President Theodore Roosevelt believed America’s future was on the high seas.
"Preparation for war is the surest guaranty for peace," Roosevelt, then just an assistant secretary of the Navy, told listeners at an 1897 speech at the Naval War College. "It is idle to talk of such a nation ever being led into a course of wanton aggression or conflict with military powers by the possession of a sufficient navy."
A decade later, the president dispatched the world’s most formidable fleet of warships around the world, effectively paving the road to American global leadership for the century to come.
Now the entire world prospers from waterways patrolled by the United States Navy: "a global force for good," as it used to fittingly call itself during the early 2010s. But a lack of awareness and interest from the American people in naval affairs and an adversary on the horizon with an intent to subvert American world order could end an age of commerce and prosperity that has, quite literally, lifted all boats. Gregg Easterbrook’s The Blue Age gets halfway to the core of this issue: It intuitively understands what’s good about this American age of seafaring, but cannot fathom its principal challenge.
A reporter by trade, Easterbrook begins his book where he does his best work—out in the field. He discusses his time aboard the USS Wasp, an American warship that "is alone more powerful than any entire navy before the twentieth century." Easterbrook spends time with the commanding officer and walks us through the incredible array of next generation technologies and amenities onboard the ship, evoking something closer to a floating military base than a mere ship of war designed only to destroy the enemy.
Easterbrook also asks questions, mostly good ones. How does a ship function? Why do we dispatch them around the world? The U.S. Navy budget is about $700 per American taxpayer—is it worth the money?
What amounts from these questions is a largely compelling account as to why the American Navy is the best in the world, and one of the country’s most important assets. It can go places where nobody else can. It can project more force with a carrier strike group in the South China Sea than most militaries have altogether. It patrols the seas, protecting the domain where more than 80 percent of global trade by volume takes place. It, in effect, is a primary reason America is the leader of the free world. Easterbrook understands that most Americans don’t know, or don’t care, that their freedom and prosperity depend on a forward deployment of ships everywhere from the South Pacific to the North Atlantic.
But then the book takes a bewildering turn. For all of Easterbrook’s rhapsodic prose about the importance of the Navy in protecting and advancing what he calls our "Blue Age" of global maritime prosperity, the author simply does not grasp its primary and existential threat: the People’s Republic of China. More Tom Friedman than Teddy Roosevelt, Easterbrook believes that increased engagement with China—invitations to war games and inclusion into commerce lanes, for example—would placate the implacable commissars in Beijing.
"All China ever gets is criticism," the author writes in one passage. "Like it or not, if China and the United States stop getting along, no corner of the world will be safe, and no one will be happy."
But whose fault is that? If the Blue Age has gone as well as Easterbrook says, there should be absolutely no reason for China to have built the largest navy in the world. Nor built nuclear weapons with breakneck speed. Or regularly harassed ships in the South China Sea. President Xi Jinping would not be setting his sights on a free and democratic Taiwan. And none of that is to even mention China’s odious crackdown on human rights of Muslims and political dissidents.
To be sure, China has had its share of misfortune at the hands of foreign powers. But that alone shouldn’t justify Beijing’s desire to leapfrog the United States worldwide. For Easterbrook to do so is to encourage empathy at the expense of security. If the best way to keep peace is to prepare for war, as Roosevelt and so many other presidents of the past have told us, then the best way to do it is to support the U.S. Navy’s mission to deter China, not engage Beijing.
Perhaps equally curious is what’s conspicuously absent from the book: a discussion of the state of the American Navy. The author waxes poetic about President Reagan’s goal of a 600-ship Navy and how it helped bring a sledgehammer to Soviet ambitions—rightfully so—but appears too entranced by the bells and whistles of a modern warship to understand that a lot of work needs to be done to retain naval hegemony.
Notwithstanding China’s rise, the U.S. Navy suffers from cultural issues and an aging fleet, with utterly insufficient funding to keep it humming, let alone growing. President Biden’s defense budget dealt a tough blow to navalists, and his secretary of the Navy was the last of the service chiefs to even get a Senate hearing. The author instead favors wielding tired—and often inaccurate—invectives against members of the Trump administration who recognized this major problem.
If the mission remains global but the threat environment worsens, then surely Easterbrook would agree we can’t possibly expect our sailors to do more with less. Former Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Phil Davidson says that China wants to invade Taiwan in the next six years. If conflict were to happen right now, simulations show America losing, in no small part due to the rough shape of the fleet. If the Blue Age is this important, then Easterbrook would have done well to consider these concerns. To Provide and Maintain a Navy by former Navy captain Jerry Hendrix is one such title which fills this gap.
To understand why the Navy matters to global peace, The Blue Age is a great place to start. But, if one wants to take President Roosevelt’s advice and keep the peace, they would be best served dropping anchor elsewhere.
The Blue Age: How the US Navy Created Global Prosperity—And Why We’re in Danger of Losing It
by Gregg Easterbrook
PublicAffairs, 304 pp., $30