About Trevor Knight

Memphis Native. Navy Reservist. Architectural Millwork.

Book Review: When China Ruled the Seas

Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. Pp 10-252. 

Lousie Levathes presents readers with an era of China’s naval power in its golden age.  Levathes is a Johns Hopkins Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University and was a staff writer for National Geographic for ten years.  In the book, she describes the seven voyages of Muslim, Eunuch, Admiral Zheng He. He was the trading emissary and admiral of the Ming dynasty between 1405-1433. The aim of the book is to examine how and why the massive, complex treasure fleet appeared, operated and then disappeared within the span of a lifetime. It also explores why the Ming retreated into the modern Western stereotype of landlocked and reclusive. Finally, Levathes seeks to elaborate on the context which China understands itself both during the Ming Dynasty and how that translates into the modern era. (Levathes 21)    

The book’s eleven chapters are ten to twenty pages each.  It has a smooth narrative flow which is easy for the uninitiated to read.  Levathes uses three firsthand accounts of the voyages of Zeng He, several contemporary sources to corroborate events and many secondary records written within 200 years of the events.  This book provides an excellent resource guide for jumping into further reading about Chinese Naval Power in the Ming Dynasty.  

The first chapter sets the foundational framework of the early seafaring Yi people.  Next, chapter two provides the context of Confucianism and its implications within the elite ruling class.  It is this tension between the dominant doctrines of Confucianism which espoused the priority of agriculture, austerity and caring for the people juxtaposed with the allure and risk of trade, tribute and the wealth it brings.  This conflict factors heavily into the following chapters especially as the Ming are justifying abandoning the practice altogether.  

In chapters three through eight, Levathes develops the princeling Zhu Di, and his usurpation of the Ming Empire in 1402.  Zheng He follows as she discusses the strong bond of loyalty that the two build from an early age.  After hearing rumors of the deposed emperor alive overseas, Zhu Di justified the construction of a naval fleet to his academic Confucian advisors which, incidentally, happen to have enormous capacity for trade.  After discussing the shipyard process for the vessels, Levathes moves to the voyages themselves highlighting in narrative detail the adventures to Calicut, Ceylon, Malacca, Japan and the Persian Gulf.   

In chapters nine through eleven, Levathes covers the death of the emperor Zhu Di and the rise of his grandson, Zhu Zhanji who engaged Zheng He to re-establish China’s dominance in the international marketplace. Zhu Zhanji died unexpectedly of a short illness in 1435 and by 1437, his successor had halted all shipyard construction.  This was the end of the great Chinese treasure fleets.  The final chapter provides historical and political context to the events around Zheng He’s voyages and the rise and fall of the Ming international presence. 

Levathes does an excellent job describing how Zheng He and his fleets dominated the Pacific.  What is curious is how the political forces that Zhu Di and Zhu Zhanji encountered are so similar modern China’s today.  China’s land is vast and fleets are expensive.  External influence can create political chaos and division. It takes strong authority to manage both and Levathes provides an excellent window into the Chinese thought process, even today. 

Book Review: We, The Navigators

David Lewis, We, The Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, Second Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1972. Pp. vii, 442.  

Western sailors once considered it impossible to reliably navigate with use of magnetic compass, sextant and maps. In We, The Navigators, David Lewis chronicles the methods of ancient Polynesian navigation while voyaging with the native practitioners.  David Lewis authored ten books in related fields and was a recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of Navigation. Lewis states “The aim of this book is to make a detailed examination of indigenous navigational concepts and methods and to assess their efficacy and limitations.” (Lewis 3) 

Broken into the five sections,  Lewis begins with the origin of his interests and then flows to the techniques of navigating and landfinding. He concludes with some historical color for why these sailors went to sea. Chapters average roughly fifty pages with the more technical instruction making up the bulk of the work.   

Chapter one provides quick central Pacific regional history. The follows with his reasons for personal interest in the topic.  In 1965, Lewis sailed the central Pacific “to bring academic theories of navigation to sea level by testing in practice methods that were reputed to have been used by the old-time Polynesians.” (Lewis 19)  Lewis introduces Tevake of the Santa Cruz Reef Islands and Hipour of the Carolinian Islands.  These two men provided Lewis much of the technical instruction he records.   

The middle chapters start with foundational topics covering designs of the boats used, how they were rigged and provisioned.  Next, Lewis launches into the concept of celestial navigation and the sidereal compass.  Effectively, the sidereal compass method observes a group of stars in a 360 degree circle around the horizon.  Ancient navigators must memorize the location and timing of each of these stars and then be able determine his vessel’s relative position to each.  Once position is established, he now knows his own relative position to other landmasses in the ocean. All of this is done by observation, memory and experience without paper or instrument.   

From here, Lewis discusses the dead reckoning (DR) calculation of speed and direction over a known time. DR solves for distance travelled and current or projected location.  DR coupled with the use of sidereal compass make a unique system of checks and balances enabling the trained navigator to continue to refine his understanding of the vessel’s position on a mental map.  

In the final technical chapter, Lewis covers the importance of environmental aids such as clouds, sea birds, swells, and how properly observing these can provide further position refinement to the navigator without instrument, map or magnetic compass.  For example, at night, phosphorescent algae activated in an island’s surf can create a miles long trail for navigators to follow in a moonless sky with no ambient light.   

To close the book, Lewis provides some commentary on the complexities of applying the techniques above.  He finally closes with a brief history of various groups of pacific Islands and their discovery by the western world.  Lewis does an excellent job of cataloging the technical aspects of the navigational art as well as providing the historical and some anthropological context as well.  This is best suited for those with a nautical background as Lewis writes from a sailor’s perspective. However, this book is very accessible to the layperson how has no experience on the high seas.  

