Diplomacy or Destroyers: Uncle Sam’s Freedom of Navigation Choice

USS Lassen on FON patrol
The United States sent the USS Lassen within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands as a assertion of freedom of navigation in what it considers international waters. (Photo: Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Inez Lawson/U.S. Navy)
The last line in Amitai Etzioni’s new paper in the journal Armed Forces & Society asks what would happen if the United States’ militarily aggressive efforts to preserve freedom of navigation on the planet’s seaways were put under a public microscope. Inconspicuousness, what has been dubbed the “importance of being unimportant,” argues the sociologist and professor of international relations at George Washington University, undergirds the process in which U.S. Navy ships routinely sail into contested waters to demonstrate that they are in fact international sea lanes.

“It remains to be seen if this relic from a more hegemonic era would not be scaled back,” Etzioni wrote, “if [freedom of navigation assertions] came under the kind of scrutiny to which several other military assertions have been subjected.”

The online version of his paper, “Freedom of Navigation Assertions: The United States as the World’s Policeman,” appeared on September 8. On October 27, the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, plowed through the South China Sea off Subi Reef– a speck that China has declared as its territory and that therefore creates a buffer of territorial waters around it — and onto the front pages of newspapers around the world.

“Showdown in the South China Sea,” “US manoeuvre in South China Sea leaves little wiggle room with China” and “China accuses US navy of illegal incursion in South China Sea” were a few of the hundreds and hundreds or headlines generated by the move.

“Freedom of navigation is a right, it’s a principle,” State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters after the Chinese squawked, “and that regardless of this or any other specific operation, it’s a responsibility that the U.S. Navy takes seriously.” And with allies like the Philippines, Japan and even Vietnam fearful that their maritime and mineral rights might be trampled by an acquisitive China, the action burnishes Uncle Sam’s superpower cred.

Etzioni has been watching this play out, and while he usually expects policymakers “to hit someone on the head three times” before they relent, he expects the United States will forego a second or third assertion against the Chinese at this time, allowing the issue of freedom of navigation to again sink beneath the waves of ink.

But Etzioni would prefer the U.S. forego something else in future assertions of freedom of navigation (FONA) – military might. After reviewing some of the security justifications the U.S. offers for being a vigilant protector of FON, he writes “it does not follow that military assertions are the preferred way to ensure this freedom, especially as the first step to counter what the United States views as excessive restrictions. Instead, moves such as operational assertions should serve as a fallback option should diplomatic steps and multilateral steps fail.”

In short, the first headlines he’d like to see would be more like “US sends angry telegram to Beijing over South China Sea” or “US gathers allies to protest China sea grab.” Instead, the U.S. acts unilaterally over and over – “as accuser, judge, jury and executioners,” Etzioni asserts – as the self-appointed global enforcer of FON. “This is a very different model than that of the liberal international order, and it is much more that of a hegemon;” it reclaims the mantle Great Britain held in the 19th century. But these days, no other nation is taking on this particular policing role, which is even unusual by the standards of other U.S interventions, Etzioni writes:

It suffices to state here that assertions seek to uphold a hegemonic position, but this is not the position the United States has chosen in many other fronts. Thus, the United States responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and even to the rise of ISIS only after it consulted and cooperated with a broad coalition of other nations. That is also the line the United States follows with regard to the Iran nuclear negotiations and in its treatment of North Korea. FONA seems a relic from a more assertive, powerful, unilateral United States, the one that won the Cold War.

And while the U.S. has been assertive with China in larger part, Etzioni says, “because it can push China around” while that power develops a blue-water navy, the U.S. has been just as pushy with less threatening states – like Canada, Chile of the Maldives. Part of the reason for this equal-opportunity aggressiveness, Etzioni says, is the fear of letting a bad precedent set future rules; “and it must do so to friends and adversaries alike, in order not to seem to discriminate, leading the adversaries to demand the same rights granted to allies.”

(While the U.S. doesn’t normally advertise its freedom of navigation assertions, it does release annual reports delineating specific actions. There were five on 2005, for example, and a dozen in 2013.)

While defending the law of the sea, the United States has not actually joined the U.N. convention codifying that law despite having been a prime mover and energetic negotiator in the nine-year marathon that created the set of treaties known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The U.S. still cites the law, minus some claims that the U.S. deems excessive, in its assertions.

There is great room for legitimate differences as to what the law means and for using multilateral mechanisms and institutions to determine which interpretation should be followed. Instead, however, under FONA the United States finds itself in the odd position of claiming that it is the sole power willing and able to protect a key element of the liberal order, FON, but—refusing to accede to the treaty that enshrines it.


Another irony that Etzioni sees in the current kerfuffle is that China in the past – perhaps because it lacks a blue-water navy, perhaps for more honorable reasons – has shown itself more than willing to negotiate its claims via neutral venues and tended not to play a military card. There has been saber-rattling over FON – the 1996 crisis when China tested missiles in the Taiwan Straits, the 2001 collision of a U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering plane and a Chinese fighter that saw the U.S. aircrew held captive for 11 days, and the 2013 expansion of China’s self-declared air defense identification zone over the East China Sea all come to mind – but diplomacy ultimately defused them all.

Even now in the South China Sea dispute, diplomacy has been deployed (or at least attempted) even as China offers a belligerent response — accompanied by a promise to keep on talking over the issue.

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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