and 2LT Michael Orzetti wrote a piece suggesting that great power conflict was still something that should be planned for in the twenty-first century. LT Doug Robb responded in May with his Now Hear This…, “Why the Age of Great Power Conflict is Over.” He made a familiar case familiar to readers of the writing of Tom Friedman today or the idealism of Norman Angell, early in the last century.
Both articles suggest that this is a new question and the question is a new challenge to be tackled. The dawn of the twenty-first century, however, is not the first time that the world has dealt with globalization. Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote about it in a number of his essays at the turn of the last century. In 1905 he published “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies,” which opened with what he called “an antecedent appreciation of the political, commercial, and military exigencies of the state.” He felt that before he discussed how and where naval forces should be deployed it was important to first talk about the condition and political state of the world because the use and deployment of a fleet in peacetime should be done in anticipation of the needs of war. ATM believed that any military policy had to be in tune with political and economic realities. This opening discussion centers around what readers in the twenty-first century recognize as globalization.
The adoption of steam power, transatlantic telegraph cables, and wireless telegraph technology had dramatically shortened the connections around the world. This created a global economic and political system that ATM called “an articulated whole.” He foresaw that as commerce and economic considerations increased in their power, there would be a desire to maintain the global status quo for reasons of economic power. The economic, political and military power of a nation, according to ATM, was all intertwined and he wrote, “This is the more necessary to observe, because, while commerce thus on the one hand deters from war, on the other hand it engenders conflict, fostering ambitions and strifes which tend towards armed conflict.”
In other writings ATM warned that “civilizations on different planes of material prosperity and progress, with different spiritual ideals, and with very different political capacities, are fast closing together.” He saw the rise of new powers in Asia as a source of future conflict. When the rising powers and the great powers come into commercial and economic competition ATM saw it as a recipe for the development of armed conflict. With economic conflict leading to potential political conflict, which would lead to military conflict, he believed that America required a solid strategy based in naval strength. Why? Because, “it seems demonstrable, therefore, that as commerce is the engrossing and predominant interest of the world today, so, in consequence of its acquired expansion, oversea commerce, oversea political acquisition, and maritime commercial routes are now the primary objects of external policy among nations. The instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy.”
There is a common tendency for us to look at our challenges and strategic questions as new, with more complexity, or wickedness, or whatever other new adjective we can think of, than ever before. However, history and the strategic thinking of the past frequently helps us develop the right approaches to those questions, or can provide realistic starting points for debate and research. Reading and studying ATM, who addressed globalization in his thinking and writing, can help add to our modern discussion, debate, and strategy formulation.