Mark Nevitt reviewing Bruce D. Jones’ “To Rule the Waves:  How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers”

I am extremely pleased to tell you that the guest reviewer today is Mark Nevitt, now an Associate Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law.  Mark is a former Navy judge advocate who enjoys an enviable (and rapidly growing!) reputation for academic excellence – and he’s been a LENS Conference participant and Lawfire contributor (see e.g, here)

Mark will be reviewing Bruce D. Jones’ To Rule the Waves: How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers  I very much enjoyed the book, but I wanted to have a top expert do the review before I recommended it widely – and Mark totally filled that bill.  Here’s his assessment:

“To Rule the Waves:  How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers” by Bruce D. Jones 

Reviewed by Mark Nevitt 

General Dunlap asked me to read and review Bruce Jones’ recent book, To Rule the Waves:  How Control of the World’s Oceans Shapes the Fate of the Superpowers.  I’m glad he did.  General Dunlap sensed that To Rule the Waves would be of great interest to his Lawfire audience, particularly as the U.S. looks to thwart Chinese aggression in the South China Seas.  General Dunlap’s instinct—not surprisingly—was correct.

The author, Bruce Jones, works at the prestigious Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.  Jones directs the Project on International Order and Strategy of the Foreign Policy program at Brookings.  He is somewhat of a polymath with work experience at the United Nations and fellowships at several prestigious universities (Princeton, Stanford, Yale). 

Of note, he has lived and worked in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.  This work-diversity and diversity of lived experience provides him with a balanced, global perspective on complex changes afoot in the maritime domain.  In doing so, Jones offers a global tour of how the oceans have played a critical role in world affairs and will continue to do so.

Make no mistake, this is an ambitious book. Jones central claim: the oceans will play an outsized role in great power competition with China and Russia.  As such, the U.S. must maintain its military and economic edge on the world’s oceans if it wants to keep its status as a global superpower. 

The book’s sweeping narrative style calls to mind three books that may be familiar with Lawfire readers:  Admiral James Stavridis’ outstanding synthesis of naval history in Sea Power, Daniel Yergin’s compelling argument that energy and climate will drive much of global affairs in The New Map:  Energy, Climate, and the Clash of Nations, and Robert Kagan’s tour de force examining geographic determinism in The Revenge of Geography.   

There are four things about the book that I loved, and just a few minor quibbles.

First, To Rule the Waves tackles a complex subject with remarkable clarity and verve.  The prose is lively and accessible, and quickly engages the reader. It reads less like a heavily researched book and scholarly endeavor—which it certainly is—and more like an engrossing novel.  Reading such a well-researched book such as this can be dense and prone to stodgy, academic writing.  Not so here.  Jones’ writing engages the reader,  breathing life into complex aspects of history, data, and maritime technology.  

I also found the book exceptionally well organized and easy to follow. It includes four parts, beginning with a history of maritime governance (Part I). It moves on to the container ship revolution in 1956 (Part II) before addressing flag ship jurisdiction (Part III) and the Power of the Seas (Part IV).

Second, Jones links historical trends to modern practices.  The book serves as a reminder of the role that oceans have played and will play in driving global economic policy, national security, and energy security.  Jones’ central point:  what happens on oceans determines much of what happens on land.  Yet the ocean is a multifaceted and increasingly-contested global common—a newly relevant term first coined by the Navy’s own Alfred Thayer Mahan in the 19th century.  Jones’ book is  chock-full of fascinating data and historical facts. For example:

    • Did you know that the Chinese Ming Dynasty’s Treasure Fleet once dominated the world’s oceans, possessing hundreds of ships that were twice the size of Portuguese and Spanish galleons?
    • Most people know that most trade is conducted via the ocean, but did you know that 93% of all data comes to us through ocean cables?
    • Were you aware of the critical that the “containerization” of shipping played in globalization, resulting in massive vessels that are over twice the size of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier?

