Bread Upon the Waters

Journalist Gregg Easterbrook’s latest work, The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity—And Why We’re in Danger of Losing It, is one of those books that cannot be judged by its cover. Or, more pointedly, a book that cannot be judged by its subtitle. The United States Navy makes just cameo appearances here. This book offers Easterbrook’s case that continued peace, geo-political stability, free trade, and prudent stewardship of our oceans and the environment more generally is essential to maintain rising global prosperity.

The author sets out on an ambitious course with this work in three parts. He first discusses the conditions that have ended great power war at sea for now more than seventy-five years. He then describes current conditions on the world’s oceans that have promoted the free and unmolested global trade that he argues has created a wave of global prosperity unmatched in history. Finally, Easterbrook explores those factors which threaten global trade and peace on the blue waters and proposes means to deal with those threats.

Easterbrook contends one epoch of war at sea ended in the showdown World War II battle between Japanese and American fleets at Leyte Gulf in 1944. “Since October 1944 there has been only sporadic combat at sea, nothing close to the ‘almost incessant warfare on the oceans’ that characterized the previous three millennia,” he writes and argues that the end of naval warfare on that scale “is among the important, unnoticed aspects of contemporary society.” Easterbrook points out that the development of ballistic nuclear missiles, the end of the Cold War, and the current distribution of and access to the world’s resources have all mitigated the threat of great power conflict—and with it the likelihood that great fleets would need sail in harm’s way. He also claims that technological improvements at sea that include virtually constant satellite reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and enhanced conventional weapons (anti-ship missiles, hypersonic missiles, homing torpedoes, drones, unmanned vehicles) “may” lead the world’s great powers to conclude “there is no point in fighting at sea.”

But Easterbrook tempers that argument by noting a naval arms race is underway. China and the Russian Federation are engaged in robust naval construction. In 1990, China launched about 3 percent of the world’s new ships. China today is home to the world’s most productive ship building industry and has greatly improved its capability and capacity to build ships of all types. China is now building 40 percent of the world’s shipping. In 2017, China began launching about 50 percent more warships by displacement than the United States and that trend continues. The United Kingdom, India, Australia, Italy, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and Singapore are laying down new naval combatants. Against this background, Easterbrook reminds us that a naval arms race between Germany and England was a precursor to World War I.

Despite the risk of the United States and the rest of the world engaging in a never-ending naval armaments race, Easterbrook still champions an undiminished role for the US Navy. “The strongest disincentive to war on the blue water—and, thereby, the best protection for trade that benefits nearly everyone on earth—is the strength, scope, and forward placement of American naval power.” The US Navy did not create global prosperity, as the book’s subtitle suggests. But the US Navy has and likely will have a leading role in deterring aggression and safeguarding the seas upon which the trade of the world takes sail and, thereby, underwrites our growing global prosperity. Nor is that role a solo part. The United States acts in concert around the globe with host nations, allies, and partners.

Global trade is the central theme of The Blue Age and Easterbrook’s insights and understanding of the nexus between global trade and prosperity are revealing. Global trade, and more specifically the intermodal transport that makes trade shipments timely and cost-effective, moves across the vast sea-lanes of communication (SLOCS) that connect places as distant as the port of Shenzhen, China and the port of Los Angeles. For decades, the presence of the US Navy operating forward deployed from bases in foreign countries—and again it must be emphasized in concert with host nations, allies, and partners—have protected these SLOCS.

Except for the ubiquitous twenty-foot intermodal containers (Twenty-foot Equivalent Unit or TEU) many Americans see on the roads and on railroads, the impact of global intermodal transportation of goods is transparent. Most Americans have never seen, except perhaps on television, the gigantic container ships that carry sometimes as many as 15,000 TEU. Outside of the country’s major container handling ports, few Americans have any connection to the intermodal transportation enterprise. However, nearly every American is connected to that enterprise as price-conscious consumers of the goods that global trade brings to their tables, closets, and homes.

Easterbrook argues this global commerce—moving seamlessly and with little interruption across a network of roads, rails, and sea lanes (hence the term intermodal)—“improves the lives of large numbers of Americans by holding down consumer prices: in adjusted dollars most retail goods cost less now than a quarter century ago.” The speed, security, and efficiency of intermodal transport, especially that of its seaborne mode, deeply slashed the costs of trans-oceanic shipping. Those prohibitively high shipping costs were once more effective protection against foreign manufacturers than import tariffs.

