by Robert Steuckers
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore all the dramatic events of the 17th century which led to the situation of the mid-18th century, but addressing them would make this short paper too exhaustive . Even if Britain could already master the Western Mediterranean by controlling Gibraltar and the Balearic Isles after the “Spanish Succession War”, many British historians are anyway nowadays aware that British unmistakeable supremacy was born immediately after the “Seven Years’ War” and that seapower became the greatest determinant for global superiority since then. It would also be silly to forget about a certain globalization of conflicts in the 16th century: Pizzaro conquered the Inca Empire and stole its gold to finance Charles V’s war against the Ottomans in Northern Africa, while the Portuguese were invading the shores of the Indian Ocean, beating the Mameluks’ fleet in front of the Gujarat’s coasts, and waging war against the Yemenite and Somali allies of the Turks in Abyssinia. The Spaniards, established in the Philippines, successfully fought against the Chinese pirates who wanted to disturb Spanish trade in the Pacific. Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), by conquering the Volga basin up to the Caspian, made the first steps in the direction of the Russian conquest of Northern Asia. The war between Christianity (as defined by Emperor Charles V and Philipp II of Spain) and Islam was indeed a World War, but not yet as fully coordinated as would always be the case after 1759.
For the British historian Frank McLynn, the British could beat their main French enemy in 1759 —the fourth year of the “Seven Years’ War”— on four continents and achieve absolute mastery of the seas. Seapower and sea warfare automatically means that all main wars become world wars, due to the technically possible ubiquity of vessels and the necessity to protect sea routes to Europe (or to any other place in the world), to transport all kind of materials, and to support operating troops on the continental theatre. In India, the Moghul Empire was replaced by British rule that introduced the harsh discipline of incipient industrialism to a traditional non-hectic society and let the derelict Indian masses —of which one-third perished during a famine in 1769— produce huge bulks of cheap goods to submerge the European markets, preventing for many decades the emergence of genuine large-scale industry in the main kingdoms of continental Europe. While France was tied up in a ruinous war in Europe, the British Prime Minister Pitt could invest a considerable amount of money in the North American war and defeat the French in Canada, taking the main strategic bases along the Saint-Lawrence river and conquering the Great Lakes region, leaving a giant but isolated Louisiana to the French. From 1759 onwards, Britain as a seapower could definitively control the Northern Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, even if the French could take revenge by building a new efficient and modern fleet in the 1770s, despite not being able to regain their full global power.
The Treaty of Paris of 1763 marked the end of French domination in India and Canada, a situation that didn’t preoccupy Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, but disturbed the King’s successor, the future Louis XVI, who is generally considered a weak monarch only interested in making slots. This is pure propaganda propagated by the British, the French revolutionaries, and modern trends in political thought. Louis XVI was deeply interested in seapower and sea exploration, exactly as the Russian were when they sent Captain Spangberg, who explored the Kurils and the main Northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1738, and some years or decades later, other brilliant sailors and captains around the world. Examples of these are Bering and his Lieutenant Tshirikov —who was the first officer to hoist the Russian imperial flag on the Pacific coast of Northern America— and Admiral von Krusenstern (who claimed the Hawaiian Islands for Russia), Fabian Gottlieb Bellingshausen (who circumnavigated the Antarctic for the first time in mankind’s history), and Otto von Kotzebue (who explored Micronesia and Polynesia). These sea explorers worked in coordination with land explorers such as Aleksandr Baranov, who founded twenty-four naval and fishing posts from the Kamchatka Peninsula to California. If the constant and precious work of these sea and land explorers would have been carried on ceaselessly, the Pacific would have become a Russian lake. But fur trade as a mono-economic activity was not enough to establish a Russian New World empire directly linked to the Russian possessions in East Siberia, even if Tsar Aleksandr I was —exactly as Louis XVI was for France— in favour of Pacific expension. Tsar Nikolai I, as a strict follower of the ultraconservative principles of Metternich’s diplomacy, refused all cooperation with the revolutionaries in Mexico that were rebelling against Spain, a country protected by the Holy Alliance. This alliance was a group of European monarchs, including the Tsar, that were against all modifications to political regimes in the name of a too-uncompromising traditional continuity.
