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The power of the Navy


ONE HUNDRED years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt made an extraordinary gesture to illustrate American global reach and power. He had 16 battleships painted white and sent them on a round-the-world voyage.

"The Great White Fleet," as it came to be known, was painted white to show America's peaceful intentions, but the message was clear. America was a force to be reckoned with. The ships sailed for 14 months and visited 20 ports on six continents. Enthusiastic crowds greeted the ships everywhere.

The battle fleet was mostly obsolete and no match for British and German "dreadnoughts " then coming off the ways. America had already demonstrated its ability to project sea power by its 1898 naval actions against Spain in Cuba and the Philippines.

But the gesture was as David McCullough described Roosevelt himself: "picturesque, noisy, and colorful."

I heard the secretary of the Navy, Donald Winter, speak of the Great White Fleet at the Naval War College in Newport earlier this month. He particularly singled out the dispatching of part of the fleet to help devastated Messina in Sicily, which had just undergone an earthquake. He spoke of how, in this century, the navy had performed similar relief missions after the Indian Ocean tsunami, and how that had gathered badly needed good will for the United States.

Winter admitted that, except for its Marines, the Navy is not in the headlines these days as America fights two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the Navy remains an essential element of US power with the added advantage that other services seldom have. A Navy can be "non intrusive and modulated as conditions require," Winter said. Armies and air forces require bases abroad. The Navy, however, can float offshore with its planes, helicopters, and Marines ready to deploy, but over-the-horizon, and not in the faces of foreign countries. "Sustained presence, minimal footprint," is the way Winter put it.

You can make a case, as the Council on Foreign Relations' Walter Russell Mead did at the war college, that there is a continuum in America's grand global strategy from what we learned from the British, and what they, in turn, learned from the 17th-century Dutch who invented the system we now enjoy.

Globalization began with Ferdinand Magellan's first circumnavigation of the globe in the 16th century -- a voyage that he personally never completed, having been killed by Filipino natives when he took sides in a local dispute.

Previously there had been many unconnected maritime networks that had been developed over the centuries. Mediterranean trade had been thoroughly explored by the ancient Greeks. The Chinese had sailed all the way to the coast of Africa before they pulled back into the Great Within. Arabs traded all over the Indian Ocean, and Polynesians navigated the vast swaths of the Pacific. But it wasn't until Magellan's voyage that all these networks were connected.

The system pioneered by the 17th-century Dutch depended first on maintaining "open and dynamic society at home," according to Mead, then "taking the show on the road" to other parts of the world, and maintaining a global power structure that favored this openness and dynamism.

What the United States is trying to do, and what the British and the Dutch did before, is to build an ordered system of world trade, driven by exchanges of ideas, goods, and technologies -- the heart of what we now call globalization -- and then make the system attractive to the rest of the world.

The concept, based on command of the seas, was grasped by Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, president of the war college in Newport in the late 19th century. His book, "The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783," became the bible of naval strategists around the world.

In the 17th century, globalization was a product of ships and the sea. Today ideas and exchanges of technology travel almost at the speed of light. But the sea still carries the vast majority of the world's commerce.

In time another power will supercede America in technology, wealth and power. At the moment China is building a high-seas fleet that one day may challenge America's ability to influence events in the Far East. The trick will be to manage competition, and bring China ever closer into our accepted system of international norms rather than indulging in counterproductive hostility.

The Navy is an indispensable guarantor of peaceful, strategic order, and because it doesn't require a physical presence ashore it can, in Theodore Roosevelt's words, "speak softly" but still "carry a big stick."

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.