Roughead on Sea Power
By David Henderson
In Monday’s Wall Street Journal, Gary Roughead, former chief of naval operations and now a fellow at the Hoover Institution, has a review of Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy by Seth Cropsey, a former deputy undersecretary of the Navy.
I would have thought that the main thing Roughead should have pointed out is how overstated Cropsey’s book title is. In a literal sense, of course, U.S. naval power could decline and could even be declining. But the sense that Cropsey’s title gives, amplified by the content that Roughead highlights, is that the decline will happen soon and will be large. Here’s a quote from Roughead’s review:
China, Mr. Cropsey argues, is on the path to overtake U.S. naval power, with little deliberation in this country about the consequences of such a development. As Mr. Cropsey warns, reducing the number of U.S. ships “accelerates the decline of American sea power, unintentionally adding strategic weight to Beijing’s naval buildup, and more important, to China’s rise to dominance in Asia. Politicians have not faced this basic question of strategy.”
This fear mongering is fanned by the editor who wrote the book review’s title. That anonymous writer titled the review “How We Lost the Seas.” So the editor takes a prediction about the future and puts it in the present. That’s, to put it mildly, inaccurate.
It is pretty clear that the Chinese government is becoming dominant in Asia, but, as I pointed out in an October 2010 speech on globalization that I gave at a “boot camp” for the 55 newly minted one-star Admirals, the threat that the Chinese government, including the Chinese navy, poses to the United States is tiny. We have a very important protection from the Chinese government: it’s called the Pacific Ocean.
Interestingly, Roughead, perhaps sensing that Americans will not be sufficiently afraid of a government across the biggest ocean in the world, gives other reasons for a large Navy. Here’s where it’s his economics that’s fishy (pun intended.)
That lecturer, Theodore Roosevelt, would go on to be president and transform the U.S. Navy into the global force that has underpinned international security and prosperity for a century.
I’ll put aside the issue of international security. I don’t agree with him but that’s too big an issue to tackle. But prosperity? How has the U.S. Navy underpinned prosperity? Roughead doesn’t say.
Or maybe he does, because he goes on:
Sea power sets conditions for stable world trade, as some 90% of commerce moves on the oceans.
I doubt that 90% of commerce moves on the oceans. It’s possible that Roughead meant that 90% of international trade moves on the oceans. That is at least plausible. But it doesn’t follow that with a much smaller U.S. Navy, commerce across the ocean would decline substantially. Pirates just aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things and it’s not as if other governments are just waiting there trying in major ways to disrupt sea-going traffic.
Roughead ends with his claim about prosperity:
“Mayday” is extremely timely, reminding us that security and prosperity are inextricably linked to sea power.
Of course, Cropsey might have made a strong case that prosperity is inextricably linked to sea power. Roughead doesn’t give that case, but there is only so much you can do in a short book review. But, having some familiarity with Cropsey’s earlier work, I doubt that he did make such a case.