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'Sea Power' views the world's oceans as crucial avenues of hope and danger

'Sea Power' author and admiral James Stavridis has created a thoroughly fascinating look at how the world's major bodies of water and politics intersect.

Sea Power By James Stavridis Penguin 384 pp.
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  • Steve Donoghue

Admiral James Stavridis tells us that he was just a lowly plebe at the US Naval Academy when he first read Alfred Thayer Mahan, the author of the explosively influential 1890 book "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783," in a class called simply “Sea Power.”

Mahan, Stavridis writes, had “a desire to read, think, write, and publish occasionally,” a desire that drew him icy disdain from the Navy itself: “It is not the business of naval officers to write books.” Admiral Stavridis politely points out that he himself has written seven books, and his latest, the thoroughly fascinating Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans, announces with its very title that it will be deliberately Mahanesque.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact that Mahan's book had on the collective thinking of the world. “More than any other strategic philosopher,” Edmund Morris wrote in his "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," “Alfred Thayer Mahan was responsible for the naval buildup which preoccupied [America, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan] at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” Mahan contended that although kingdoms and land wars have their places in human history, no factor has been more important in determining the life of nations than sea power. 

In the 21st century, it's misleadingly tempting to think this no longer applies. Thousands of surveillance satellites circle the globe; military drones guided from the safety of fortified land positions can strike targets anywhere in the world; cyber warfare isn't bounded by borders or bodies of water; in such a world, it's easy to wonder, can there really be much relevance any longer to blue-water navies? 

Stavridis, who spent 35 years on active service and was the Supreme Allied Commander for Global Operations at NATO before his retirement, dispels such thinking early and often in the pages of "Sea Power."

His chapters deal in sequence with all the world's major bodies of water – the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean (“The twenty-first century will be more about the Indian Ocean than either [the Atlantic or the Pacific],” he somewhat surprisingly but convincingly declares, “and the sooner we fully realize that in the United States, the better”), the Caribbean, and the rapidly-opening Arctic Ocean, with a chapter about the piracy that afflicts all the world's major waterways. There is also a chapter titled “America and the Oceans,” that specifically opens a dialogue with Mahan's book, challenging and updating it for the 21st century.

"Sea Power" gives readers the chance to imagine they are sitting in a well-appointed Naval Academy lounge and listening to a seasoned old sailor discourse at length on history and pause whenever it suits him in order to pepper his lessons with challenging predictions and personal anecdotes.

Writing about the edgy brinksmanship that sometimes seems to be characterizing the modern Pacific, he has surprisingly optimistic things to say, for example. “Despite the tensions and the risks in our modern Pacific Rim, the odds are better than even that the region will develop peacefully,” Stavridis writes. “None of the societies have a long tradition of imperialist behavior, and most have found ways to cooperate and collaborate in a variety of dimensions, despite the arms buildup.”

Mentioning his friend commander Robb Chadwick prompts a reminiscence about the morning of 9-11, when Stavridis invited Chadwick to leave his desk at the Navy Intelligence Center and cross the complex for a visit – thus saving him from death when a plane crashed “more or less directly” into his office, killing all his officemates.

Stavridis strikes a perfect balancing tone between the theoretical and the personal; he's read widely in the annals of naval history, and he's also seen years of that history in the making. 

His strong conviction in "Sea Power" isn't only that Mahan was right in crediting naval force with a key role – perhaps the key role – in geopolitics but also that there are many dimensions to that key role, sometimes surprising dimensions verging on the diplomatic and the humanitarian. Stavridis in his career oversaw such humanitarian missions, and he's very convincing on their effectiveness. “We spend a great deal of time in the military conducting lethal combat operations – that is who we are,” Stavridis writes, referring to the US military establishment with which he's so familiar. “But we also can deploy soft power in massive ways that can make a real difference in the world. And the result – a changed view of our nation – is so often the way we can create real security over the long haul."

"Sea Power" is clear-eyed about the dangers of the modern nautical realities, but it doggedly retains this tone of hope throughout. And hope or danger, on one point the book compels agreement: the oceans are still the crucial theaters of this water world.

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