“We are all maritime nations,” said commander of U.S. 3rd Fleet Vice Adm. John D. Alexander in a statement. “We all prosper through trade and the majority of the trade goes through the Indo-Pacific region.”
I have seen the idea of the United States as a maritime nation before, I may have even said it myself, but I have come to believe that it isn’t true. Part of the issue is that I don’t know if “maritime nation” has ever been defined. So until I hear of a better idea, I am going to define it as dependence on the sea, and mastery of the sea.
On one end of the spectrum you have a nation like Great Britain. As an island, its relationship with the sea is firmly established. On the other, Russia, a classic land power. Most nations rely on trade by sea in one form or another, but Great Britain cannot survive without imports. In this sense, I think we’re more like a land power. The majority of the trade that we do participate in is done via ships that are registered and crewed by other nations.
As for mastery of the sea, I see two components: civil and naval. The United States wields the most powerful Navy in the world, true, but it is used to enforce Pax Americana, which intrinsically benefits all nations. We came too late to the scene for true exploration and never formed a colonial empire that had sea lanes to protect. The state of the merchant marine has been discussed at length already.
Finally, there is our character. We aren’t a seafaring people in the way islanders are. Yes, there are many many seamen in our country, and regions like New England have a strong maritime tradition. But the destiny of the country for the first 150 years lay to the west, and taming that land and expanding the nation did more to cement our culture than whalers from Massachusetts or clipper ships in New York. Even as far back as the War of 1812 the opposition of southern farmers who wanted nothing to do with a war over the impressment of a few sailors shows a disinterest in maritime issues. Ships never captured the imagination like other forms of transportation; first the railroad, which “opened” the west, then the jet age, or the interstate highway system and the car culture.
I don’t underestimate the importance of the sea or the power that effective use of the sea (both civil and naval) can bring, I just don’t think the rest of the country cares that much.