- - Wednesday, May 29, 2019


By Andrew Lambert

Yale University Press, $30, 424 pages

If Andrew Lambert is correct, China is a sea power “wanna be” and not a seapower state. That Means she will ditch her current naval aspirations if things go economically or politically south internally just as quickly as Russia did when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Sea Power and Seapower are different things according to Andrew Lambert in his thought-provoking book “Seapower States.” Mr. Lambert postulates that any nation with enough money and resources can build a sea power navy whether the reason is to beat a competing navy or merely for purposes of prestige; said another way, sea power is nice to have. On the other hand, seapower states build their entire identities around a maritime existence; this includes economy, politics, and culture. According to Mr. Lambert, seapower states are not born, they are deliberately made.

When I was in high school at the height of the Cold War, many scholars believed that the United States was doomed to lose the competition with the Soviet Union — which was a land power. America would go the way of Athens and Carthage which were seapowers defeated by continental hegemons — Sparta and Rome respectively. I had a history teacher who took exception to this. He made two key points. First, America is not a seapower in the classic sense. Second, states relying on seapower can prevail against great continental powers if they develop smart alliances as Great Britain did against Napoleon and Imperial Germany. In his concise argument, my teacher summed up Mr. Lambert’s premise.

The author contends that seapower states develop when weak littoral or island nations realize that they cannot compete with continental powers on land and deliberately turn to the sea to survive. In doing so, they embrace the seapower economically, culturally and politically. Mr. Lambert argues that seapower states tend to be inclusive and economically competitive with their populations participating in governance. Seapower — not military power — makes them a threat to continental powers which tend to have absolutist systems of government and command economies. In making his case, Mr. Lambert uses five classic examples to illustrate how seapower states become powerful, and how they can fail when they lose or discard their maritime identities.

Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Netherlands Republic and Great Britain all gained great power by developing maritime identities. However, each — in its own way — declined when it turned away from the sea or developed continental pretensions that it lacked the military capabilities to execute. For example, Athens turned its allies into subjects and drove off potential allies with its arrogance and avarice while Sparta and Persia won the Peloponnesian War by building navies adequate enough to defeat Athens at sea while their armies overwhelmed it on land. Carthage allowed Hannibal to develop a continental strategy without the allies to implement it, while Rome beat Carthage by painfully gaining sea control. sea.

The book is compelling, but not perfect. It is a hard sell to portray Carthaginian government as being more populist and inclusive than its Roman enemy. It may have had a senate, but most historians portray Carthage as every bit as oligarchic as Rome; but perhaps it may be the exception that proves the rule. Despite this hard sell, Mr. Lambert has created a work that is both scholarly and readable. He is a professor of naval history at King’s College in London with several successful books to his credit.

One of the author’s key points is that the inclusive governmental systems and competitive — if not necessarily capitalist — economic systems of seapowers tend to be seen as existential threats to absolutist governments and command economies of traditional continental powers. Continental states that — for whatever reason — develop strong navies, tend to abandon naval pretense when the threat subsides or when internal difficulties make navies too expensive to maintain. Russia has been a historical poster child for this since the time of Peter the Great.

This brings us to the United States. America began as a maritime trading nation, but manifest destiny soon turned it into a continental power. It has raised great navies for a number of reasons. Survival in the Civil War, prestige under Teddy Roosevelt, and to project power in two global conflicts. For seven decades it has remained a sea power supporting allies against other continental threats which have developed naval aspirations. The United States is not a traditional seapower state, but sea power will remain a keystone in our grand strategy. Seapower states choose that identity. Indispensable states have sea power thrust on them.

• Gary Anderson lectures at the George Washington University’s Elliott School and is the author of the Naval War College Newport Paper “Beyond Mahan.”

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