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The political, commercial and cultural dimensions of maritime strategy

The political, commercial and cultural dimensions of maritime strategy
Published 25 Oct 2013 

James Holmes is professor of strategy at the US Naval War College; these views are his alone. This post is part of a debate series arranged in conjunction with the Sea Power Centre.

Captain Justin Jones hits on a basic yet often overlooked point about the sea in his recent Interpreter post, namely that 'maritime' connotes far more than 'naval', and indeed far more than military uses of the oceans and the skies above.

A century ago, British historian Julian S Corbett broadened the idea of maritime strategy beyond battles in which fleets of heavily armed men-of-war pounded away at each other. Corbett pointed out that mankind lives on land, and therefore the primary focus of maritime strategy should be shaping events on land. For him that meant navies working with armies to project power into contested rimlands. Air forces have their part to play these days. It was heartening, accordingly, to see the Australian army and air force chiefs of staff lavish such attention on war at sea when they addressed the Sea Power Conference earlier this month.

American theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan took the idea of maritime strategy much further, even though he seldom used the term. For Mahan, commerce was king. The propensity to trade was a society's chief qualification for sea power. It beckoned peoples to the sea in quest of prosperity. Navies existed to help seafaring states gain access to foreign markets, and to put steel behind foreign policy. [fold]

Without seaborne commerce to defend, then, the sexiest fleet of capital ships flails around on the main, seeking battle for its own sake. It's a luxury fleet, to borrow Holger Herwig's moniker for the Imperial German navy. It's frightfully expensive yet largely purposeless.

And yet there's even more to maritime affairs than military strategy, commerce, or even politics. As King's College professor Geoffrey Till points out in his book Seapower, maritime strategy is also about extracting natural resources from the seas and the sea floor. It's even a mode of cultural interchange, as anyone who lives in a seaport frequented by foreign merchantmen and warships will tell you. That's why the lore of the sea — poetry, art, music — is so rich. That's why Robert Kaplan maintains that maritime civilizations are more cosmopolitan and more moderate than their continental brethren.

Encouraging not just officials and officers but Everyman to think in such all-encompassing terms is part of creating a maritime school of thought for Australia. Curiously, commercial and political uses of the commons are the most important for fulfilling national goals, yet cultural outreach is the best method for firing Everyman's enthusiasm for seaborne endeavours.

Australians could profitably investigate Henry Steele Commager's work on how founding Americans fabricated a national culture — including a seagoing strain — to bind together an unruly patchwork of states. Commager called this a 'usable past'. Likewise, figuring out how to harness culture for commercial and political purposes is the challenge before the RAN, the sister services, and the Australian Government.

Photo by Flickr user Royal Navy Media archive.

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