Research & Policy Seminar: Peter Dombrowski on “Transoceanic Control: Rethinking American Strategy”

by Zoltan Feher

The 2nd Research & Policy Seminar of the Fletcher Center for Strategic Studies featured our first guest speaker, Peter Dombrowski, Professor of Strategy in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the Naval War College. Dr. Dombrowski is the author of over sixty-five publications. His latest book, The End of Grand Strategy: US Maritime Operations in the 21st Century, co-authored with Simon Reich, will be published by Cornell in December 2017.

Dombrowski presented his latest working paper, “Transoceanic Control: Rethinking American Strategy,” at the seminar. The policy paper aims to provide a radically new way of thinking about maritime and naval strategy and, by extension, U.S. grand strategy. His main argument is that the maritime strategy (and the grand strategy) of the United States has been mistakenly focused on the Asian littoral and China’s challenge to the region. He proposes to replace this with a strategy of “transoceanic control,” a defense posture aimed at maintaining American maritime supremacy across the globe.

Dombrowski uses two articles as the intellectual underpinnings of his proposal. The first is Samuel Huntington’s “Transoceanic Era” from 1954, in which the legendary political scientist offers a “theory of the transoceanic navy, that is, a navy oriented away from the oceans and towards the land masses on their far side.” Dombrowski turns Huntington’s argument on its head: he suggests that the U.S. Navy focus on its control of the oceans themselves and not so much on the coastal areas of America’s great-power challengers.

The other article referenced as part of the intellectual origins of his paper is T. X. Hammes’ “Offshore Control: A Proposed Strategy for an Unlikely Conflict,” focused on sea control. From the two works, Dombrowski pastes together the concept of “transoceanic control” but moves away from both of them significantly to create his own, radically different proposal.

Dombrowski argues that the current U.S. strategy is focused on the risk of great-power war and the need for the U.S. military to walk into a lion’s den to maintain its global and regional primacy. His own assessment, on the contrary, is that the United States cannot win if it tries to fight adversaries in their own backyards. He agrees with Barry Posen that “the closer U.S. military forces get to enemy-held territory, the more competitive the enemy will be,” potentially imposing unacceptable costs on the United States.

Therefore, the United States should avoid being drawn into the sea denial (A2/AD) traps of rival great powers in their surrounding seas. Instead, Dombrowski proposes to focus on U.S. command of the global commons (again à la Posen) and U.S. sea control globally (building on Hammes). If great-power challengers try “to overturn the global order or take advantage of local imbalances to threaten the sovereignty of American allies,” the United States would be able to use sea denial in practically any location of the world in order to impose costs on these rivals and thus to discourage them.

The paper and the presentation generated a lively debate among the participating Fletcher faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and PhD candidates. Dr. Dombrowski enthusiastically engaged with the many suggestions and criticisms, which provided constructive ways of improving the paper. The conversation gradually expanded into a vigorous discussion about U.S. grand strategy and military strategy.

The Seminar was co-organized with The Fletcher School’s Maritime Studies Program.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed in the paper and the presentation were Professor Dombrowski’s and should not be construed as the position of the Naval War College, the United States Navy or any other government agency.)

Zoltan Feher is a diplomat from Hungary and a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. A graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School, he is currently working as a Research Associate at the Center for Strategic Studies. 

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