Maritime power is much trickier than land power for the layperson to understand. Armies use weapons to control the land they stand on; navies cruise around singing to each other, or something – right? No. So, taking advantage of a couple recent events, let’s take a different approach.
Event one: It’s National Police Week and Washington, D.C., is crawling with cops from around the country. I drove home behind a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy yesterday, which is not a feature of my typical commute.
Event two: For some reason, Hollywood remade CHiPs. Fortunately the box office numbers indicate hardly anyone saw it, so they won’t feel compelled to do that again.
Why is this important?
I don’t mean that literally – Posse Comitatus and such, after all – but in the sense that the fundamental purpose of a highway patrol, more so than municipal law enforcement, is the facilitation of commerce and connections across a wide territory. It keeps the roads open and functional. The sea services do the same in their environment.
In most states the highway patrol or state troopers are the only statewide law enforcement agency, so it’s true they spend significant time investigating criminal cases. Nevertheless, most people’s exposure to them is not in a criminal context, but just simple traffic enforcement. The purpose of enforcing safe driving and adherence to rules of the road is, yes, personal safety, but also to keep the roads open, keep the traffic flowing, and keep commerce humming. If you cannot trust that you will survive your daily commute due to unruly traffic-mates, you are unlikely to undertake it. The norms enforced over decades by the highway patrol are what give you the confidence you need. And that confidence is what enables the economic activity that supports us all.
On the sea, no one has to physically keep the ocean open – water is water, and ships float equally well anywhere. But, still, the world’s coast guards keep the busiest areas marked with buoys and cleared of obstacles – a job fundamentally analogous to transportation agencies ashore and the law enforcement agencies that support them. The world’s navies complement navigational safety by preventing brigandage and piracy of defenseless merchants. Such prevention and deterrence can only be conducted through presence. That presence gives bad actors a reason to stay home, and reassures legitimate mariners that they can come on in; the water’s fine. A navy or coast guard that isn’t visible on the sea lanes isn’t doing its job.
And in a world with a thoroughly global economy, it is up to the largest economic players to provide that global presence. Not even the California Highway Patrol is equipped for that job. But neither is France. Nor China. Nor Germany. Nor Brazil. Sadly, not even the queen’s Royal Navy can sustain such an effort nowadays. However it may grate upon you, America, to carry the weight for all those freeloaders out there, alternatives are lacking.
Without the highway patrol, you’ll have the Fast and Furious crew dominating the interstates with little regard for your safety. Without a forward-deployed navy, you’ll have contested chokepoints, maritime insurance premiums climbing through the roof and more expensive everything.
Fundamentally, the mission of a highway patrol is not to catch bad guys, and the mission of a navy is not to fight wars. Their common mission is to simply allow you and your things to get from place to place unfettered.
And, for the record, none of the four highway patrolmen in my family paid me to say a word of this!