Global trade, as Easterbrook points out, is about both imports and exports. Gross Domestic Product has grown in both US and Chinese economies and worldwide during the last 25 years. That growth, he claims, has been hugely effective in combating world poverty, too. He cites World Bank statistics which estimate that 60 percent of humanity lived in extreme poverty in 1940; today only 10 percent are chronically impoverished despite a three-fold growth in world population. Not surprisingly, the greatest gains in standard of living have been made in China and the Pacific Rim.

Given his ardent support for globalization, it’s no surprise that Easterbrook favors regimes to enhance, protect, and manage the world’s ocean environment, the vessels that steam upon it, the workers who make a livelihood from it, and, and of course, the trade it carries. Here Easterbrook makes his case as an unabashed Wilsonian Idealist. His prescription for remedying all ills in the ocean environment: a World Ocean Organization. Such an organization he claims, “could centralize and simplify a plethora of rule makers, many barely known . . . [and] of rule books [that] have overlapping or conflicting portfolios and often no prosecutorial power . . . [that] can be played of against each other or simply ignored.”

Not content only to have an organization to govern the “rules of the sea,” Easterbrook’s concept for a world body to control the ocean is breathtaking in its scope. It would include governance for future human habitats in the sea; regulation of weapons at sea, restrictions on weapons range, and mandate technical “upgrades” to on-board identification systems and anti-ship missile fire controls to prevent accidental attacks on ships at sea; create a level playing field for offshore energy projects; produce treaties for building and protecting submarine internet and communications cables; enable standards for seabed energy conduits essential to a low-carbon future; police human trafficking and forced labor at sea; create sustainable fishery protocols; regulate sea-bed mining; promote the development of an undersea power grid, and, “perhaps fifty years from now . . . an all-planet utility agency.” Were that not all, Easterbrook also proposes the organization create a “sea peace-keeping force,” composed of the US and Chinese navies, because “Washington and Beijing have the most ships and the most money.”

Readers who turn to this book for an in-depth look at the US Navy’s role in defending the world’s seas and SLOCs and the threats the Navy faces in so doing will come away unsatisfied.

Behind that flippant comment, however, is a sobering reality. Global prosperity is the result of a confluence of factors: the development and use of socially and economically revolutionary technologies that include the global internet and communications, smartphones, cheap computers; industrial migration to more cost competitive producers; the Green Revolution that created agriculture surpluses for world export; and the global intermodal transportation system. Each of these emerged during what Easterbrook calls the “Long Peace,” of nearly eight decades in which the great powers have not waged war. The sea-keeping, high operational tempo, global reach, and the nuclear deterrence accomplished by the US Navy in these decades helped to ensure world peace. That peace, and the prosperity and progress underwritten during those decades of our pacific blue age, could be shattered by great power competition:

The momentum of a naval arms race, coupled with war at sea being the kind of great-power combat that seems imaginable, leaves the waters a damp powder keg—not easy to ignite, but hardly impossible. Which means the question of whether the blue age will continue comes down to this: whether the United States and China, the two most important nations of history, can get along.

The threat of a Sino-American confrontation on the high seas is so real in Easterbrook’s estimation that he begs for greater understanding of China’s position in the world, exclaiming that “Everyone should walk a mile in China’s shoes.” This is not to say that Easterbrook is wholly an apologist for China’s internal policies, international perspectives, or economic practices. While he is largely sympathetic to Chinese grievances (he lists 12 of them) there is an attempt at balance here, almost as if the author was at pains to make points on both sides of a debate. But some omissions in this discussion are glaring (Chinese fisheries abuse, economic espionage, theft of intellectual property, currency manipulation—all of which bear on the global economy). Easterbrooks makes no mention either of the increasingly aggressive Chinese patrols in the South China Sea by the Chinese Coast Guard and of its deliberate efforts to intimidate and harass other nations’ commercial fishing boats and resource exploration in those waters. Some of his other comments are simply fatuous. For example, of Being’s diplomatic claims for “near-Artic status” the author writes “if Washington thinks Guam belongs to the United States, why can’t Beijing think some corner of the North Pole belongs to China?” The answer is because Guam was ceded to the United States by Spain in 1898, became an unincorporated organized territory of the United States by an Act of Congress in 1950, and the people of Guam are U.S. citizens.

