The U.S. Coast Guard in an Evolving World Order

USCG cutter Bertholf in the Yellow Sea, 2019 (USCG file image)

Published Jan 5, 2021 8:37 PM by Jason Smith

If the United States wishes to maintain its role as a world leader and enforcer of global norms, then it will need to rethink how it projects power around the globe. Defending the rules-based free world order without entering into open conflict will require more creative strategies than sending Navy ships on freedom of navigation exercises, it requires leveraging other instruments of power with unique capabilities.


There has been a lot written over the past decade about the decline of the liberal international order (LIO) and how its demise affects the United States’ role in the world. Many have speculated on what a new order would look like and what strategy the U.S. should follow to help shape it. Revisionist authoritarian regimes seek to remake the order based on their preferences. Others foresee a more fragmented order based on spheres of influence. In a world covered 71 percent in water containing countless natural resources and over which 90 percent of world trade is moved, any rising power seeking to shape a global order or just control a sphere of influence will have to project power through and over the maritime domain. No matter if the LIO can be preserved or if the US must adjust to a multipolar world, the maritime environment will continue to be at the center of any disagreements and the United States Coast Guard will be an essential instrument of national power and critical to the success of any future U.S. Strategy.


Placing the U.S. Coast Guard at the forefront of any strategy may seem counterintuitive as the U.S. has an unmatched Navy and seeks to grow to 500 ships, but there is a lot of room left of ‘boom’ on the competition continuum that the U.S. Coast Guard is positioned best to fill. The best U.S. strategy is to win below the level of armed conflict by enforcing norms and building cooperation; as Sun Tzu advises - win the war before it is fought. In these left of boom scenarios, the U.S. Coast Guard is our nation’s best tool. The other sea services recognize its distinct role and have partnered with the Coast Guard in the development of a new tri-service maritime strategy. As the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz has said repeatedly, “Competition need not lead to conflict. The U.S. Coast Guard is uniquely qualified and deeply experienced operating in ambiguous environments that require a flexible blend of diplomatic, information, military, and law enforcement tools.”


The LIO was birthed in the aftermath of World War II and has been the foundation for rules-based international institutions and agreements that have driven a global rise in trade, safety, and cooperation leading to the prosperity nations enjoy today. The expansionist attitude of China, the reemergence of Russia as an interventionist power, and their concerted push back against global rules and norms have fueled the debate over a new world order. 


Both China and Russia, as well as other revisionist states, have challenged the international rules governing the maritime. China is claiming sovereignty over, and the resources within, its illegitimate nine-dashed-line and has militarized man-made islands to control it. Russia has made assertions in the Arctic and its annexation of Crimea gave it control of strategic ports and extended its power projection in the Black Sea. Many nations take advantage of a lack of tracking and enforcement mechanisms to illegally fish in others’ sovereign waters and overfish in international areas. The U.S. Coast Guard has long been engaged in these problems and has increasingly taken action to address them.


The recent release of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing Strategic Outlook is just the latest step. When coupled with its strategies on the Western Hemisphere, Arctic, and Maritime Commerce the Coast Guard has a well-developed approach to handle possible future scenarios.


The context in which these strategies were developed acknowledges the strains on the current international order and provides the flexibility to adapt to changes. What won’t change is the need to address these problem areas and the unique abilities the Coast Guard brings to the table.


“It’s bigger than catching a few boats with illegal tuna. …it’s about sovereignty, economic security, and a weakening of the global rules-based order.” - Admiral Schultz.


The United States Coast Guard has a long history of upholding international laws and norms around the world. In its 230-year history the U.S. Coast Guard has spanned the globe including over 150 years in the Arctic and over 100 years in Asia and the Western Pacific. The U.S. Coast Guard is the only service with the presence, capabilities, and authorities that make it a responsive tool for decision makers and effective in enforcing international rules.


First, it is seen as a standard-bearer for responsible maritime behavior. A Coast Guard cutter invokes a different response than the presence of a grey hull. The white hull with broad orange and blue racing stripes is a symbol recognized around the world as a dependable partner and envoy of good will. The Coast Guard has long worked to further this image. It is the only U.S. armed force that has a law enforcement, safety, and environmental protection role. The U.S. Coast Guard is seen as a fair standards enforcer, not as a provocation of threatened lethal force.


Second, the U.S. Coast Guard is focused on activities not adversaries. This allows the international community to more openly support countering illegal activities that are against the long-term collective good without fear of retribution. It is easier to hold countries accountable when they are on record supporting international efforts. Generally, nations will freely speak out against illegal fishing, piracy, and smuggling. The Coast Guard is a recognized leader in international standard setting bodies like the International Maritime Organization and in other global conventions and committees.


Third, most nations’ navies are more similar to the U.S. Coast Guard than the U.S. Navy. These foreign navies are concerned with sovereignty of their waters, preserving their resources, and controlling who is operating in their exclusive economic zones than they are with force projection. The U.S. Coast Guard helps build capacity with like-minded nations through joint patrols, training, information sharing, and the transfer of excess defense articles. The U.S. Navy also has strong partnerships and reassures allies that the United States will be there if needed, but this assurance is wrapped in implied military action. Something that some countries are not comfortable with.


“This isn’t about Coast Guard being the fish cops across the globe… this is about synchronizing efforts. It starts with enhanced domain awareness. It starts with thickening lines of partnership.” – Admiral Karl Schultz.


When considering the diplomatic, informational, economic, and military instruments of national power, the Coast Guard provides the ways and means to accomplish U.S. strategic goals. The strong partnerships and trust built around the world over the past centuries gives the Coast Guard access where others don’t. Each cutter acts as a floating embassy; representing the United States and furthering the State Department’s diplomatic message. This presence also messages the United States’ desire for the equality of a rules-based order.


The Coast Guard’s flexibility provides decision makers options for enabling commerce and economic growth through freedom of navigation enforcement, security patrols, and customs enforcement, while actively enforcing sanction regimes and supporting claims by the international community.


“This is about like-minded partners linking up effort and finding common space to get after threats that essentially destabilize maritime governance and threaten rules-based order.” – Admiral Karl Schultz.


The predictions of the death of the LIO may end up being greatly exaggerated, but whatever the outcome, the role of the United States Coast Guard is destined to become even more impactful. The Coast Guard’s image promotes trust and fairness and it is positioned to be a critical tool for our national leadership. If our national strategists develop a plan that allows the Coast Guard to fully utilize its advantages in the diplomatic, information, and economic domain, then hopefully the United States will never have to rely on using its powerful military instrument. Competition doesn’t have to lead to conflict.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


Jason Smith currently serves on the faculty at the National War College. He has previously served as advisor to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, as Senior Policy Advisor in the U.S. Senate, and on the staff of the National Security Council.


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