Who Will Ensure Freedom of the Seas if the U.S. Can’t?

Defense by from Washington Examiner, April 28, 2014

Franklin Roosevelt said he was going on a fishing trip. Winston Churchill slipped out of London without anyone noticing. They rendezvoused off the coast of Canada and hammered out the Atlantic Charter, articulating out their aims for the postwar world.

The document strikes some modern readers as an idiosyncratic laundry list. It wasn’t. Rather, it captured the two leaders’ views of what caused global conflict and how to resolve those problems.

Roosevelt viewed Article 7, ensuring “freedom of the seas,” as particularly crucial. The world’s oceans keep America connected to its vital interests around the world. And he knew—months before Pearl Harbor—that the German threat to traffic in the Atlantic sea lanes had made all but inevitable that the U.S. would be dragged into World War II.

Today, Washington’s attention hopscotches from one global hot spot to the next. While President Obama jets to Asia, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry fumble about in Ukraine. Meanwhile the Middle East and North Africa continue to scream for attention. All eyes follow the bouncing officials. But too few in the capital are paying attention to the big picture. The U.S. is in jeopardy of losing its capacity to guarantee freedom of the seas—and that guarantee is crucial to reducing the risk of future global conflicts.

In terms of U.S. national interests, free oceans are more critical than ever. The U.S. is the world’s second largest trader, and the vast majority of that trade travels by sea.

Yet, all is not well on these watery “global commons.” Environmental issues from pollution to overfishing must be addressed. Piracy is a problem. China is developing military strategies to close access to sea lanes to outsiders. Iran routinely muses about how to block traffic through the Strait of Hormuz.

The White House claims there is an “Easy Button” remedy for all these woes: congressional ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

Try again. The merits of this treaty are debatable, but one mission it can’t possibly accomplish is ensuring freedom of the seas.

We’ve tried the treaty approach before. Prior to World War II, the U.S. signed almost every treaty in sight — from a pact that banned war outright to naval arms control agreements. None of them proved a substitute for having the capacity to defend of America’s interest in open seas. UNCLOS is no better.

Indeed, the U.S. has enjoyed freedom of the seas for decades without signing on to UNCLOS. This has happened because the U.S. respects everyone’s right to the commons and has the military capacity to defend that freedom.

Today, that capacity is in jeopardy. And, it’s a bigger problem than just not having enough Navy ships. The Marine Corps matters, too, for its capacity to project power from the sea. The Air Force plays a major role in keeping sea lanes—especially vital choke points—open. And the Army is on call to handle threats to sea lanes anchored in critical parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

Yet the latest Quadrennial Defense Review from the Pentagon would allow capacity in all these areas to atrophy. The review claims it’s making smart, prudent choices, but it sure looks like 1941 all over again.

Soon the congressionally-chartered National Defense Panel will offer its independent, bipartisan assessment of the QDR. How it addresses the issue of defending freedom of the seas will indicate whether anyone is really buying the do-more-with-less defense program the Pentagon is selling.

© 2014 the Washington Examiner. Reprinted with permission.