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The geopolitics of the world's oceans

[Admiral James Stavridis, Sea Power. The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans. Penguin Press. New York City, 2017. 363 pages]

 

REVIEWIñigo Bronte Barea [Spanish version]

In the era of globalization and its communication society, where everything is closer, and distances seem to vanish, the mass of water between the continents hasn´t lost the strategic value it has always had. Historically, the seas have been as much a channel for human development as instruments of geopolitical dominance. It is no coincidence that the great world powers of the last 200 years have been great naval powers as well. We continue living the dispute over the maritime space at the present time and nothing suggests that the geopolitics of the seas will stop being crucial in the future.

Little have these principles changed on the importance of the maritime powers since they were exposed at the end of the 19th century by Alfred T. Mahan. Sea Power speaks of its validity today. The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans, by Admiral James G. Stavridis, retired in 2013 after having directed the U.S. Southern Command, the U.S. European Command and the supreme NATO leadership.

The book is the fruit of Mahan's early readings and a long career of almost four decades touring the seas and oceans with the US Navy. At the beginning of each explanation about the different marine spaces, Stavridis recounts his brief experience in that sea or ocean, to then continue with the history, and the development that they have had, until they reach their current context. Finally there is a projection about the near future that the world will have from the perspective of marine geopolitics.

Pacific: The emergence of China.

Admiral J. G. Stavridis begins his journey through the Pacific Ocean, which he categorizes as "the mother of all oceans" due to its immensity, since, by itself, it is larger than the entire combined planet's land surface. Another noteworthy point is that in its immensity there is no considerable land mass, although there are islands of all kinds, with very diverse cultures. That´s why the sea dominates the geography of the Pacific as it does not anywhere else on the planet.

 

The great dominator of this marine space is Australia, which is very aware of what can happen politically in the archipelagos of nearby islands. However, it was the Europeans who explored the Pacific well (Magallanes was the first, around 1500) and tried to connect it with their world in a way that was not merely transitory and commercial, but stable and lasting.

The United States began to be present in the Pacific since the acquisition of California (1840), but it was not until the annexation of Hawaii (1898) that the immense country was catapulted definitively towards the Pacific. The first time this ocean emerged as a zone of total war was in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was massacred by the Japanese. With the return of peace, the Japanese revival and the emergence of China, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong made trans-Pacific trade surpass the Atlantic for the first time in the 1980s, and this trend continues. This is so, because the Pacific region contains the largest world powers on its coasts. In the geopolitical arena, a great arms race is taking place in the Pacific, with North Korea as a major source of tension and uncertainty worldwide.

Atlantic: from the Panama Canal to NATO

As for the Atlantic Ocean, Stavridis refers to it as the cradle of civilization, since the Mediterranean is included among its territories, and even more so if we consider it as the link between the people of all America and Africa with Europe. It has two great seas of great historical importance such as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

Undoubtedly the historical figure of this ocean is that of Christopher Columbus, since with his arrival in America (Bahamas 1492) began a new historical period that ended with virtually the entire American continent colonized by European powers in later centuries. While Portugal and Spain were concentrated in the Caribbean and South America, the British and the French did so in North America.

During the First World War, the Atlantic became an essential transit area for the development of the war, since, through it, the United States brought its troops, war materials and goods to Europe during the conflict. It was here that the idea of a community of the Atlantic countries that would eventually lead to the creation of NATO began to take shape.

Regarding the Caribbean, the author considers it as a region installed in the past. Its colonization was characterized by the arrival of slaves to exploit the natural resources of the region for purposes of economic interest for the Spanish. In addition, this process was characterized by the desire to convert the indigenous population to Christianity.

The Panama Canal is an engine for the economy of the region, but in Central America it is also possible to sail along the coasts of the countries with the highest rates of violence on the planet. Admiral Stavridis considers the Caribbean coast as a kind of Wild West that in some places has evolved little since the times of the pirates, and in which the drug cartels are currently operating with total impunity.

Since the 1820s, with the Monroe Doctrine, the United States carried out a series of interventions through its navy to reinforce regional stability and leave Europeans out of places such as Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Central America. In the 20th century, politics was dominated by caudillos, and communism and the Cold War soon reached the Caribbean, with Cuba as a zone zero.

Indian and Arctic: from the unknown to the risk

The Indian Ocean has less history and geopolitics than the other two great oceans. Despite this, its tributary seas have been gaining geopolitical importance in the post-World War II era with the increase in global navigation and the export of oil from the Gulf region. The Indian Ocean could be considered nowadays as a region to exercise smart power rather than hard power. While the slave trade and piracy has declined to almost disappear almost everywhere, they are still present in parts of the Indian Ocean. It´s a region in which countries from the whole world could collaborate all together in order to fight against these common problems.

The history of Indian Ocean doesn´t inspire confidence in the potential for peaceful governance in the years to come. An important key to unlock the potential of the region should be to solve the existing conflicts between India and Pakistan (threatening the use of nuclear weapons) and the Shia-Sunni division in the Arabian Gulf, which make the region very volatile. Due to the tensions of the Gulf countries, the region is today a kind of cold war between the Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia, and the Shiites, led by Iran; the U.S., with its Fifth Fleet, is in the middle of these two sides.

Finally, the Arctic is currently a mystery. Stavridis considers that it is both a promise and a danger. Over the centuries, all oceans and seas have been the site of epic battles and discoveries, but there is one exception: the Arctic Ocean.

It seems clear that this exceptionality is coming to an end. The Arctic is an emerging maritime boundary with increasing human activity, rapidly melting ice blocks and important hydrocarbon resources that are beginning to be within reach. However, there are great risks that will dangerously condition the exploitation of this region, such as weather conditions, confused governance due to the confluence of five bordering countries (Russia, Norway, Canada, the United States and Denmark), and geopolitical competition between NATO and Russia, whose relations are deteriorating in recent years.

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