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To Rule the Waves

How Control of the World's Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers

From a brilliant Brookings Institution writer, a vivid, timely, and insightful examination of the critical role that oceans play in the daily struggle for global power, in the bestselling tradition of Robert Kaplan’s The Revenge of Geography.

For centuries, oceans were the chessboard on which empires battled for dominance. But in the nuclear age, air power and missile systems dominated our worries about security, and for the United States, the economy was largely driven by domestic production, with trucking and railways that crisscrossed the continent the primary modes of commercial transit.

All that has changed, as nine-tenths of global commerce and the bulk of energy trade is today linked to sea-based flows. A brightly-painted 40-foot steel shipping container loaded in Asia with twenty tons of goods may arrive literally anywhere else in the world; how that really happens and who actually profits by it show that the struggle for power on the seas is a critical issue today.

Now, in bright, closely observed prose, To Rule the Waves author Bruce Jones conducts us on a fascinating voyage through the great modern ports and naval bases of this era—from the vast container ports of Shanghai and Hong Kong to the vital naval base of the American 7th fleet in Hawaii to the sophisticated security arrangements in the port of New York. Along the way, the book illustrates how global commerce works, that we are amidst a global naval arms race, and why the oceans are so crucial to America's standing going forward.

As Jones reveals, the three great geopolitical struggles of our time—for military power, for economic dominance, and over our changing climate—are playing out atop, within, and below the world’s oceans. The essential question, he shows, is this: who will rule the waves and set the terms of the world to come?

Prologue Prologue – A Box in the Jungle
The heart of the Amazon is more than a thousand miles from the ocean. To get there, one must fly to Manaus, Brazil, in the very center of the rainforest. First established as a fort by Portuguese explorers in 1669, the outpost was of little account for its first century and a half until the industrial revolution created a demand for a plant brought back from the Amazon—rubber. Bendable, shapable, useful for thousands of purposes, rubber became an essential component in industrialization, and at the time could not be sourced anywhere but from the Amazon. In the race for profit that followed, German, Portuguese, and American businessmen vied for access to the Amazonian rubber tree, and Manaus become a hub of imperial commerce. The fossils of that period adorn the city to this day—from a seven-story mansion in the style of a Bavarian Schloss, a market building built as a replica of Paris’s Les Halles, and the Teatro Amazonas, to a pink and white opera house topped by a dome covered with thirty-three thousand ceramic tiles painted the yellow, green, and blue of the Brazilian flag—one of the more surprising marvels of the late imperial age. It’s a gritty town of wilderness and industry and eccentricity surrounded in every direction by over 1,500 miles of rainforest.

The vastness of the rainforest is broken only by the Amazon River, which courses along the banks of Manaus, three miles wide and seven hundred feet deep—neither the widest nor the deepest stretch of the Amazon, but still moving an astonishing volume of water.I Manaus also borders another river, the Rio Negro, or Black River, which runs 1,400 miles southwest from the highlands of Colombia, emptying into the Amazon. Its name comes from the color of the water, a kind of translucent chocolate black, like someone had poured the world’s supply of Coca-Cola into a riverbed. Where the two rivers meet and start to flow together at Manaus, a strange natural phenomenon occurs. For the space of three and a half miles, the two rivers flow through the same wide channel, but their waters do not mingle: they flow alongside each other, one chalky and the color of sand, the other thin and dark—two parallel streams of water surging, touching, occasional eddies swirling together, but not merging. This is caused by the radically different densities of the two bodies of water, the one full of vegetable residue accumulated as it runs through the upper stretches of the rainforest, the other scraped clean of anything other than minerals by its long descent down the mountains. In Manaus it is known as the “Meeting of the Waters,” though that hardly captures the wondrous oddity of the sight.

One may take a riverboat out to see the Meeting of the Waters, and the aquatic life it attracts. Of particular appeal is a subspecies of pink dolphins unique to the Amazon. They concentrate at the confluence of the two rivers, where the separate streams mingle and churn up an abundance of fish on which to feed. The giant Amazonian pirarucú, or arapaima, is a staple of the dolphins’ diet, and of the cuisine found in the restaurants of Manaus.

There, amid the whimsy of the remote city and splendor of the rainforest, I saw a familiar but wholly unexpected sight: a stack of sky-blue metal containers, neatly piled on a small container ship steaming its way upriver against the strong current. The boxes were instantly recognizable by their color and logo—a seven-pointed star painted white against the sky-blue backdrop—the symbol of Maersk, a shipping giant headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, a distance from Manaus of six thousand miles as the crow flies.

