The Trump administration’s actions on the question of the U.S. Navy’s future will be the single most consequential policy decision of the next four years, if not the next decade. Its decisions will affect our national security, if not our national survival — and with those, the fate of the world as well.
Human inconsistency frustrates the study of politics. Each civilization has created distinct forms of political order based on different concepts of legitimacy and justice. This fact makes universal criteria for morality or legitimacy difficult. As Germany’s “Iron Chancellor” Otto von Bismarck noted in an 1863 example of gross understatement, “politics is not an exact science.”
However, international relations are governed by a handful of laws that manifest themselves consistently throughout history. The most important of these is that power balances power, and rising actors will resent the hierarchy imposed by a more powerful hegemon. These laws apply best to great powers — those states that determine the stability or instability of a system through their application of coercive economic, military and political power. Not only are these powers the only major threats to one another, they are the only actors in the system with the capability to impose their political and moral framework on others. When great powers compete, they clash over both material interests and competing value systems.
Structural hierarchy can mitigate great-power competition. The overwhelming strength of one actor wards off challenges, while the stability this power provides encourages systemic economic prosperity. This explains the economic prosperity and international stability that followed America’s emergence as the single most powerful state in the international system after 1991. Yet, power shifts with time. The American economic advantage that translated into political dominance has dissipated, leaving the U.S. as a global leader, but not absent rivals. China has used integration into the American-created international economic system to supercharge its own economic growth.
Moreover, economic growth is not the only factor in current structural shifts — military power is the highest-value currency in great-power competition. Despite its economic instability, Russia has emerged as a formidable military adversary, with a collection of capabilities designed to control conflict escalation, and a select few high-end systems designed to match their American counterparts and increase the cost of full-scale warfare. Smaller actors also use specific military capabilities to give them outsized relevance; Iran’s irregular forces and North Korea’s nuclear weapons afford them leverage over an increasingly overstretched U.S. military.
Iran, Russia and North Korea cause significant strategic problems for the U.S. However, China is America’s greatest rival. The Moscow-Tehran axis can pressure the NATO alliance’s eastern flank and attack America’s Middle Eastern allies and partners, and the nuclear-armed Kim family regime can engage in apocalyptic Russian roulette, but only China has the structural economic power to eliminate and replace the present global order.
China’s first step in this project is dominating the Asia-Pacific. America’s international system requires unimpeded freedom of trade and navigation. Not only does the West’s economic structure require significant material imports and exports, but America’s international alliance and base network is untenable absent communication and transport over vast distances. A Chinese-dominated Pacific would give Beijing a stranglehold over trade flows to, and communication with, critical American regional allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia. With the South and East China Seas functioning as China’s private lakes, Chinese President Xi Jinping could force his American counterpart to choose between fighting a major war to regain control of the Pacific or allowing the elimination of today’s international system, and accepting significant Chinese revision.
Naval forces are therefore the most important military variable in this Sino-American rivalry. A strong U.S. Navy and Marine Corps is essential to maintaining freedom of navigation, ensuring effective security relations with allies, deterring enemy escalation and, in the event of a confrontation, neutralizing any threat with overwhelming firepower. To put it more broadly, the prerequisite for an international order, especially a liberal one that depends on free trade and unmolested global commerce, is naval dominance. Ours is at risk.
U.S. naval forces have been in decline since the end of the Cold War. The current 275-ship, 10 capital-ship fleet is a far cry from the 594-ship, 17 capital-ship fleet of the 1980s. To fulfill America’s defense commitments and deter its adversaries, a 350-ship fleet is critical. Fleet diversity is necessary – submarines are needed for long-term war-fighting punch, aircraft carriers for operational flexibility, surface combatants for deterrence patrols and forward presence, and amphibious ships for operations against critical maritime strong-points — as is a robust Marine Corps that is 190,000-200,000 strong.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to rebuild U.S. naval capacity, particularly by expanding the Navy to 350 ships. Notwithstanding, the president’s National Security Strategy (NSS) is silent on the goal and how to reach it. The NSS’s focus on high-end great-power competition is an important step in the right direction, but without explicit recognition of the force structure needed to win such a contest, this shift in policy is meaningless. In his State of the Union address, the president justifiably asked Congress to end the defense sequester and fully fund the U.S. military. This is necessary, but does not answer the question: Will President Trump ask Congress for the money to build a 350-ship Navy, and will he fight for it?
Playing catch-up with a Chinese navy projected to break 400 ships by 2030 after another decade and a half of U.S. military stagnation is not an option. No lapsed great power has ever recovered its position. A substantive imbalance in forces could tempt China (or China together with other adversaries) to strike first against a U.S. that belatedly seeks to regain hard power, leading to, at best, a multi-year war or, at worst, the destruction of the U.S. Pacific Fleet or a nuclear exchange.
Structure helps dictate the general shape and direction of international politics. However, China’s rise — and America’s decline — are not inevitable. Economic conditions can fluctuate for good or ill, and the rise of Artificial Intelligence and economic automation can reshape the international economic landscape in the next decade.
Military power is the best instrument to ensure the U.S. national position, safeguard the international order it has created, and preserve the Western values on which its political structure rests. The U.S. has the capacity to rebuild its military forces, deter its adversaries, and defend its interests. But without political will for such measures, the prospects for America’s continued pre-eminence are dim. The challenge that faces both this administration and its successors is how to harness the nation’s will.