The Blue Age is also a book about the fragile nature of global prosperity. Beyond the threats of western hubris, great power conflict, and the risk of war at sea, the blue age is threatened by both natural climate change (the global warming at the end of the Little Ice Age that fostered global agricultural growth) and what Easterbrook describes as artificial (or human influenced) climate change. A leitmotiv throughout the work, Easterbrook’s advocacy for reduced carbon emissions, clean energy, and environmental stewardship is captured in everything from his glowing descriptions of more energy-efficient container ports and container ships to his vision of a global, undersea power grid. The author also expresses concerns that noise-, electromagnetic-, air-, and fossil fuel- pollutants can and do harm life in the sea and upset the not yet fully understood ocean equilibrium of salinity, temperature, wind, and current. There is little or no debate that the resources of the world’s oceans can only be sustained with prudent environmental stewardship of our blue planet. But Easterbrook ignores the painful reality that developing nations often choose economic growth over environmental protection—in 2019, China’s Greenhouse gas emissions exceeded those of the United States and other developed nations combined—there are no worldwide enforcement mechanisms for this protection, and the economic burden of this stewardship has fallen almost entirely on western nations.

Easterbrook’s arguments in The Blue Age are often thought-provoking and sometimes persuasive. Some, like his vision of an UN-styled baby blue beret sea-going force and (literally) powder blue hulls plowing through the ocean waves as peacekeepers, are nothing short of fantastic. Be these arguments thought-provoking or persuasive or fantastic, often what they are not is wholly convincing.

Easterbrook, for example, floats the idea that great-power conflict in the blue age would harm the victor as much as the vanquished as mutually beneficial trade would be destroyed. So, war would be waged to no advantage; no rational actor would choose such a self-destructive course. This is not a new argument. British writer Norman Angell trotted out this same theory in 1910 with the publication of The Great Illusion. He was proved tragically and catastrophically wrong from 1914-1919, when World War I—with the naval blockade, commerce raiders on the high seas, and submarine attacks on merchant shipping—shattered the economies of the belligerents and left at its end tens of millions of military personnel and civilians dead. The same is true of Easterbrook’s hugely optimistic hope that the terribly effective weapons of the blue age may lead great nations to conclude there is “no point in fighting at sea.” Alfred Nobel is said to have cherished the same hopes about his invention of dynamite: a mining compound explosive so stable and effective he thought no nation would use it to make war. It is among the great ironies of history that an enormous fortune made with the sale of high explosives to military forces around the world is the source of the monetary award associated with the Nobel Peace Prize.

Easterbrook is also maddeningly inconsistent at times. For example, he lauds the forward deployed presence of the US Navy as a stabilizing force on the world’s oceans. Then he claims the expeditionary nature of the US military is a “national luxury.” With foreign naval bases in host nations of Japan and Bahrain and on the islands of Guam and Diego Garcia, he concludes “the US Navy could be leaner.” One wonders if the huge distances that separate these bases (3,000 nautical miles separate Bahrain and Diego Garcia) and the challenges of logistic support of the far-flung US fleets figured into Easterbrook’s parsimonious calculations. He also derides the idea of increasing the Navy’s budget to maintain a robust US presence at sea. Of an approximately $200 billion dollar budget—worked out at a cost of $700 per American adult—Easterbrook says, “that’s plenty.” Consider that the average cost of a desktop computer is about $700, then America’s blue age, forward deployed, operational Navy looks like a bargain, especially so when the Navy ensures the safe seaborne transit of that computer from China to California.

The Blue Age is not a book steeped in rigorous scholarship nor is it the definitive work on Sino-American maritime issues in the 21st century. It is a well-informed, highly readable, contemporary work of general interest of the many facets of global trade and especially that of the Pacific Rim. Readers who turn to this book for an in-depth look at the US Navy’s role in defending the world’s seas and SLOCs and the threats the Navy faces in so doing will come away unsatisfied. So, perhaps this book should have been titled: The Blue Age: How Global Prosperity Set Sail on the World’s Oceans—And Why Its Voyage is in Peril.