Mixed messages from U.S. naval leaders on international relations

My Broadside of November 26, 2008 was based on the recently released U.S. National Intelligence Council publication Global Trends 2025. It foresees the diminution of U.S. global power and influence due to a combination of trends, events and the changing relative strengths of emerging countries, NGOs, and non state actors. The Council attributed much of the decline to waning U.S. economic and military power. I argued that the reason for decline extended to political, cultural and technological influence as well.

In a Washington Post article, entitled “Building Our Best Weapon”, dated February 15, 2009, Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, drawing on an analogy with the Roman Empire, observed “Like the early Romans, we are expected to do the right thing, and when we don’t, to make it right again.”  He continued, “We have learned, after seven years of war, that trust is the coin of the realm - that building it takes time, losing it takes mere seconds, and maintaining it may be our most important and most difficult objective.” The sad events of prisoner mistreatment at Abu Ghraib and continuing civilian casualties from military action in Afghanistan are examples that he offered of the shattering of trust in the United States. From my experience in an international health care NGO over the last nine years, I have observed a growing wave of disgust and distrust that is both more widespread and deeper than the ideologically motivated anti-American attitudes of the Cold War. The present distrust is far more worrisome as the U.S. will only regain what it has lost through a concerted effort to make things right over a long period of time. As the admiral concluded, concerning the impact of civilian casualties from combating the insurgency in Afghanistan, “Lose the people’s trust and we lose the war.” The challenge for the U.S. is to earn the people’s trust.

Admiral Mullen is to be commended for his insight and wisdom. However, his conclusions have equal importance to the rest of the world, not just Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the U.S. is to be seen to be honourable and selfless in the pursuit of its national interests then American political, economic, cultural, financial and business leaders will have to change their attitudes and behaviour. It seems that, aside from President Obama and Admiral Mullen, not all Americans have understood the problem or accepted the need for change.

For contrast read “Arctic Melt: Reopening a Naval Frontier?” by the Chief Oceanographer and Navigator of the U.S. Navy, Rear-Admiral David Gove. It appears in the February 2009 issue of the Naval Institute Proceedings. It is a well-written argument in favour of renewed American naval interest in the Arctic. The justification for such interest is the impact of global warming on opening access to the sea routes and natural resources of the region, the competing claims of Canada, Russia and other Arctic frontier nations, Open access will allow other state and non-state actors to explore and exploit the area. The Rear Admiral considers the strategic importance of the area coupled with national security, sovereignty and freedom of innocent passage issues to constitute a new opportunity for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard. One of his concerns is the existence of a number of choke points in Canadian territory along the Northwest Passages. He has similar concerns about the Northern Sea Route. Underlying these concerns are the claims of Canada and Russia that each sea route go through their respective sovereign territories. He concludes, “U.S. naval interests will face new challenges in an increasingly ice-free Arctic with a strategic objective to understand potential threats to the United States from the maritime domain.” National and homeland security interests are at risk and countermeasures, including early warning of missile attack, maritime surveillance, and the protection of the freedom of navigation and over-flight are required.

It is a legitimate exercise to discuss the national interests of one’s country and to advocate the investment in new assets to protect those interests. However, the justification for the renewed national focus and investment in military assets is important for all to understand. Rear-Admiral Gove’s justification for his call to action is the existence of threats to American national sovereignty, security and economic interests. He encourages international agreements and laments his country’s failure to join the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the absence of international accords, he is calling for national action.

How should Canada and other interested countries understand this article? Does it square with Admiral Mullen’s thesis that the U.S. must regain the trust of other peoples in the world?  Rear-Admiral Gove seems to say that if the United States chooses not to join the Law of the Sea Convention or other multinational or bilateral arrangements then it should take all necessary steps to protect its national interests including the interference in the national interests of other countries. Surely, this is not the message that Admiral Mullen wanted to convey to the world. It rings similar to the marginally reduced “Buy-American” provisions in the recent stimulus measures adopted, after international condemnation, by the U.S, Congress. It appears that, irrespective of what some key American leaders say about re-establishing trust, old habits die hard. Therefore, Canada has little choice but to reinforce its political, regulatory and military initiatives in the Canadian arctic.