Admiral James Stavridis. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni
Admiral James Stavridis. CREDIT: Amanda Ghanooni

Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans

Jun 12, 2017

"Oceans dominate the world," says Admiral Stavridis. After all, 70 percent of the globe is covered by water. In this masterly overview of the seven seas, he touches on the maritime battles that changed history; current geopolitics from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean; and the fact that environmentally, the oceans are "the largest crime scene in the world."

JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to thank you all for beginning your day with us. As today is the last Public Affairs program for this season, there are a few housekeeping details that need to be addressed.

First of all, I'd like to take a moment and ask you to join me in thanking our wait staff, Carlos, Lorena, Edgar, Karina, Martha, and Gladys for their services during the year.

I'd also like to wish you all a very happy summer and to tell you that I look forward to seeing you in the fall when our programs begin again.

Our speaker this morning is retired Admiral James Stavridis. He has been described as "a thinker, a writer, a doer, and a leader." He is the first U.S. Navy officer to hold the position of supreme allied commander for global operations at NATO. In this capacity, he not only oversaw operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and the Balkans, but he was also responsible for monitoring piracy off the coast of Africa. He is now dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. To learn more about this distinguished career, I invite you all to read his bio, which was handed out when you checked in this morning.

Admiral Stavridis will be discussing his book Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans, which will be available for you to purchase at the end of the program.

Since ancient times, control of the seas has had far-reaching military, economic, and geopolitical ramifications. It is a universal truth: Those who rule the seas rule the world. At a time when the role of navies has expanded to include new missions and challenges, a reading of Sea Power becomes all the more poignant for understanding our world today.

Whether Admiral Stavridis is discussing strategic hot spots such as the South China Seas, the Eastern Mediterranean, or the Arctic, our guest explains why the oceans are the home of the most ominous geopolitical flash points. Although he is mostly concerned with the world as it is presently configured, by providing a historical overview we have an excellent context for the present which brings clarity to understanding why the recent buildup of naval capabilities in countries such as China, Japan, and Russia is creating concern for maintaining maritime stability in the 21st century.

When most of us look at the globe, we focus on the shape of the seven continents. Admiral Stavridis sees the shape of the seven seas. After listening to his discussion, it's likely that you will too. So that we can get underway, please join me in giving a warm welcome to our guest today, Admiral Stavridis.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Joanne. Thank you very much.

What a nice introduction to have a little bit of a maritime feel to it. Normally when people hear that introduction, supreme allied commander, four-star admiral, etc., when they finally meet me in person they say, "Boy, I thought you'd be taller than you appear to be."

Mr. President, thank you for having me here, today, Joel. Joanne, thank you for your kind introduction, and thank you all for coming out to talk a little bit about the oceans this morning.

If I may, I'm going to begin with a quick overview, and then I'll talk as the book is structured, which is a word or two about each of the oceans. I will add one thing to the introduction, and it is that this is a history, indeed. There is a lot of geopolitics in it. But it's also a very personal book. It is also about what it is like to sail in those oceans, what it's like to drive your ship past the Pillars of Hercules, the strait that opens up the Mediterranean Sea; what it's like to dodge your way through fishing boats in the South China Sea; what it's like to take your destroyer into the high north, into the Arctic Ocean. So there is a lot of personal touch in the book, there is a lot of history, and there is a lot of geopolitics. So there is plenty to talk about.

Let me start by saying—and Joanne hit it very nicely—when I do look at a map of the world I don't focus on these little discrete chunks of land, for starters, because the oceans dominate the world; 70 percent of the globe is covered by water—70 percent, by the way, of your body is made out of water. I'll give you a last 70: 70 percent of the oxygen that we breathe is a result of photosynthesis from the oceans.

With all due respect to Al Gore—brilliant guy—he told us the Amazon was "the lungs of the Earth." No. The oceans are the lungs of the Earth. That's why we have to worry about the environment and what's happening. I'll come on to that. So the oceans are huge in every sense, quite literally.

Second, again as Joanne pointed out in that introduction, these maritime battles seem to be small hinges in history. They happen offshore, you don't see the bodies, you don't see the burning ships that go to the bottom of the sea. But if you truly look at world history and the geopolitics, you will find again and again that big doors swing on these small hinges.

This is true if you go back 2,500 years ago and you look at the Battle of Salamis, where the Athenians used sea power to overcome the Persians and essentially saved the idea of democracy that we enjoy today.

