This Week’s Book Review: Seapower States

 

Free markets and representative government combined to create unprecedented wealth since 1800. During the 20th century, three major conflicts were won by the coalition better representing those two traits.

“Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World,” by Andrew Lambert examines the roles maritime cultures play fostering progress. Lambert holds that nations depending on seapower must necessarily favor free trade and possess representative governments.

He examines five nations that became world powers through embracing maritime culture and seapower: Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Netherlands, and Britain. All five gained power through trade — and more importantly, exchange of ideas. He argues they achieved this because all five had decentralized, representative governments made up of people whose livelihood depended on trade. This allowed the best ideas and the best leaders to rise to the top.

He also examines the major rivals of each state — continental powers favoring a strong central government with a command economy set by that government: Persia and Sparta against Athens, Rome against Carthage, Imperial (and later Revolutionary) France against Venice, the Netherlands, and Britain. He explores the wars fought between the rival piers and what led to victory or defeat in each case.

Lambert differentiates between seapower (controlling the sea and trade on it) and naval power (possessing a strong navy). Continental powers can build and sustain strong navies (as did Rome and Russia in examples given in his book) and even defeat seapowers with their navies. But while seapowers use their navies to protect trade, continental powers use their navies to project land power. Rome invaded Africa, and Russia used its fleets to flank Sweden and the Ottomans.

He also examines sea states, nations which developed seapower, but didn’t become dominating nations. These include the ancient Phoenician cities of the Levant coast, Rhodes, and Genoa.

Lambert argues what makes seapower states dangerous to continental states is they foster innovation. This is destabilizing, as new technologies often undermine the authority of central governments. “Seapower States” offers insight into the direction the modern world may take due to tensions between liberty and centralization.

“Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that Made the Modern World,” by Andrew Lambert, Yale University Press, 2018, 424 pages, $30

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

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  1. Vectorman Member
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    Did Andrew Lambert mention anything about the rise of Japanese sea power after 1900?

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Did Andrew Lambert mention anything about the rise of Japanese sea power after 1900?

    Yes. He categorized them as a Continental power with a navy – similar to Russia and Rome. The navy existed to support the Japanese Army. 

    Despite the magnitude of the naval war in the Pacific, I decided he had nailed it. The Army was the senior service in Japan, and in most of the history of modern Japan the Navy served the army, including during both Sino-Japanese Wars and the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese Navy’s fixation on enemy warships to the neglect of freighter, tankers, and logistical targets (such as the repair shops and tank farms at Pearl Harbor) underscores their lack of a seapower orientation.

    • #2
  3. Matt Balzer, Straw Bootlegger Member
    Matt Balzer, Straw Bootlegger
    @MattBalzer

    Seawriter: He also examines sea states, nations which developed seapower, but didn’t become dominating nations. These include the ancient Phoenician cities of the Levant coast, Rhodes, and Genoa.

    As I vaguely recall, Carthage was the descendant of the Phoenicians. If that is correct, is there any mention of that connection?

    • #3
  4. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Matt Balzer, Straw Bootlegger (View Comment):

    Seawriter: He also examines sea states, nations which developed seapower, but didn’t become dominating nations. These include the ancient Phoenician cities of the Levant coast, Rhodes, and Genoa.

    As I vaguely recall, Carthage was the descendant of the Phoenicians. If that is correct, is there any mention of that connection?

    Yes, and yes. The Phoenicians got squeezed out by the Assyrians, who would rather have had the Phoenician cities under their direct control than collect more tribute from those cities as independent states than the Assyrians could by ruling them directly. The Carthaginians were based on colonies established by these cities. It was a similar relationship to that of the US and UK, although the analogy would be closer if Britain had been conquered by Napoleon.

    • #4
  5. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Vectorman (View Comment):

    Did Andrew Lambert mention anything about the rise of Japanese sea power after 1900?

    Yes. He categorized them as a Continental power with a navy – similar to Russia and Rome. The navy existed to support the Japanese Army.

    Despite the magnitude of the naval war in the Pacific, I decided he had nailed it. The Army was the senior service in Japan, and in most of the history of modern Japan the Navy served the army, including during both Sino-Japanese Wars and the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese Navy’s fixation on enemy warships to the neglect of freighter, tankers, and logistical targets (such as the repair shops and tank farms at Pearl Harbor) underscores their lack of a seapower orientation.

    Another mistake the Japanese made was not producing enough destroyers to protect their convoys. Towards the end of WWII to protect the destroyers they had left they sent fishing boats out on coastal patrols. The fishing boats were equipped with radio masts to call destroyers out from harbors to engage US submarines. They lost quite a few fishing boats to submarines that would surface and engage them with .50 caliber machine gun fire. 

     

    • #5
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    How does he categorize the US?

    • #6
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):

    How does he categorize the US?

    Seapower state up until we started moving west of the Appalachians, continental power thereafter. It is a good call. We have been through periods with almost no navy, and when we do have a navy we use it to project power – read get boots on the ground. Our representative government makes us an anomaly among continental states, but is the heritage of our seapower origins.