That Maersk had a wide global reach did not surprise me, but to find some of its containers on the deck of a transport ship 1,500 miles up the Amazon was eye-opening. If there was ever a visible symbol of the total worldwide penetration of modern globalization, this was surely it. And the sight established for me something I had understood intellectually but not viscerally: that it is sea-based trade that is the primary driver of modern globalization. There in the heart of the rainforest was the evidence.

Shipping containers are now a ubiquitous feature of the modern world. Once you start looking for them, you can’t stop seeing them. Drive down the highways and byways of the United States or Europe and you notice these containers everywhere. The 18-wheeler is a storied part of the American history of continental trucking; but it’s been displaced by the “prime mover”—a flatbed truck onto which is latched one of these shipping containers. Containers have also remade rail: watch a train transport at a road crossing and you are bound to see the Maersk logo on container boxes stacked two high on these freight trains, alongside containers from Taiwan, Korea, South Africa, Germany, and many points beyond. There’s a secondary market for containers for housing and industrial design. You can even buy used containers on Amazon. But at the core, they are an instrument of global trade—the most visible, but as it turns out far from the only, manifestation of the way bulk shipping has transformed the world economy—and is starting to transform world politics.

The penetration of Western trade into central Brazil was just one part of a wider phenomenon that has been unfolding over the past three decades. Brazil was one of several important, populous countries—China and India being two essential others—that decided at the end of the Cold War to open up their economies and join the maelstrom of globalization. The entry of more than 2.5 billion people into the global economy has had dramatic effects. Many of those changes have been for the good. China, India, and Brazil between them pulled more than a half a billion people out of poverty and created a global middle class. Internationally, more than sixty countries were pulled out of poverty by the ever-further expansion of the world economy, and by China’s huge appetite for natural resources and exports of cheap manufactured goods—a dynamic made possible by changes in global shipping. Having grown into an economic giant, China helped the United States navigate the global financial crisis, and Chinese growth helped the rest of the world recover from that shock. The Singaporean diplomat-turned-writer Kishore Mahbubani, one of the foremost chroniclers of the rise of Asia, made popular in his book The Great Convergence the application of an old aphorism to the phenomenon of modern globalization: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

The tides were also critical to a second part of the changing story of the global economy: energy. Here, too, Brazil played a key role, though not in the Amazon. For it was in the long gentle slopes of the continental shelf off of Brazil’s eastern shore that deep-sea energy exploration first took hold outside of the United States. Pulling other countries into globalization meant huge economic growth, and that in turn put major pressure on the world’s supplies of oil and gas. The plumbing of the ocean depths for new sources of those fuels has been a critical part of the changing patterns of trade and geopolitics in the past decade, from Brazil to the East China Sea to the Arctic Ocean.

But it was also in the tides that early signs appeared suggesting that all was not well with the rise—or more accurately, the return—of these giant nations. In 2009, China made a sweeping claim to a huge stretch of the South China Sea, asserting a historical right to waters claimed by several other nations and dominated by the US Navy since the end of World War II. It was a move that presaged a mounting competition between the United States and the rising power of China—a competition playing out first and foremost in Asia’s contested waters.

Between the mounting tensions in the South China Sea and the scale of global sea-based trade and energy discovery, I began to realize quite how central were transactions on and across the world’s oceans to the texture of the changing times. Here, in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, was a signifier of these global pressures, a stack of humble shipping containers, hidden in plain sight.

This book looks at the struggle for political and economic power from the vantage point of the world’s oceans.

Four simple facts organize inquiry into this topic. First, the world’s oceans are rapidly becoming the most important zone of confrontation between the world’s great military actors—the United States and China above all, but also Russia, Japan, India, and others. How these powers manage their naval rivalry will shape the next half century. Second, when we hear the word “globalization” we think of airplanes and high-tech information flows, but the reality is that more than 85 percent of all global commerce is a function of sea-based trade. That trade flows across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans bound in bulk carriers and mega container ships. Third, the oceans are vital to modern communications; we rarely think about the oceans in connection to the internet or finance or our smartphones, but the reality is that more than 90 percent of global data flows along undersea cables. Fourth, oceans play a surprisingly central role in the realities of energy, and in the global fight over climate change. Today’s energy exploration is a story of tapping the vast resources of the seabeds from the Gulf of Mexico to the high Arctic, even as the oceans play a critical role in the changes to our weather that increasingly shape how we live.

