Biden and Mahan: National Strength and Maritime Power Are Still Linked

the engine of our national economy

The last year has seen a growing bi-partisan consensus that the United States and the People's Republic of China are in competition to set the global order for the next century. After a year to firmly set in the minds of national security leaders on both sides of the aisle, we find ourselves at a moment when Congress and the Executive branch of government are both in the mood to strengthen our nation and expand job opportunities by opening the door for more spending. Why haven't we seen the logical connection between the two? 

To explain the importance of this moment in time is returning guest poster, Bryan McGrath.

Bryan, over to you.


In a speech in Pittsburgh Wednesday, President Biden announced what the Washington Post termed a “…$2 trillion jobs, infrastructure, and green energy proposal…”. With the simple title of the “American Jobs Plan,” Biden’s proposal is under fire from those concerned with its cost and from those who believe it does not spend enough on their priorities. It is not the purpose of this essay to take a position on the merits of the plan or its likelihood of passage but to point out that despite its significant cost and claims of working to provide for good jobs, not a penny is devoted to the good jobs building a larger Navy would create and sustain. This is particularly troubling given that the last large-scale recovery/jobs program (2009 American Recovery and Re-investment Act) also failed to capitalize on the strategic “two-fer” offered by putting more Americans to work building warships. 

The Obama Administration can be forgiven its 2009 oversight, as it clearly had not brought China into sharp relief as a competitor/adversary. But no such grace is available now, as the Biden plan’s White House Fact Sheet plainly addresses the strategic competition, stating “The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China.” A key part of that competition is military, and the central element of the military competition is naval. Ignoring both the national security benefit of a naval building program and the economic and industrial benefits of the good jobs it would produce is a mistake that can still be rectified. In so doing, the President could gain support for a bill that will likely prove popular with an American public for whom higher corporate taxes and higher individual tax rates on high earners are not central concerns. 

This symbiotic relationship between a powerful Navy and a prosperous nation was first laid out for Americans (and the world) in the late 19th Century by Alfred Thayer Mahan, and was reinforced this week in the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute by author Nicholas Lambert. The essay, entitled “What is a Navy For,” is one of the most persuasive bits of writing on this subject since Samuel Huntington’s 1954 “National Policy And The Transoceanic Navy” and though Lambert’s piece mentions China only once—in the caption of a photograph—it is clear that Lambert is reminding a new generation of the relevance of Mahan’s thinking, and the special role that Seapower has in promoting our nation’s fortunes. Lambert explains Mahan this way:

“State power, Mahan held, was a function of national wealth, and the generation of wealth derived from commerce. In modern times, the single most valuable font of commercially produced wealth was overseas trade. Following this logic, he reasoned that access to the sea (the “common”) was essential to national well-being; hence the need for a strong navy to guarantee access.”

Writing in the late 19th Century, Mahan was responding to a set of strategic imperatives and fiscal challenges not unlike those facing America today. Here is Lambert again:

“The dispute was so intense because it occurred during a period of social upheaval and economic depression—and against the background of a still more profound debate over the future shape of U.S. society. Simply put, there were competing fiscal demands. Some interests wanted the federal government to invest instead in national infrastructure (or the Panama Canal). Others demanded more generous pensions (especially for Union Civil War veterans). A large number thought the money would be better spent fixing societal problems at home—a down payment on a redistribution of wealth necessary to create a more equitable society.”

Not only are more ships required to better compete with China, but additional infrastructure also to support those ships is needed. The Navy’s “Report to Congress on the Long-Range Plan for Maintenance and Modernization of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020” highlights “highlights a shortage of dry docks for surface ship maintenance and the need to improve existing infrastructure at public and private yards to keep up with newer classes of ships, as well as the need for process improvements to allow private shipyards and the supply chain to grow their capacity and move faster to respond to a growing fleet size.” 

Additionally, in 2018 the Navy proposed a 20-year, $21B initiative to overhaul its four public shipyards. Called the “Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan,” recent press reports point to dissatisfaction in Congress with the pace of the plan. The Navy is reticent to move faster, citing considerable work that must continue to be done in these yards that would be disrupted with a faster pace. Perhaps then, one solution to put some of the resources from the American Jobs Plan into addressing ship repair and modernization infrastructure improvements, to include standing up an entirely new public yard?

And while the President’s bill is silent on the Navy, his party has not been. Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA), a former nuclear-trained Naval Officer, recently wrote a letter to the President making an eloquent plea for “…a National Defense Strategy, that acknowledges and prioritizes the maritime nature of the current strategic environment” while also directly stating “Now is not the time to cut our defense spending—reality requires that we spend more to meet our defense needs.” Obviously, the Navy is funded by annual defense appropriations, but that should not preclude additional targeted funding flowing to the Navy as part of this China responsive jobs initiative. 

China is in the midst of an unprecedented peacetime naval buildup, a buildup that threatens freedom of the seas in the Western Pacific and beyond. The President has proposed a plan designed to achieve several important goals, including job creation and out-competing China. It is important for him to remember that the engine of our national power is an economy that provides for the kinds of investments in infrastructure, health care, and clean energy he desires. American Seapower underwrites that economy in a way that no other element of military power does or can. He should listen to Representative Luria about directing a maritime-based National Defense Strategy, and he should make a down-payment on it by adding a naval building and infrastructure program to his American Jobs Plan. It will be far more difficult for legislators to oppose his plan if it is not only popular with the American public but also helps to rebuild the Navy. 

Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group. These views are his and do not represent any client.