The Monroe Doctrine and its Relevance to Maritime History

In 1823, President James Monroe’s seventh annual message to congress said that “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not the considered as subjects of future colonization’s by any European powers…”1 This is known today as the Monroe Doctrine. 

The function of the Monroe Doctrine could be distilled down to a handful of major efforts.  First, the United States did not want to grant European competitors a beachhead to be able to launch attacks or stage a power competition.  Second, it was a diplomatic warning shot as the colonial interests and wealth of Spain, Portugal, England, Russia and France were all put on notice that they could be confronted as a matter of United States Foreign Policy.  This engagement would be primarily be sea.  The Monroe Doctrine would function as an executive police action to engage foreign meddling in the hemisphere rather than requiring a discrete declaration of war by congress.  

Monroe and John Quincy Adams are the architects.  They were 11 years past the start of the War of 1812. They understood that trans-oceanic wars were easy to protract and expensive for the expeditionary country. Like Armies marching on Moscow during the winter. There is a tyranny of distance in the logistical supply of sustainment of the force.  Territory is hard to keep at a distance.  

The United States holds an inherent advantage due to their proximity to the other countries in the Western Hemisphere with the shorter distances to overcome. This strategy proved effective because it kept the European powers at bay and depressed the other governments in the western hemisphere.  These under-developed countries were ripe exploitation as the U.S. looked to wield its own influence, deny territory to adversaries and capture the surrounding natural resources for their own national enrichment.   

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt added the Roosevelt Corollary which established Big Stick Diplomacy.  

“Chronic wrongdoing, may…ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States…to the exercise of an international police power.”2  

Here, Roosevelt converts the old defensive minded doctrine into an offensive foreign policy that authorized American interference in the internal affairs of Western countries if they were not maintaining “civility” per the standards of that day’s U.S. President. This became known as “Gun Boat Diplomacy” because if a country stepped out of line a U.S. Navy Gunboat would land in their port and explain to them how to behave or lose their city 

Future leaders walked back the Roosevelt Corollary with Presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt implementing the “Good Neighbor Policy” which sought to foster more reciprocal trade with other Latin American countries.3  However, as the Cold War ramped up, this approach was scrapped in favor of a more proactive policy for fighting Communism in the Western Hemisphere such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Thus, the United States returned to the elder Roosevelt’s strategy of 70 years before and practiced that until the fall of the USSR in 1991.  

The function, development and history of the Monroe Doctrine have pragmatically aided the United States staying the strongest economic and maritime power in the western hemisphere for nearly 200 years.  

Response to Russel Clark’s Interview on Real Vision 29MAY2020

Original Interview can be found here

I read through this and thought his analysis was good. Here are my thoughts in response.  China has a long memory, they remember the Silk Road days and are seeking to overlay a trade network that reduces the tyranny of distance for overland trade.  

From my own studies, I think you also have to look at what made Rome great.  The Roman road system provided enormous interconnectivity throughout the peninsula as well as the European continent.  Its primary use was not economic but military.  The legions securing access to resources, not trade by itself, is what kept Rome great.  Once Rome secured the Med militarily, they ran a packet line of ships from Egypt’s breadbasket to Rome which sustained the capital well beyond what its local resources could provide. The economic benefit was a boon.  As I hear more and more about China’s inland infrastructure, I think the trade is valid. However, I see a military infrastructure being built out.

Since I was introduced to general geo-political theory on China by Zeihan, I’m somewhat hopelessly anchored there.  Looking seaward, China’s in a rough neighborhood. Controlling Formosa is an imperative because it functions like a barrier island for mainland China from the sea.  Regaining it will be hard, amphibious landings are expensive and China has no sustained experience in expeditionary warfare or military logistics outside of the mainland.  Japan had been at war for years (in China) before it attacked Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese were good at it by then.  Russell discusses Chinese trade with neighboring countries but seems to not account for the historical bad blood between many of these sovereigns. Old habits die hard. 

I think he’s right that China is offering an attractive alternative currency, trade system and technology to their neighbors.  Since this is a primarily economic discussion, he doesn’t say much about the role of the politics and ideology when it comes to international trade.  

His comment that empires fail very slowly and then fail quickly is accurate.  The Romans, Byzantines, Turks, French, British, etc. all had long runs that degraded for a while then when caput pretty quickly. These were all massive expeditionary empires which reigned internationally.  They held territory and defended it diplomatically, economically, and militarily for centuries.  China controls no land militarily outside of its own borders.  What he doesn’t mention is how quickly the countries ruled by strongmen or ideologies have failed in history.  Particularly when those institutions are atheist and actively anti-religious.  The best example of ideological failure that I can think of is the dechristianization of France during French Revolution.  If citizens didn’t comply with the revolution, they were beheaded.  Eventually the fury consumed Robespierre himself.  People are sinful and self-interested which quickly becomes a wicked combination.  The basis of the French revolution was an enlightenment informed replacement for the Gospel which sought to govern.  Lenin and Stalin found similar fates.  Anti-Religious governments become embalmed in their own greed and lust for power and are incapable of metabolizing shifts in thought and ideology.  In simple engineering terms, the stiffer a material is, the more likely it is to shear in catastrophic failure.

