The Influence of Seapower Upon History


Are we still doing Soapboxing? The last post here was in May. Well, I hope it’s still around. Here’s my latest effort:

This book has a revered place in the military history literary canon, and is said to have profoundly influenced British, American, Japanese and German naval strategy from World War 1 on. Theodore Roosevelt’s showing of the American “Great White Fleet” from 1907- 1909 is in part attributed to the impact of Mahan’s work.

“The Great White Fleet”

This book can be roughly divided into three parts, so I will divide my review accordingly.

Part 1
The first hundred or so pages truly lived up to the title’s promise: an analysis of the influence of sea power upon history. The oceans are the great commons of our planet, and one of their most valuable utilities to man has been as the cheapest means of transporting goods. Even though the vast expanse of blue may appear homogeneous wherever you look, there are some particular well-worn pathways- by virtue of their directness and the predominant winds and currents, which have been the mainstays for transportation of goods and military force. In examples spanning from the Roman Empire to just before the Napoleonic Wars, Mahan makes his case that control of these trade routes is a vital strategic interest for any nation wishing to assure its prosperity through trade and its security through projection of force.

The narration starts with an analysis of the Second Punic War which shows beyond any question how Roman victory over Carthage was inevitable, once the Roman fleet asserted her dominance over the Mediterranean.

From there, he jumps ahead to the Age of Exploration and the early days of European colonialization. The Dutch and Portuguese made impressive early gains in foreign trade long before the era of British dominance. Dutch traders established footholds in Indonesia, South Africa and Japan, while the Portuguese were active in India and South America.


Both powers failed to grow empires like the British because various factors prevented them from growing and maintaining sufficient military (i.e. naval) force to provide coverage ensuring safe passage, and to drive off competition (or more likely to allow for competition but only on favorable terms).

Part 2
This gets into the period Mahan really wants to examine, from 1660-1783. At the onset, France is the preeminent European military power of the day, but Britain- having no land borders to defend- is free to concentrate all her efforts and resources into developing her navy. Situated as she is between the Netherlands and the open ocean, England recognizes that she can cut the vast Dutch trading empire off from her homelands, if she can dominate the North Sea. The Dutch failure to oppose England in this endeavor can be attributed to both distractions on her land borders which sap vital funds from her navy, and essentially cheapness- a reluctance of the Dutch government to make the short-term investments in her navy which would have paid off so handsomely, if only she were able to meet the English navy on equal terms. What trade concessions and territories (e.g. New York) England can’t extract from the Dutch by force, she eventually takes through leveraged negotiation (e.g. trade and navigation concessions), relegating the Netherlands to a second-rate power by the mid-1700′s.

France proves to be more of a challenge. Louis XIV’s interest in his navy waxes and wanes, and the military fortunes of France fluctuate in exact accordance with Mahan’s thesis. When the French navy is strong, she prospers and enjoys fortune in battle. When the French navy is let to lag in supplies or design, or falls into disrepair or laxity of discipline, French fortunes fall.

Maybe his ministers can be blamed for turning Louis XIV’s attention to draining and ultimately unprofitable land wars in Europe, but Mahan deftly shows how France squandered numerous opportunities to wrest naval superiority from the British during the “Sun King’s” reign. More embarrassing still: once Britain acquires Gibraltar, she begins to assert her interests in the Mediterranean, taking Minorca and Malta as permanent bases of operation, and establishing through the Suez shorter passage to India, where a nascent French East India Company in Madras is slowly overshadowed and beat down.

The British Empire

For most of part 2, England appears to be an unstoppable military/commercial juggernaut, thanks to her mastery of the seas. It is only late in the game when France and Spain- united under the House of Burbon, decide to build up their navies and strike at the maritime source of British power. Spain wins back Minorca, and France successfully assists England’s most populated, most prosperous colony (the United States) in breaking free of the British crown. Mahan shines again as brightly here as he did with the Punic Wars, offering thoughtful analysis on why French naval power, in conjunction with American commerce-raiding, were key to successful revolution.

It is all very satisfying reading up until

Part 3
Seriously, Mahan should have quit around page 350, because the last 180 pages or so only cover a period of about five years, and became ground down in painful detail about British-French wrangling in the Caribbean from 1778-1783.

For some reason, Mahan becomes obsessed here in the tactical minusca of ship-to-ship fighting between wind-driven ships of the line. There is a lot of technical language about ships being leeward, and having the weather gauge, and accounts of battles turning with shifts in the wind… no doubt some readers out there will totally groove on that sort of thing, but it is NO LONGER the discussion promised by the book’s title (i.e. an examination on how sea power has affected the course of history).

Rating them separately, I would award 5 stars to Part 1, 4 stars to Part 2, and 1 star to Part 3. Essentially I recommend you read this book up to around page 350.

After reading this, I think it’s natural to wonder what lessons or observations it has to offer on our present-day world. I have my own biases and worldview, but the issue of China leaps out at me. They obviously haven’t heard of Mahan, or if they have, they haven’t taken his instructions to heart. With over a billion inhabitants, a rocketing economy based on vigorous international trade, and a coastline which provides access to the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea -it seems pretty obvious that China’s current naval power is far smaller than what her interests would demand.

Looking at the state of China in 2014, it seems ridiculous that even today she shakes her fist in impotent frustration at the “rogue province” of Taiwan, and disputed islands in Japan. A Mahanian China would have a robust navy which would long ago have cut Taiwan off from her Western trading partners and brought her into the fold of the mainland provinces.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I wish this would happen. China is a formidable enough frienemy as it is. I’m just saying that it seems only a matter of time that China – like France and Spain before her- smartens up and realizes how much advantage a forceful navy brings a nation. With a decades-long forward presence in Japan, Guam, the Philipines, and more recently Australia, it seems the U.S. anticipates this eventuality.

Looking elsewhere, it seems bizarre to me that there are so many areas in the world which remain plagued by pirates.

One of the basic tenets of Mahan’s views seems to be that a nation must keep the seas free and safe for commerce. In this day and age, with the combined interests of Europe, North America, and East Asia at stake, it seems like it would be a small matter to drive renegade stateless commerce raiders from the world’s oceans. Somebody more informed about this can chime in on the discussion thread, if you will.

And speaking of the Middle East (as I was, tangentially): I believe history will deal severely with Middle Eastern powers who have enjoyed so many decades of rich petroleum trade, but who have not channeled any of these profits into building up their own maritime forces. I have never read anything in the popular press about a Saudi Arabian navy, or a navy of any other Middle Eastern oil exporter. I understand that they have built up their respective infrastructures in other areas, and have extensive cash investments around the world. It just seems that Mahan’s book is so clearly correct in observing how closely a (non-landlocked) nation’s fortunes are aligned with the power and respect which its navy commands. The lesson seems lost on the petrodollar-fueled nations of the Middle East.

Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m not particularly eager to hear about a powerful Saudi navy asserting itself. It’s just that Mahan has made some convincing arguments in this book, and I wonder why they haven’t been more universally accepted.


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