Roman Empire: Go to the Battle of Actium, where we finally settled the disputes that led us away from the republic into empire. A small battle, it seems; a small hinge, big door swinging.

How about the Battle of Lepanto? This is in the Mediterranean in the 1500s. Coalition of the Christian world against the power of the Ottoman Empire. We think today about the challenges and the conflicts in that set of relationships. You can drop a plumb line from the Battle of Lepanto in the central Mediterranean—500 ships, 50,000 dead at the end of the battle—and the rising tide of Islam is stopped at sea. So often we think of this as stopping at the gates of Vienna—that was important as well—but this Battle of Lepanto is one of these hinges in history.

Jumping slightly forward, the Battle of Trafalgar; Lord Nelson saves Britain in a battle in a funny little corner of the Atlantic off the coast of Spain. He destroys Napoleon's opportunity to invade Britain. Think about the different path in history: We would all be having croissants this morning and probably speaking in French. Maybe not.

To pull it forward one more, World War I, the Battle of Jutland; indecisive, but as a result of it being indecisive, it preserves the British fleet in being.

We celebrated the anniversary two days ago of the Battle of Midway, in which the United States Navy, in its most epic battle, defeated the Japanese carriers that had attacked Pearl Harbor and turned the tide of the Second World War in the Pacific. As I'm sure you know, the sixth of June, just two days ago, was the day to celebrate D-Day, the invasion of Europe. So this week in history, another pair of hinges upon which pretty big doors swing.

I'll pull you all the way into the present, if you will, and point out that in the end the Cold War, which was the war, if you will, of my generation—I graduated from Annapolis in 1976. I was on active duty obviously through the entire Cold War and retired a few years ago as the NATO commander. Throughout that long twilight of the Cold War a great deal of what transpired was at sea. The Hunt for Red October was a literal set of operations of which I was part as a very young junior officer.

So I hope I've laid out the case of the oceans and their importance in size and in geopolitics.

Let me ask you a question: How much of the world's trade do you think moves on the oceans? I'll ask an audience that, and I'll get answers like: "Well, probably half of it, maybe 60 percent, 70 percent." Ninety-five percent. The oceans are the lifeline, the lifeblood of the world, as well as the lungs of the Earth.

So I think the oceans matter deeply. We pay very little attention to them until something goes terribly wrong. An example would be: The last time the United States really focused on a maritime problem was Deepwater Horizon, British Petroleum, their huge offshore installation explodes, we contaminate 600 miles of U.S. coastline. All of a sudden we wake up to the challenges of operating these huge hydrocarbon recovery plants in our oceans and the vulnerabilities of these oceans.

My intent in writing the book was to bring all of this broad understanding of the ocean to the public, but then also to talk a little bit about each of the oceans, and that's how the book is structured. So, at lightning speed, kind of speed-dating, we're going to go through—I think this morning we'll do seven seas just to stay on track here.

We'll start with the Pacific. How big do you think the Pacific is? It's hard to comprehend it. You could take every piece of land on Earth and drop it into the Pacific Ocean. It is 170 million square kilometers. It is twice the size of the next largest ocean, which is the Indian Ocean. The Pacific is the "mother of all oceans," which is how I title that chapter.

We often think of it, as Americans, typically, as history began around World War I. Maybe Spanish-American War we vaguely think about fighting in the Philippines with the Spanish. World War II is really our iconic vision of the Pacific in American history as we roll back Japan and cross with MacArthur and Nimitz.

That's a valid view, but big machines of war have sailed the Pacific for four or five centuries. I'll just make one point of comparison for you. Everybody knows Christopher Columbus, right? "Sailed the ocean blue in 1492." How big was his ship, the Santa María? Sixty feet long. Sixty feet long. It's a tiny ship.

A hundred years before that, the Chinese were operating ships under Admiral Zheng He that were 400 feet long. Same period of time, four-deck ships, 500 mariners on them—he made voyages into the Indian Ocean, discovered the spice routes. This all occurs centuries before Europe begins to really understand the economic power.

So this Pacific has an enormous history that we don't even think about. If I can, let me just go back one step earlier, to the Polynesians, who sailed 5,000 miles to populate these islands in Kon-Tiki-like boats the length of this room, 5,000-mile voyages.

So the Pacific, first and foremost, is its size. Second, is its history. Third, to pull us into the present, it is today a zone of deep competition, principally between the United States and China over the South China Sea, which the Chinese have claimed, taking historical arguments about how long they've operated in it. They claim the entire South China Sea. That is a huge flash point for us because it would push us out of the central beating heart of that ocean, which is the South China Sea, because 80 percent of all the commerce that moves in Asia goes through the South China Sea, and because underneath it are billions of barrels of oil and trillions of square feet of natural gas.