Chinese ideology is becoming less flexible.  The Deng Xiaoping days of openness and rule by committee seem to have passed.  Xi Jinping appears to have consolidated power as a shrewd and ruthless strongman. Robespierre, Stalin, would have salivated over Xi’s oppression technologies and capabilities. Without technology and the ability to stabilize the countryside, the PRC doesn’t last very long.  The Gulag Archipelago was a catalyst that tore down the Soviet Regime.  Its only a matter of time before it happens again.  Look at Nazi Germany, this was racial supremacy at its worst in the European continent.  The Han Chinese are no different.  The longer they drink their own bathwater of their own Heavenly Destiny to rule, the more agitated their own citizens will get (like the Uighers, Mongols, etc.—don’t poke the Mongols BTW)  Additionally, their neighbors will do what they can to destabilize an ascendant China who has a supremacy complex.   

In my opinion, whenever the fall happens, it will be swift. 

Or this could all be heresy.

Book Review: European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500

Archibald R Lewis and Timothy J Runyan, European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.Pp. xi, 192. 

Lewis and Runyan’s work was the first popular attempt to present a survey of the develop of European maritime and naval power through the middle ages. (Runyan xi). Archibald Lewis co-authored fourteen books on medieval European history and was a professor of history at the University of Texas and University of Massachusetts. Timothy Runyan is a professor of maritime history at East Carolina University and has written extensively on shipping and medieval England. This survey includes politics, naval architecture, naval administration, naval warfare, strategic planning throughout the different eras it addresses.  The authors use primary and secondary sources as well as preceding historical works and archeological journals. 

The book’s seven chapters are approximately twenty pages each. They concisely discuss the rise and maritime arc of the Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Celts and Norse, English and finally Iberian peoples.  Each chapter discusses technological contributions such as Byzantine offensive dromon.  It covers naval tactical developments such as Venetian and Genoese convoys. Operational matters such as Constans II’s administration of the Byzantine hinterlands with a well-compensated militia supported by a strong national Navy which allowed him to elude the cost of a large standing army.  Finally, they include element of grand strategy such as the complete integration of financial, industrial, commercial and maritime aspects of the Islamic reign over the Middle Sea.  

The main ideas that Runyan and Lewis develop are that there was very little technological change other than the incremental development of ships throughout the middle ages. Other than ramming or Greek fire, naval tactics were typically constrained to boardings for hand to hand combat. This did not dramatically advanced until the 12th century when crews began to fight the ships on the open seas. While technological and tactical advances were limited, major developments in naval strategy and administration gave groups like the King Canute’s Vikings, Muslims and Venetians the ability to consistently project power across vast distances for extended periods. With the security provided by sea power, the authors discuss how economic and diplomatic efforts flourished for each of the reigning empires. Finally, the limitations of sea power are demonstrated with examples like the Byzantines ceding territory to the Slavs or King John’s ceding northern France and other land-based groups who they could not defend against. Sea power works well as a part of a comprehensive strategy, but it is insufficient without intelligent diplomatic, economic and land-based military policies in place.  

The statement that none of the amphibious assaults the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War or World War II surpasses medieval Europe’s tactical abilities (Runyan 167) must be taken as exaggeration as the added elements of air power, advanced munitions and undersea warfare surely eclipse the complexity of medieval amphibious operations. However, this comparison is surely to highlight the complexity of planning and execution performed by the medieval forces before modern technologies.  

The book reads easily and doesn’t require scholarly background to enjoy.  It does an excellent job in its stated goal of providing a comprehensive general survey of the progress of sea power through the medieval period.     

Book Review: Arab Seafaring by George F. Hourani

George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring. Expanded Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951.Pp. Vii, 189.

  For a time, the Arab Seafarers ranged from Spain to India at their peak, however in western history, their contribution is often overlooked. Dr. George F. Hourani, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, provides a survey of Arab seafaring primarily in the Indian Ocean and its tributaries.  Broken into three broad chapters between thirty to fifty pages, Hourani discusses the pre-Islamic trade routes, trade under the Caliphate and the technical features of the Ships involved.  In the expanded version are thirty-five pages of notes and index, helpful for providing context and cross reference for the unfamiliar terms of the subject. The author has over three hundred bibliography entries from ancient and modern Western and Arab sources.  At one hundred eighty-nine pages from stem to stern, the book serves as a dense historical digest of Arab sailing from antiquity to the end of the Caliphate.  

The first chapter is broken into six smaller sections. They act as a primer working from prehistory to the rise of Alexander. Next are the Greek and Roman eras of the Persian Gulf followed by those eras in the Red Sea. He ends the pre-Islamic era with the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires and an appendix of trade with China before the Caliphate. Within these sections, he highlights the uses of all waterways for Arab trade from the Oceans to rivers and canals.  A unique feature of Arab Sea trade is that it was not merely coastal like the Mediterranean peoples’ but penetrated deep within the countryside of Mesopotamia and India using the great rivers and associated canals (Hourani 11).

Chapter two engages the Caliphate with the general consequences of Islamic expansion followed by the Arabs on the Mediterranean. The second half of the chapter discusses trade with the Far East and East African coasts. Finally, it concludes with the end of Arab eminence and the rise of the Portuguese in Vasco da Gama (Hourani 83)  Of particular interest, was the Arab record of the rhythm of travelling to the port of Canton in 851 AD.  With stated timeframes for each voyage and an eighteen-month round trip cycle, it was apparent that the shipment cycle happened on an industrialized level between “al-Iraq and… China” (Hourani 76).

