Seth Cropsey, Mayday: The Twilight of American Naval Superiority (New York: Overlook, 2013), 336 pp., $29.95.
SEA POWER is a conscious political choice. A maritime power’s world standing depends on keeping taut the sinews of naval might. According to the famed American geostrategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, that means amassing international commerce, forward bases, and merchant and naval shipping. But just as Great Britain, in a “fit of absentmindedness,” assembled an empire on which the sun never set, it may be possible to abdicate world leadership thoughtlessly. Indeed, slipping into imperial retrenchment would be easier for the United States, which maintains no colonies abroad, than it was for bygone empires that conquered vast territories and then—having connected national dignity and pride to geographic objects—had to defend them. Withdrawing from diplomatic entanglements and drawing down armed forces are easier than surrendering territory.
That’s doubly true since the benefits of policing the global system are remote and abstract, while the benefits of pulling back—cost savings in particular—are concrete and quantifiable. No wonder naval proponents fret about what the future may hold. They fear the United States will back into a decision of enormous importance, letting dollars and cents drive the process rather than strategic thinking. Such fiscal imprudence is not uncommon. As the late admiral J. C. Wylie observes in his treatise, Military Strategy, lawmakers make strategic decisions through the budget process, whether they realize it or not.