End of the Continental Century

By Brigadier Robert Alan Fry, Royal Marine

Late Victorian and Edwardian England faced a series of formidable security challenges. At the grand strategic level, the loss of economic preeminence and the rise of the restless German Empire were met by a series of measures at the military strategic level that, though prudent, offered less than a strategic panacea. At the Imperial Conference of 1902, Joseph Chamberlain spoke of the British Empire as a "weary Titan staggering under the too vast orb of his own fate." In military terms, it reflected the competing claims of maritime and continental military strategies, which would remain unresolved until Henry Wilson's denouement at the 23 August 1911 meeting of the Committee on Imperial Defense.

But above all, the debate was obsessed by the impact of technology on the battlefield and how the stark evidence of the Wars of German Unification, the Franco-Prussian War, and both South African adventures could be used to anticipate future conflict. There was universal recognition that the volume of fire would be devastating. Colonel Ferdinand Foch wrote in the seminal lectures he delivered at the Ecole de Guerre in 1899-1900 that "fire is the supreme argument." In the same way, German infantry tactics were dictated by the indelible lessons of Gravelotte St. Privat and the decimation of the Prussian Guard by the technically innovative Chassepot Rifle, well handled by French infantry in positional defense.

As military professionals such as Henderson, Hamilton, de Grandmaison, and Du Picq and more detached observers such as the highly perceptive Jan Bloch struggled to understand a changing environment, the Russo-Japanese War intruded on the scene and immediately flavored contemporary thought. Both forces were equipped with the weapons that Bloch had predicted would make war impossible. The Russians constructed defensive positions in depth, covered by mutually supporting machine gun posts, preregistered artillery, and electrically detonated mine fields, with the entire scene illuminated by searchlights at night. And yet the Japanese still prevailed in a series of infantry assaults that established Japan as a Great Power and rehabilitated the doctrine of the offensive in the military lexicon. Above all, the Japanese victory was seen as the triumph of the moral over the material, of the code of Bushido over the spiritually supine Russian Army. As war drew closer, there was a massive reaction to what Langlois, in an ironic commentary on British experience in South Africa, described as "acute transvaalitis . . . the abnormal dread of losses on the battlefield."

In France, reaction was compounded by the insidious influence of the Dreyfussards, and while the philosopher Henri Bergson delivered his lectures at the Sorbonne on the Neitzchean ideas of creative will, French—and to a lesser extent British, Russian, and German—military writers rediscovered the virtues of martial ardor and, in Dragimirov's chilling phrase, "the spirit of the bayonet."

History offers a mute testament. When war broke out in August 1914, every major belligerent took the offensive. By the end of the year, each attack had been checked or repulsed at a cost of 900,000 casualties; of the 1,500,000 Frenchmen who were deployed at the outset, 385,000 (one in four) were casualties after six weeks of fighting. The tempo of war increased throughout 1915 and reached a climax in the titanic battles of Verdun and the Somme in 1916, themselves followed by the bitter experiences of the Nivelle Offensive and Passchendaele in 1917. Taken overall, the war has left an image of strategic blindness and tactical ineptitude that German successes in the East and the breathtaking Allied advances of 1918 have done little to redeem. History offers few more salutary examples of the consequences of failed doctrine.

Yet, at the same time as the febrile debate was proceeding, two authors—Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Halford Mackinder—were writing on issues of grand strategy that, respectively, summarize the strategic history of the 19th and preceding centuries and prefigure the 20th. They also polarized the maritime and continental schools of military strategy and offer a body of writing and commentary that has an enduring legacy. This legacy has not gained the recognition it merits for a variety of reasons, foremost among which is the intellectual disillusionment that the period evokes. It is nonetheless significant and, in the way that it marks the watershed between what Colin Gray has described as the Columbian Era (1500-1900) and the continentalist 20th century, it is fundamental to our understanding of the times in which we live.

