Disaster Relief in a Dangerous World

The U.S. Navy’s maritime strategy, in which humanitarian missions play a prominent role, is based on a debatable assumption that credible enemies have largely disappeared and that competition of the seas is something of the past, says defense expert Seth Cropsey.

March 22, 2011

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

More on:

United States

Foreign Aid


American military aid to Japan following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, known as Operation Tomodachi (WSJ) (or "friend"), is the most recent instance of the humanitarian mission that U.S. armed services fulfill around the globe, including similar disaster relief efforts in Haiti and Pakistan in 2010. Hudson Institute defense expert Seth Cropsey says one reason humanitarian operations gained greater prominence in the recent U.S. maritime strategy (PDF) was that the "Soviet Union was gone" and there is "a notion that there were no other large naval threats on the horizon." But Cropsey points out that growing economic constraints and a changing global threat environment raise questions about how long the United States can sustain missions non-critical to national security. Still, he argues that if a strategic ally like Japan "is in trouble, you help them."

In 2007, the U.S. Navy, in concert with the Marines and Coast Guard, developed a "Cooperative Strategy for Twenty-First Century Seapower." This combined maritime strategy for the U.S. sea services replaced a version dating back to 1986, which had a Cold War context. What motivated this update?

Admiral Mike Mullen, who was then chief of Naval Operations [now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], thought that a strategy was important and that being able to articulate it was essential. He had spoken as early as 2004 or 2005 about a Global Maritime Partnership (PDF)--an informal arrangement that would bring together allied maritime forces from different nations, port operators, and government organizations. They would all work together to make the international commons, as the seas are now being called, safer and more secure. In theory, this would add to global security in a measurable way. The concept of Global Maritime Partnerships was both a precursor and now makes up a large component of the 2007 cooperative strategy.

The 2007 cooperative strategy upgraded the status of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the mission of U.S. sea services, and the Navy in particular, is that correct?

Yes. The idea began with the core principle that global security had become an important mission. It sprang from the notion that there were no other large naval threats on the horizon: The Soviet Union was gone, and the Navy needed to adapt to the changed political circumstances. With this understanding, the sort of classic problem of protecting shipping at sea became more important. From that concept came a series of other ideas, not least of which was that more globalization meant more trade, more commerce, and more mutual interdependence. Without great bipolar competition, there was a growing system of international commerce based on the safe transit of raw materials and manufactured goods.

The Navy has had crisis response, humanitarian relief, and disaster assistance as part of its key mission since World War II. That was taking place on a large scale before the new 2007 cooperative strategy was announced, but it gained more prominence in 2007. The turning point was really the idea that if countries could work together for the greater good in providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief on a large scale, they could also work together to make the oceans a more secure environment. The operations in December 2004 following the Indonesia tsunami were certainly important in that, but the understanding that cooperative efforts between navies could produce useful results preceded that. It all contributed to something that was already there.

The 2007 cooperative strategy sprang from the notion that there were no other large naval threats on the horizon. The Soviet Union was gone, and the Navy needed to adapt to the changed political circumstances.

What is the U.S. military providing to Japan?

At my last count, there are something like fourteen U.S. Navy ships, including an aircraft carrier and its complement of planes, involved in the disaster relief effort. There are something like seventeen thousand sailors and Marines at work in this relief operation.

This is all the U.S. Seventh Fleet?

Yes. They are providing a wealth of services including water purification and delivery, which is in short supply. As of a couple of days ago, they had delivered some 4,200 pounds of food and 129,000 gallons of water. The heavy-lift helicopters and U.S. amphibious ships were helping the Japanese troops with vehicles and equipment that could be used for delivery. This also includes medical assistance, hospital beds, electricity generators, and the like.

Do these humanitarian missions distract from the ability of the United States to fulfill its other duties globally? And given the recession and stagnant defense budget, will the United States have to curtail some of these operations and activities that aren’t directly related to national security?

That’s a very serious question. How long can you sustain something like this? At what cost--and not just in immediate operational dollars? You have to start thinking about the funds you had allotted for other things. What effect does all of this have? This question really goes to the root of the issue, which is the assumption that underlies this new cooperative maritime strategy. Primarily, this is the assumption that enemies have disappeared and that the threats we face in the world are illegal drug trafficking, piracy, the possible movement of nuclear materials, illegal immigration, and so on. Whether those are the real issues that we are going to face in the future, that question hasn’t been answered.

There are several reasons for this. Iran is developing nuclear weapons, as you know. They have rockets that can travel long distances, and they are aiming to build them so they can go even further. The Navy has an important part to play in defending against those missiles. That’s not disaster relief; that’s trying to prevent a disaster. The Russians announced a $650 billion defense budget the other day. They plan to spend money on upgrading and expanding their military. And then there is China.

The question you are really asking there, and it’s the same one I have, is: Is this assumption correct--that these international cooperative efforts represent the future of the Navy and that competition on the seas is something of the past? I don’t think we’ve gotten beyond that.

How long can you sustain something [these humanitarian missions]? At what cost, and not just in immediate operational dollars--you have to start thinking about the funds you had allotted for other things. What effect does all of this have?

How are humanitarian missions going to evolve with the rising military might of China and the aspirations of countries like Iran and North Korea, and even a resurgent Russia? Will humanitarian missions take on a diminished role in a more dangerous world?

That’s a political decision. In the short term, it’s up to the president. And in the longer term, it’s up to the judgment of the American voter to assess the president’s decision-making. If the president acknowledges that China’s intentions are unclear and that Chinese military capacity is increasing, and the voters start to feel nervous about this, then there will be political consequences. If nobody cares, and China’s military capabilities keep increasing, then there will be political and military consequences. It’s a big unknown, and one of the factors that make it difficult for the Navy to make this question public is that China is not even mentioned in the new maritime strategy. So, you are not likely to see people from the Defense Department or the Navy going to Capitol Hill to speak on how the Navy’s budget is important in order to maintain combat ships that will allow the Seventh Fleet to maintain its presence in the area. You won’t see them speak on the potential threat posed by China denying access to the Seventh Fleet, and how that is something we may have to deal with in the coming years.

From 1970 to 2000, U.S. forces were involved in 366 humanitarian missions compared with twenty-two combat-related missions for the same period. Does the international community acknowledge and appreciate this contribution? Or will these efforts always be overshadowed by combat operations?

I think they are better acknowledged in Japan right now. Japan is our longest-standing and strongest ally both militarily and economically in East Asia, and there is no substitute for it. No alternative in the future. A good, strong relationship between Washington and Tokyo is very important if we want to see things go in the direction of security, stability, and greater democracy in East Asia. The president is right in acknowledging that this is a very important alliance, and when a friend is in trouble, you help them.