Louis XVI, after having inherited the crown, immediately started to prepare for revenge in order to nullify the humiliating clauses of the 1763 Paris Treaty. Ministers Choiseul and Praslin modernized the dockyards, proposed a better scientific training of the naval officers, and favoured explorations under the leadership of able captains like Kerguelen and Bougainville. On the diplomatic level, they entered into an alliance with Spain in order to have two combined fleets totaling more vessels than the British fleet, which would be especially true if they could count on the Dutch as their third potential ally. The aim was to build a complete Western European alliance against British supremacy, while Russia as another latent ally in the East was trying to concentrate its efforts to control the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Northern Pacific. This was a genuine, efficient, and pragmatic Eurasianism avant la lettre! The efforts of the French, Spaniards, and Dutch contributed to the American Revolution and subsequent independence, as the colonists of the thirteen British colonies on the East Coast of the present-day US-territory were being crushed under a terrible fiscality coined by non-elected officials to finance the British war effort. It is a paradox of modern history that traditional powers like France and Spain contributed to the birth of the most anti-traditional power that ever existed in mankind’s history. But modernity is born out of the simple existence of a worldwide thalassocracy. The power which contains seapower (or thalassocracy) is ipso facto the bearer of modern dissolution, as naval systems are not bound to Earth, where men have always lived and created the continuities of living history.
Pitt, who was governing England at that time, could not tolerate the constant challenge of the French-Spanish-Dutch alliance that forced Britain to dedicate huge budgets to cope with the united will of the challenging Western European powers. This lethal alliance had to be broken, or the civil peace within the enemies’ borders reduced to nothing, in order to paralyze their foreign policies. French historians such as Olivier Blanc put forward the hypothesis that the riots of the French Revolution were financed by Pitt’s secret funds in order to annihilate the danger posed to England by France’s numerous and efficient vessels. And the fall of the French monarchy did indeed imply the decay of the French fleet. For a time, vessels were still built in the dockyards to consolidate the seapower of which Louis XVI dreamt, but as the officers were mainly noblemen, they were either dismissed, eliminated, or compulsed to emigrate, so that there was no longer enough commanding staff or able personnel that could have been easily replaced by conscription, as was the solution to the situation with the regiments of the land forces. Prof. Bennichon, a leading French naval historian, concludes a recent study of his by saying that workers in the dockyards of Toulon were no longer being paid, that they and their families were starving, and consequently, they looted the wood reserves. This made it so that the new Republican regime was totally unable to engage the British forces on the sea. Moreover, the new violent and chaotic regime was unable to find allies in Europe, with their old Spanish and Dutch allies prefering instead to join their forces to the British-lead coalition. The English were then able to reduce French naval activities to simple coastal navigation. A British blockade of the continent could from then on be organized. On the Mediterranean stage, the French after the battle of Abukir were unable to repatriate their own troops from Egypt and, after Trafalgar, unable to threaten Britain’s coasts or to attempt a landing in rebelling Ireland. Napoleon didn’t believe in seapower and was finally beaten on the continent in Leipzig and Waterloo. Prof. Bennichon explains: “Which conclusions can we draw from the Franco-British clash (of the 18th century)? The mastery of seapower implies first of all the long term existence of a political will. If there is no political will, the successive interruptions in naval policy compels the unstable regime to repeated expensive fresh starts without being able in the end to face emergencies… Fleets cannot be created spontaneously and rapidly in the quite short time that an emergency situation lasts: they always should preexist before a conflict breaks out”. Artificially created interruptions like the French Revolution and the civil disorders it stirred up at the beginning of the 1790s (apparently instigated by Pitt’s services) —or like the Yeltsin era in Russia in the 1990s— have an obvious purpose to obstruct long term projects in the production of efficient armaments and to doom the adverse power plunged into inefficiency to yield power on the international chessboard.
The artificially created French Revolution can be perceived as revenge for the lost battle of Yorktown in 1783, the very year Empress Catherine II of Russia had taken Crimea from the Turks. In 1783, the thalassocratic power in Britain had apparently decided to crush French naval power by all secret and unconventional means and to control the development of Russian naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Black Sea, with the intent being that Russian seapower would not exceed the limits of the Bosphorus and interfere in the Eastern Mediterranean. What explicitly concerns Russia is an anonymous document from a British government department issued in 1791 and titled “Russian Armament”; it sketched the strategy to adopt in order to keep the Russian fleet down, as the defeats of the French in the Mediterranean implied complete British control of this naval area, so that the whole European continent could be entangled from Norway to Gibraltar and from Gilbraltar to Syria and Egypt. This brings us to the conclusion that any single largely dominating seapower is strategically compelled to meddle into other powers’ internal affairs to create civil dissension to weaken any emerging challenger to its power. These permanent interferences —now known as “orange revolutions”— mean permanent war, so that the birth of a global seapower implies quasi-automatically the emerging process of permanent global war, replacing the previous state of large numbers of local wars that couldn’t be thoroughly globalized.
