Students of world politics have long shown a special interest in sea power. International relations, however, tend to treat the means of power as homogeneous and interchangeable. Are military capabilities largely undifferentiated goods, or do specific assets matter for politics? In this article he co-wrote with Erik Gartzke, Jon R. Lindsay argues that the characteristics of naval power offer distinctive tradeoffs in terms of the causes of war. Naval presence, firepower, and mobility enable naval nations to fight farther from home and obtain more diplomatic recognition. At the same time, mobility and stealth introduce ambiguity about national priorities and contribute to errors in assessing the local balance of power and resolve. They find empirically that disproportionate investment in sea power is associated not only with heightened diplomatic recognition and power projection across greater distances, as navalists expect, but also with increased instability in the form of a higher risk of dispute initiation. Disaggregating sea power by platform type—battleships, submarines, aircraft carriers—suggests similar tradeoffs across platforms as for navies generally. Sea power enables political leaders to intervene in distant locales, where their interests are more peripheral, and to reconsider their commitments, where their interests do not justify the risk. One counterintuitive implication is that offshore balancing strategies, which rely on sea power for deterrence, may actually be destabilizing.

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