In his final chapter, the author uses five sections to detail the Hulls and their equipment, masts, and sails, and finally navigation and sea life.  He finishes the effort with four sea stories from the era detailing the experience of life at sea.  This is immensely illuminating because it provides the reader with the “how” of Arab sea travel.  Whether it is how the older ships were sewn together, wood selection, techniques for sailing into the wind or tales of shipwrecks and heroes, this section piques human-interest beyond the typical historical events and dates.

The book lacks an engaging narrative feel, and for the uninitiated many of the terms and events are unfamiliar and reading becomes cumbersome and dry.  However, with a second pass it comes proves to be an excellent resource or desk reference for anyone to build a catalog of knowledge on Near Eastern maritime trade.    

The American Imperative for Achieving a Climate Resilient Mexico

Water security in Mexico City provides an excellent example of why climate resilience in Mexico is critical to U.S. national security and economic interests.  This article will establish the role of Mexican stability in U.S. Security Policy.  Next, it will discuss the historical precedent for U.S. action and influence in the Western Hemisphere.  Then, it will discuss climate change and human challenges, such as governance and economics, focusing on water scarcity in Mexico City.  Finally, it will discuss the policy implications of the four instruments of national power, and how they can be used to stabilize and promote climate resilience in Mexico.

Before continuing, it would be remiss not to address the issue of migration. Human migration concerning the U.S.- Mexico border has long been a heated issue; however, the core issues of human migration are natural and economic resource related.  Drought, famine, failed government and economies are reasons that people abandon their homelands in search of better opportunities.  If these issues can be identified and addressed, then much of the core human migration tide can be stemmed leaving smaller, more nuanced, localized issues to work through.

Outside of its oceanic buffers, the Mexican and Canadian landmasses are the second and third most strategically important geographic features to U.S. Homeland Security.  Of the two, Mexico presents a clear priority to ensure stability for two reasons. First, Mexico’s population is four times that of Canada’s within a land mass that is ten percent of the Canadian territory.  Second, as a security threat, Mexican geography acts as a land bridge between the United States and every other potentially unstable country in Central and South America.        

If a nation’s political system is already fragile, the viability of a country experiencing sustained drought, famine, or other natural disaster is quickly tested.  Nations can endure for a time, even with supplemental aid from neighbors, but after prolonged exposure to climate forces, failed government and failed economies become a clear risk.  Unmitigated climate events catalyze the risks unrest, crime, corruption, resource hoarding, hostile foreign influence and revolution. Since these risks are rooted in the struggle for natural resource availability, changing climate and economic uncertainty, U.S. security and economic interest drive an American imperative for a climate resilient Mexico.

Geopolitically, the global commons are experiencing a myriad of changes.  There is the advent of U.S. energy independence through the fracking revolution.  There are shifting sands in trade and treaties such as the Great Power Competition with sanctions against China and other countries. The renegotiation of NAFTA into the U.S. Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the fragmenting of the EU with the BREXIT are all indicators that the survival of the globalism that has developed for the last seventy years is in question going forward.

This disruptive geopolitical change is accelerated when climate instability is added to the mix. The National Climate Assessment has observed “…that more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events are creating new and increasing risks across U.S. communities. Climate change poses risk to health, ecosystems, agriculture, infrastructure and economically and socially vulnerable populations.”[1]  Given these circumstances, in the name of national security there is a case to be made for prioritizing the stability and security of the northern western hemisphere over the world at large.

The precedent for U.S. interest and intervention in the Americas is not new.  With his 1904 address to Congress, President Theodore Roosevelt articulated the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. 

“Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”[2]

With this proclamation, Roosevelt established as a matter of national policy that the United States would act as policeman to ensure stability in its own hemisphere.  Interpretations of Roosevelt’s intent range from protectionism of the Americas to the first stage of “Big Stick Diplomacy” seeking to execute U.S. interventionist imperialism. 

Future leaders walked back the Roosevelt Corollary with Presidents Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt implementing the “Good Neighbor Policy” which sought to foster more reciprocal trade with other Latin American countries.[3]  However, as the Cold War ramped up, this approach was scrapped in favor of a more proactive policy for fighting Communism in the Western Hemisphere such as Cuba, Bolivia and Nicaragua.  Thus, they returned to the elder Roosevelt’s strategy of 70 years before and practiced that until the fall of the USSR in 1991. Since the early 1990’s, U.S. Foreign Policy at large has been somewhat adrift, unfocused and unrefined.  Yet, given the speed and violence that U.S. executed the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns for so little political and strategic gain, it is absolutely possible for the United States to enact and execute a new military and economic policy based on the Theodore Roosevelt’s original text without great difficulty.

With the strategic imperative and political precedent established, the concept of climate resilience is next to define and discuss along with its implications for Mexican-U.S. relations.

The Center for Climate Change and Energy Solutions defines climate resilience as “…the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to hazardous events, trends, or disturbances related to climate. Improving climate resilience involves assessing how climate change will create new, or alter current, climate-related risks, and taking steps to better cope with these risks.”[4]

Climate resilience and sovereign stability go together and have both natural and human factors which can lead to crisis.  Poor climate can yield bad economy in the same way that bad economics and policy can squander resources. In the second scenario the bad stewardship of the resource makes takes and abundant natural resource and makes it a practical scarcity.  Such is the case of water in Mexico City.