So, China, United States; but of course, Japan, historical maritime power since their emergence, since they came out of, in the mid-19th century, their self-imposed isolation; our South Korean friends—there is a huge strategic set of muscle movements that are occurring today in the Pacific.

Of course, the catalyst we're focused on today is the Korean Peninsula and Kim Jong-un. I always say he is the most appropriately named leader in the world, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, because he's unpredictable, he's unstable, and he's untested. That's a dangerous combination in a leader who has control of 15-to-20 nuclear weapons and is rapidly developing the ability to move them on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

So, the Pacific—huge, deep maritime history, current geopolitics. And let us not forget in the south, among our very closest allies in the world, are the Australians and New Zealanders. And we have many other strong relationships including, by the way, Singapore, a small city-state that sits athwart arguably the most important strategic strait in the world, the Strait of Malacca. So that's the Pacific in two minutes.

Atlantic: I always think of the Atlantic as the most romantic of the oceans because it is where exploration truly begins from Europe. This is where the Portuguese and the Spanish sail to come around Africa to begin the voyages to the Caribbean. The opening of the world for Europe emanates essentially from the Iberian Peninsula into the mid-Atlantic.

To the north, we have the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom (GIUK) gap. It's this set of openings in the North Atlantic that in the course of World War I and World War II became critical sea space as convoys moved to ensure that the United States could engage in Europe. As I mentioned, in the Cold War, the GIUK gap again became the setting, if you will, for this kind of epic set of sea interactions between the U.S. Navy and the Soviet Navy. Today the principal challenge in the Atlantic is to the north, and I'll come onto that next.

The Arctic, the high north. We could, I suppose, have a debate—I think it's kind of a faux debate—about global warming and what's causing it and is climate change real. I personally believe climate change is real; we are in fact seeing global warming. I won't burden you with all the scientific reading I've done about that, but I'll tell you something as a mariner. I have sailed these waters. I know what the Arctic looked like 30, 40 years ago, and I know what it looks like today. And here's a news flash: the ice is melting.

As it melts it's going to open this rich basket of hydrocarbons; it's going to open shipping routes which will be strategic sea lanes of communication; and it will induce more competition in this high north between Russia, which owns about half the coastal real estate, and the NATO nations, which are on the other side of the Arctic. That's the United States, Canada, Denmark by virtue of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, as well as Sweden and Finland. Non-NATO countries have some real estate on islands up there.

I think the Arctic will become a zone of real competition, and our job is to make sure it does not become a zone of conflict, becoming—pun intended—a real "cold war." We want to avoid that. So the Arctic is opening, and for the first time in human history has the potential to see the kind of geopolitical naval activity that we've seen in the other oceans.

Let me turn to the Indian Ocean. As always, we have these conversations—I go to conferences around the world as the dean of The Fletcher School, former supreme allied commander, so I go to Davos and the Munich Security Conference and Shangri-La, wonderful events like this. So often we manage to get through an hour, an hour and a half, of geopolitics, and we never mention India, which is ridiculous. Here is a nation that will very soon surpass China as the most populous in the world. It has enormous demographic upside; it's young and growing, unlike China, unlike Europe, United States—flat to slightly growing. In this 21st century a rising population in the end will drive productivity if managed well.

India has a relatively new dynamic leader, has English as a lingua franca among the elites, and above all India is a democracy. Here in the United States, I'm ashamed to say, we had 200 million eligible voters; 100 million of us—half—showed up at the polls. In India's last election, the one that brought Mr. Modi to power, 860 million people voted. It is a democracy. It is the world's largest democracy.

Thus, I think the Indian Ocean, which has been kind of a transit zone over the last four or five centuries, is rapidly becoming a space of geopolitical criticality. India and Pakistan both have significant navies. That kind of tension will play out in the Indian Ocean.

The Arabian/Persian Gulf, which is a "sidewater," if you will, of the Indian Ocean, we see in today's headlines as we watch Qatar pull away from Saudi Arabia, or more accurately Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pull away from Qatar; we see Russia intervening; we see Iran playing a shadow game in the background, a very complex set of relationships in the Gulf, which I would argue will bleed into the Indian Ocean as well. From a maritime perspective as well as from many other perspectives, the United States would be well served in this 21st century to solidify our relationships with India, a critical potential partner for us.

