The dangers of armies vs. navies

The magazine Foreign Policy publishes a list of the most underreported stories in international relations of 2011. I’m particularly intrigued by #1: that India is undergoing a major military buildup.

It’s China’s military expansion — especially at sea — that gets the headlines, but India is actually planning on spending almost twice as much — $45 billion to China’s $25 billion — on new warships in the next two decades. Both China and India are countries that are thought of foremost as land powers, so it’s interesting to see the two countries make a bid for mastery of the oceans, too.

The article reminded me of an interesting (if largely obsolete) debate from American history about the comparative virtues of the army and the navy. This goes back to the founding of the Republic and represented a real philosophical difference. John Adams, the country’s second president, was a huge booster of the Navy, which he saw as “wooden walls” for the county’s defense. When Adams, as president, was facing probable war with France, he gleefully got Congress to approve funding for new ships. But the army was another matter:

A bill for a “provisional army” was passed, but not before it was cut from 25,000 men to 10,000, which was more than Adams had asked for or wanted. For though he was the greatest advocate of the navy of any American statesman of his generation, Adams deplored the idea of a standing army. (David McCullough, _John Adams _p. 499, emphasis added)

Adams’ sometime friend, sometime rival Thomas Jefferson had a very different point of view. Watching Adams’ naval buildup, Jefferson was appalled. “The new navy, in Jefferson’s view, was a colossal waste of money” (McCullough, p. 501). When Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, one of his first actions was to begin “cutting back on the navy, halting shipbuilding and selling off ships already built…” (McCullough, p. 577.).

Walter Russell Mead notes that this dispute continued for more than a century. Looking at foreign policy schools of thought in American history, he names one — appropriately enough — the Jeffersonians, and notes that they believe “[t]here was nothing so likely to get the United States involved in foreign quarrels as a blue-water navy.”

The larger the navy the more pressure there would be on the United States to defend various commercial and humanitarian “interests” in far-off lands, and the mere presence of American forces in foreign ports made confrontations more likely. … Jeffersonians developed theories of coastal defense and coastal fortification to divert spending from blue-water-navy vessels to coastal barges and forts. More than once in the nineteenth century, the chronically underfunded navy declined to levels well below the minimum needed for combat effectiveness even against second-rate naval powers. (Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, pp. 195-196.)

In contrast, Mead’s Hamiltonian school endorsed, like Adams, the navy as the best tool of national interest. “Beyond the needs of the western frontier, the United States required only a navy,” Hamiltonians thought (Mead, p. 118). In the 20th Century, the decline of British naval power led Hamiltonians to take up the slack:

If Europe’s rivalries were once again to spill out into other continents, the United States would once again have to worry about the rights of neutral shipping, and it would need a navy that could vindicate those rights around the world. (Mead, p. 124)

One point of view holds that a navy — or at least a blue-water navy capable of fighting at sea and not just along the coast — leads only to trouble by making involved in foreign wars more likely. The other held that a navy — or at least a modest navy — can be a prime defensive weapon, one to deter rivals.

Of course, the United States was in a very particular situation: with no real military rivals sharing land borders, the sea was the only real source of danger. And the primacy of the British navy gave American naval proponents the luxury of keeping the fleet modest because Britain did the hard work abroad. Once Britain declined, American naval advocates weren’t so modest. The Jeffersonian argument that a strong blue-water navy encourages foreign involvement seems to have been vindicated in the long term. (In the short term, Jefferson’s cutback of the navy would be nearly disastrous as the U.S. found itself at war with Britain in 1812.)

The question of whether strong standing armies pose a threat to democratic institutions, at least when those institutions are weak, is a question for another day.

(Note: This post was originally part of a compilation and has been retroactively given its own home.)