    A true seapower state does not need a large army.That was Athens, Venice, Great Britain, and to a lesser extent Carthage. Once continental possessions become more important than trade, the seapower state transitions to a continental power. The Netherlands ceased to be a seapower state because of the resources they needed for an army to protect themselves against a French invasion. Similarly once Venice got more interested in its Italian possessions (Veneto) rather than its trading outposts it rapidly faded as a seapower state. More ominously, Britain’s power melted like snow in the spring after committing itself to building a large land army in 1915.

    • #7
  8. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    I have 3 questions on this:

    1. Are there examples of nations transitioning back and forth between land and sea powers, and doing so deliberately? Or, once a nation has abandoned sea power, is it gone for good (or, related, is seapower something that really has to rise organically “in a fit of absentmindedness”)?
    2. Does the author have any thoughts about the emergence of the internet having any analog with seapower or sea trade? Could one make the case that information flow is, in a way, something of a supplement to far flung sea trade? (Obviously they cannot be identical)
    3. Are there any examples of sea-power-like land powers – nations that despite being landlocked still maintain a far flung trade service and so accrue something of the same benefits?
    • #8
  9. Vectorman Member
    Vectorman
    @Vectorman

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    Are there any examples of sea-power-like land powers – nations that despite being landlocked still maintain a far flung trade service and so accrue something of the same benefits?

    Switzerland?

    • #9
  10. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    1. Are there examples of nations transitioning back and forth between land and sea powers, and doing so deliberately? Or, once a nation has abandoned sea power, is it gone for good (or, related, is seapower something that really has to rise organically “in a fit of absentmindedness”)?

    Hard to say. Britain transitioned from a continental power (100-Years War period and early Tudor period) to a seapower (Elizabeth to the end of the Commonwealth), but Lambert feels it only went all-in on seapower with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the primacy of Parliament over crown. (A centralized government is anathema to seapower, as seapower requires decentralized decision-making by the man on the spot,) Venice and Holland were forced to become continental due to changing circumstances. Venice due to changing trade routes (oceanic trade killed a lot of their routes) and the Netherlands because only two of the seven provinces were really invested in the sea,

    Athens and Carthage were pretty well destroyed by centralized continental powers. One thing he stressed the existential danger seapowers offer to continental nations with strong centralized governments as their people tend to be better off materially and really in lifestyle. The example of a successful representative government is a dagger to the heart of authoritarian governments. Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, and Stalin all needed to destroy the free-market, representative nations offering a challenge to their own governing styles.

    • #10
  11. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    2. Does the author have any thoughts about the emergence of the internet having any analog with seapower or sea trade? Could one make the case that information flow is, in a way, something of a supplement to far flung sea trade? (Obviously they cannot be identical)

    Actually he does. He spent the last chapter on exactly that, using China as an example of a continental power seeking to throttle the Internet and change the trade routes from China to Europe from ocean trade to land routes (via a new Silk Road). They see this as necessary to control thought and maintain the government’s primacy.

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    3. Are there any examples of sea-power-like land powers – nations that despite being landlocked still maintain a far flung trade service and so accrue something of the same benefits?

    Vectorman’s suggestion of Switzerland might be the best example, but that is extremely limited. Their trade is primarily stuff that is either very light or that does not have to be moved (banking). Also mountains constrict travel, and travel is a key to trade. Switzerland was a poor nation up until the mid-nineteenth century. Their main export for many years was mercenary soldiers – kind of a staple for landlocked mountain regions, (I really wish anonymous were still around, He would be more knowledgeable about Switzerland.)

    • #11
  12. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    as seapower requires decentralized decision-making by the man on the spot

    Is this still true now that all the ships at sea can be controlled from a gamer console back at naval headquarters?

    Or if we’re only partway to that point, is it less true than it used to be?

    • #12
  13. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    as seapower requires decentralized decision-making by the man on the spot

    Is this still true now that all the ships at sea can be controlled from a gamer console back at naval headquarters?

    Or if we’re only partway to that point, is it less true than it used to be?

    Even if ships can be controlled by a gaming console at Pearl Harbor (for naval ships) or Houston (for Chevron’s tanker fleet), decisions still need to be made by the man on the spot. Especially since the essence of seapower is not naval strength – it is trade. Unless the income from trade justifies the maintenance of a navy, a navy is a luxury – used to project land power great distances or to project sovereign prestige.

    • #13
  14. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron
    @JamesGawron

    Sea,

    Very interesting stuff here. I have often thought along this path before. I would make some additional distinctions. First, I would recognize that the first real land empires are River empires. The low cost of transportation of goods even with primitive lateen rigged small boats gives the River civilization its first boost. Next, agriculture along the river has a ready source of irrigation without transporting the water. Now we see that the Greeks on their rocky peninsula well protected from land invasion develop a Mediterranean seafaring culture that frees them from the River Empires. Spain is really still holding to the Greek paradigm and is a Mediterranean seafaring culture. They are fighting another such culture in the battle of Lepanto against the Ottoman Turks. Finally, Britain breaks the old Greek paradigm and becomes the first Oceanic Empire. Their victory over the French for control of the North American Continent is directly the result of their Oceanic Imperial status. The US largely naval victory over Japan in WWII means that we have supplanted the British Empire as the worlds prime Oceanic power.

    I would never try to explain History in a purely deterministic way using this paradigm. However, to ignore something so crucial as navigation in telling the story would be completely false.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #14
  15. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Thank you, Seawriter.

    • #15

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