As the Republican Party continues the process of reflection and analysis to assess our nation’s direction, it is an appropriate time to ask what a conservative defense and national security agenda should look like going forward. If one surveys the next decade and considers the continued emergence of China on the world stage and its activity in the Near-Seas, Iran's nuclear ambitions and potential threat in the Strait of Hormuz, the global economy’s dependency on commercial and energy shipping, and other flash-points for instability like the Horn of Africa, it is not difficult to deduce the starkly maritime character of the future security environment. Given this, I believe the backbone of any conservative defense agenda should be the prioritization of American seapower.
Moreover, I believe seapower should be a defense priority for conservatives, whose advocacy should be as closely associated with the GOP as support for missile defense has been for the past 30 years. Without a strong Navy underpinning American grand strategy, the very basis for a conservative agenda - the protection of liberty, robust economic growth, and strong support for free trade - would become untenable. With 80% of global trade traveling by sea, the strength of the American economy is directly linked with the Navy’s ability to keep the world’s sea lanes open and secure. The U.S. Constitution gave clear deference to the United States Navy when it declared Congress’ authority “to provide and maintain a Navy”. Whether it is combatting piracy off the Horn of Africa, preventing Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz to energy shipments, or upholding the bedrock principle of freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific, the Navy-Marine Corps team is essential to the health of the U.S. economy.
The primacy conservatives should accord seapower is rooted in the centrality of a strong Navy to the traditional goals and objectives of a conservative foreign policy. Through two world wars and a half-century of Cold War, U.S. foreign policy has focused on shaping the rise of another great power with aggressive ambitions. Whether Imperial Germany, the Third Reich, Japan or the Soviet Union, the United States has spent the last century guarding the equitable balance of power in key regions of the world. In every instance, it has been the U.S. Navy’s ability to command the seas where and when it chooses that allowed the U.S. and its allies to defeat or deter expansionist powers bent on dominating their neighbors. The American ascendancy to global naval dominance after World War II coincides directly with the decline in conflict between Great Powers. As with British naval predominance in the nineteenth century, a democratic superpower that can wield overwhelming seapower will generate a more stable, prosperous and peaceful international order.
The benefits of embracing seapower as a core tenet of a conservative defense agenda extend across the spectrum of national security challenges. Strengthening alliances with key countries in the world’s most critical regions is facilitated by a preponderance of American naval power, giving prospective allies the confidence that the U.S. will not abandon them in a crisis. Defense of the U.S. homeland is buttressed by the presence of Navy surface vessels equipped with ballistic missile defense (BMD) technology. The most effective and survivable leg of the U.S. nuclear deterrent are the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines. American aircraft carriers remain the single most powerful instrument of power projection ever devised, bringing unparalleled military power to bear to deter adversaries in peacetime or contribute to victory in a time of conflict. And the amphibious fleet provides flexibility to project Marine combat power ashore or bring assistance during humanitarian crises. Indeed, the list of America’s international diplomatic and security objectives that are supported by seapower capabilities is virtually endless.
Prioritizing seapower is also the best means for conservatives to offer solutions to the challenges of the 21st century. The rise of China, both economically and militarily, is set to define this century. Due to the vast geography of the Asian-Pacific theater, the Sino-American competition promises to be maritime in nature. A renewed conservative emphasis on seapower is required to help steer the American relationship with China in a positive, peaceful direction. Only by resourcing a Navy capable of deterring aggression and reassuring American allies of our commitment to security in the Pacific can we hope for a positive result to the Sino-American rivalry.
Finally, the current state of the U.S. Navy offers conservatives an opportunity to advocate and prioritize seapower as part of a forward-looking defense agenda. Even before sequestration, the Fleet had atrophied from 568 ships in 1987 to just 285 today. By 2015, the administration is projecting a continued decline of navy forces to an abysmal 270 ships. In key areas, including attack submarines and the amphibious vessels used to transport Marines around the world, the Navy will suffer serious shortfalls. Just as the investments made during the 1980s provided a powerful Navy that has benefited American interests in myriad ways for the last three decades, the choices made now will reverberate for decades to come. President Obama, who famously derided Mitt Romney’s farsighted vision for a revitalized Navy as harkening back to “horses and bayonets”, seems wholly uninterested in American seapower. The opportunity for conservative leadership on this subject could not be greater.
Historically, the Republican Party has been the most vigorous champion of American seapower. Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet symbolized the arrival of the United States as a great power at the turn of the 20th century and Ronald Reagan’s revitalization of the Fleet in the 1980s helped give the Soviet Union a final push onto the ash heap of history. It remains for the current generation of conservative leaders to establish seapower as the backbone of a defense policy dedicated to preserving the American-led global order.