Ask a member of any coast guard in the world for their organization’s mission statement, and each time you will get a different answer. Even more troubling, ask coast guard members within a single coast guard, and answers will be no less diverse. Part of this stems from the coast guard’s multi-mission nature. It also stems from debates regarding the geographic bounds of these missions, ranging from those constrained within an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to blue water operations. Part of this also stems from the many organizations that can be labelled a “coast guard.”
Growing risks inherent in the renewed multi-polarity of the world require a more definitive answer. In this multi-polar environment, there has been a rise in gray zone activities, which increase the importance of coast guard capabilities to counter this problem. These capabilities, however, will not reach their full potential without an overall mission statement stating the purpose to which they will be leveraged.
The central mission for Coast Guards around the world should be the cooperative provision of public goods to uphold the rule of law. This leverages their multi-mission humanitarian nature, identifies their role in national security strategies, and drives cross-coast guard partnerships.
The impact of public goods on the character and definition of the rules-based order, a system now under significant challenge for the first time since the Cold War, is of critical importance. Successful provision of public goods can determine national choices. Public goods provision also focuses stakeholders on shared activity instead of reliance on dominant players. Their provision can decide the difference between acceptance of the rule of law, or acceptance of the rule of a dominant hegemon.
Potential strategies deployed by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) powers—Japan, the United States, India, Australia—to support the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) provide opportunities to examine this mission for global coast guards. The FOIP is a cooperative approach to defend the rule of law. Coast guard engagements across the Quad members offer potential to advance this goal, but not without agreement on their overarching mission priority.
Competing public goods providers
The cooperative underpinning of the FOIP strategy was a feature from the very beginning. Japan’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy was introduced in 2016 by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo as a vehicle to cooperatively “meet challenges to the maritime rules based order.” The United States saw it in a similar vein, “to engage like-minded nations in economic, security, and political governance partnerships.” The Quad Joint Leaders statement issued in May 2022 echoed these sentiments, describing governance as a central public good.
China has also noted needs in this area, stating that “accompanying traditional challenges are the long-term “insufficient supply” of regional marine governance public products such as “marine environmental protection, channel safety, maritime search and rescue, and fishery resource protection.” It argues for a hub-and-spokes model with some nations taking a more dominant role, noting “in maintaining world peace and development, major countries have a special responsibility to play an exemplary role in providing international public goods and providing positive energy for global governance.” Beijing sees itself as the potential leading provider of these public goods, particularly in the maritime domain, arguing China is the primary “defender of the international order, a contributor to global governance and a provider of international public goods.”
A rules-based order requires not just the existence of rules, but also their egalitarian application and enforcement. This enforcement is important for the preservation of the order, but is also a critical source of legitimacy for the regimes themselves (irrespective of their style or theory of governance, some academics argue). Many countries in the Indo-Pacific lack state capacity to enforce a maritime rules-based order. These may therefore default either to provision of enforcement goods (and their concomitant rules, whether applied equally or not) by one dominant regional hegemon (i.e. the Chinese hub-and-spoke model with a focus on centralization and bilateralism), or one where they partner with like-minded nations (such as the Quad, and/or other regional groupings).
Cooperative provision of public goods, working in partnership with domestic governments, enhances domestic regime legitimacy and strengthens the rules being enforced. China understands the importance of partnership within the narrative and has begun using these terms extensively in diplomatic speeches and media. The United States has also significantly increased its focus on partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.
When it comes to their status as providers of public goods, Quad powers possess significant narrative advantages. “Centralization” and “control” are key watchwords for policy in authoritarian systems, not “distributed responsibility” and “capacity-building.” This has the potential to hamstring authoritarian regimes across a range of policy areas, but specifically in narratives around partnership-driven, rules-based orders. That contrast is highlighted in the way the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and Japan Coast Guard (JCG) interact, with a strong history of joint operations that has been extended through recent bilateral agreements such as SAPPHIRE (Solid Alliance for Peace and Prosperity with Humanity and Integrity on the Rule-of-Law Based Engagement—joint counter-narcotics exercises between the Japan and United States coast guards). This partnership extends to other activities such as joint drug interdiction and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing patrols; and to multilateral activities with other regional powers inclusive of the Philippines and Vietnam.
The USCG has a wider array of partnerships across more mission types than any other US service or department. The International Port Security Program (IPSP) encourages and promotes best practices to enhance global supply chain integrity. Ship rider agreements, which permit the USCG to act on the behalf of a signatory country to observe and board vessels suspected of violating laws and regulations, are increasingly popular with states seeking deeper partnership with the United States. The 2023 US Coast Guard budget funds additional deployments of National Security Cutters and deployable specialized forces that support partner nation law enforcement. This is a broad base of initiatives and partnerships on which to build.
The absence of overarching strategy
The nature of strategy development within the USCG, however, inhibits its ability to lead a partnership-driven public goods provision strategy designed to strengthen the existing rules-based order.
The service has well-developed, long-range planning tools and programs inclusive of the launch and development of Project Evergreen, charged with building strategic foresight across the USCG. Its approach since its founding in 2003, however, suffers from two issues consistently. First, many of the USCG’s issue-specific strategies, including Arctic, its Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing (IUUF), and its Cybersecurity strategies provide detailed analysis of the issues at hand, but fail to place those issues into the context of the service’s overall mission. Second, broader strategies, such as the recently released 2022-2026 Coast Guard Strategic Plan, focus on tactics to address current implementation shortfalls. The 2022-2026 Strategic Plan’s three pillars (workforce, competitive edge, and mission excellence) are not linked to strategic objectives (such as, perhaps, cooperative provision of public goods to uphold the rule of law). This fixation on work plans and tasks, divorced from an overarching definition the service’s strategic objectives, leads to a myopic view of operations and holds the service back from achieving wider effects.
Provision of public goods, including the impartial enforcement of governance, underpin a world based on the rule of law. A global society pursuing public goods provision leverages the power of networks, where each connection strengthens the next. It does so in a way that centralized authoritarian systems cannot replicate given that they are not built for shared, reciprocal responsibilities.
The humanitarian multi-mission nature of coast guards make them ideal candidates to lead in this space. This should begin with the US’—and its Quad partners’—coast guards placing the collaborative provision of public goods at the core of their mission, as a first step to defend the rules based order in a multi-polar world.
James R. Sullivan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Non-Resident WSD-Handa Fellow at Pacific Forum.
PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.
Photo: Members of the Japan Coast Guard pose for a picture with crew members of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Henry off Guam, June 7, 2022 (9 June 2022, U.S. Coast Guard Forces Micronesia/Sector Guam)