This article is a part of our 2021 Series on Caribbean Maritime Security. Read the Series Introduction at this link.
In December 2020, the three US sea services—the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard—released a new tri-service maritime strategy, Advantage at Sea: Prevailing with Integrated All-Domain Naval Power. The document leaves no doubt that competition with China and Russia are the primary focus of the strategy and, ostensibly, all three of the services that drafted it. Yet the strategy leaves unanswered questions about one of the Coast Guard’s largest missions in some of its most frequented waters: counter-narcotics in the Caribbean.
How the Coast Guard aligns with the strategic priorities of a tri-service strategy might not seem like new territory. The three sea services coalesced around a shared strategy less than 15 years ago in 2007’s A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (and later its shorter-lived refresh). It is best understood as roughly split between two visions of the sea services’ raison d’etre. As described by Peter Haynes in his 2015 book, Toward a New Maritime Strategy, part of the strategy reflects the conventional blue water Navy approach to questions of seapower, a traditionalist perspective guided by the intellectual history of Mahan (and Corbett). The other half is dedicated to a much different vision of what sea services do—a view Geoffrey Till has described as post-modernism. Naval post-modernism emphasizes shared responsibilities to protect collective benefits from the maritime commons, leveraging sea control in support of humanitarian missions, diplomacy, and the promotion of good order at sea. It was a high water mark for the role of maritime security in US maritime strategy.
Intellectually, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower was a boon for the Coast Guard, situating maritime stewardship as a core strategic issue for the sea services. Which meant that implementing the strategy in practice augured relatively few hard questions for the Coast Guard, full as it was with maritime law enforcement responsibilities after 9/11.
Advantage at Sea forces a deeper reckoning for the Coast Guard. The document moves the three services closer to the traditionalist camp, something the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ individual concepts and strategies tend to reinforce. And in its own recent writings, the Coast Guard has shown greatest energy on emerging regions and issues that are driven by strategic competition, such as the Arctic and illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing. Indeed, the novel deployment of a USCG cutter to the South Atlantic this winter came about, not because of an interest in narcotics trafficking, but because of the growing concern over Chinese distant-water fishing activities. Word counts are a crude measure of importance, but the impression from a quick review is also instructive. Compared to 33 mentions of China, 16 of Russia, 5 of the Arctic, or 4 of the (Indo-) Pacific, the Caribbean is mentioned only once in the new tri-service strategy, and it’s a photo caption at that. The document nods to other threats—Iran, North Korea, terrorism, transnational crime—and offers an offhand reference to narcotics. Yet the balance of the strategy tilts far from the Caribbean and far from an interest in non-state actors, drug traffickers lower still.
Meanwhile, the domestic political context that has historically promoted a focus on narcotics is also in flux. The war on drugs is at a 40 year trough, given the greater public interest on rehabilitation and criminal justice reform. The result may be that not only is narcotics trafficking no longer seen as a strategic issue for the Coast Guard’s national security mission set, it may also be losing salience as a core strategic law enforcement function for the service.
Despite the move from A Cooperative Strategy’s non-state focus, Advantage at Sea’s discussion of day-to-day competition opens the door for the Coast Guard to play a critical role in great power competition. The strategy describes competition as a contest over the international order, and so we can think about threats to the order as on a continuum. At the high end, rival great powers have the capacity to upend the system in an acute effort to overthrow it—major power war. This is the domain of the Navy and the Marine Corps. But at the low end, even some non-state threats, such as pirates and terrorists, can undermine the system’s benefits when they rise to a level that threaten its core tenets—including the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence and the free flow of maritime commerce. Constabulary and maritime security missions, and therefore the Coast Guard, are thus instrumental to a type of competition with China and Russia that is focused on the health of the international system. The questions for the Coast Guard then become how strictly the service chooses to align with the vision of the new tri-service strategy, and how integral narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean is to the overall health of the international order.
To be clear, the Coast Guard will never fully abandon the Caribbean counter-narcotics mission. Doing so runs afoul of the Coast Guard’s law enforcement responsibilities to the American public, and US political conditions are unlikely to change so much that ending interdiction at or beyond the US border becomes politically desirable. Just as police can deprioritize narcotics arrests without abandoning them entirely, so might be the Coast Guard’s trajectory. Moreover, maritime insecurity is an intersectional problem, with actors and crimes moving across categories and space with ease. Indeed, even the narrative on the recent USCG cutter deployment to the South Atlantic is muddier than it first appears. While on its way south to counter IUU fishing, the ship made news interdicting a suspected drug runner near the Dominican Republic.
Strategy is about hard choices—the missions, capabilities, or regions from which a service must divest in order to focus finite resources on the missions, capabilities, or regions it finds strategically important. Advantage at Sea augurs questions for the Coast Guard that A Cooperative Strategy did not. How important does it weigh its strategic commitments, as outlined in the tri-service strategy, against its regular constabulary responsibilities? And among those constabulary commitments, how have changes in domestic politics shaped the relative importance of the drug mission compared to other constabulary functions, like countering illegal fishing or conducting search and rescue?
The question here is one of overall balance of effort. The question is whether the Caribbean drug mission is still fundamentally strategic in its level of importance for the United States and, if not, whether the Coast Guard should consider options for downsizing its Caribbean counter-narcotics footprint in favor of servicing other, more strategically important missions. If the Coast Guard takes the shift to great power competition as its guiding principle, then it seems like such a reprioritization is in order. The result is a Caribbean test case for the Coast Guard’s commitment to the tri-service strategy.