Why and how Britannia ruled the waves

One hundred years ago, the British Empire and Commonwealth comprised one-fourth of humanity.   There were British colonies on every continent, and nations on every continent with whom Britain was their greatest trading partner.

Yet this power was largely an illusion.   Britain no longer had the industrial and financial power to maintain a global empire and, 50 years later, it was no longer a world power.

Today the United States is seemingly as supreme as Great Britain was then.   The USA has more than 800 military bases in 160 countries; it can project its military power to places as far from home as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet this, too, is largely an illusion.   Our American industrial and economic power is as hollow now as Britain’s was back then.  I don’t think it will take as long as 50 years for this to become apparent.

A few weeks ago, I happened to pick up Paul M. Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976, 1983) in a second-hand bookstore.  Kennedy has a deep understanding of the relationship between military power, economic power, technology and geopolitics, and the ability to explain complex matters clearly.

His book is fascinating for itself, and for its implications for American power.   His story begins in the 16th century, when England depended on sea power, diplomacy and a balance of power to preserve its independence from the powerful Spanish Empire and French Kingdom.   The English Navy was under-financed and under-paid; it used privateers and buccaneers as a kind of guerrilla navy.

In the 17th century, Britain was torn by internal conflict, including a full-scale Civil War.   The British avoided conflict with France and Spain, the great European powers, but built up their merchant marine and fought three wars with the Dutch for rule of the seas.

The British established naval bases worldwide and founded colonies in North America.  Maritime commerce became a source of national wealth and power.   By the end of the century, Britain had subdued Scotland and Ireland, and overcome its internal religious divisions.

Theaters of Britain’s war with France, 1754-1763

From 1689 to 1815, Britain fought a succession of wars against France, all of which (except the French-backed U.S. War of Independence) left Britain richer and more powerful and at the point of becoming the world’s only global power.

The growing British merchant marine added not only to Britain’s wealth, but her number of seamen and access to naval stores.  Wars on French commerce enriched British merchants and shipowners.  Victories added to her colonies and naval bases.   Britain’s new wealth, plus its commercial spirit and resources of coal and iron, gave rise to industrial revolution.

In the 19th century, British supremacy at sea was unchallenged.  There was a kind of naval-industrial complex.  The British Navy created a market for the shipbuilding industry, iron industry (for cannon) and other products, and spurred industrial innovation.

As the first industrial nation, Britain was for a time the workshop of the world.   Industrial power reinforced sea power, and sea power helped open markets for the products of British industry.

During all this time, as Kennedy noted, Britain never tried to dominate the continent of Europe, and could not have done so if it tried.  Instead it tried to maintain a balance of power among the great European countries.    The British could not avoid fighting in Europe, but were unable to win without the support of allies, often financially subsidized allies.

The 19th century British tried to make their world empire acceptable to other European nations.   The British Navy suppressed piracy and the African slave trade (which had been a big source of British wealth in previous centuries).   It financed scientific expeditions, laid oceanic telegraph cables and public navigational charts–all to public benefit.

But in the middle of the 19th century, technological developments shifted the advantage from sea power to land power.

The advantage of sea power was that sailing ships could move faster than soldiers on foot or horseback, and that navies could cut off commerce by means of blockade.  But steam locomotives could move as fast on land as steamships a sea,  both in war and in peace.

Now no nation could be successfully blockaded unless its land frontiers as well as its seaports were closed off.  Russia, thanks to its railroads and huge land mass, became a potential threat to British India and a rival to British influence in China.

The United States, Germany and Japan emerged as industrial rivals and then as naval rivals to Great Britain.   Facing reality, the British leaders decided to refrain from challenging U.S. power in the Western Hemisphere, and later Japanese power in the Far East.

By the 20th century, Germany had become a stronger and more modern industrial power than Britain, and its submarines were able to neutralize British sea power.   The two World Wars revealed British dependence on American power.

The British saved themselves and probably saved Western civilization as well by their heroic resistance to Nazi Germany.   But by the end of the Second World War, they were economically exhausted.   By 1975, when Kennedy’s book was published, Britain was a second-class power, economically and militarily dependent on the USA.

After reading this book, I was left with renewed respect for the realism of the British ruling classes.  They never thought of themselves or their nation as omnipotent.  They didn’t always make the right decisions (nobody does), but they never fooled themselves about their situation.

British naval mastery was made possible by exploitation of unique circumstances.   There is no possible way it could have been maintained indefinitely.

Parallels With the USA

History doesn’t repeat, but there are certain parallels with the rise and (I argue) decline of the USA.

The United States began as a small, weak nation, with less population, wealth or military power than Great Britain.  British troops marched up and down the infant USA virtually at will during the War of Independence and later the War of 1812.

