REVIEW – Seapower States: maritime culture, continental empires, and the conflict that made the modern world

5 mins read
Andrew Lambert 
Yale University Press, £20 (hbk)
Andrew Lambert
Yale University Press, £20 (hbk)

By Andrew Lambert
Published by Yale University Press

Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s College London, has been described as ‘the outstanding British naval historian of his generation’. Seapower States is the latest book in what has been an extraordinarily prolific few years for him, and it is certainly no conventional historical narrative.

Rather, Seapower States is an ambitious, potentially controversial, and polemical work, a robust argument in nine chapters that aims to establish beyond doubt one deceptively simple premise: that the single defining factor which has influenced the development of the modern world has been the age-old conflict between ‘Seapower States’ – nations that made a conscious choice to, in Lambert’s words, ‘exploit the asymmetric strategic and economic advantages of maritime power, to enable them to act as great powers’ – and their rivals, the hegemonic land empires that Lambert has christened ‘universal monarchies’, of which perhaps the best example is Imperial Rome.

The premise may be simple, but making the case for it certainly is not; Seapower States is not a simple book. Buying in to Lambert’s argument involves accepting some very unconventional wisdom, and there is absolutely no doubt that almost all informed readers will find some things in the book to love, and others that will surely make them choke on
their coffee. The author is very clear in his acknowledgements that his intention is to generate debate – and this he will certainly do.

For example, the golden thread running through the book is a distinction Lambert makes between a true ‘Seapower’ (one word) and exponents of ‘Sea Power’ (two words), as outlined by the 19th-century American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan. The latter, according to Lambert, can be wielded by any nation with the requisite coastline, population, and resource base to build a large navy, but the former derives from a unique blend of economic, political, and cultural structures, which are found only in nations that have chosen to be defined by the way they interact with the sea.

Seapower, argues Lambert, is more than just a means of waging war, it is a way of life, and according to Seapower States, there have been – French, German, American, Russian, and Chinese readers put down your coffee cups now – only five Seapower States in recorded history: Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic (briefly), and England/Great Britain. Simply having a fleet, Lambert claims, even the biggest and most capable in the world, is not enough to make a country a seapower.

This bold statement of intent shapes the book’s structure, which, after a short introduction and a longer opening chapter looking at how ‘Seapower evolved at the margins of early civilisation, not in the centre’, goes on to examine in minute detail exactly what made these five nations into Seapower States, how they flourished, and how and why they all, eventually, collapsed back into relative obscurity.

The Tower of Belém, a Portuguese fortification built against Moorish raiders.
The Tower of Belém, a Portuguese fortification built against Moorish raiders.

Lambert’s prose is a force of nature, relentlessly battering away at his readers, for all the world like an Atlantic gale smashing on a rocky shore, constantly emphasising and re-emphasising his defi nition of Seapower until we have almost no choice but to submit to it.

Seapower States, argues Lambert, can evolve only from nations with a relatively inclusive oligarchic or republican political system which empowers the commercial elite, a focus on naval rather than military armed force, and a national culture which is ‘suff used with the sea’.

Seapower States, he continues, are great powers, operating on the margins of and oft en challenging, sometimes to their considerable cost, hegemonic land powers: for Athens, Persia; for Carthage, Rome; for Venice, the Ottoman Empire; and for the Dutch, Spain and England.

Smaller nations may share some maritime characteristics and values,
but are unable to operate at the same level, becoming ‘Sea States’, but not ‘Seapower States’.

After his analysis of the Dutch, Lambert diverts for Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 to explain precisely why certain states, which the less convinced reader might believe to have been Seapowers, ultimately failed the test, either because they were too small (Rhodes), too economically and politically backward (Portugal and Spain), or too authoritarian and dominated by their armies, seeing navies as merely useful adjuncts to military campaigns ashore (Peter the Great’s Russia).

With a flourish, he returns to his theme in Chapter 8 with a compelling analysis of England, which Lambert argues was the last and the longest-lived Seapower State, operating successfully from the 17th century until 1945, and fulfilling each of the author’s strictly observed and relentlessly reiterated criteria.

England, of course, evolved into the British Empire, and for much of its history was in an almost constant state of war with a series of hegemonic continental powers, from Bourbon, Revolutionary, and Napoleonic France, and (briefly) Imperial Russia, to Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany, before finally succumbing to a peaceful but not especially benign political and economic ‘conquest’ by the United States.

A plan and view of the great dockyard at Woolwich in London by Pierre-Charles Canot, 1753.
A plan and view of the great dockyard at Woolwich in London by Pierre-Charles Canot, 1753.

For the record, Lambert argues that, despite the impressive maritime culture which still defines parts of New England, the USA chose to abandon the sea and become a continental power when it opted to concentrate its military efforts on taming the interior frontier in the 19th century. The United States Navy, writes Lambert, almost certainly controversially, ‘never became a seapower navy, because the sea had long since ceased to be central to America as an economy, a state, or a culture’. The United States, Lambert argues forcefully, is a capable and effective wielder of Mahanian sea power, but it is not a ‘Seapower’.

For me, this argument was one of the most difficult in the book to accept. Surely there is a case to be made that in achieving unprecedented levels of global military, economic, and political power, the United States has perhaps subverted Lambert’s model altogether, and maybe this extraordinary, unique melding of continental power and sea power is the secret of US success?

In a bipolar world during the Cold War, it was the ability of the United States to understand and use the sea that ultimately gave it the edge over the Soviet Union – the latter a classic example, in Lambert’s terms, of a hegemonic land empire that possessed the necessary resources to build a big navy as an adjunct to its army, but with the latter always predominant.

Seapower States is not for the faint-hearted and is certain to raise hackles, and not only in the US. It is fair to say that the book requires considerable background knowledge. Lambert takes no prisoners when it comes to assumed knowledge, and, as a 20th-century historian, I struggled mightily with the Classical period, which involved a great deal of contextual cross referencing with other works and recourse to the ever-helpful Google.

The Battle of Lepanto, 1571.
The Battle of Lepanto, 1571.

However, there is no question that the more genuine effort the reader puts in, really reading (and, if necessary, re-reading) every argument, the more it pays back. It is not necessary – in fact, it may well be almost impossible – to agree with everything Lambert writes. But if you want to be compelled to look again at the history of the world – or at least the world that evolved in or from contact with Western Europe – and see it from an entirely different perspective, then this book is certainly for you.

Seapower States is a powerful, compelling work by an historian who is absolutely at the top of his game. Sweeping across the globe, embracing everything from Thucydides to Brexit, Lambert has written a statement in huge, bold letters, across the sometimes cautious and conservative blackboard of naval history. There is little doubt that reading the responses from his peers, which this work will almost certainly inspire, will be almost as enjoyable as reading the book itself. Highly recommended.

Review by Nick Hewitt

This article was published in the February 2019 issue of Military History Matters magazine. To find out more about how to subscribe to the magazine, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.