Seapower States

Reviewed by: Kevin Rowlands

Becoming a seapower is altogether more complex than simply acquiring a navy. So declares Andrew Lambert in his latest contribution to the navalist’s canon. He sets out his stall straight away by making a clear distinction between the one-word seapower, which is derived from maritime culture, and the two-word sea power, which even continental states can wield should they decide to invest in hardware. That early marker gives the reader a clue about what is to come, because this book from Britain’s foremost naval historian is not about ships, fleets and wars, it is about the distinctive identity of states which look more to the sea than they do to the land. Ancient Rome may have exercised significant sea power, but at its heart it was a continental, military empire. Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic and Britain were different; they were built on seapower. The sea was central to their life, their economy, their security, their outlook. One might assume, then, that seapower as an identity is begot of nature, not nurture, but is that really the case? Lambert turns away from any notion of what he terms ‘geographical inevitability’, and instead focuses on the feasibility of cultural choice. Seapower states, he argues, are what they are because they choose to be so.
Seapower identity, Lambert writes, evolved at the margins of early civilisations, not at their centre. As continental powers forged their way through history with military might and territorial conquest, those living at the edges created their power through wealth, created their wealth through trade, and their trade was maritime. They were outward looking societies with trading networks which extended far from their shores. The Ancient World, particularly around the Mediterranean, was replete with city states, island kingdoms, adventurous peoples, and empires with the sea at their heart. Seapower States takes the reader through them with consummate ease.
The author treats us to a tour of the Peloponnesian Wars, Renaissance Italy, and northern European merchant venturers. He tells us that the creation of seapower in Greece necessitated, among other things, a social revolution. The state needed to be secure, the navy needed to be maintained, and large harbours needed to be built and operated. This took revenue. Money talks, of course, and Lambert explains how funds were raised from the same rich men who paid for the arts, drama and civic projects. Their contribution was effectively accepted as a social obligation. The equivalent today, perhaps, would be if the oligarchs ‘voluntarily’ paid for the Russian navy. They don’t, partly because the sea is not part of the fabric of everyday life in Moscow in the way that it was in Athens in the days of Thucydides.
The second great seapower state, Carthage (near the site of modern-day Tunis), was always a Mediterranean and not an African city. Lambert tells of its founding, by Phoenicians who ‘arrived by sea, not on horseback’, and that simple phrase sets the scene for Cathage’s subsequent development. In cultural identity, seapowers tend to be an open-minded, eclectic mix of peoples, not insular societies like their continental counterparts. Carthage was no exception and it bore the imprint of Greek and Egyptian cultures and grew by assimilating immigrants, by eschewing restrictions on intermarriage, and by permitting women to own property. It was a culture which favoured stability and prosperity over conquest and territory. However, such a culture was ill-equipped to survive for long when faced with the ruthless military machine of Rome. Perhaps that is one of the downsides of a seapower identity – openness can be a synonym for exposure.
Lambert takes the reader through the Punic Wars, including Hannibal’s march on Rome (the long way round, by land), and stops off on the way to criticise Alfred Thayer Mahan’s handling of the same subject, saying that the seminal sea power historian missed the point. Lambert can do this because he is on form and absolutely confident in his message. It is compelling stuff.
Intriguingly, the chapter on England (not Britain, or the United Kingdom) is subtitled ‘the last seapower’. It tells of the creation and maintenance of a vast maritime empire and how it was shaped by the back and forth of war, people and history. The American Revolution, for instance is described as a catalyst for changing English identity just as much as it was for changing American. With American independence the former colony looked predominantly west across their continental landmass and that shaped their subsequent national identity. The British (no longer just English by that stage), free from the burden of colonial control there, returned to the concepts of sea control and commerce, moving whole-heartedly into the Asia-Pacific region. Empires inevitably decline, however, and Lambert notes that modern Britain still enjoys the benefits of being a seapower without the cost of maintaining a large navy. But does that make it the last?
What of today? The western liberal, rules-based order which we hear and read so much about was largely shaped by seapower states but there are no more seapower great powers, Lambert contends. States with the sea at the heart their identity still exist, of course, and we can look at Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark and Singapore as examples, but they are all middling powers. The present and future great powers – the United States, Russia and China – are far too big and powerful to rely on seapower and exercise their sea power (the distinction between one and two words, again, is critical to understanding the argument) for their well-being. They may invest heavily in their navies but their perspective is defiantly continental. China’s new ‘Silk Road’ to Europe, for example, is based on rail links across Asia far more than sea lines across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. There is some irony, then, that a sea power contest is brewing between China and the United States, neither of which are natural seapower states.
Lambert is an historian not a futurist but readers will be able to apply his ideas to their own vision of what might lie ahead. If he is right and seapower identity is a choice, albeit one which could take decades or even centuries to mature, it is reasonable to conclude that seapowers have the potential to be great powers once again, and vice versa.