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Stavridis' Book 'Sea Power' Explains Why Oceans Matter In Global Politics


And I'm Steve Inskeep with some of the History of Our Time. We're discussing big trends that shape our unsettling moment. Last week, for example, writer Richard Reeves described the growing privilege of the upper middle class.


RICHARD REEVES: And the fact that they are not only separate from the rest of society but unaware of the degree to which the system works in their favor strikes me as one of the most dangerous political facts of all time.

INSKEEP: We've also heard of the rise of nationalism and threats to liberal democracy. And this morning, we go to sea. Retired Admiral James Stavridis has spent almost 11 years of his life at sea as part of the world's most powerful navy, the U.S. Navy. In a new book, he vividly describes the view from the helm of a ship.

JAMES STAVRIDIS: It's an office with the best view in the world. And you know what you see when you look out the bridge of a ship? You see eternity.

INSKEEP: There would be a temptation to think that it's unchanging and dull. Does it ever get dull?

STAVRIDIS: Never. The oceans are constantly changing. And you have to remember the oceans are dangerous. They'll kill you in a minute.

INSKEEP: The waters are dangerous. The weather is dangerous. Strategically, the oceans can also be dangerous. Admiral Stavridis' book "Sea Power" argues that the oceans continue to matter in global politics.

Now, when we talked, I told Admiral Stavridis it's tempting to think of sea power as an artifact of the past. You know, we think of the Spanish Armada being defeated or the battles of World War II or the sea lanes that once connected Europe to its colonies in past centuries.

I get the importance of sea power then, but what is it now?

STAVRIDIS: First and foremost, it's international trade. Ninety-five percent of the world's trade moves across the oceans. Secondly, there are still nations contending. In fact, I'd point to two very hot spot parts of the world today.

One is the eastern Mediterranean, where the United States and Russia are jostling. And the other, most obviously, is the South China Sea, where China makes extravagant claims of territoriality. And it is another manifestation of the importance of the oceans.

INSKEEP: We better explain each of those situations you described. You said the eastern Mediterranean. You're reminding me that Russia is deeply involved in the war in Syria. And people say the reason for that is Russia happens to have a Mediterranean Sea naval base on the coast of Syria.

STAVRIDIS: They do, owned and operated by the Russians on the territory of the dictator Assad. They are very covetous of that strategic asset. First, it gives them influence by presence. Secondly, there's real military utility. The Russians have launched strikes from that area, much as we used a Tomahawk missile against Syria a few weeks back.

And thirdly, it allows them to train and exercise with other nations who are in that region, and that increases their military influence.

INSKEEP: How has it affected American history that for the last couple of generations or a little more, the United States has had the world's most powerful navy by far?

STAVRIDIS: It's been enormously helpful. The nation that profits the most from a peaceful global commons, from oceans upon which 50,000 ships can sail in a given day moving cargo, is the United States. That trade, that ability to be part of a global system benefits us enormously.

But the rise, again, of the Russian and Chinese navies is significant and over time will allow them potentially to constrain those sea lanes of communication.

INSKEEP: What's the Chinese navy like?

STAVRIDIS: Let's go back 20 years ago. The wall is falling down - the Berlin Wall. China at this point is really a coastal navy. Twenty years on, they've been adding to their fleet 10, 15 percent per year. Their ships are becoming much more capable. They're now ranging into the deep Pacific. So this is a significant geopolitical turn that's occurring in front of us.

INSKEEP: And I guess if we think about them turning submerged reefs, building them up to become airstrips in the middle of the South China Sea, that's an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

STAVRIDIS: Exactly. They have tens of thousands of acres they have developed in the South China Sea. And it allows them under international law to make claim to the entire South China Sea, and that is their real objective.

INSKEEP: What is the United States getting, or what would the United States get by keeping China from dominating the South China Sea?

STAVRIDIS: We would get a network of allies, partners and friends, all of us working together in order to ensure we have a vibrant democratic human rights-oriented region of the world.

INSKEEP: How has American strategic thinking changed now that there's less and less ice on top of the Earth?

STAVRIDIS: I mentioned those two tactical hotspots, the eastern Mediterranean and the South China Sea. The strategic hotspot is going to be the Arctic, where the ice is melting rapidly. It will open up shipping lanes. It will fuel territorial disputes.

So as that ice breaks up, this becomes a treasure trove of resources, of shipping lanes, of fragile ecological area. For all those reasons, this Arctic Sea may be the most important geostrategic zone of competition in the coming decades.

INSKEEP: Can you take us back out to sea for a moment here?


INSKEEP: Because I'm thinking about a passage in which you write of your first time heading into Pearl Harbor, where you were in charge of docking the ship.

STAVRIDIS: (Laughter) Yeah. I had many adventures developing myself as a ship handler. Admiral Ernest King, who was a classic crusty old World War II admiral, once said that the mark of a great ship handler is never getting in a situation that requires great ship handling skills.

What he meant was don't take chances with the ship. Be very steady. Use tugs to help you maneuver. I was very impulsive as a ship handler as a young man and managed to bang my ship pretty hard on the pier any number of times. As people always say about Admiral Stavridis, it's one thing that he made admiral, we just can't figure out how he made captain.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) And this happened to you in Pearl Harbor? You could have ordered up a tugboat to help you get into the...


INSKEEP: So I thought about that phrase - the mark of a great ship handler is not getting in a situation where you need great ship handling - and I wondered if it was a sort of metaphor. Do you need to think on a strategic level that way?

STAVRIDIS: You do. As I look at America in today's environment, we need to avoid that tendency to be overly impulsive. We need to work with our allies and friends. The allies are the tugboats of this metaphor. You don't have to operate unilaterally in the world. It's a powerful metaphor for almost everything in life.

INSKEEP: Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis is the author of "Sea Power: The History And Geopolitics Of The World's Oceans." Thanks very much.

STAVRIDIS: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: And that's some of the History of Our Time. You can find more talks in the series at npr.org.