LESSONS FROM VENICE: LEARNING FROM THE DECLINE OF GREAT MARITIME POWER

Armed Forces Journal on June 24, 2013, published an article by Seth Cropsey. Unlike predecessor empires, the Venetian imperium did not stand on tribute wrested from subjugated lands. Theirs was built on sea routes; small but well-defended surveillance, water and food supply stations in the Aegean islands; and strong trading relationships. Venetian ships carried spices and silk to English Channel ports and returned with wool and wine. They traded extensively with the Byzantines and sailed into the Black Sea to fill their hulls with westbound grain. They connected northern European products to markets in the Levant and beyond. Excerpts below:

But when the world began to change, Venice failed to adapt. Its senate weakly supported the Byzantines as the Ottomans overwhelmed them, capturing Constantinople in 1453 and renaming it Istanbul. Its nobles, wrongly calculating that they could trade with anyone, grasped neither the Islamizing ambitions of the Ottoman sultans nor their own strategic peril as the Turks expanded their navy and swallowed up important Venetian ports.

Instead, Venice turned its face from the Adriatic and joined the internecine wars that consumed the Italian city states during the Renaissance.

In short, Venice’s leaders ignored the maritime source of their security and wealth in favor of land warfare and income from great estates. The city lost its pre-eminence as a Mediterranean great power and never recovered.

American seapower has not always mirrored these mistakes, but the parallels, even when the courses lead in opposite directions, are striking. We have not written off the effects of an Islamizing Muslim world but rather linked our fortunes deeply to curbing it. Beginning with Desert Shield in 1990, the U.S. has been sporadically involved in land wars in the Middle East for more than two decades. As Venice shifted its gaze landward, our own attention to the Middle East’s several conflicts has diverted the public’s attention away from seapower and the favorable international order that is a major benefit of being a global and dominant seapower.

Simultaneously, we have over the past quarter century more than halved the size of our combat fleet while China has expanded its navy from a coastal force to one that now operates an aircraft carrier whose prospective blue-water deployment the Chinese official news agency announced toward the end of April.

In Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy, recently out from Overlook Press, I examine the parallel between England’s descent from great power status and the decimation of its naval power and look at the same path set earlier by the Dutch. The book traces the tandem rise of American wealth and international status alongside our expanding ability to project seapower and shift it easily between the world’s great oceans (once the Panama Canal was built). It shows how through combat, presence, crisis response, humanitarian assistance and eventually nuclear deterrence, American seapower replaced that of the Royal Navy as upholder of an international order based on free trade, untrammeled passage on the high seas…

The “Long War” that began before the attacks of September 2001 will continue to absorb our attention as the Muslim world struggles over modernity. This struggle may recede or it may turn more violent than anything we have yet seen. But we can confidently predict nuclear proliferation, the effort to blunt American power projection …and the continued rise of Chinese military strength and Russia’s growing military reach.

There are many ways we can adapt. We can build smaller, less expensive carriers to add to the existing fleet of supercarriers. We can add to the existing fleet of nuclear submarines by building larger numbers of less expensive attack submarines powered by proven alternatives to nuclear reactors. In each case, this would enlarge and disperse the fleet to the consternation of an enemy and the acknowledgement of our own budget constraints.

The U.S. is not without options to rebuild its seapower and assure its global dominance long into the future. The question that faces us is whether — like other great states that have gone before, no less in their strength than in their dependence on the seas to assert it — we still possess the will.

We can therefore begin a national debate over the value of seapower, or accept without deliberation a long, slow decline into status as a lesser power.

Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute. Previously, he served as Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy during both the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

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