Mahan completed an undistinguished career in the U.S. Navy by accepting an invitation to teach at the Naval War College, a move that delivered him from professional obscurity to world prominence as "an evangelist of sea power." His study of British maritime history was exhaustive and formed the basis of research from which his two main works were published in 1890 and 1892. Although only part of a larger canon, their 1,300 pages covering the period 1660-1815 form the centerpiece of his work and offer both a comprehensive endorsement of the conduct of British strategy and a tribute to the geographical accident of an insular position astride the maritime lines of communication that fed Europe. Mahan's method was Jominian, and he borrowed the principle of concentration and the strategic value of a central position, and thus interior lines, from the French writer. He was less derivative in his identification of the "principal conditions affecting the sea power of nations" and unreserved in his praise for British maritime competence. In a Britain that felt the intimations of strategic decline he found a ready audience.

Thus, when Mahan landed at Southampton in 1893, he stepped ashore to find himself the lion of the season. Feted by royalty and leading politicians, he was granted honorary degrees by both ancient universities and awarded the sobriquet "the new Copernicus" by the Times. While he permitted the British the opportunity to bask in reflected historical glory, he also established the intellectual credentials of American imperial expansion, and with the annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines, America gained an instant empire, well beyond the local waters of the Caribbean and the Central American isthmus. Little wonder then that William Stimpson would later reflect on "the peculiar psychology of the Navy Department, which frequently seemed to retire from the realm of logic into a dim religious world in which Neptune was God, Mahan his prophet, and the United States Navy the only true church."

That Mahan's central theses were questionable, that his analysis was partial, and that he paid scant attention to the potential of technological change to challenge the military condition of sea control is not important in comparison to the way he captured the Anglo-American mood of the late 19th century. But above all, he was a retrospective thinker, drawing conclusions from the historical conduct of maritime operations that would not enjoy the same relevance in the strategic conditions of the 20th century. Thus, we can now see Mahan as the obituarist of the Columbian Era and as an author who, even at the height of his celebrity, was recording a strategic condition already past. That he gave moral succor to a declining empire and legitimacy to an expanding one is simply an accident of historical timing. His real legacy is that his writing marks the strategic cusp between eras of maritime and continental predominance.

The charge of retrospection could not be made against Mackinder. He offered a corrective to the widely admired views of Mahan, when in 1902, he wrote with prophetic insight, "other empires have had their day, and so may that of Britain . . . the European phase of history is passing away.” He went on in 1904 to deliver his definitive "Pivot of History" lecture at the Royal Geographical Society, in which he recognized the potential that mechanical transport gave for the concentration of land forces in a way only previously available to forces deployed at sea, the establishment of "closed political systems," and the hegemonic prospects for a continental Eurasian heartland.

These ideas were picked by the German Geopolitical School, led by Haushofer, who developed them into a more complete system of heartlands and rim states—the former deriving their power from continental, land-based force and a capacity for mass agriculture and industrial production; the latter consigned to marginal obscurity at the edge of the heartlands and dependent on trade to survive. From this initial analysis, the Geopoliticians went on to define the more menacing economic/strategic condition of Autarky—the capacity for economic self-containment—and the companion concept of Lebensraum—the right to territorial expansion to meet the requirements of Autarky. The academically detached views of Mackinder quickly were corrupted to serve the purposes of National Socialism.

But if we stick to general principles, rather than attempt to chronicle the events of the 20th century, we can see that just as Mahan wrote the concluding chapter to one strategic volume, so Mackinder wrote the introduction to the next. The 20th century has been, until its final years, an era of continentalist power. The rise of Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Communist China in an area so broadly coterminous with the Eurasian heartland offers considerable vindication to the Mackinder world view. That this period—what Eric Hobsbawm defines as the years 1914-1991 and describes as the "short twentieth century"—also coincides in part with what the same author describes as the "Age of Catastrophe" is a gloomy, but accurate, valediction. The continentalist powers of this century have been characterized by the closed political systems forecast by Mackinder. Nazi Germany was defeated in war because the doctrines at its heart—Autarky and Lebensraum—made conflict an essential condition of national existence, or, as it turned out, national destruction. Soviet Russia disintegrated because of the contradictions inherent in its state doctrine, and China has, thus far, endured because of its ability to adapt ahead of those contradictions. But what is now beyond dispute is that, as we contemplate a new century almost exactly 100 years after the mean point between the publication of the main works of Mahan and Mackinder, the continentalist era is over and we are approaching a future that, however ill defined, may well comprise a New Columbian Age.