Water is scarce in Mexico City. The quality of the water is poor and requires expensive treatments to make potable again.  The lack of access to clean, potable water is creating internal unrest where tanker truck drivers are being hijacked at gunpoint to deliver their loads to communities without water.  Mexico City has a climate resilience problem regarding water that has potential to become a national security problem for the United States.[5]  

 Mexico City presents a useful archetype for all the water issues that the Mexican Government deals with nationwide.  Since it is the capital, it gets the most federal money to attempt to remedy these issues.  As well, these same issues in less politically significant regions have potential to yield fallout that is exponentially larger because of lack of federal attention, lack of funds and breakdowns in governance.  Failure to distribute economic and natural resources sustainably leads to overcrowding in population centers which amplifies the problems even more.

 Mexico City was once referred to as “the Venice of the New world” with wide lakes and abundant water.  Now excessive development and poorly regulated industrial use, many of those lakes are either paved over, or have been so polluted that their waters no longer sustain a viable ecosystem and require massive treatments to become potable again.[6]

The Mexican federal response has favored centrally planned, engineering mega-projects over de-centralized, local incremental solutions.  Central planning tends to miss the nuance of local political issues and alienates communities from the decision-making process which can foment unrest.  Massive projects are also vulnerable to mechanical failure, which can result in catastrophic breakdowns in local civilization.  Mexico City “is one of the world’s great feats of hydro-engineering”[7] pumping water from reservoirs 120km away and up elevations of 300m within the city.  Finally, maintaining the infrastructure so that it can reliably deliver water becomes a risk for central planners.  Currently 40% of the water in the system is lost through leaks.[8] Instead of doing the very mundane work of fixing the inefficiencies in the current systems, Mexican leadership is looking for to add more pumps and pipes to increase its network size and spend more on new equipment and infrastructure. 

From a governance and economics perspective, mega-projects are ripe for corruption, graft and kickbacks in a way that local sustainability projects just cannot replicate.  The ruling hegemon can fund projects that create short term jobs. This is a good thing.  However, these projects frequently fail to address the underlying issues and create an economic dependence on the perpetuation of mega-projects. Additionally, mega-projects frequently create political and financial windfalls for the politicians who implemented them.  This sequence becomes a perpetual political cycle until it is reigned in or is overthrown in revolution.  When the system ultimately fails to supply the resources to its residents, it becomes a security issue for Mexico and the United States. Citizens are presented with two options: leave for more stable places to live or take up arms and fight the corrupt establishment.  Neither are options that are acceptable to U.S. interests.

Mexico City, the capital of the United States’ southern border country has mismanaged a historically abundant resource.  If the capital of a nation is at risk of failing to provide basic services to its citizens, then by default, it must be assumed that the entire country presents the same risk.

There are four root causes to Mexico City’s water scarcity.  First, there is massive demand unlike anything historically sustained in that region due to the overdevelopment and overpopulation of the city. This is accelerated by the loss of sustainable economics in changing climates in the rural areas.  Second, Mexico City has a pollution problem with its local industries dumping into the local water sources.  Third, Mexico City’s infrastructure is failing to effectively deliver the water they do have as evidenced by a 40% loss of product through the existing infrastructure.  Fourth, government is unaccountable to the local citizens who are deprived of their own local resources.

The good news is that water is and has been historically available to the metropolis.  The bad news is that the proper stewardship of this resource will require a political, economic and cultural shift to renew its practical usefulness.  This sort of change is difficult to execute, and the speed of progress can be painfully slow.  Fortunately, the United States wields an enormously powerful tool to expedite these changes: money.

The incentives of money and prosperity can accomplish rapid cultural change if executed well.  An effective, sustainable way to incentivize Mexico to change their culture and governance is with an effective trade agreement that creates industry, economic opportunity, and improved livelihood for Mexican citizens.

Economically, Mexico has been a significant resource for inexpensive labor and industrial support to the United States.  Before the virus, the Great Power Competition with China incentivized the United States to reduced imports from and impose tariffs on China.  The global pandemic has further reinforced the U.S. interest in having a more local resource for low cost manufacturing and labor.  Mexico is now in excellent position to take over much of the Trans-Pacific Partners (TPP) load as the resource of choice for inexpensive imports. 

Diplomatically, Robert Lighthizer, the United States Trade Representative (USTR), understands that Mexico has every incentive to ensure that it stays on good trade terms with the United States and take market share away from TPP countries.  Anything it can do to avoid tariffs on exports to the United States is enticing.  Countries that manufacture at low costs frequently pay unlivable wages and do not enforce environmental and safety standards for production.  Additionally, foreign producers frequently operate in nationalized businesses in which profitability is not the fundamental goal.  Nationalized industries skew competition against market constrained industries where profit is an imperative for survival.

On 1 July 2020, the USMCA, went into effect which updated the older North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to a trade agreement with tighter accountability for labor and environmental standards for the participating countries.  In his negotiations, Lighthizer required the treaty to include passage of a Mexican Act of Congress on labor standards, environmental standards and governance standards.  USMCA Annex 23A codifies for each country the right to collective bargaining, elimination of compulsory labor, abolition of child labor and elimination of discrimination.[9]  USMCA 22 discusses state owned enterprises and monopolies and goes to great detail into concerning the definitions and requirements to establish parity for these organizations in a free market.[10]    USMCA 24.2 provides that “Parties recognize a healthy environment as an integral element of sustainable development.”[11] As a part of the trade agreement, the USTR leads the enforcement panel which monitors Mexican and Canadian producers to ensure they are maintaining the environmental obligations of the treaty without violating any country’s sovereignty.  USMCA 27.2 establishes “measures to prevent and combat bribery and corruption relating any matter covered by this agreement.”[12] In USMCA 27.6, the enforcement article, “parties affirm their commitments to cooperate with each other, to enhance the effectiveness of law enforcement actions to combat the offenses in Article 27.3.”[13]

Diplomatically, the treaty framework promotes sustainable environment stewardship, labor standards, anti-corruption enforcement and requires Mexican Congressional law to be passed to codify compliance with the agreement.  The agreement presents an excellent foundation for the other tools of U.S. influence in the climate stabilization for Mexico.

