The legacy of 1812: Protect our seas, protect our economies

Grand anniversaries often make us ponder the links between our past and our present. Baltimore's superb bi-centennial commemorations for the War of 1812 have been no exception. Watching the buzz of commercial activity in the harbor has reminded me vividly that our reliance on the sea is even more relevant now than it was when the Royal Navy blockaded Baltimore's port all those years ago.

For centuries the sea has fed us and fueled our lives. Our oceans have been a gateway for trade and a cradle for resources. Access to the sea and the freedom that access bestows have long been vital to the security and economic aspirations of nations, not least ours. But today, irrespective of which side of the Atlantic we live on, we live in a "just enough, just in time" economy that is highly dependent upon the sea.

Today's economy is a complex jigsaw. It's one in which goods, raw materials and other commodities are warehoused on our oceans, in vast bulk and container ships. With such complex, networked supply chains — often long, lean and sometimes vulnerable — the "made in" label on a product rarely tells the whole story. In our globalized world, such goods are actually made in a number of countries. Such countries are, almost always, connected by the sea. Today, more than a third of global gross domestic product and more than half of the world's oil production is moved by sea.

In many ways it is our oceans that are themselves the "new oil," lubricating as they do our global economic engine. So keeping that engine going, by ensuring that our oceans are not overrun with piracy, terrorism, people trafficking and drug smuggling, is fundamental to all our futures. This means it is fundamental business for our navies as well. From my perspective, we need to keep our seas safe as much as we expect our streets to be kept safe.

Peter Hinchliffe, the secretary general of the International Shipping Federation and the International Chamber of Shipping, puts it well: "If sea lines of communication were disrupted, half the world would starve and the other half would freeze." In other words, if that flow of material is interrupted — if there is no oil in the engine — there are implications across the board, implications which are increasingly strategic. This was also true 200 years ago when, as a result of the British blockade, American commodity exports fell by four-fifths. Britons experienced it last century during both World Wars as German U-boats tried to sever our lifeline of the seas — an effort thwarted by British and American naval cooperation.

Such strategic shocks might not be your first thought today, but preventing such events — by ensuring our seas are safe — remains essential. Providing Maritime Security is a must and it is a team effort. That is why today many of the world's navies, working closely with theU.S. Navy, take a keen interest, for example, in narrow chokepoints such as the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait. That is why, out there right now, 25 navies are together contributing to regional security in the Middle East. After all, these days we are equally exposed to the threats and opportunities our oceans offer — especially the economic ones.

So from my perspective two centuries on, Baltimore's legacy speaks clearly. Protect our seas and we protect our economies.

Admiral Sir Mark Stanhope is head of the British Royal Navy.

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