After Waterloo and the Vienna Conference, Britain had no serious challenger in Europe anymore, but it now had a constant policy of trying to keep all the navies in the world down. The inability to completely solidify its supremacy over the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, as well as over the Mediterranean, was indeed the puzzle that British decision-makers had to solve in order to definitively gain global power. The pursuit of this mastery would constitute the next steps in British policy. Despite controlling Gibraltar and Malta, and vainly trying to annex Sicily and Southern Italy, the British did not have a complete grasp of power over the Eastern Mediterranean area. This made it possible for the region to come under the eventual control of a reborn Ottoman Empire or Russia, in the event that the country made a possible push in the direction of the Straits. The struggle for obtaining control over this area was thus mainly a preventative struggle against Russia and was, in fact, the application of the strategies elucidated in the anonymous 1791 text, “Russian Armament”. The Crimean War was a conflict aimed at containing Russia far northwards beyond the Turkish Straights in order for the Russian navy to never be able to bring war vessels into the Eastern Mediterranean and occupy Cyprus or Creta. By fortifying these insular strong points, the Britsh could block the Russians from the planned shortcut to India, the future Suez Canal. The Crimean War was therefore a wide-scale strategic operation directly or indirectly advanced by the British domination of the Indian Ocean after the French-British clash of 1756-1763 and from the gradual mastery of the Mediterranean after the Spanish Succession War and the expulsion of Napoleon’s forces out of the area. The latter also resulted in the obtaining of the geopolitical asset of Malta in 1802-1804. The mastery of this island, formerly in the hands of the Malta Knights, allowed the British and the French to benefit from an excellent rear base to send reinforcements and supplies to the Crimea (or “Tavrida” as Empress Catherine II liked to call this strategic place her generals conquered in 1783).
The next step to link the Northern Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean via the Mediterranean corridor was to dig the Suez Canal, which is just what French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps did in 1869. The British, by using the non-military weapon of bank speculation, bought all the shares of the private company carrying out the job and managed to get control of the newly created waterway. In 1877, the Rumanians and the Bulgars revolted against their Turkish sovereign and were helped by Russian troops that could have threateningly reached the coasts of the Aegean Sea and possibly control the Marmara Sea and the Straits. The British sent weapons, military trainers, and ships to protect the Turkish capital from any possible Bulgarian invasion and occupation in exchange for an acceptance of British sovereignty over Cyprus, which was settled in 1878. The complete control of the Mediterranean corridor was acquired by this poker trick, as well as was the British domination of Egypt in 1882, thereby allowing management of the Red Sea from Port Said up until Aden (under British supervision since 1821). The completion of the double mastery upon the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, which had already been acquired but was not yet fully secured, made Britain the main and uncontested superpower on Earth in the second half of the 19th century.
The question one should now ask is quite simple: “Is supremacy of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and the Mediterranean area the key to complete global power?”. I would answer negatively. The German geopolitician Karl Haushofer remembered in his memoirs a conversation he had with Lord Kitchener in India on the way to Japan, where the Bavarian artillery officer was due to become a military attaché. Kitchener told Haushofer and his wife that if Germany (which dominated Micronesia after Spain had sold the huge archipelago just before the disasters of the American-Spanish War of 1898) and Britain would lose control of the Pacific after any German-British war, both powers would be considerably reduced as global actors to the straight benefit of Japan and the United States. This vision Kitchener disclosed to Karl and Martha Haushofer in a private conversation in 1909 stressed the importance of dominating three oceans to become a real unchallenged global power: the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean. If there is no additional domination of the Pacific by the global superpower dominating the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean (i. e. Britain at the time of Kitchener), the said global superpower will be inevitably challenged, simultaneously at risk of change and decline.
