The US is Losing the Battle for the High Seas - part 1

by Ron Fraser
(United States)

Any world power with vast overseas commitments must control the seaways necessary for safe passage of its goods, its citizens and its military forces. Why then have Britain and America so casually yielded up this power they once guarded so jealously?

Geography is the most stable factor on which the power of a nation depends.

Two thirds of the Earth’s surface is ocean. Two thirds of its inhabited land embraces the great land mass of Eurasia and Africa. The remainder, which we call the Western Hemisphere, is, by comparison, an island in the midst of the oceans.

Take a look at the polar map (right). Viewed from a perspective directly above the North Pole, the geography of the Earth’s surface becomes quite plain to the eye. The great “World Island”—as the early 20th-century British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder described Eurasia and the conjoined landmass of Africa—dominates the planet south of the Arctic to the Indian Ocean, east to the South China Sea and west to the Atlantic.

Considering this reality, it is amazing that, despite the fact that most of the nations of the Earth dwell on this singularly massive piece of real estate, the greater part of the globe has been dominated since the 19th century by an English-speaking peoples hailing largely from island nations lying off its western perimeter. Yet, especially in the days of the dominance of the British Empire during most of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, it was the peoples on the periphery of this giant land mass, those of the British Isles and its dominions—the island nation collective of Australia and New Zealand, plus Canada in the northern segment of the Americas—that generally held sway over much of Eurasia and Africa.

How could this have come about? There is a very clear strategic reality that explains this phenomenon of which most remain ignorant. This ignorance as to the reason this strategic reality was gifted to the Anglo-American peoples is placing them at great risk of its total loss!

Ray S. Cline served as deputy director of Intelligence for the Central Intelligence Agency from 1962-1966 and played a major role in the Cuba missile crisis of 1962. He died in 1996. A principal thesis of his strategic studies was based on turn-of-the-20th-century geographer Sir Halford Mackinder’s concept of the globe.

Mackinder “feared a day when Eurasia and land-linked Africa might become a united base of sea power, capable of outbuilding and outmanning the island nations” (Ray S. Cline, The Power of Nations in the 1990s). This clear-thinking student of geography had the presence of mind, even during the peak of Britain’s naval power, to fear the day when the ability to control traffic through the world’s sea lanes would be lost to the English-speaking peoples and vested in the hands of those from the World Island, the world’s largest single land and population mass.

Barely a century has passed since Mackinder wrote his essay on this subject. Britain lost its remarkable command of the high seas, together with its empire, decades ago. In more recent times, the United States gave away control of its crucial southern gateway of Panama and its northern sea gate of the Bering Strait. Mackinder’s worst fears are in the process of rapidly being realized.

The Fight for the World Island

Over the past two centuries, four demagogues attempted to seize control of the World Island land mass. Napoleon tried and was defeated by the Russian winter in 1812. A century later, after Kaiser Wilhelm had pounded the drums of war, German general Erich Ludendorff attempted an eastern strategy, gaining a spectacular victory over the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914, before his subsequent failure on the Western front. Hitler tried in 1941 and was repulsed by the Soviet counter-offensive. At the end of World War II, Stalin, by rolling his tanks clear on into Berlin, commenced the Soviet Union’s attempts to seize control of Eurasia and Africa. The USSR then followed up with deliberate incursions into the Asian and African theaters by infiltrating those regions with insurgents and promoting conflict. Though this ultimately led to the ANC-Communist takeover of South Africa in 1994, Communist efforts in Asia stalled in Korea and Vietnam.

Despite America’s natural tendency toward isolationism—a fact allowable by a combination of its unique positioning (separated from the World Island by two great oceans) and its being blessed with abundant natural resources—earlier generations of military men certainly appreciated the reality behind Mackinder’s thesis. One such was Rear Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan, a United States Navy officer, renowned geostrategist and educator.

Admiral Mahan is still considered the world’s most prominent theorist of military sea power. A contemporary and friend of Theodore Roosevelt, he authored The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, widely read as the definitive text on the strategic employment of naval power. Mahan’s main premise was that domination of the sea through the exercise of naval power was critical to the control of seaborne commerce and thus a crucial element to obtain the advantage in war. His book became widely influential in strategic circles in his day, particularly within those nations that later found themselves engaged in World War I.

So what has happened to change the present-day military strategists’ view of this fundamental principle of maintaining the power of a nation?

The Great Sea Gate Giveaway

From a purely human perspective, we may perhaps allow that Great Britain, broke and exhausted following two great wars fought in defense of its far-flung empire, might have had no choice but to yield up to its former colonies the precious territory guarding its sea gates.

Yet what excuse does the U.S. have for literally handing over its sovereign right to Panama, bought and paid for by the taxes of a previous generation? And why did the U.S., five years ago, meekly give the Russians the islands and territorial seas—including the assets and seabed—of the Bering Strait for so little in return? This sea gate embraces prime territory for radar and satellite-tracking locations, missile-deployment systems, and missile submarine pens that would threaten the northwestern coast and interior of the U.S.

The result of these giveaways should be obvious to any child of elementary-school age, or any player of the popular game of Risk: It simply poses the probable loss of passage to American warships through the Panama Canal and the Bering Strait should the new possessor of this sea gate choose to close it down by naval barricade! This handover of America’s northwestern and southern gateways would appear to be, based on all recognized authorities on naval strategy, akin to national suicide!

Yet geography was never the real strength of the average American. To so many Americans, isn’t the United States the center of the universe? Don’t we have the very best form of government? Isn’t our god the God of the universe? Aren’t we a really good people? Don’t we have the answers to all the world’s problems? Isn’t Utopia our preserve? Isn’t our navy so powerful that no nation would attempt to withstand it?

Well, the plain fact is, that very un-humble American mindset—of taking so much for granted—is a fairly modern phenomenon. But what hasn’t changed is the gross ignorance the average American has of the geography of the planet on which he or she lives. Sixty years ago, the American people were shocked into the reality that there was, indeed, a whole wide world out there beyond the Americas, and it was largely hostile to their peace-loving populace!

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told his speechwriter, “I am going to ask the American people to take out their maps. I’m going to speak about strange places that many of them never heard of—places that are now the battleground of civilization.” That was way back in 1942. The Americans, or at least many of them, dutifully pulled out their maps of the world from their family libraries and discovered a whole world lying beyond the shores of their own island of peculiar isolation.

Track forward 60 years to 9/11.

This time the hit is far closer to home. Not just on the outlying state of Hawaii, as in 1941, but right at the heart and core of the corporate and the political headquarters of America—New York and Washington! That one event skewed U.S. policymakers’ minds toward the enactment of a “war on terror,” with its primary focus on the Middle East.

But now, with so many minds, so many assets, and a huge portion of funds devoted to this effort, the U.S. risks failing to secure the very strategic areas where it is most vulnerable.

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