This article was originally published in the Washington Times on Wednesday, August 22 2018
In the pages of World Affairs from 2015, I wrote an article that condemned the then-contemporary strategic thinking as being anything but strategic. The American national security establishment’s obsession with counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is going to come back to haunt us since great power conflict never ceases.
In fact, many of the same international relations problems of 1914 were revisited in 2014, and the article’s intent was that the centennial of World War I provided a good marker for our own reassessment. As I also pointed out, Russia had adopted a “Putin Doctrine” designed to modernize its military, increase the use of covert operations and espionage, utilize energy and economic intimidation, promote fear on its borders and project power into the Mediterranean, Atlantic and the Arctic.
It is in this light that one can analyze the recent decision by the American government to resurrect two concepts from the Cold War and proactively push NATO into the 21st century with a new benchmark.
The first of these is the reactivation of the United States Navy’s Second Fleet. It was deactivated in 2011 as part of a string of Obama-era decisions that mirrored Bill Clinton’s attempts to take a “holiday from history” in the 1990s. It took years to recover after the Clinton years, and it will take even more effort to do so from the Obama era.
In May 2018, Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson stated, “Our National Defense Strategy makes clear that we’re back in an era of great power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex That’s why today, we’re standing up Second Fleet to address these changes, particularly in the north Atlantic.” This decision is designed to send a clear message to Russia that the United States recognizes the serious strategic threat that Russia poses and is taking aggressive and concrete measures to ensure that both the Atlantic and the Arctic are not endangered. This is a clear response to Russian actions in the Baltic, the Arctic Circle, and off the east coast of the United States.
More importantly is the creation of NATO Joint Force Command for the Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia.
Although this new Atlantic Command is portrayed as ensuring logistical and communication integrity among NATO, it is clear that it is designed to project power. Finally, a new American initiative titled the Four Thirties pushes NATO into the 21st century. The Four Thirties is a plan that by 2020 NATO should be able to get “30 battalions, 30 squadrons, and 30 ships ready for deployment in 30 days.”
From the 19th century onward, American strategic thinking has been dominated by navalism. This idea promoted by strategists like Alfred Thayer Mahan and adopted first by President Theodore Roosevelt understood that a great power’s ability to protect itself and project power could only be accomplished by the ability to project naval power. This attitude goes in and out of favor depending on whether or not a particular president understands this foundational argument such as Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Bush and Trump or whether they want to wish great power conflict away as Carter, Clinton and Obama.
The problem is that it often takes decades to repair the damage of the latter’s actions. It is important to note that two of the three NATO reforms are commands that should never have been deactivated. It was the short-sighted attitude of administration’s that failed to understand the very basics of international affairs and foreign policy.
Although we are now on the cusp of taking strategic naval thinking into space, a delayed move, it is heartening to know that sound decisions to counter potential great power aggression is going beyond rhetoric and into action.
• Lamont Colucci is associate professor of politics at Ripon College and author of “The National Security Doctrines of the American Presidency: How they Shape our Present and Future” (Praeger, 2012).