Written by Todd DePastino

US Navy ships in the oceanRetired Navy captain and national security expert Jerry Hendrix recently published a must-read article in The Atlantic arguing that “the United States has ceded the oceans to its enemies. We can no longer take freedom of the seas for granted.” Even if Hendrix is wrong or overstates the case, the essay is essential for the insight it provides on how much the world as we know it depends on global sea lanes guaranteed by US sea power.  

Because of what Hendrix and others call American “seablindness,” we tend to focus on what happens in space, over air waves, or in fiberoptic cables, rather than on the ocean surface. But it’s the world’s waterways where much of the real action is and always has been.

Many of America’s wars, in fact, began at sea over issues of shipping. In 1798, France harassed US ships traveling to Britain, and the Quasi War began. Then came the Barbary Wars against north African states that captured American cargo and crews. The War of 1812? Impressment of US merchant sailors was a key spark.

Then came a long period of intra-continental conflict and development, Westward expansion and sectional conflict. But sea power rose again during the Spanish American War and especially World War I. The US finally entered that conflict because of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare on US merchant ships.

Even in World War II, the US was effectively at war with Germany over North Atlantic shipping long before Pearl Harbor.

The Second World War established our Freedom of the Seas as we know it. Allied victory in 1945 allowed for today’s jam-packed oceans, where 90,000 commercial ships cross the globe largely unmolested.

Two of the victorious Allies, the US and Great Britain, were seapower states that insisted on a new global order where national jurisdictions would extend only 3 to 12 nautical miles off coast. And because the US Navy was larger than all the other navies of the world combined, it could enforce the principle of universal navigation rights.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, which had hemmed in the free-for-all on the seas, international trade exploded into what we call “globalization.”

And globalization, for all its recent setbacks and reversals—resurgent nationalism, the pandemic, piracy–is still the story of the 21st century. Since 1990, global seaborne trade has more than doubled. So have global exports as a percentage of the world’s GDP.

If the railroad is the symbol of the industrial 19th century, then the mega-container ship is the icon of our own globalized age. One need only glance at a real-time map of such vessels around the world to visualize globalization.

Marine traffic map of various ship locations in our oceans

All those containers eventually disperse and empty into millions of retail store shelves and millions more e-commerce warehouses around the world.

Hendrix joked with his mother, who worked at Walmart, “If you like Walmart, then you ought to love the U.S. Navy. It’s the Navy that makes Walmart possible.”

The saga of the container ship Ever Given, which grounded in the Suez Canal and blocked that vital passageway for six days in 2021, hinted at what interrupted global trade might entail. The halt of shipping and the stacked container ships off Long Beach, California, during the pandemic  provided another glimpse of such disruption.

Hendrix takes those examples and invites us to picture a world where international navigation rights go unenforced, and nations begin to patrol beyond their territorial waters to intercept cargo. One can imagine, say, Russia blocking the Arctic Ocean or China cordoning off the South China Sea. In such a case, Hendrix writes:

The great container ships and tankers of today would disappear, replaced by smaller, faster cargo vessels capable of moving rare and valuable goods past pirates and corrupt officials. The cruise-ship business, which drives many tourist economies, would falter in the face of potential hijackings. . . . Once-busy sea lanes would lose their traffic. For lack of activity and maintenance, passages such as the Panama and Suez Canals might silt up. Natural choke points such as the straits of Gibraltar, Hormuz, Malacca, and Sunda could return to their historic roles as havens for predators. The free seas that now surround us, as essential as the air we breathe, would be no more.

If oceanic trade declines, markets would turn inward, perhaps setting off a second Great Depression. Nations would be reduced to living off their own natural resources, or those they could buy—or take—from their immediate neighbors. The world’s oceans, for 70 years assumed to be a global commons, would become a no-man’s-land.

It’s good to keep this worst-case scenario in mind as we think strategically about national security, whether it’s in the context of Great Power Competition, global poverty, climate change, or America First.

Hendrix has broad policy recommendations for rebuilding US sea power that should be debated. He calls for a “reindustrialization” of US commercial shipbuilding, which is at its lowest level in history. Today, the US builds about 10 commercial vessels a year. China launches over 1,000. Of those 90,000 commercial ships plying the waves, just over 1% are US-flagged.

Hendrix also endorses a larger Navy with hundreds more ships, large and small, manned and unmanned, surface and submarine, to project US power and resolve around the world and keep sea lanes open.

At the very least, Jerry Hendrix’s article provides an excellent reminder of the role of sea power in US history and the importance of the ocean surface to our everyday life.