Saturday, January 21, 2012

21st Century Gunboat Diplomacy

“Speak softly and carry a big stick; and you will go far.”

Theodore Roosevelt said this maxim originated in West Africa.  He applied it to his method of global diplomacy wherein he negotiated in kindness and generosity but backed up the American position with the threat of military prowess.  President Roosevelt (1901 – 1909) was a military veteran and a well-traveled adventurer.  He knew well the role military power played in a nation’s perceived role in international diplomacy.  A nation that is unable to protect its interests beyond its borders has very little influence with which to bargain.

America emerged from the Spanish-American War as a new player on the international stage. Few in the world expected the distant Americas to be able to defeat a significant European power.  The victory was all the more striking in that much was accomplished on a global scale using modern naval vessels.  The turn of the century marked America’s debut as a top tier military power.

Roosevelt extended this influence through a naval tour de force dubbed the great White Fleet1.  From 16 December 1907 to 22 February 1909 a flotilla consisting of sixteen new battleships of the Atlantic Fleet sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia around South America to San Francisco, California. It then turned west to Hawaii, Asia and up to the Suez Canal.  Emerging into the Mediterranean the fleet took the opportunity to assist Italy after a devastating earthquake in early 1909.  The entire civilized world had witnessed the brute power and prowess on the United States by the time the ships returned to their home moorage in Hampton Roads.

Few American presidents have since failed to learn the lessons of the Great White Fleet.  The US Navy became the single most effective instrument of diplomatic pressure available to the American government.  That this is true is no accident; the navy is by all accounts the single most powerful military force on the planet.

The planes of just two aircraft carriers can destroy the entire air forces of most of the countries on earth—and we have at last count 12 of these super-carriers. Yes, they are super carriers.  Any nation that claims to have carriers knows well the difference between the Nimitz-class and their tiny flat tops.  I remember walking to the edge of the USS ENTERPRISE and looking down on the deck of allied carriers on several occasions.

(Note: the ship in the image is misidentified as the USS Nimitz. It is not. The numbers on deck are 66; the USS AMERICA (CV-66) which was still shorter and smaller than the Nimitz-class.)

Additionally, the Navy operates a fleet of nuclear submarines capable of devastating most of the habitable surface of the planet and sinking every ship anyone can build while remaining all but undetectable in the waterways and oceans of the world until it is too late.  Other surface ships carry missiles and guns capable of fighting most navies to a standstill without air support from carriers or submarine assistance.

I went to the bridge of the USS ENTRPRISE before I flew off her deck for the last time.  I spoke to the captain during a lull in operations.  I asked, “What was the single most important thing to know about aircraft carriers?”  Captain “Rocky” Spane answered that the carrier and its battle group controls the politics within a thousand mile radius; not influences, controls.  I agreed with his statement given the events I witnessed on that and many other cruises over two decades.

I recall a comment from a group of civilians I met in France. We were anchored off shore well in sight of Toulon, the home of France’s largest naval port.  Two of their carriers were in port and a third, their largest now called the Charles de Gaulle (R91) was yet under construction.  I sat in a café overlooking the harbor chatting with the locals on a beautiful Riviera day (are there any other kind?)  These young people didn’t know I was an American; because of my barely accented French they took me for an African colonial.  They looked at the massive silhouette of the Big ‘E’ and told me that France only thought it had aircraft carriers.  Seeing the Enterprise redefined the term in their minds.

A few years later the Navy knocked another embarrassing event off the world’s headlines.  Rebels in Mogadishu, Somalia shot down an American helicopter in an incident immortalized in the book and movie BLACKHAWK DOWN.  The local mobs celebrated their success by dragging the dead American soldiers through the streets before global news cameras.

The celebrating ended a few nights later when the aircraft carrier USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN arrived off shore in the wee hours of the morning.  F-14 Tomcats delivered a non-lethal but unavoidable wakeup call to the locals at 4 am.  Coming in at low altitude and 400+ knots, the aviators yanked back the stick and kicked in the afterburners in a steep climb. The sudden blast of noise could be heard for miles.  The Somalis instantly recognized a new power in the region; one for which the entire nation had no answer.  Direct violence against the American Army stopped.

Naval diplomacy continues right up to today’s headlines.  I wrote about the tensions between Iran and the United States over the naval presence of carriers in an earlier blog (“Iranian Military Threatens US Carriers in the Gulf” 1/3/2012).  The Navy today is no less intimidating than Roosevelt’s fleet more than a century ago.  Direct military conflict with the US has been a fatal error for several nations in the region in the past decades so this threat seemed designed to garner local political points rather than a true challenge.  More likely the Iranians were testing the resolve of the president of the United States as to whether he had the courage to use the power he had at hand.  However, President Obama’s lack of response caused an instant spike in the price of oil as the markets were rattled by the Iranian threat.

The Navy improved the situation without direct orders from the White House by adhering to its principles and following established maritime practices.  Ships of the USS JOHN C. STENNIS (CVN-74) battle group came to the aid of Iranian sailors for the third time on Wednesday January 18 in waters in and around the Persian Gulf.  Their dhow became disabled, according to a Navy spokesperson, and had been taking on water for days.

Earlier on the 6th of January the USS KIDD (DDG-993) rescued 13 Iranian fishermen from Somali pirates who had captured their dhow and held them hostage for an unspecified amount of time.  On the 10th of January an American Coast Guard cutter rescued six Iranian fishermen 50 mile off the coast of Iraq.

All of the rescues reveal Iran needs to do more work in ship construction and maintenance and they need to improve their maritime emergency response.  Without the American presence in the area almost two dozen of their men would have perished at sea and several boats lost.

More importantly, these humanitarian gestures in the face of Iranian military posturing have created an opportunity for diplomacy.  The Iranians can back down without losing (too much) face. At least for the time, US Navy compassion creates a tangible narrative in direct contrast to the official Iranian government position that America is the Great Satan.  Few of the Iranian mariners now safely at home would agree with that assessment.  What remains to be seen is whether the Obama Administration will squander the diplomatic opening his ships created.


fig 1. Photo "Battleship on the target range" courtesy of:

fig 2. Image courtesy of:

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