Charting a Way Forward for America's National Maritime Policy

Published Dec 16, 2013 2:12 PM by Craig H. Allen

The current issue of The Maritime Executive posits a coming “American maritime renaissance,” while simultaneously drawing attention to America’s embarrassing neglect of maritime policy.  When the ongoing national maritime policy debate turns, as it soon must, to an examination of the alternatives to craft a “way forward,” let’s hope our nation’s leaders have the wisdom to tap into the resources of the academic community, including the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy.

U.S. Maritime Policy and Strategy

No one seriously denies that the United States lacks a comprehensive maritime policy, despite the strategic importance of such a policy to ensuring our national security, economic well-being and environmental stewardship. Make no mistake; the United States has plenty of policy and strategy documents. Many were drafted in the post-9/11 years and therefore share an overriding security focus. None purports to be a substitute for a national maritime policy or even a comprehensive, cross-sectoral maritime strategy. Thus, Crowley Maritime’s CEO Tom Crowley can flatly declare in the Maritime Executive article that we have “no national maritime policy whatsoever,” while former MARAD Administrator Sean Connaughton more charitably concludes that we are operating on a “continuation of previous policies,” even though he also worries that Congress has no “clear understanding of what the previous programs were even about.”

Several recent strategy documents gesture at our national maritime policy. In 2007, the Coast Guard joined the Navy and Marine Corps in promulgating the three services’ Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century Seapower (a replacement is apparently in the works). At about the same time, the Coast Guard issued its Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security and Stewardship. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Transportation released the National Strategy for the Marine Transportation System, a document developed by the federal interagency Committee on the Marine Transportation System (CMTS). All three strategy documents recognize the singular importance of maritime commerce to the nation. At the same time, however, the 2008 MTS Strategy opened with a warning that “the MTS is at a crossroad.”  In the intervening five years since the MTS Strategy was released, the urgency of the situation has not abated. We are now five years closer to the opening of the enlarged Panama Canal, container ship capacities are approaching the channel-busting 20,000 TEU, 50 ft. draft and 200 ft. beam mark, and the shale oil and gas boom is posing enormous challenges to the U.S. transportation system. The maritime arm of that transportation system is clearly showing the effects of the “decades of decline and neglect” cited in the Maritime Executive article: the 2013 UNCTAD annual Review of Maritime Transport released earlier this month reports, for example, that even though the United States ranks second in the world in container traffic volume (behind China), U.S. flag merchant vessel tonnage totaled less than 3.5 million GRT, compared to 122 million GRT for China-Hong Kong.   

The Obama Administration’s “maritime” planning efforts have so far largely focused on ocean policy. The administration rolled out its National Ocean Policy (NOP) in 2010 and a plan to implement that policy in 2013. Neither the NOP nor the implementation plan—developed largely under the auspices of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality—begins to address the future of the maritime transportation system. In fact, none of the nine NOP priority objectives even mentions maritime transportation. This, despite the fact that the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy had expressly recommended integrating the MTS into any new national ocean policy (USCOP Final Report, recommendation 13-2).

The Arctic maritime region has lately commanded the attention of America’s maritime policy and strategy analysts. 2013 saw the release of separate U.S. Arctic strategy documents by the President, the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense, along with an Arctic-specific report by the interagency MTS Committee. Although the Arctic certainly presents urgent policy and strategy opportunities and challenges that deserve our close attention, we neglect the nation’s system-wide maritime policy and strategy issues at our peril. Yes, we are an Arctic nation. But while addressing Arctic challenges we must not lose sight of the fact that we are also an Atlantic and Pacific nation, a Gulf of Mexico nation, a Great Lakes nation and a vast Inland Rivers nation. In short, we are a maritime nation, and a maritime nation needs a comprehensive national maritime policy.

Our maritime challenges transcend purely domestic issues. The strategic priorities set out in the Coast Guard’s Strategy for Maritime Safety, Security and Stewardship include strengthening international legal regimes and improving maritime governance. Yet one of the principal goals identified in the President’s National Ocean Policy — accession to the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea — remains unfulfilled. The United States has also so far failed to ratify the 2009 Maritime Labor Convention (MLC) or the 2009 Rotterdam Rules on the Carriage of Goods. Although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has debated accession to the Convention on the Law of the Sea three times, the convention has yet to be brought to a full senate vote. The MLC and Rotterdam Rules, both of which were completed in 2009, have yet to even be presented to the senate. As a maritime nation with a global leadership responsibility, our credibility and influence suffer when we remain outside of key international rule sets. Ask anyone who represents the United States at IMO meetings.

The Coast Guard Academy and the Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy

In 2011, the Coast Guard established a Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy (CMPS) at the Coast Guard Academy in New London. Its mission is to provide a forum for the analysis of maritime policy and strategy issues and to foster innovative policy approaches to contemporary maritime challenges. Its inaugural interdisciplinary conference event in April 2012 on “Leadership for the Arctic” set a course for CMPS that would combine the Academy’s commitment to fostering leadership with its historical strengths in marine science and engineering, now complemented by academic and research programs in governance, management, economics, operations research, international relations and law. At the same time, by recruiting the University of California’s Law of the Sea Institute to serve as the conference co-sponsor, the conference furthered the center’s mission to foster partnerships.

As it matures, a significant strength of the new CMPS will be its ability to tap into the faculty and cadets of the Academy. The Academy’s students are among the brightest in the nation. More than that, as beneficiaries of a carefully tailored program to mold future “leaders of character,” those cadets are already enthusiastically engaged in addressing the nation’s most pressing maritime challenges. Led by a faculty renowned for their teaching and research, those cadets will be an invaluable force multiplier for CMPS in the years to come.

Leadership Transitions and Maritime Policy

Maritime policy and strategy have too often been neglected in times, like the present, of senior leadership transitions. Just four months ago, Secretary Anthony Foxx took the helm of the Department of Transportation—the agency with primary responsibility for developing the nation’s maritime policy. Jeh Johnson, a proven administrator who was nominated by the President nearly two months ago to serve as Secretary of Homeland Security, has yet to be confirmed by the senate. Similarly, Acting MARAD Administrator (and retired U.S. Navy captain), Paul Jaenichen, has been awaiting senate confirmation since mid-September. Admiral Robert Papp, Commandant of the Coast Guard, is now in the final year of his four-year leadership post.

Leadership transitions are nothing new to the nation. But history demonstrates that until an incoming leadership team gets its sea legs, any organization may experience a strategic pause. Such a pause could prove fatal to the maritime economy’s recovery. Policy and strategy centers anchored in established academic institutions like the Coast Guard Academy or the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy can help buffer against or at least shorten such strategic pauses. As “organic” think tanks, they are ideally suited to incubate new policy and strategy options for the incoming leadership team.

Serious students of marine affairs must be forgiven if they remain skeptical that we are indeed on the cusp of a “renaissance” of American shipping and shipbuilding. If we are, that nascent renaissance must be nurtured by a comprehensive maritime policy adapted to the 21st century. Let us hope that in the coming months our leaders will draw on every possible resource—government, industry and academic—to help the nation achieve what must for now remain an uncertain promise of a maritime renaissance.

Craig H. Allen Sr. is the Judson Falknor Professor of Law and of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.  

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.