Economically, the government owned industry regulations will prevent the Mexican government from exploiting American imports and ensure that trade remains desirable for both parties. The fair labor portions of the USMCA will provide for more livable wages for Mexican citizens.  The abolition of child labor or compulsory labor will alleviate human rights abuses and the squalor that accompanies them.  As a result, more of the money generated by Mexican industry will arrive in the hands of the workers which will have a stabilizing effect. 

Both of these provisions open the door for additional foreign direct investment (FDI) where “an investor resident in one economy establishes a lasting interest in and a significant degree of influence over an enterprise resident in another economy.”[14] In 2018 alone, Mexico received over $31 billion in FDI from international trade partners.[15] One example is Ford Motor Company’s 4.3 million square foot plant in Mexico City which employs approximately 885 hourly employees.[16] With the USMCA going into effect and the difficulties presented in the Great Power Competition, it is likely to see FDI in Mexico increase in the years to come.  Beyond the initial investment, this practice has one characteristic that is particularly beneficial to the receiving nation. “FDI is an important channel for the transfer of technology between countries, promotes international trade through access to foreign markets, and can be an important vehicle for economic development.”[17]  Technology transfer will yield production efficiencies as well as environmental best practices that will improve sustainability for challenges like water scarcity.

Diplomacy, Information and Economics have all been discussed, but the Military portion plays a truly unique role in this effort.  Presently, there is no clear and present danger which requires the United States to mount a major land invasion, bombing campaign or naval embargo of Mexico.  There is no need for President Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” at this point. The justification does not exist. However, President Roosevelt’s Corollary, Mr. Lighthizer’s treaty and Mexican Government’s new USMCA compliant legislation have opened the door for the use of the U.S. military in Mexico pursuant to the Anti-Corruption Articles of the USMCA.

If the Mexican Authorities are unable to effectively police and enforce their own laws autonomously, the USMCA language allows for parties “to cooperate with each other, consistent with their respective legal and administrative systems, to enhance the effectiveness of law enforcement actions to combat the offenses described in Article 27.3”[18]  All the Mexican Government has to do is ask for help, and the U.S. can support Mexican Federal Forces to enforce its laws with its sharper tools of sovereign power.  Given the depth and expanse of American expertise in small wars and special operations over the last 20 years, nuanced and surgical military operations executed jointly with the Mexican government to ensure the enforcement of the USMCA and stability of Mexico are highly probable in the years to come.  In effect, President Roosevelt’s Big Stick Diplomacy has been updated to include a sharp scalpel.

As stated before, climate resilience, economic stability and national security go hand in hand.  To that end, the United States has developed a framework with the USMCA to improve the stability of Mexico on all fronts.  Assisting Mexico in enforcing the rule of law and providing the Mexican economy with stable and livable wages will go far in reducing the pollution or exploitation of the local resources.  As technology transfer continues with the new wave of FDI, there is opportunity to decentralize the population centers.  If the Mexican government can reasonably distribute these investments and windfalls throughout the country instead of concentrating them around the capital, it will ease the burden on natural resources and critical infrastructure required to deliver those services.  Mexico can then focus its funds and resources on sustainable infrastructure such as transportation and energy networks.  All these developments would yield a more stable and secure nation to the United States’ southern border in a time where the structural pillars of the last century’s globalism are collapsing.


[1]Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “National Climate Assessment,” accessed 20 June 2020, https://www.c2es.org/content/national-climate-assessment/

[2] Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, accessed 28 June 2020. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/roosevelt-corollary-to-monroe-doctrine

[3] Office of the Historian of the United States of America “Good Neighbor Policy, 1933” accessed 25 June 2020. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/good-neighbor

[4] Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “Climate Resilience Portal,” accessed 20 June 2020, https://www.c2es.org/content/national-climate-assessment/

[5]Jonathan Watts, “Mexico City’s Water Crisis -from source to sewer” The Guardian, 12 November2015, https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/nov/12/mexico-city-water-crisis-source-sewer

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] USMCA, Chapter 23. Article 23.3, accessed 29 June 2020, https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/FTA/USMCA/Text/23-Labor.pdf

[10]USMCA, Chapter 22. https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/ agreements/FTA/USMCA/Text/22_State-Owned_Enterprises.pdf

[11] USMCA Chapter 24. Article 24.2 https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/ IssueAreas/Environment/USMCA_Environment_Chapter_24.pdf

[12]USMCA Chapter 27. Article 27.2.  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/ agreements/FTA/USMCA/Text/27_Anticorruption.pdf

[13] USMCA Chapter 27. Article 27.3.  https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/agreements/FTA/USMCA/Text/27_Anticorruption.pdf

[14] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) iLibrary accessed 28 June 2020 https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/finance-and-investment/foreign-direct-investment-fdi/indicator-group/english_9a523b18-en

[15] Americas Society/Council of the Americas accessed 28 June 2020 https://www.as-coa.org/articles/chart-breakdown-foreign-direct-investment-mexico

[16] Ford Motor Company, accessed 2 July 2020 https://corporate.ford.com/company/plant-detail-pages/cuautitlan-stamping-and-assembly-plant.html

[17] OECD iLibrary

[18] USMCA Chapter 27

The “Thucydides Trap” Squared

Perhaps we are too prone to paradigms and stereotypes. Perhaps there’s a “Thucydides Trap” Trap where we fool ourselves into believing that the paradigm’s course is terminal when the ascendancy of the rising power may look and talk like a duck, but it doesn’t really walk like a duck. 

