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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchLost at Sea: The Dangerous Decline of American Naval Power

Lost at Sea: The Dangerous Decline of American Naval Power

Author: Kori Schake

Affiliation: the American Enterprise Institute, Deputy Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department (2007–8)

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: March/April, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 3025



Keywords: Seapower, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Domination Over the Seas, Decline of US Naval Power, Coming Naval Geopolitical Great Power Rivalry



In this article, the author argues for the growing geostrategic importance of seas and oceans in determining the future of the great power rivalry in the twenty-first century, as the rivalry between Washington and Beijing will increasingly become a struggle for naval power. Therefore, American security and prosperity will depend on naval-military and commercial-dominance. The author also raises the alarm and calls the US administration to stop the continuous dangerous decline of the US naval power if Washington wants to win this geopolitical rivalry, especially with the growing threat of a rapidly rising China, “with an authoritarian regime hostile to the United States.” In this regard, the author presents a critical review of two new books published in 2021, both based on Alfred Mahan’s classic geostrategic premise on the centralization of naval power and the priority of maritime hegemony in the struggle for world dominance. The first book is by Bruce D. Jones, “To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers”. The second one is by Gregg Easterbrook, “The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity-And Why We’re in Danger of Losing It”.


The article is divided into four parts. In the first part, the author outlines the increasing commercial and military importance of the oceans. About 90% of the world’s traded goods are transported by sea, so maritime trade and power are critical to global supply chain networks. Thus, she asserts that control of the sea will be the determinant factor for the next century, based on the arguments given by Jones and Easterbrook. For example, Jones provides maps of the vast networks of undersea fuel pipelines and transport cables to argue the central role of the oceans in energy realities and in the global fight over climate change. Also, he shows that “the world’s oceans are rapidly becoming the most important zone of confrontation between the world’s great military actors” because the cooperative patterns of the twentieth century are eroding, paving the way for new geopolitical struggles now beginning on the high seas, warning of diminishing US naval dominance. Easterbrook also advocates for the preservation of US naval dominance and argues that it has great merit in reducing poverty in the developing world and improving material standards of life almost everywhere. He also argues that Washington can enhance the global reach of the US Navy by pursuing some measures. The author agrees with scholars about the growing importance of the oceans and the decline in US naval power, but she describes the researchers’ recommendations for redressing this error as utopian and inaccurate, by giving some examples. 


The second part provides indicators and figures on the dwindling US naval power that the task of restoring will be necessary to maintain the US-led international order. For example, in 1950 the US merchant marine fleet represented 43% of global shipping, by 1994 the share had fallen to only 4%. The fleet is currently ranked 27th in the world while its Chinese counterpart ranks second. This shortage makes the country dependent on its naval fleet, which has also shrunk dramatically, as the US Navy in 1930 had more ships than it has today, at a time when China will have replaced the United States as the largest naval power in the world in 2020. The Pentagon aims to increase the size of the fleet from 306 to 355 ships by 2034, but that is an elusive goal that Congress has not yet secured funding for. Moreover, the author argues that the combination of commitments imposed on the US military by the current military strategy (such as preparing for a possible conflict with China and sending troops to Europe in the event of an attack on a NATO ally) makes it an extremely drained army. Furthermore, the gap between the naval commitments and the capabilities of the fleet causes the US Navy to be exhausted, as well as the disruption in the “naval culture” of officers in general which values administrative and bureaucratic chores over training to fight, dealing with ships, and other more important tasks essential to winning wars.


The third part criticizes previous and current US administrations for the decline in US naval power, arguing that for nearly two decades it has allowed a growing gap between the declared strategy on the one hand, and the existing military means and the budget provided to the Department of Defense on the other hand. The Biden administration, for example, is directing its energy to other priorities such as the coronavirus pandemic, the crushing decline of the economy, the crisis of racial justice, and climate problems. Such priorities would not give the United States a strong and efficient military. As for the defense budget, even with a proposed addition by Congress, the current budget will not come close to the required level, as the US current strategy requires a defense budget of $1 trillion, and would also necessitate doubling the $59 billion budgeted for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.


The last part provides a set of recommendations for the US administration to strengthen its control of the seas so that Washington does not lose its global hegemony as happened before to Great Britain. Schake urges the priority of investing in technological innovations as the “strong suit of the U.S. military,” and US defense spending should reflect this priority. Since China is the primary military threat to the United States in the Indo-Pacific region (the sea theatre) where conflict is most likely to erupt, as the Biden administration put, it is imperative that the latter allocate more funding to the entire U.S. military and prioritize the U.S. Navy over the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force in order to defend the allies and to secure the theater on a larger scale. “Washington’s waning interest in naval strength sends the wrong message to its allies and partners. If the United States wants to continue setting and enforcing the rules of the international order, it should heed some age-old advice: never turn your back on the ocean.”


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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