Third, Jones implicitly argues that the complex problems in the maritime domain have been overshadowed in recent years by the newer, shinier national security domains—think cyber, space, and artificial intelligence.  After all, 90% of the world’s global trade is still conducted on the high seas.  While these new technological domains are of growing importance, Jones is here to remind us that the oceans drive globalization and there is no substitute for naval power and projection. 

In a sobering and convincing manner, addresses how a conflict between the U.S. and Taiwan with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) may play out.  I always suspected that U.S. submarine technology would be key to any success in such a conflict, and Jones showcases the continual importance of the U.S. Navy’s “silent service.”  This line stood out, on page 228—“The bottom line:  the U.S. submarine fleet remains for all intents and purposes, indestructible.”  The father of the U.S. nuclear Navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, would be proud of Jones’ assessment.

Finally, while the book is not purely an academic book, it has the research feel of a deeply researched piece of scholarship.  I loved and admired the footnotes, references, and deep work required to write this book.  The books weighs in at 370 pages, with the last quarter devoted to footnotes and sources.  I found myself going back and forth between the book’s text and the footnotes.  As a maritime legal scholar that teaches law of the sea and a law of the global commons class, I found these footnotes to be incredibly handy.  So much so that I intend to pull a few chapters for future class readings.    

In my humble opinion, there were just a few missed opportunities and one or two examples where his argument could be more fully developed.

For one, I would have liked to see a bit more discussion on the unique environmental challenges facing the ocean.  He devotes an entire chapter to climate change (“Hot Waters Rising”) and discusses the Arctic, but broader environmental issues deserve better treatment.  Much of the world’s oceans have been treated as a dumping ground for plastics and waste, particularly in the developing world.  What are Jones’ solutions to tackling ocean pollution and plastic debris, the ultimate “tragedy of the commons” problem on the ocean?   I know that he has thought about this, and would have loved to tap into his insight. 

I also would have appreciated a few maps, particularly as so much of the book discusses geography.  Jones chose not to include any key maps in the book, which I think was a mistake. I chose to keep an Atlas nearby as I tried to make sure I understood the Chinese  Nine-Dash Line claim in the South China Sea and the location of key maritime straits and ports mentioned throughout the book.

Finally, Jones argues, somewhat in passing, that maritime containerization was a key driver of the deindustrialization of the American economy.  This fed, in his opinion, into inequality and the rise of Donald Trump and the popularity of Bernie Sanders.  Jones convinced me that containerization helped lead to the urbanization and financialization of many economic sectors, which had a negative impact on  the American Rust Belt. 

But many factors led to American manufacturing’s decline.  Jones’ claim on the nexus between maritime trade advances, inequality, and politicization, seemed a bit underdeveloped.  I am not saying he is incorrect—I just wanted to know more to bolster this provocative claim.

Concluding observations

Who would enjoy and benefit from this book?  Really, any Lawfire reader interested in learning more about the maritime domain and how that will affect great powers competition. 

This is an especially important book for mid-level and senior leaders in the Air Force, Army, and Space Force, particularly as they think more broadly about joint warfare and the role that the maritime domain will play in future conflicts.  Some of what Jones discusses will be familiar to members of the sea services, but there is plenty of ground to cover and new details to learn of members of the Coast Guard, Navy, and Marine Corps. 

Jones discussion of an “Air-Sea Battle” with China focuses on U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force assets, two services that must have a common understanding on joint warfare between the two serviced.  In particular, if you are a field-grade Air Force officer unclear of the role the U.S. Navy will play in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) conflict scenario with China, make this your holiday book read.

As a former tactical jet aviator and JAG who deployed in many of the parts of the world that Jones mentioned, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout Jones’ book.   But I also learned quite a bit as well— bet you will, too.

About the reviewer

Mark Nevitt is an Associate Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law.  A former tactical jet aviator and Navy judge advocate (JAG), he has taught at University of Pennsylvania Law School, U.S. Naval Academy, and Syracuse University College of Law.  Originally from Rhode Island, Nevitt received his J.D. and LL.M. (with distinction) from the Georgetown University Law Center and his B.S.E. from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.


The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of the author’s employer, or my views or those of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.  See also here.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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