Skip to main content

Foreign Policy Facebook? U.S. Navy Ops Strategy Emphasizes Multilateralism

The U.S. Navy recently released its 2010 Naval Operations Concept to great fanfare. The NOC is the “ways” in the ends-ways-means trilogy of Navy strategic documents. By describing how the Navy will fulfill the goals stated in 2007’s tri-service Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (CS21), it shores up the Navy’s strategic edifice.

That edifice itself, however, is cause for concern. Composed of assumptions that are as risky as they are bold, the foreign policy foundation uniting the trilogy has the potential to make or break naval strategy – and perhaps overall U.S. military strategy – in the coming decades.

CS21 set the stage in 2007 for the Navy’s new approach by boldly declaring the existence of an “open, multi-polar world,” a marked reversal of the hubris that characterized military strategy in the first half of the decade. Instead of “you are either with us or against us,” it humbly pledged unprecedented cooperation with international partners. With its emphasis on collective security, CS21 conforms to a progressive, internationalist foreign policy approach. This is a document that Woodrow Wilson gladly would have signed.

The stated manner in which this communal effort would coalesce seemed pioneering. Specifically, CS21 built upon 2005’s “Thousand Ship Navy” concept that called for the voluntary development of “self-synchronizing, self-organizing” networks of informal partnerships on the sea.

Its quasi-imperialistic title was later abandoned for the more benign “Global Maritime Partnership,” but the central concept remained: Nations would join out of collective self-interest with no legal or encumbering ties. The sclerotic, bureaucratic processes of organizations such as NATO were out, and free-form, voluntary coalitions were in.

It is still unclear what all of this means. It sounds more like Facebook than foreign policy. But the evidence suggests that it resonates with the international audience. In September 2009, for instance, 102 countries and 91 chiefs of services attended the International Seapower Symposium in Newport, R.I. This nearly doubled attendance prior to the CS21 years.

Additionally, the partnership boasts some modest successes, like the voluntary coalition fighting piracy off Somalia and the tri-nation effort to fight piracy in the Strait of Malacca – an effort to which, significantly, the United States did not contribute. For their part, senior officers refer to a dramatic spike in goodwill at naval seminars and conferences.

Collectively, then, the Global Maritime Partnership is a novel and compelling approach to 21st-century maritime security. But will it work?

No one is sure. Already, the Navy’s conservative commentators are cranking out blogs and op-eds, decrying the nation’s “retreat” from the Western Pacific while dismissing other nations’ abilities to guard the world’s maritime commons. If their eyes are collectively on China, an equally vocal faction has its eyes on Mumbai and wants a very different Navy of small ships for use in the world’s littorals. Although CS21 is a centrist document, it energized the U.S. Navy’s political fringes.

The NOC does not take sides in this debate. By presenting “the seas as maneuver space” as its overarching concept, it softens CS21’s foreign policy tones while buttressing traditional naval doctrine. This is unsurprising for a document targeted primarily at military professionals and especially its own Navy and Marine Corps readership; the sermon’s audience is the choir. Or, as one naval officer working in the Navy’s policy office stated, the NOC constitutes “orders to the helm.”

But the current of multilateralism endures, and while it seems Wilsonian, it also contains an element of hard-nosed, Nixonian realism not widely appreciated. If the Navy has been for decades the guarantor of international stability and global free markets, as its advocates loudly proclaim, then its ability to continue to do so alone is waning – if only for the dearth of ships.

This trend will be hard to reverse: 220 of the current 286 vessels in the inventory will still be in service in 2020, and the current production rate of approximately 10 ships per year will at best stabilize numbers in the low 300s in the coming decades, at least without a massive (and very unlikely) infusion of funds. In this sense, the Global Maritime Partnership is less a hopeful, kumbaya approach to coalitions than a pragmatic attempt to address an inexorably changing world.

Much is at stake here. The recently launched National Security Strategy echoes and reinforces CS21’s central themes, and the failure of these tenets would signal a return to a cynical, unilateral foreign policy, and a much more dangerous world. As the Navy rounds out its portfolio with the new Naval Operations Concept, we all have an important stake in its underlying, Facebook foreign policy. Let’s hope the Navy is right.


Get daily updates from Brookings