So, the Indian Ocean is, as I mentioned, the second largest ocean. We've talked about the Atlantic, we've talked about the Pacific, we've talked about the Arctic.

Let me mention the Caribbean, which is, if you will, a sea very close to our heart here in the United States. It is, of course, just to the south of us. The United States has the largest coastline on the Caribbean. We have many close friends and partners all along that body of water, including Central America. I think the ambassador of Guatemala is here; we have Colombia, Panama.

Venezuela is a challenge today. We don't know how that is going to turn out. The potential there for more tension in that Caribbean region is quite high as a result. Narcotics continue to flow across it. But so does a rising level of trade and engagement.

For the United States, I think we've had a long history of ignoring this world to the south, frankly. Before I was famously the NATO commander, I spent three years in Miami, where I was born—my first four-star job—and I was the commander of Southern Command, which is all military activity south of the United States. So I spent a great deal of time traveling in this region.

I came to really despise an expression that you hear occasionally in the United States. People would say to me, "Gosh, Admiral, you have a really important job focusing on Latin America and the Caribbean because that's America's backyard down there." Think about that expression for a moment. It's rude. It's inaccurate. Are we Canada's backyard somehow? It's geographically distorted. And it ignores the enormous potential of this region of the world and our growing cultural, linguistic, economic connection with it.

So I look at the Caribbean as a zone, a partnership in the Americas. I'm often struck by the way the United States has kind of appropriated that phrase, "I'm an American," and the song, "I'm proud to be an American." Well, yes, okay. Think about it for a minute. The Americas go from Canada to Tierra del Fuego down in Chile. A Chilean is an American, a Canadian is an America; we are all of the Americas. We're probably too far down the path of the term to kind of reverse course, but the more we can think of the Americas as a zone of partnership, the more we will prosper in this century—enormous upside, highly maritime, from the Panama Canal to the Caribbean Sea, to the coast of South America.

So, the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean, of course, is not an ocean. We tend to think of oceans as bodies of water that are not bounded at any point. A sea has an opening and then has land around it. There are some inaccuracies in that, but it's a good way to think.

So, the Mediterranean Sea—and I'll close on the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Sea, when you sail into it, is so beautiful. You come in from the Atlantic, you go through the Strait of Gibraltar. It's close; it's narrow; you're navigating carefully, and suddenly it opens up. To the north is the beautiful Costa del Sol of Spain and the French Riviera, the Italian Riviera, the Adriatic Sea, my own Greek American homeland, Greece. To the north is all this incredible wealth and beauty. To the right is a zone of difficulty and challenge; the so-called Arab Spring, the difficulties faced by many of these nations. Frankly, the further you get from the Atlantic, the more dangerous it tends to become. It is a sea of enormous contrasts, of enormous beauty.

But a cautionary note: The Mediterranean has seen more war than any other sea space in the world. If I could snap my fingers and bring all those dead mariners back to life and raise all those smoking hulls from 3,000 years of war on that sea, you could walk across the Mediterranean on their bones. It's worth knowing that.

It's also worth knowing that in the Eastern Mediterranean today, off the coast of Syria, is one of the epic humanitarian crises certainly of my lifetime. Six hundred thousand dead in Syria, 14 million pushed across borders, refugees flowing, millions have taken to sea. All of that creates a sea space where there is again competition, to say the least, between the United States and Russia. This will continue to be a challenge in the Mediterranean, especially in that Eastern Mediterranean.

So I'll close on the environment because it is a truism, believe it or not, to say that the largest crime scene in the world is the oceans: Illegal fishing, unreported fishing, piracy, pollution, acidification, above all, the warming which can disrupt the photosynthetic process that produces the oxygen for the world. I think the oceans are in fact the best argument for the United States to remain in the Paris accord. We'll get another bite at that apple in a few years, in my opinion.

It is also a powerful argument for the United States to sign and ratify the Law of the Sea treaty, an enormous mistake by the United States walking away from that. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation at The Fletcher School 30 years ago about the Law of the Sea treaty and the mistake of the United States in not signing up to it. We have tried to have our cake and eat it too, stay out of the treaty but rely on customary international law. It's a flawed argument over time. We need to step up and be a maritime nation.

So I'll stop. I will say that Sea Power is a book that is both personal to me, has a little bit of history shot through it, but I hope lays out a case that sea power is at the heart of American power, and that in the end we have to recognize we have more usable coastline than any other nation in the world. We are a maritime nation. I'm proud to have been a sailor for this nation, and I'm honored to be with you today.

Thank you very much.

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