From reading Peter Zeihan, George Friedman, and their analysts we know that China has major debt problems, orders of magnitude beyond the United States.  Their economy is export led.  They lack the agricultural and energy resources to sustain themselves.  The southern coast likes making money through trade, and Beijing, to the north, is the driver of the authoritarian ideology.

Ruling authorities based on ideology do not endure the loss of face associated with the public dissent of free ideas and the free markets that accompany them. This dissent presents an existential threat to the ruling ideology. When this happened in France (Vive Le Revolution!), Robespierre reigned in terror under the banner of ideology until his own head found its way to the guillotine basket.  Ideology above the well-being of its citizens yields terror.  (Uighurs, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution in China, the Khmer Rouge, Red Terror and Stalinist Famines, the Holocaust, Ethiopian Red Terror, etc.)

From a military standpoint, China is not the Germany of WWI or WWII or Japan of WWII.  The military and economic position are fundamentally different. I believe it is possible that we are dealing with a paper Dragon like the USSR’s paper Bear. The People’s Liberation Army may have tanks, aircraft, and ships but too few trained operators, none with combat experience and no culture as an expeditionary conflict nation. Their latest tactical exploits have either been Hong Kong related or beating Indian soldiers with clubs and sticks in a mountainside melee.

One of Peter Zeihan’s fundamental theses is that the Bretton-Woods act established a security agreement that guaranteed the safety of non-Soviet countries. As incentive to sign the agreement, it gave them access to the largest and only market who was prepared to consume. China was admitted to the trade agreement and flourished because of American consumption and investment. America is now losing interest in maintaining this system, and with the dams and levees of the security alliance removed, the tides of history are about to come roaring back in.

My own extrapolation is that now that the Cold War is 30 years over, the new strategy is beginning to look like the United States investing in its own neighborhood. It is offering its market to different countries under new terms to stabilize the western hemisphere.

Economically, one of the things that John McCreary of Nightwatch taught is that in an insurgency, the stronger power funds both sides of the conflict.  China’s growth over the last 40 years appears to have been funded primarily by American consumption and investment. A simple yet effective strategy to winning the Great Power Competition is for the U.S. to stop funding the other side of the conflict. They need our dollars more than we need their imports. 

Unlike the American experience, where our growth was funded by European exports, the Chinese do not possess the resources to be self-sustaining. As Zeihan is fond of saying, their One Child policy…worked. So, the potential for a consumption led recovery of their economy with a burden of aging demographic is unlikely. The Americans sustained growth in the 20th Century by being the last man standing after the last Great Power Competitions of WWI and WWII with natural resources, energy, manufacturing, a population boom to drive consumption and the best technology in the world at our disposal.

Currently, the most commanding presence in this Great Power Competition is not any general or head of state, but Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative.  By re-tooling the NAFTA into the USMCA, he has set the precedent for the re-engagement of the Monroe Doctrine and a migration from Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” policing policy to what I will call Lighthizer’s “Light Saber”. The Light Saber cuts through all the cultural and political fluff and requires treaty signatories to codify the terms of their compliance in their own sovereign legislation. Otherwise, no trade. Yes, Mexico and Canada must pass and enforce U.S. prescribed laws on their own books to participate in the treaty. USMCA went into effect 1 July 2020 with all sides complying.

The Monroe Doctrine now has a functioning framework for a multinational trade partnership requiring governments to align with U.S. Trade Interests. From a security standpoint this quite logical. We shorten the supply lines, and we co-locate production and consumption. We improve the standard of living of the nations to our south. So, if we stabilize Mexico and send them dollars to grow their economy, then the human migration and narcotics problems in the United States can slow down. The next target is likely the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. From a strategic security standpoint, the Northern Triangle countries are next because they are our buffer’s buffer.

Along with sanctions, the USMCA begins the process of de-funding the Chinese, and their American trading partners who have made a killing offshoring jobs from the U.S. to China. American industry is in a lurch right now trying to revive the infrastructure of Chinese imports. It appears, though, that the ship has sailed with the takeover of Hong Kong as Beijing pivots from 1 country 2 systems to 1 country 1 system.

We are experiencing the growing pains of de-China-ization and Corona Virus at the same time. Some hands will fold, but new players will come to the table with new money. So, if China is de-funded and cannot import materials for energy and food supply and cannot trade, then there is high potential for civil unrest.  As we know from Chinese history, listless, idle Chinese workers like to get sporty.  Xi is aware of this and appears to be accelerating the speed of authoritarian rule for the survival of the Party and its ideology. China is an ancient culture and plays the long game, and its collective mindset is bigger than Xi or Deng or Mao, but rather operates as trans generationally Chinese. This is counter-intuitive to western and entrepreneurial minds (like my own). Victor Davis Hanson discusses the western vs eastern mentalities in his books The Western Way of War and Culture and Carnage. In this cultural context, the Chinese people think less of “self” and more of themselves as an extension of their culture or nation–“another link in the chain”, perhaps. Old grudges die hard because they are recorded not individually but corporately and culturally. Because of this, China is not going to “go gentle into that good night” and let the system which gave it prosperity and technology die.  Rather, it will “rage against the dying of the light.”

