Belmont Club

Undersea kingdom

It had been argued that the growing information economy — specifically the increase in financial transactions as a key element in international commerce — has reduced the importance of the Ocean Commons. No longer does value travel in shipping so much as it travels across wires. Or so the argument goes. But the counterargument is illustrated by this link sent by a reader showing a map of undersea communications cabling throughout the world. A glance shows how dependent the information economy is on the existence, maintenance and repair of undersea cables. While networks can be conceived in the abstract, they exist in the physical. Packets must ultimately travel across a medium. In the case of international information flows, that medium lies under the sea. The foundation of the financial economy is information, which rests upon the cables. And the cables ultimately owe their security to the USN.

We take it for granted that this vast cable network will always be secure. Ultimately that assumption reduces to the conviction that the dominant naval power will always, or nearly always, maintain the freedom of the seas. But why should this be so? In part to guarantee that the seas remain at the center of global activity. In the 19th century, Alfred Thayer “Mahan and Halford Mackinder collided over whether the great ocean commons or the heartland of Eurasia was the strategic center of greater gravity. Mackinder argued that whoever controlled the heartland of Eurasia would control the world.” This was expressed in his Heartland Theory:

“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
who rules the World-Island controls the world.”

Mahan of course, believed that the oceans ruled the destiny of the earth. In his view, whoever controlled the seaborne highways of commerce ruled the roost. The World Island, vast though it was, was still an Island. The debate between these two points of view periodically flares up. And against the map of tanker routes and undersea cable networks, one might set the map of oil pipelines crossing Eurasia. One reason why the predominant naval power should care about defending the freedom of the seas is that it is in the maritime power’s interest to keep the oceans at the center of civilization.