The Future of U.S. Global Dominance at Sea: An end to history?

The United States National Intelligence Council (NIC) has released its report entitled Global Trends 2025. The report foresees a world that is faced with ever increasing population and ever dwindling resources. It is also a world where the dominance of the United States of America continues to diminish as economic and technological strength builds in Brazil, Russia, India and China (the BRIC countries) and elsewhere. The impact of climate change, the increasing shortage of food and water will cause further misery and lead to the collapse of additional nation states in Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific and South and Central America. The gap between rich and poor peoples will expand in depth and breadth. Terrorism will not diminish as the young have-not people of the impoverished areas will be radicalized. The NIC predicts that the influence of the United States will wane in these circumstances. However, the NIC does not consider events inside of their own country in its analysis. If they were so empowered, their predictions would be even more sober.

The financial collapse of free wheeling global capitalism remains to be understood and arrested. The consequential economic recession is just underway and its length and depth remain to be understood. If these two events lead to significant long term deflation and economic turmoil, the underlying concept of enduring value of "hard" assets in the market driven economy will be undermined. As asset values decline, personal and corporate incomes are diminished. Therefore wealth is destroyed at all levels in a society. Consequently, the ability of a government to raise money by issuing debt is impaired and deficit spending is constrained. For the United States this becomes an anathema, as it struggles to maintain the economic and social regime based upon the concept of virtually unrestrained market capitalism. The time, resources and focus required to salvage this system will turn that country into a considerable period of introspection. Thus the dominant world player will become a much weakened force in the shaping of world affairs and behaviour.

Dominance comes in many forms but the United States has excelled in economic, political, cultural, technological and military sectors. Political and cultural dominance has been eroded since the collapse of Communism by the inadequacies of United States political leadership. Economic and technological dominance is being eroded by globalisation and the rise of the BRIC and other states. The military dominance has been hobbled by the Iraq misadventure. All the while the internal decay continues within a country that lacks a comprehensive system to support its growing population in the core areas of education, health care and social security. President-Elect Obama understands the internal needs of his nation, however, it remains to be seen if he can start to address these self induced cancerous-like afflictions. Can a hollowing out country maintain international credibility and influence? This is an important question for those countries, companies and people that depend upon the free flow of maritime commerce and the ability to exploit the resources of the oceans.

In terms of the ability of the United States to organise and lead international naval coalitions in the future, the issue is not one of technology or competent leadership at sea. If the United States continues to lose its international respect as a fair and just country that acts overseas in the common interest of many countries, it will not be able to organise or lead naval coalitions. The leadership will be provided by other nations, most likely regional states who will act to protect their own maritime interests, either individually or in local coalitions. The nature of such leadership will be different and the implementation of actions will be less sophisticated and initially less efficient.

For example, India, as shown by its action against alleged Somali pirates, will not let the Indian Ocean become lawless. China and Japan will competitively move to fill any void in the Western Pacific. Russia will play a role where it sees opportunity and its national interests to be at risk. Brazil will play an influential role in the South Atlantic as will the Republic of South Africa. Chile and Australia will contribute to Pacific stability operations where their interests are exposed to risk. Australia also has Indian Ocean and Antarctic Ocean spheres of interest to mind. Canada has Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic sea routes and resources to protect. In essence, the policing of the seas will become more fragmented, and therefore more exposed to inter-state and non-state competition.

The roles of the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU) and NATO in this fragmented environment are uncertain. Legally, the UN could be empowered to become the world's ocean policing agency but politics will sink that idea quickly. The EU would take some responsibility for maritime constabulary duties in adjacent sea areas and the Red Sea-Persian Gulf trade routes. NATO would serve as an alternative to the EU in these areas but unless the stature of the United States improves it will have difficulty in providing politically acceptable leadership for such ventures, even if it is able to retain sufficient naval forces to sustain such activities.

For Canada and the Canadian Forces the whole approach to maritime security will have to be reconsidered. Our national interests in the current context will have to be defined and the Canadian Forces will have to be refocused to advance and secure our interests. The NIC sees significant and early interest in the Arctic sea routes, not simply for resource extraction. It foresees the move of China, Korea and Japan to reduce the travel time from Asia to Europe by using the Northwest Passage. Clearly our northern interest is to make sure that Canada's sovereignty and environment are not deleteriously affected by such activities. We also depend on the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans for the bulk of our foreign trading as well as important fisheries and petroleum production. Canada also has an interest in the maintenance of security in more distant ocean areas as lawlessness will only spread if unchecked. Thus, maritime forces will become more important to Canada and the ability to deploy, sustain, and command those forces operating in, under, and over waters near and far will become very important very quickly.