Churchville, VA—The U.S. Navy says it is a global force for good. President Obama doesn’t seem so sure. However, the freedom of the seas that encourage trade and prosperity has only happened when some strong military force has protected safety on the high seas. That always has meant fighting off the bandits, pirates, and trade-blocking forces that would have made trade too expensive to supply people’s needs.
Trade requires freedom of the seas because ships are always the cost-effective way to move heavy stuff. In fact, the U.S. Navy’s first real triumph was suppressing the Barbary pirates who were seizing American ships and enslaving our sailors in the early 19th century.
Looking back into history, international trade started during the Bronze Age because the tin to make the bronze existed in only a few places. As ships sought the tin, they also carried other high-value trade items. The Bronze Age unfortunately collapsed in a stormy “little ice age” after 1200 BC. but the Roman Warming after 200 BC brought fine weather again. The Romans’ well-organized army and navy then welded 36 of today’s countries into a huge Eurasian trading bloc.
Historian Henry Moss says the Romans moved metals from Europe; hides and fleeces from Britain and Spain; wine and oil from southern France, timber from Russia and Turkey, marble from Greece and—most important—grain from the wheat-growing districts of North Africa, Egypt, and the Danube Valley.
Rome collapsed after AD 600 in the storms, floods and droughts of the Dark Ages. Famine spread, and pirates again swarmed the Mediterranean. Feudal barons taxed merchants every few miles along the roads.
Economic growth languished for another 600 years—until the again-fine weather of the Medieval Warming. Then economic growth found ships sailing from the Red Sea to the South Seas. Genghis Khan was the unlikely patron of overland trade, selling oriental silks and spices to the wealthy of Europe. Then, the climate turned once more, bringing the intense cold and storms of the Little Ice Age
By 1750, the icy age’s coldest period had passed. England had acquired colonies worldwide. The British Navy moved center stage and opened world trade routes as never before in the history of the world. The Spanish and Portuguese had tried to monopolize world trade after Columbus and Magellan, but British ships had attacked the treasure galleons, planted colonies in North America, and extended global trade to all nations.
Soon, cotton was flowing from India to the British textile mills, and tea from China into Britain’s beloved teacups. Timber from the Baltic was moving south to Europe. Silks and spices still flowed, but so did grain, wine, olive oil and the low-cost staples that are the real treasures of trade. Slaves, too, moved as they always had—this time from Africa to the New World—until the British Navy also stopped the slave trade.
Britain maintained the freedom of seas, borders and trade until its economy collapsed after the First World War. That’s when the U.S. Navy stepped up to maintain the global Pax, and they continue to do so.
Huge container ships, trans-continental railroads, international airlines, and the ubiquitous trucks that crisscross every land support free trade in the modern world. Satellite and wireless communications weld us even more tightly together. The trade and communications have enabled literally billions of people to emerge from grinding poverty, even as the First World got richer.
The Somali pirates remind us that pirates and bandits can still cut our access to goods and services. North Korea’s closed borders remind us of the poverty and human degradation that goes with isolation. Let us all hope that the U.S. Navy continues to be a global force for the good in the coming centuries ahead. In fact, our technology should even let us trade in the next “little ice age.”