By 1909, Russia had sold Alaska to the United States (1867) and only had limited ambitions in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, especially after the disaster of Tshushima in 1905. France was present in Indochina, but dependent upon maritime routes dominated by the British. Britain had Australia and New Zeland as dominions but no strategic islands in the Middle and the Northern Pacific. The United States had developped a Pacific strategy since it became a bioceanic power after having conquered California during the Mexican-American War of 1848. The several stages of the gradual Pacific strategy elaborated by the United States were as follows: the results of the Mexican-American War in 1848, i. e. the conquest of all their Pacific coast; the purchase of Alaska in 1867; and the events of the year 1898 when it colonized the Philippines after having waged war against Spain. Even if the Russian Doctor Schaeffer tried to make the volcanic archipelago of Hawaii a Russian protectorate in 1817, US American whale hunters used to winter in the islands, thereby making the islands gradually come under US domination and become an actual US strong point immediately after the conquest of the formerly Spanish Philippines in 1898. But as Japan had inherited sovereignty over Micronesia during Versailles, the clash foreseen by Lord Kitchener in 1909 didn’t happen in the Pacific between German and British forces but during the Second World War between the American and Japanese navies. In 1945, Micronesia came under American influence, resulting in the United States controlling the entire Pacific area, the North Atlantic area, and gradually the Indian Ocean. The last was especially true following the construction of a naval and airforce strong point in Diego Garcia, in the very middle of the Indian Ocean, from where the US can now strike every one of the so-called “Monsoon countries” positioned along the coast. According to the present-day American strategist Robert Kaplan, the control of the “Monsoon lands” will be crucial in the near future, as it allows for the domination of the Indian Ocean, which connects to the uncontested US hegemony in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Kaplan’s book on the “Monsoon area” is indeed proof that America has inherited the British strategy in the Indian Ocean but that, contrary to the British, they also control the Pacific, except perhaps the maritime routes along the Chinese coasts in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. These are protected by a quite efficient Chinese fleet that is steadily growing in strength and size. They nevertheless are able to intensely disrupt the vital Chinese waterways if Taiwan, South Korea, or Vietnam are recruited into a kind of East Asian naval NATO.
What could be the answer to the challenge of a superpower that controls the three main oceans of this planet? Precisely, it is to create a strategic thought system that would imitate the naval policy of Choiseul and Louis XVI, i. e. unite the available forces (for instance the naval forces of the BRICS-countries), and constantly build up their naval capability in order to exercice a continuous pressure on the “big navy” so that it finally risks “imperial overstretch”. Besides, it is also necessary to find other routes to the Pacific, for instance in the Arctic, but we should know that if we look for such alternative routes near the North American Arctic, bordering powers will be perfectly able to disturb Northern Siberian Arctic coastal navigation by deploying long-range missiles along their own coasts and Greenland.
History is not finished, despite the prophecies of Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s. The main problems already identified by Louis XVI and his brilliant captains, as well as by the Russian explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries, are still present. And another main idea to remember constantly: A single World War had been started in 1756 and is not yet finished, as all the moves on the world chessboard made by the actual superpower of the time are derived from the results of the double British victory in India and Canada during the “Seven Years’ War”. Peace is impossible, since it is merely a theoretical view so long as a single power is trying to dominate the three oceans, refusing to accept the fact that the sea routes belong to all of mankind.
Philippe Conrad (ed.), “La puissance et la mer”, numéro spécial hors-série (n°7) de La nouvelle revue d’histoire, automne-hiver 2013.
Philippe Bonnichon, “La rivalité navale franco-anglaise (1755-1805)”, in “La puissance et la mer”, op. cit.
Niall Ferguson, Empire – How Britain Made the Modern World, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 2004.
Richard Harding, Seapower and Naval Warfare – 1650-1830, UCL Press, London, 1999.
Robert Kaplan, Monsoon – The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Random House, New York, 2011.
Charles King, The Black Sea – A History, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Frank McLynn, 1759 – The Year Britain BecameMaster of the World, Pimlico, London, 2005.
Richard Overy, Atlas of 20th Century History, Collins Books, London, 2005.
Tom Pocock, Battle for Empire – The Very First World War – 1756-63, Caxton Editions, London, 1998.
Robert Steuckers, “Karl Haushofer: l’itinéraire d’un géopoliticien allemand”, sur: http://robertsteuckers.blogspot.com (juillet 2012).
(Pubblicato il 16 febbraio 2014 – © «Geopolitics» – Historical Reflections on the Notion of “World War”)