I decided to see for myself how these dynamics were unfolding. My job required me to travel extensively, and starting in early 2017, I added a series of side trips to better understand and to visualize this new age of oceans. I sailed a fast boat out of the mouth of the Pearl River into the hills of Hong Kong and its great natural harbor, to put myself in the minds of the merchantmen and sailors of the English East India Company when they wrestled that island away from China nearly two centuries ago, in an act that reshaped the global politics and economics of the time. The commandant of the Port of New York toured me through the Coast Guard facilities there and around that vital harbor. I inspected the world’s most important counter-piracy coalition, operating out of Changi Naval Base in Singapore—also the gateway to the most important choke point in modern trade. A Chinese friend arranged for me to tour the vast container port on Donghai Island, south of Shanghai, the world’s largest. In Hawaii, I inspected the most advanced Aegis-class destroyer in the Pacific Fleet—once again the first line of defense against an ambitious Asian power. In the northern Arctic I saw how all these dynamics—warming seas and cooling relations—are reshaping the modern world.

And for ten days in the summer of 2019, I sailed on what was then the world’s largest trading ship—the Madrid Maersk—across the world’s most contested waters, in the Western Pacific: the Singapore Strait, the South China Sea, the Philippine Sea, and the East China Sea. The notes from that voyage frame each part of this book.

As I traveled, I read everything from the epic histories of imperial battles at sea to the labor economics of ports to marine insurance statistics to the engineering reports of deep-sea energy discovery and the complex science of ocean chemistry. Everywhere I turned I discovered entire worlds of history and science and politics.

Along the way I noted nuggets of history or modern life that seemed to illuminate patterns or politics not often discussed. Like the fact that the longest-running overseas military engagement in American history is neither the long war in Afghanistan nor even our seven-decade-long deployment to the demilitarized zone on the Korean Peninsula, but rather the near-century-long deployment of the US Navy in China, along the Yangtze River. Or the fact that to deploy troops to Afghanistan, the US armed services required the support of a Norwegian fleet of huge ferries, commercially owned and operated, that carry heavy equipment. That the use of nuclear weapons undersea is still an active part of the weapons planning of the world’s major navies. Or that the testing of nuclear weapons at sea triggered some of the most important scientific study that would eventually result in careful documentation of what we now call climate change.

As I read and as I traveled, I experienced a phenomenon that surprised me. While the studies of globalization, energy, and even naval warfare gave me much that explained the technical or tactical dimensions of contemporary struggles, they cast little light on the nature of the rivalry. Instead, the older histories of imperial contest, of piracy, of the early days of ocean science, seemed to illuminate much more. Patterns set in the Age of Steam but that waned in the twentieth century seemed to be reemerging from the backdrop of modern history. Dynamics of trade and travel that would have been familiar to scholars and explorers in the late 1800s seemed to hew closely to the newest patterns of post–Cold War globalization.

Like other books that examine the role of sea power in the lives of nations, this one reaches back to the intellectual tradition of President Theodore Roosevelt’s friend and confidant Alfred Thayer Mahan, who first sketched the naval foundations for what would become America’s global role. Mahan would have been disoriented by the Cold War, an era dominated by continental superpowers and nuclear rivalry. But he would recognize the world coming into being now, where the urge to protect maritime commerce is stoking a global naval arms race. Unlike books that rest solely on the tradition of Mahan, though, this one also tackles issues he could not have foreseen—like the vast role the oceans play in our changing climate.

This book, I should add, is not about the oceans as much as it is a book set on the oceans. They are the screen against which the dynamics of our time plays out, a backdrop against which the shadows of history reveal themselves. They are a lens through which to watch a core struggle—what we might describe as the geopolitics of globalization.

The oceans are a metaphor, too, for the way in which the patterns of world affairs ebb and wash across our lives. History is often told as a series of events, sequenced in time and space. At moments, though, history moves like the ocean themselves, with currents that span continental shelves and patterns of waves that unfold over time, reaching far beyond their originating shores. Sometimes it behaves like a tsunami, where an earthquake in one area sends a shock wave through an adjacent ocean, barely noticed as it ripples across the waters, ultimately to be felt at a distant shore first by a receding of the tide, just before a huge tidal surge crashes onto land, wreaking destruction.

As we witness the epic scale of modern global trade, the mounting tensions of naval power, and the drama of climate change playing out in warming oceans, it’s hard to resist the sensation that we are now at that moment just before such a tsunami, standing ashore when the tide has quietly flowed outward, far farther than normal—that eerie, quiet moment before the sea surges back in, destroying much of what we have come to know.