If we move away from the specifics of this century and examine more broadly the characteristics of continental and maritime powers, it is striking how consistent they are. If we compare Athens and Sparta, Greece and Persia, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Turks, England in successive engagements with Spain and France from 1568 to 1815, and the protagonists of the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War, the maritime states tend to be outward looking, reliant on trade, and with political systems based on liberal traditions and practice. They also tend not to be the aggressors. The continental states tend to be culturally enclosed but territorially expansive, reliant on domestic production, and with autocratic, centralist political structures. I can make little claim for the authority of this brief survey and, indeed, there are some notable exceptions; however, a general point does emerge: maritime states, and periods of maritime historical predominance, tend to be synonymous with open trade and the peace that facilitates it, checks on arbitrary rule, and expanding franchise (in recent times) and limited extraterritorial aggression. At its simplest level, navies rarely endanger political institutions, but larger standing armies frequently have done so. Having established the point, we can extrapolate it into the future and test the implications for the new millennium.

Transnationalism and globalization are established features of the post-Cold War world. It has become axiomatic that "self-sufficiency is not a condition to which nations can reasonably aspire in the modern world.... where economic interdependence is the norm." Only a small ideological rump—"a coalition of populist conservatives, assorted communitarians, and the old Left"—resents these trends, which themselves reflect and facilitate the prodigious increase in world trade. Both the World Bank and the OECD predict that world merchandise trade will grow at 5-6% annually to 2005 and beyond. The British Chamber of Shipping predicts that seaborne trade will double between now and 2010. The interdependence of a world economic system in which currency fluctuations in Southeast Asia are reflected instantly in the London markets, or a global network of reciprocal investment ties jobs in Cambridge to fiscal decisions made in Seattle, requires no further comment. But perhaps the most fundamental change in the new strategic landscape is the triumph of liberal democracy and its natural concomitant market economics—which neatly returns me to Francis Fukuyama's portentous work The End of History .

When first published as an article in 1989, Fukuyama's views excited considerable controversy and some academic contempt. But his claim has never been literal; what has come to an end is not "the occurrences of events, even large and grave events," but the process of evolution, which in political and economic terms has reached an enduring form. Liberal democracy may now constitute the "final form of human government," having beaten both fascism and communism decisively earlier in the continental century. Not only that, but its internal dynamics include none of the inherent contradictions of rival systems and so provide a durable institutional framework that can be adapted, universally, to local conditions. If this is so, then the conditions associated historically with maritime predominance are in place and may mark a watershed as significant as that chronicled by Mahan and Mackinder. Certainly it signals the end of the continental century.

Moving from these broad rhythms in recent history to national strategy, it is interesting to note that the British cameo fits neatly into the wider picture. Having been the arch practitioners of maritime strategy in the l9th century—a strategy based on naval predominance, limited expeditionary land operations, and judicious support of surrogates—we crossed the continental watershed in the early years of this century. From 1916 onward, we embarked on the unprecedented engagement of the main enemy in the main theater of a land war. Although World War II allowed a partial return to traditional solutions, postwar alliance arrangements demanded a continental commitment, which determined our military strategy.

At the end of the continental century, we are freed from the millstone of territorial defense beyond the irreducible requirement to secure our home base. There seems to be a consensus between the professional and academic defense communities that future operations will be expeditionary and thus underwritten by a capacity for the projection and sustainment of power to areas of vital interest. This operational framework bears a striking resemblance—to paraphrase Liddell Hart—to the British Way, and offers a corrective to the aberration of the continental century. It is complemented by a declaratory ethical foreign policy, which must be active and occasionally militant if it is to be relevant. Drawing these strands together leads ineluctably to the conclusion that a maritime national strategy is the appropriate response to the emerging environment, and one that enjoys a resonance with the wider themes of history that characterize the end of the 20th century. It is a strategy that will equip us for the challenges of a new Columbian age.

Brigadier Fry is the Naval Staff Director at the Ministry of Defence in London.


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