Mark Nevitt reviews “To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers” by Bruce D. Jones – Lawfire


I’m extremely happy to tell you that today’s guest reviewer is Marc Nevitt, now an associate professor of law at Emory University School of Law. Mark is a former Navy Judge Advocate with an enviable (and rapidly growing!) reputation for academic excellence – and he participated in the LENS conference and Lawfire contributor (see for example, here)

Mark will review Bruce D. Jones To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fates of the Superpowers I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but wanted a top expert to review it before recommending it broadly – ​​and Mark totally filled that bill. Hhere is his assessment:

“To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fates of the Superpowers” by Bruce D. Jones

Reviewed by Mark Nevitt

General Dunlap asked me to read and review the recent book by Bruce Jones, To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers. I’m glad he did. General Dunlap felt that To dominate the waves would be of great interest to his Lawfire public, especially as the United States seeks to thwart Chinese aggression in the South China Seas. General Dunlap’s instinct – unsurprisingly – was correct.

The author, Bruce Jones, works at the prestigious Brookings Institute in Washington, DC Jones directs the International Order and Strategy Project of the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings. He is a bit of a polymath with work experience at the United Nations and scholarships at several prestigious universities (Princeton, Stanford, Yale).

It should be noted that he has lived and worked in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. This diversity of work and this diversity of lived experiences offer him a global and balanced perspective on the complex changes underway in the maritime domain. In doing so, Jones offers a global tour of how the oceans have played a vital role in world affairs and will continue to do so.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an ambitious book. Jones’ central assertion: the oceans will play an outsized role in great power competition with China and Russia. As such, the United States must maintain its military and economic advantage over the world’s oceans if it is to retain its status as a global superpower.

The book’s fast-paced narrative style is reminiscent of three books that may be familiar with Lawfire readers: Admiral James Stavridis’ remarkable synthesis of naval history in power of the sea, Daniel Yergin’s compelling argument that energy and climate will drive much of world affairs in The new map: energy, climate and clash of nations, and that of Robert Kagan tour de force examine geographic determinism in The revenge of geography.

There are four things about the book that I liked, and just a few minor quibbles.

First, To dominate the waves tackles a complex subject with remarkable clarity and verve. The prose is lively and accessible, and quickly engages the reader. It reads less like a heavily researched book and a scholarly endeavor – which it certainly does – and more like an engrossing novel. Reading a book as well-researched as this can be dense and prone to heavy academic writing. Not so here. Jones’ writing engages the reader, bringing complex aspects of maritime history, data and technology to life.

I also found the book exceptionally well organized and easy to follow. It comprises four parts, starting with a history of maritime governance (Part I). It then moves on to the container ship revolution of 1956 (Part II) before addressing the competence of flag ships (Part III) and the power of the seas (Part IV).

Second, Jones links historical trends to modern practices. The book recalls the role the oceans have played and will play in driving global economic policy, national security and energy security. Jones’ focus: What happens on the oceans determines much of what happens on land. Yet the ocean is a multi-faceted and increasingly contested global commons – a newly relevant term first coined by the Navy’s Alfred Thayer Mahan in the 19e century. Jones’ book is full of fascinating data and historical facts. For instance:

    • Did you know that the Chinese Ming Dynasty’s treasure fleet once ruled the world’s oceans, possessing hundreds of ships twice the size of Portuguese and Spanish galleons?
    • Most people know that most communication happens over the ocean, but did you know that 93% of all data comes to us over ocean cables?
    • Were you aware of the importance that the “containerization” of shipping has played in globalization, resulting in massive ships that are more than twice the size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier?

Third, Jones implicitly argues that the complex issues of the maritime domain have been eclipsed in recent years by the newer and brighter domains of national security – think cyber, space and artificial intelligence. After all, 90% of world trade is still conducted on the high seas. As these new areas of technology take on increasing importance, Jones is here to remind us that the oceans are the engine of globalization and that there is no substitute for naval power and projection.

In a thought-provoking and compelling way, addresses how a conflict between the United States and Taiwan with China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) might play out. I’ve always suspected that American submarine technology would be key to any success in such a conflict, and Jones shows the continued importance of the US Navy’s “silent service.” This line stood out, on page 228 – “The bottom line: The U.S. submarine fleet remains for all intents and purposes, indestructible.” The father of the US nuclear navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, would be proud of Jones’ assessment.

Finally, although the book is not purely an academic book, it has the searching feel of a deeply researched work of scholarship. I loved and admired the footnotes, references, and in-depth work required to write this book. The books weigh 370 pages, with the last quarter devoted to footnotes and sources. I found myself going back and forth between the text of the book and the footnotes. As a maritime law scholar who teaches the law of the sea and a law of the global commons class, I have found these footnotes incredibly useful. So much so that I plan to pull a few chapters for future class readings.

IMHO, there were only a few missed opportunities and one or two instances where his argument could be further developed.

On the one hand, I would have liked to see a little more discussion of the unique environmental challenges facing the ocean. It devotes an entire chapter to climate change (“Hot Waters Rising”) and touches on the Arctic, but broader environmental issues deserve better treatment. Much of the world’s oceans have been treated as a dumping ground for plastics and litter, especially in developing countries. What are Jones’ solutions for tackling ocean pollution and plastic debris, the ultimate ocean “tragedy of the commons” problem? I know he thought about it and would have loved to take advantage of his insight.

I would have also appreciated some maps, especially since a large part of the book deals with geography. Jones chose not to include key maps in the book, which I think was a mistake. I chose to keep an Atlas nearby as I tried to make sure I understood the Chinese claim to the nine-dash line in the South China Sea and the location of the major straits and seaports mentioned throughout. throughout the book.

Finally, Jones argues, somewhat in passing, that shipping containerization has been a key driver of the deindustrialization of the U.S. economy.. This fueled, he said, inequality and the rise of Donald Trump and the popularity of Bernie Sanders. Jones convinced me that containerization has contributed to the urbanization and financialization of many economic sectors, which has had a negative impact on the American Rust Belt.

But many factors led to the decline of American manufacturing. Jones’ assertion about the link between progress in maritime trade, inequality and politicization seemed a bit underdeveloped. I’m not saying he’s wrong – I just wanted to know more to bolster this provocative claim.

Concluding remarks

Who would appreciate and benefit from this book? Really, no matter Lawfire reader interested in learning more about the maritime domain and how it will affect great power competition.

This is an especially important book for mid- and senior-level leaders in the Air Force, Army, and Space Force, especially as they think about joint warfare more broadly and the role that the maritime domain will play in future conflicts. Some of Jones’ talks will be familiar to members of the maritime services, but there’s a lot of ground to cover and new details to learn about members of the Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps.

Jones’ discussion of an ‘air-sea battle’ with China focuses on the assets of the US Navy and US Air Force, two services that to have to have a common understanding of joint warfare between the two services. In particular, if you are an Air Force field officer and unsure what role the US Navy will play in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) conflict scenario with China, do -in your holiday book.

As a former Tactical Jet Airman and JAG who deployed to many of the parts of the world Jones mentioned, I found myself nodding my head throughout Jones’ book. But I also learned a lot – I bet you did too.

About the Examiner

Mark Nevitt is an associate professor of law at Emory University School of Law. A former tactical jet aviator and Navy Judge Advocate (JAG), he taught at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, the US Naval Academy, and Syracuse University College of Law. A native of Rhode Island, Nevitt earned his JD and LL.M. (Honours) from Georgetown University Law Center and his BSE from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.


The opinions expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of the author’s employer, or my opinions or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University. See also here.

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