The Chinese security, influence and propaganda machines are marvels of modernity. Their reach and impact are vast. They are masters at manipulating media and opinion to their demands (so are the Russians, by the way.) American’s view war as a digital concept: on or off. China subscribes to a range of diplomacy and military operations other than war. They use an analog spectrum of influence and low intensity incursions that strive to achieve Sun Tzu’s goal: “to subdue an enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

In the absence American trade and security, China’s neighborhood gets rough quick. The Chinese dragon can roar and claw and breath fire where it can at the U.S. until the Rising Sun Battle Flag flies again. The Massacre at Nanjing was only 90 years ago. The U.S.S.R. and China were shooting at each other in a border dispute as recently as 1969. Uniformed soldiers from India and China were playing “red rover” and pushing each other off of cliffs in 2020. There are more than a few nations that are more than a little opinionated about China’s influence and policies. With the departure of the Americans, their new imperative will be playing a good offense as the best defense.

My perception is that we are about to see history repeat itself, but not in Thucydides’ paradigm. I think we will see China go down swinging and lighting fires where it can. Ultimately it will shut itself off from its western trading partners and continue to clamp down hard on its own internal unrest. Lack of food, trade and energy will foment unrest from its people which will be subjected to more and more authoritarian measures to “act right.” Whether it is an internal event such as another Long March or a secession of the trading provinces or another Japanese or Russian conquest. My suspicion is that something will give in the governance of China as we know it. It seems to be just a matter of time.

So, the Thucydides Trap can be a Trap unto itself; if the rising power is not actually as rising or powerful as it seems. The Danger in the Trap squared is that the tail can wag the dog if we are not careful and nuanced in our analysis, decisions and military strategy. It is important that we not let the popularity if this concept develop enough gravity of its own that it sucks us in. War with China does not need to become a self fulfilling prophecy.  Communist regimes have a history of putting on airs and so far, none has survived more than 100 years.  If the Soviet Union is any indicator, the last years of the Paper Bear were more paper than bear. Conflict with China may be pending, but it is our responsibility to be the cooler head. Don’t take the bait of another unrestricted war until the situation demands an overwhelming and violent response on our terms with a clear political endgame.

The above writing is my opinion and is not academically researched, although I do read heavily from Peter Zeihan’s book series, George Friedman’s analysis and spent a decade reading the late John McCreary’s daily threat assessment. So, if something sounds familiar, its because those influences run deep, but I want to give credit where it is due.  I appreciate perspective from Andrea Cameron, Daniel Keller, and Samantha Clayton as they helped me hone some of my thinking. As always, I am interested in deliberate criticism to challenge my thinking.

Sincerely,

TK

Sailor 2025

Welcome to the New Year!  For those of you that have been paying attention, the CNO has released his strategic guidance, “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority”.  What is very evident in this document is the lack of rhetoric related to “winning the war of terrorism”, defeating Communism or any other such bellicose statements.  Rather, it is a document that appears to take one step back, review the global landscape and assess the Navy’s role in shaping it.  
In a Globalized world where individuals are connected via various elements of the Global Information system, news travels fast and an idea can catch fire in an instant.  In this document, Admiral Richardson, recognizes that his Sailors and Officers are part of this global network.  The “new” generation of Sailors and Officers has instant access to information and global social networks.  This is both a curse and a blessing.  Sailors and Officers can be more informed about issues, potentially.  On the negative side, these same individuals can transmit information or ideas that may be counter to wearing the Uniform.  Social media and the military is an interesting topic and it deserves its own discussion.

Back to the CNO’s guidance and one of the many important topics mentioned within this document.  Sailor 2025, or the Navy’s Talent Management initiatives covers a wide range of separate lines of effort that are all designed to improve the Navy’s ability to recruit, develop and retain the best talent for the future.  In particular, these Talent Management initiatives recognize that even with the best tools in the world, if we don’t have the “right” people working with them, it will make very little difference.  

To recruit, develop and retain the right people, the Navy has embarked on its most ambitious series of personnel changes in decades.  These efforts, for organizational purposes, are separated into the 3 broad headings, each of which is chaired by an Admiral.  The three pillars are Personnel Systems Modernization, Ready Relevant Learning and Enriched Culture.  

Of particular note is the Personnel Systems Modernization Pillar as it covers a number of related initiatives designed to broaden opportunity, update antiquated personnel systems and provide greater career flexibility.  Among the early roll-outs are the Secretary of the Navy’s Tours with Industry, Fleet Scholars Education Program and CIP (Career Intermission Program).  Tours with Industry places top performing Enlisted personnel and Officers with a sponsoring organization for 11 months, during which they will immerse themselves in the sponsoring corporations culture.  Currently, the Navy has 5 Officers with the program, 3 with Amazon and 2 with FedEx.  Next year, they program is expanding to 34 Officers and Enlisted.  Fleet Scholars will place up to 30 Officers with a top University of their choice to earn a graduate degree.  Currently, 3 are involved with the program.  The Career Intermission Program allows Sailors to take time away from their Navy career to pursue and individual goal or to facilitate family planning.  The Navy will be expanding this program with the hopes that more will be able to take advantage of this great opportunity.
For the first time in many decades, money, technology and leadership are aligning to make significant improvements to the Navy’s talent management efforts.  Understanding that people are the Navy’s greatest asset has facilitated a true effort at making wholesale changes in hopes of becoming an employer of choice for generations to come.  These are exciting times and the Navy that our children will enjoy will most likely be very different than our Navy.