In an age of microchips, information and cyber warfare, precision-guided ballistic missiles, satellite communications, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence, does a book about the historical struggles between insular sea powers and continental land powers have any relevance? Is there any practical benefit—other than an interest in history—to read about how the Athenians, Carthaginians, Venetians, Dutch, and British constructed and utilized sea power? Does the sea or land-oriented “culture” of a country really matter in 21st century geopolitics?
British historian Andrew Lambert thinks so. He uses the first eight chapters of his provocative and fascinating book Seapower States to show the historical connection between culture and “seapower”, to explain the distinction between “seapowers” and “sea states”, and to reflect on how various seapowers and “sea states” struggled for primacy and sometimes for survival with great continental land powers. He then applies his findings to the current geopolitical contest between the United States and Communist China. More about that below.
The “culture” of great seapowers, Lambert writes, consists of
inclusive politics, the central place of commerce in civic life, and opposition to …. hegemonic powers intent on conquest and dominion.
Seapower culture, he continues, is often manifested in art, architecture, and literature. He believes that a country consciously adopts a maritime identity. States, he contends, can
change their culture from land to sea and back again, driven by political choice, not geographic inevitability.
Mommsen and Mahan, Lambert writes, were wrong to emphasize geography. And they were wrong because they were products of their respective countries (Germany and the United States), both of which “were continental states that built navies to project military power across the ocean.”
Lambert acknowledges that throughout history continental states have constructed powerful navies, and some—like Rome—have conquered the sea by land, but in the end their culture and destiny is land-oriented. Moreover, the great hegemonic land powers are characteristically
undemocratic, impose centralized economies, abuse the legal process, and shape cultural identities around military might and the domination of conquered peoples.
This contrast of cultures between sea and land powers often leads to conflict.
Lambert’s analyses of the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, the Venetian and Dutch overseas empires, and Great Britain’s repeated struggles against European hegemonic land powers (the Spanish-Austrian Habsburgs, Louis XIV’s and Napoleon’s France, and Wilhelmine and Hitlerian Germany) are thoughtful, insightful, and integrated into his broad, overarching theme. His work in that respect is reminiscent of Colin S Gray’s brilliant exploration of sea power throughout history in The Leverage of Sea Power. Gray, too, paid attention to a nation’s “strategic culture”, but unlike Lambert he placed more emphasis on geography as a conditioning and impelling factor in the sea or land orientation of a country.
Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Lambert’s book is his contention that beginning at the end of the First World War, the United States consciously sought to cripple British sea power and succeeded in doing so by the end of World War II. This overlooks the fact that the US was a reluctant entrant into both of those wars. The cause of Britain’s decline was internal: exhaustion of resources and psychological demobilization as a result of two calamitous wars.
Less provocative, and similarly unconvincing, is Lambert’s claim that the United States is not a maritime seapower in the tradition of Great Britain. Lambert characterizes the US as both a “continental military state” and a “great strategic naval power” but contends that it lacks the culture of a seapower. Here, Lambert is letting America’s continental size and initial continental culture (19th century Manifest Destiny) obscure the more relevant geopolitical fact that the United States is effectively an insular power on a much broader scale than Britain ever was. As the great Dutch-American geopolitical theorist Nicholas Spykman explained, the United States is to Eurasia what Great Britain is to Europe—an insular island located offshore of a great continent. It uses its economic wealth and sea power to promote a Eurasian balance of power, just as Britain did to promote a European balance of power.
Despite the advances in science and technology noted at the beginning of this review, Lambert believes that “the great fault lines of global politics consistently return to the contrasting nature of land and sea states.” During the Cold War, the US opposed a great Eurasian hegemonic land power (the USSR) just as Britain had in the preceding three centuries. Today, as Lambert notes, the US opposes a China that shares the undemocratic, centralized economic characteristics of previous great continental would-be hegemons. China, Lambert writes, fears the United States as
the vector for the cornucopia of liberal, progressive and inclusive ideas that created seapower states.
He warns that if China were to replace the US as the world’s leading power, “it would shatter the global economy and the seapower model that sustains it.”
Lambert believes that Chinese leaders are caught between the need to produce economic growth to maintain legitimacy and the concern that economic liberalization can lead to political instability in an authoritarian one-party state. He downplays the role of ideology in China’s policies. He is rather sanguine about the growth of Chinese military (including naval) power and China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea. He writes that China has sided with Mackinder over Mahan by promoting a new “Silk Road” across central Asia, but concludes that this choice ultimately favors the liberal world order because in the long run command of the great oceanic highway will determine the outcome of the struggle.
Lambert is right. The study of history, strategic culture, and geopolitical conflict still matters. The seapowers of the 21st century will benefit from understanding the achievements and errors of their predecessors. History remains the best guidepost for statesmen.