I. Across its epic span, the Amazon River carries more water than all of the rivers of Europe combined.
Photograph by Wyatt Jones

Bruce D. Jones directs the Project on International Order and Strategy of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, where for four years he was also vice president. He has lived and worked in Asia, Africa, and Europe, including serving with UN operations in Kosovo and the Middle East. He has documented the changing dynamics of world power in several previous books about international affairs. He has been a senior advisor to the World Bank and has lectured or been a nonresident fellow at Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and New York University.

  • Publisher: Scribner (December 1, 2021)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982127251

“Jones has managed to write an important book about foreign policy without delivering an impenetrable tome. He handles his reporting deftly, keeping the reader engaged as he roams from a Cold War-era submarine base beneath a Norwegian mountain, recently reactivated in anticipation of conflicts in the Arctic, to the bridge of a missile-equipped command vessel in the Pacific. And he deftly diagrams the connections between economic policy and national security.” Wall Street Journal

“An excellent primer on the role of seaborne commerce in creating our global economy.” —New York Journal of Books

"[A] penetrating historical and political study.” Nature

"Bruce Jones has written a timely and important reminder that, with all due respect to sophisticated 21st century cyber weapons, good old-fashioned naval power, enhanced with these new technologies, remains crucial to our collective future. To Rule the Waves makes an utterly convincing case that, in a globalized world, navies are essential sources of both opportunity and risk for all of us. And the accessible style and fascinating stories in it makes this one of the (all-too) rare works that foreign policy wonks can share with people who never read these kinds of books." —Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group

"[To Rule the Waves] revives an old strategic tenet: Who rules the oceans rules the world. Traveling around the world, Jones examines the geopolitics of ocean power. Along the way, he looks into the history of standardized shipping, courtesy of the multimodal container, and delves into what are likely to be future patterns of energy use. The author’s points are well taken . . . knowledgeable." Kirkus Reviews

“This is nothing short of a masterwork of illumination. What is truly driving our world beneath the surface? Jones has rendered with brilliant clarity a breathtaking body of knowledge on the deep currents shaping the century ahead—strategic, environmental, and violent. This is Sapiens for the seas; there is true knowledge on every page.” —Evan Osnos, winner of the National Book Award and author of The Age of Ambition, Joe Biden, and Wildland 

“Bruce Jones vividly shows how what happens on the oceans determines so much of what happens on land—from the massive fleets of container ships that make possible our world economy to the growing seaborne rivalry that is adding to the tensions between the United States and China. In lively prose, he also takes readers on a remarkable voyage around the world, from a submarine base carved deep into a fjord in northern Norway, to the world’s largest container port on reclaimed land off Shanghai, to a tiny island in the Red Sea that is a flashpoint in world affairs. Along the way we meet a diverse cast of characters who ride the global waves.” —Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The New Map: Energy, Climate, and the Clash of NationsThe Quest, and The Prize

“A brilliant, compelling, and clear-eyed view of the central challenge the US confronts in the new dynamics of great power competition. In To Rule the Waves, Bruce Jones provides a wonderfully accessible, highly readable assessment of the maritime components of the new geopolitics. This masterful analysis is a must read for anyone interested in geopolitics and American strategy.” —General David Petraeus, US Army (Ret.); former commander of the surge in Iraq, US Central Command, and the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan; and former director of the CIA

To Rule the Waves is fascinating for its fresh perspective and engaging prose. I learned a great deal, as will anyone who wants to understand the enormous challenges that confront NATO, the EU, and the West as a whole.” —Javier Solana, former secretary-general of NATO and former EU high representative for common foreign and security policy

“Bruce Jones’s book takes us on a fascinating journey that connects history, geopolitics, trade, and climate change from the unique perspective of the oceans. His insightful exposé of the many challenges of our interconnected, global world reveals the tensions between the great powers today.” —Susana Malcorra, co-chair of the board, International Crisis Group; former UN deputy secretary-general; former Argentinian foreign minister; and former chair of the WTO Ministerial Conference

“The world’s oceans will remain a central arena of competition between the United States and China for decades. In this sweeping analytical history, Bruce Jones explains why. With engaging prose and fresh assessments, he weaves a narrative about how navies, commercial transportation, digital cables, energy, and climate change interact to make control of the oceans the main source of struggle among the superpowers. Both as writing and analysis, To Rule the Waves is a masterpiece.” —Michael McFaul, Stanford University