Americans’ safety was in our being separated from the European continent by war—once the British decided to leave us alone—and in our being able to play off one European power against another.

Our navy during the War of 1812 was a privateering guerrilla navy, like the British sea dogs in the time of Francis Drake.

We, too, suffered internal conflicts and a civil war, and were not a fully united nation until after the Civil War.   Like the British, we, too, were for a time the world’s leading industrial power.  The two World Wars increased our power, as the French wars increased British power.

Our current wars, on the other hand, are a drain on American power.

American power is based on command of the skies, as British power was based on command of the seas.  Yet American air power depends on aircraft carriers, and supplies depend on command of sea routes, so the basis of U.S. air power is really sea power.

Although other nations cannot afford to match American sea power ship for ship, China and other countries are working on anti-ship missiles , a parallel development to German submarines in an earlier era.

Our deeper problem is that industrial and financial power is being hollowed out, and we are being overtaken by other industrial nations.  Corporations with headquarters in the USA are doing well and the USA has a plurality of the world’s billionaires, but this does not necessarily add to the strength or prosperity of the American nation.

Our leaders do not possess the same sense of reality as the British of an earlier era.   They think that U.S. supremacy is inherent in the nature of things, or that it rests only on the will to use military force.

Our current foreign policy is to oppose China, Russia and Iran, all at the same time.   China is the USA’s leading economic rival.  Russia is the only nation capable of threatening the existence of the USA.   Iran is the rising power in the Middle East.

Together they dominate the interior of Eurasia, the region that the geographer Halford J. Mackinder called the Heartland.   The significance of the Heartland is that, in Mackinder’s day, it was the one part of the world out of reach of British sea power.  Today it is the one part of the world that can’t be threatened by American air power.

A British statesman of the 18th or 19th century, or even an American statesman of the mid-20th century, would be trying to pry China, Russia and Iran apart, not forcing them to join together an anti-U.S. alliance.

Source: Quartz

Actually, I don’t think that even successful divide-and-rule diplomacy would be an answer.  I don’t think there is a diplomatic or geopolitical solution to U.S. decline.   We Americans need to rebuild our industry, our infrastructure, our educational system, our scientific research and, yes, our social safety net.    If we don’t do that, building more ships and military bases won’t save us.

Paul M. Kennedy wrote another book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1986), which I admired at the time.   He analyzed the military, economic and geographical factors which enabled nations to achieve great power, and the factors—notably military over-reach—that made them lose it.

In the concluding chapter, he analyzed the position of the great powers of his day.  He concluded that the USA and USSR were probably decline in relative power, that China and Japan would probably increase and that the European Union probably would not be able to unite as a world power.   He noted that the United States had serious social and economic problems that needed to be addressed (but weren’t).

For his pains he was called a “declinist”.   That is, because he recognized the possibility of American decline, he was accused of advocating and desiring decline.    No nation can endure whose leaders  refuse to consider unwelcome facts.

The conclusion of The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery quotes a British official report in 1727:  Command of the sea has frequently passed from one nation to another, and though Great Britain has continued longer in possession than perhaps any other nation ever did, yet all human affairs are subject to great vicissitudes.
Indeed they are.


My summary of Paul Kennedy’s book is greatly over-simplified.  Read the book to understand the complexities of world power.

Note: I added the top and bottom maps and a sentence a few minutes after posting this, then replaced the bottom map a few hours later.

Tags: , ,

4 Responses to “Why and how Britannia ruled the waves”

  1. Edward Says:

    According to Lawrence Wilkerson, drones will be the new tools of warfare, so our expensive military may be obsolete before long.

    I once heard someone say that a nation’s decline begins with its first unpopular war, which for the U.S. would be Vietnam.


  2. Edward Says:

    One other thought; there is usually a relationship between power and stupidity. America’s power is in some ways a curse.


    • philebersole Says:

      The more numerous an organization’s personnel and the more layers of bureaucracy it has, the harder it is for individuals within that organization to exercise initiative and intelligence.

      The 18th and 19th century British Admiralty was a leaner and more nimble organization than the late 20th century and present-day U.S. Department of the Navy.


  3. neil Says:

    british naval power was not accidental it was well thought well planned and executed the british queen is still technically head of state of canada new zealand and australia aside from the uk obviously. usa is a deriviative of british colonial rule and for intents and purposes you can assume the uk and usa as one geoplitical entity. you arguments show a complete lack of understanding of how the british sowed the seeds of the way the modern worls is today and the illusion apperas to be that the Uk has no or limited power. finally who do you think will replace the western european powers? asia, india or china – i come from that region that I will tell you those countries are almost as they were hundred years ago or possibly worse off.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: