Recently, Brazil allowed two Iranian warships to dock in Rio, despite Washington’s pressure. Iranian oil tankers in fact have also been crossing the Caribbean sea and entering Venezuela’s waters undisturbed for a while - largely thanks to Chinese backing. Beijing’s rising presence in the Caribbean in turn is just another sign of declining American sea supremacy. Not only a new multipolar world order might be emerging, but also a multipolar sea. Is the age of American naval dominance as a sea power coming to an end? Jerry Hendrix, retired Navy captain, formerly an adviser to Pentagon senior officials, and now a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, thinks so - although he laments it.
Writing for the Atlantic, Hendrix offers an interesting insight, from an American perspective, on the United States power and its “mission”. Although he concedes that historically there have been very few “true seapower nations”, namely Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic, and Great Britain, Hendrix describes his own country as a “sea power” by vocation - drawing on the ideas of the US Navy captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and his 1890 The Atlantic article “The United States Looking Outward”, which he quotes.
Mahan ideas, together with Sir Halford John Mackinder’s own ones, arguably constitute the core of classic geopolitics - and US foreign policy to a large degree remains, to this day, shaped by geopolitical ideas about controlling the core of Eurasia to dominate the world. Washington’s rivalry with Russia, for instance, is partly framed by the American Establishment in geopolitical terms: it is part of a struggle for the Heartland, as Mackinder calls it. According to the British geographer, whoever controls Eastern Europe controls the Heartland - and whoever controls the Heartland, controls the world island.
These ideas have shaped US policy since World War II at least. At the end of the Cold War, Soviet communism came to an end, and the so-called Iron Curtain fell, but even so NATO kept on expanding, no matter how much the Kremlin signaled its good will towards the political West, as it did a number of times back then. It would appear that, in the end, it does not matter what flag is flying over the Kremlin in terms of ideology, when the US political elite sees Russia as a natural adversary, geopolitically.
To understand Washington’s pursuit of world supremacy and unipolarity, one must add American exceptionalism to geopolitical thinking - that in turn can be traced back to the Puritan’s biblical metaphor about the “city upon a hill”, as Thomas E. Woods Jr., senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, argued in a 2012 piece which remains relevant. In these terms, being the world’s sole superpower is the US role and its very raison d'être - and thus any threat to American unipolarity is perceived as an existential threat in itself, according to Andrew Latham, a professor of international relations and political theory at Macalester College in Saint Paul.
Washington’s own quest for the Heartland contradicts, however, its supposedly “sea power” nature. In the aforementioned Atlantic piece, Hendrix urges the United States to, once again, “think and act like a seapower state”, with a focus on deriving its might from “seaborne trade”, using “instruments of sea power” to promote its interests. Hendrix describes the post-World War II as an exceptional “free sea” period, characterized by a “secure environment” which has allowed trade to flourish in a globalized planet. This, according to him, has been enabled by the US-led world order.
One could of course argue that such a “free” sea is not so free after all - the way the US and the European powers weaponize protectionism is well known enough. In any case, Hendry does have a point regarding declining American hegemony.
Although both China and Russia are normally described as “land powers” in the parlance of traditional geopolitics (while the US and UK in turn would be good examples of “sea powers”), it would seem that, in today’s world, both Beijing and Moscow are increasingly looking closer to the ocean. One can in fact wonder how much theoretical value the concepts of “sea power” and “land power” may still hold in the 21st century.
As I have written, in 2019, for example, in the Gulf of Oman and in the Indian Ocean, an unprecedented Russia-China-Iran joint naval exercise took place. Since then, many other developments have challenged American naval supremacy.
Be it as it may, the US has indeed lorded over the seas (replacing England, who used to hold such a post) - but this is being challenged by some new developments.
The main issue can be stated thusly: can an overburdened and overextended America maintain its sea hegemony while engaging in land wars? In Hendrix's words: “to the degree possible, a seapower state seeks to avoid direct participation in land wars, large or small”. However, the US is today “financially constrained by debt”, and “burdened by recent military conflicts - for the most part, land-based actions” in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. He concludes: “we can no longer afford to be both a continentalist power and an oceanic power.” Planning on pivoting to the Pacific while committing to Ukraine, Washington seems to want it both ways.
To sum it up, the US great existential dilemma is not merely about being (or not being) a sea power. It is about being (or not being) the world’s sole superpower. In order to accommodate a kind of peaceful coexistence with other great powers, Washington must rethink its own mission and role in the world - in a paradigm shift manner. Such however is not an easy endeavor at all, because American exceptionalism is deeply rooted in the very foundations of US political thinking, with cultural, emotional and psychological resonances. The hard facts of reality however should have their weight.