Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World, by Andrew Lambert

Book of the week: Were some naval powers such as Britain inherently liberal and outward-looking? asks Sarah Kinkel

October 11, 2018
English naval vessels in the 18th century
Source: Getty

A long line of encounters, from the Spanish Armada to Napoleon to the Blitz, have contributed to a national mythology of Britain as a continually scrappy underdog. What kept the ship of state afloat in the face of such superior odds? Andrew Lambert looks for the answer in a consciously constructed culture of seapower, which manifested itself everywhere from the dockyards to legal systems to maritime metaphors. In this, Britain was the heir to a longer tradition that stretched from Athens and Carthage to Venice and the Dutch Republic. All these were smaller states confronted by larger, wealthier opponents. Each turned to the sea to try to transform their weakness into strength.

Placing the national trust in ships was not simply a strategic choice: it was also a question of identity. Seapower States is at its core about the fusion of domestic culture and strategy, about the ways in which a society’s values are expressed and reaffirmed by its actions on the world stage. Lambert draws a distinction between deploying “sea power” – using maritime force to accomplish strategic goals, which anyone with money and a coastline could do – and embracing an identity as a “seapower”. The latter implied an entire approach to the world, comprising a more inclusive political system, a central role for commerce, strong legal institutions and an outward-facing openness to new progressive ideas. The sea was the foundation of the economy and the symbolic core of the community, depicted on temples and coins. The US and China are thus naval powers rather than seapowers: able to exert considerable force on the ocean but without a deep psychological connection to it.

Reliance on the sea and these other cultural markers fed into one another. Smaller states had to mobilise more of their resources to be able to compete, so a broader-based political system was a prerequisite to becoming a seapower. A standing navy is expensive to build and entails more upfront costs than an army, so rulers had to distribute those costs to the broader community and make concessions in return. But Lambert argues that engaging with the sea also encouraged intellectual curiosity, as travellers came into contact with those who were different from them. It validated the worth of the lower sorts of people: traders, oarsmen and dockyard workers believed themselves to be contributing in important ways to the welfare and strength of their community. (This should not be taken too far. Although at times seapower was advocated by explicitly populist parties, most of the seapower states were oligarchies – power came from trade rather than the land, but was still vested in the relative elite. Lambert claims that these were “egalitarian oligarchies”, but that’s not a thing.)

Lambert is right to emphasise the fusion of identity and policy, and he is equally right to reiterate that identity was always up for debate and contestation at home. Seapower, he stresses, was a choice rather than a destiny. Some people advocated for it and some against it. Each side used a variety of means, including art, architecture and festivals, to try to sway public opinion. This is a welcome relief from arguments that treat foreign policy interests as somehow immutable, points on which the entire nation agrees because they’re just so obviously true.

The tension between the values embodied by continental powers and seapowers was, in Lambert’s framing, the conflict that made the modern world. He argues that land-based states were the eternal, implacable enemies of seapowers because of what the latter represented. Their alternative social structures were an affront to monarchical and aristocratic dignity. Their progressive ideas made them potential hotbeds of revolutionary sentiment.

The overarching thesis of this book is that seapowers are responsible for formulating and spreading modern Western liberal values, while continental land powers contributed mostly repression, ignorance and social posturing. This is overblown: one has to ignore too much to make it work. One would have to say, for example, that continental Enlightenment philosophy and the French Revolution contributed nothing of substance to modern liberal political forms and ideas. Catholicism is clearly cast as retrograde – Venice, we are told, was able to embrace seapower only because it kept Rome at arm’s length – but few in the early modern period knew as much about foreign cultures or were as deeply embedded within them as Jesuits. Lambert credits Britain with using its navy to suppress the slave trade in the 19th century, without ever mentioning that Britain’s merchant oligarchy was the primary beneficiary of the slave trade during the previous century, when the same ships were used to protect it. The Romans, Napoleon and Hitler pillaged relics from their conquests and displayed them at home because they wanted to undermine the vanquished culture and raise their own prestige – but apparently the British did it only because they were really excited to learn about the past. Lambert is pushing too hard to make history fit a Manichean story of light and darkness.

This may be because, like everyone else, he has Brexit on his mind. Explaining history as a long struggle between progressive, liberal seapowers and repressive, hierarchical land powers is a justification for the claim that the European Union is a new continental hegemon, on a trajectory to become “an empire, not a nation, closer to Russia and China than the liberal democratic nation states that are the legacy of seapower”. This is a genuinely bizarre statement. The implication is that Britain will rediscover the good parts of seapower once it’s freed from European shackles. That is also questionable, at least as seapower is conceptualised here. Little about looking back to past days of glory feels progressive, and the Leave campaign certainly did not foreground the desire to have closer connections with people of a wide variety of cultures. One also wonders whether there are better modern markers of global exchange than the sea. The ocean is still a major channel for trade and warfare, but it’s increasingly being supplanted by the internet as a conduit for commerce and connection. Yet if the sea encouraged people to open their minds to new ideas, it’s not clear that the internet consistently does the same thing.

There’s a missed opportunity here, because two of the most powerful points in Lambert’s analysis are deeply relevant to the current moment. The first is the extent to which national identity is a matter of choice and contestation. The second is that policy choices are not divorced from culture. Britain has long had a number of identities: European, Commonwealth, Atlantic. The struggles over Brexit are part of a longer story of the fluctuation and renegotiation of those identities. None of them is Britain’s destiny, because Britain doesn’t have a destiny. Its people have to choose.

The big arc of history probably does not rest on the fulcrum Lambert lays out here, but Seapower States is an intriguing series of stories of communities thinking seriously about how to stand their own ground when outpowered, how to do so in ways that are consistent with their values, and sometimes how to negotiate the descent from being a great power when the cards just aren’t in their favour any more. These are timely questions.

Sarah Kinkel is the author of Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy (2018).

Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World
By Andrew Lambert
Yale University Press, 424pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780300230048
Published 16 October 2018

The author

Andrew Lambert, Laughton professor of naval history at King’s College London, was born and grew up in Norfolk, where he “spent a lot of time on and by the sea” and “developed an interest in history from an early age”. As an undergraduate, he studied law at the City of London Polytechnic, “a profoundly practical programme that taught me a great deal about evidence, arguments and the transience of all judgements”. Yet he switched to an MA in war studies at King’s, and then a PhD on naval aspects of the Crimean War.

Although his earlier books have focused primarily on British naval history, Lambert stresses that he has “always tried to emphasise the broad context, publishing on the history of naval history, culture, politics, strategy and technology”. Work on his latest project began by examining “the construction of the English/British seapower state”, which led to the realisation that this was “intelligible only in the wider context of ‘seapower states’”. Equally important to his new book were the “days spent wandering around Venice and Amsterdam, and engaging with the ancient and modern iterations of this distinctive approach to state building”.

Many of the issues that Lambert explores in Seapower States remain highly relevant to a nation contemplating a different future outside the European Union.

“The decision-makers who shaped the states I examined were historically aware,” he points out, “most of them at a more sophisticated level than their modern successors…Between 1500 and 1900, most English/British leaders were familiar with Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War , often in the original Greek. This political-strategic masterpiece shaped their worldview, and offered a stark warning about the penalties of over-ambition…Understanding how modern Britain evolved may help inform the debates of the next decade, in Britain and elsewhere.”

Matthew Reisz

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