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An Elegant Decline of American Power
Robert Kaplan Proposes Idea to Manage Loss of US Supremacy of the Seas
AUGUST 14: The USS Nimitz (CVN 68), USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) and USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) Carrier Strike Groups transit in formation during exercise Valiant Shield 2007 on August 14, 2007 in the Pacific Ocean.
Hana'lei Shimana/U.S. Navy/Getty
AUGUST 14: The USS Nimitz (CVN 68), USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63) and USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) Carrier Strike Groups transit in formation during exercise Valiant Shield 2007 on August 14, 2007 in the Pacific Ocean.

"Decline can never be admitted as such until a rival makes demonstrable inroads into your power. But naval trends now appear to buttress political and economic ones that suggest that we are indeed headed for a world with multiple competing powers," writes Robert Kaplan in the latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly.

In Kaplan's view, the US military's transition of focus to counterinsurgency may be going too far, leading to neglect of conventional power that could leave the nation dangerously exposed in the future.

Speaking to the annual convention of the Association of the US Army yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned against lapsing into the habit of focusing on conventional strengths because counterinsurgency situations like Iraq and Afghanistan, he said, would “remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time.”

While Kaplan would not disagree that counterinsurgency will likely feature in future conflicts, he has concerns that neglect of the US naval fleet will lead to a dangerously sharp decline in America's relative power.

That American naval power is already experiencing a descent is a foregone conclusion in his assessment, but the United States could take steps to more gracefully manage its decline Kaplan writes.

For a vision of the future, Kaplan cites Admiral Michael Mullen, formerly chief of naval operations and now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said last year: “I’m after that proverbial 1,000-ship Navy—a fleet-in-being, if you will, comprised of all freedom- loving nations, standing watch over the seas, standing watch over each other.”

Kaplan writes, "Subtract the platitudes, and it’s clear that Admiral Mullen is squaring a number of circles to contend with the difficult reality he’s up against"--the reality of the increasing limitations on US capabilities to unilaterally project sea power

Working from Mullen's idea, Kaplan expands the thinking to sketch out a more complete vision of what form such a coalition would take, and the benefits it could create.

US leadership in a grand multinational maritime alliance could make for more effective international disaster relief and antipiracy patrols, with Kaplan even citing the feasibility of a joint US-Chinese effort in the pirate-infested seas of southeast Asia's archipelago.

Kaplan would enact minimal requirements for joining the coalition, as long as the countries agree to share information. "A multi­national fleet-in-being would also lead to greater intelligence sharing and allow us greater forward presence, closer to enemy shores," he writes. "This would make it easier to identify key targets. In fact, the 1,000-ship multinational navy is essentially the seagoing equivalent of counterinsurgency."

While the creation of a multinational cooperative maritime force would be essentially a way to manage the decline in US naval power, that prospect doesn't seem to phase Kaplan.

But while the 1,000-ship navy would help cut down on smuggling and piracy, and possibly terrorism, it doesn’t really deal with the basic strategic function of the U.S. Navy: the need to offer a serious, inviolable instrument for inflicting great punishment—a stare-down capability. Nor does it address the need to quickly transport troops and equipment to distant conflicts....

No matter how the Pentagon spins it, the reality is that development of a 1,000-ship international navy is not a way of maintaining our current strength; rather, it’s a way of elegantly managing American decline....

But let’s remember that while the relative decline of the British Royal Navy helped produce World War I, Britain and its allies still won that war, thanks in some measure to sea power—and that Britain would go on to triumph in an even greater world war two decades later. Our own growing relative weakness need not mean that our adversaries gain advantage. Decline can be overrated.

Deliberately abandoning supremacy would be a strategic decision, and one which may not lead to increased security risk. Though Kaplan begins his piece seeming to warn about the decline in naval power, by the end he seems to have come to the conclusion that reversing the trend may not be as important as simply managing it correctly.


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