The writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan are an essential part of an education in strategy for those charged with the conduct of war at sea and for explaining the strategic importance of the maritime commons in determining the rise and fall of great powers. His Influence of Sea Power works examine the role navies played in determining the outcome of a century and a half of Europe’s great power wars.1 These histories became instant classics as soon as they appeared in the 1890s.
Sir Julian Corbett is another author from Mahan’s era who wrote to educate officers about strategy. Like Mahan’s famous works, Corbett’s best-known book today—Some Principles of Maritime Strategy—began as lectures in professional military education. Corbett also wrote histories of great power wars, covering contests from the time of 16th-century Elizabethan England to his day. At the time of his death in 1922, he was laboring on a multivolume history of World War I naval operations, a work he did not live to complete, alas.2 His histories, too, reward those who desire to learn more about maritime strategy and naval warfare.
Mahan on International Affairs
Mahan studied history and applied it to the foreign policy and strategy problems of his era.3 From the time of the publication of The Influence of Sea Power works until his death in December 1914, he was sought after as a policy and strategy expert, not only by politicians and pundits, but even by the public at large. So sought after that, following the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, President Woodrow Wilson had the Navy order active-duty and retired officers against commenting on the war as a way of preventing Mahan from publicly supporting Great Britain, a view that contradicted the administration’s neutrality policy.4 In failing health and close to death, Mahan resented this “muzzling order” and protested its application to him. Much to Mahan’s chagrin, his protest did not succeed.
While Mahan was silenced in his final months, his written works have endured for the insight they offer into international relations, sea power, maritime strategy, and naval warfare. In his histories, he examined the contests among the great warring states of Europe—Spain, the Dutch United Provinces, France, and Britain—for naval mastery. He maintained that great powers struggled for security, well-being, and leadership, and that competition drove change in world politics. Because of the wealth created by international trade, the struggle among great commercial seafaring states had particular importance.
Mahan understood that neither the threat nor the reality of war could be banished from international affairs, human nature being what it is. International agreements to promote cooperation could easily give way to violence if a great power’s vital interests were sufficiently threatened and a people’s passions roused, despite contrary claims by contemporary liberal internationalists. Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion is the best-known example of the argument that great power war was the height of international folly. In scathing remarks on the book, Mahan argued the “entire conception of [Angell’s] work is itself an illusion based on a profound misreading of human action.”5 To Mahan, the best way to prevent war was not Angell’s appeals to enlightened self-interest, but instead for a country to be so well armed as to deter aggressors.6
In Mahan’s day, the United Kingdom stood as the leading world power. Britain’s leadership of the international system arose from its sinews of strength as a trading and world financial center, manufactures, and energy exports, as well as its geographical position, vast colonial holdings, and global network of bases and communication. The country’s naval might protected the British homeland and the sea lines of communication that knitted together its empire. That might permitted the global flow of people, goods, and information across the world’s oceans—what Mahan called a great highway and a wide common.7
But the United Kingdom’s role was changing, and it was no longer the world’s workshop; other countries were industrializing and turning their attention to ocean-borne trade. Mahan viewed Britain’s relative decline with alarm because he feared it would threaten U.S. security if an altered international balance of power led to war. His study of history led him to foresee violent clashes among the great powers.
Mahan’s nightmare scenario feared an expansionist Russia seizing power over China, leading to a Russian belt-and-road advance across Eurasia that Britain would be unable to stop. Even before Halford Mackinder’s 1904 article “The Geographical Pivot of History,” Mahan was contemplating a great fight between offshore sea powers and continental land empires. He called for a more active U.S. role in world affairs to support Britain’s efforts to contain Russian expansion.
Mahan was not alone in urging this. Theodore Roosevelt contended that, “owing to our strength and geographical situation,” the United States was becoming “more and more the balance of power of the whole world.”8 In 1900, Brooks Adams wrote that the country “must more or less completely assume the place once held by England, for the United States could hardly contemplate with equanimity the successful organization of a hostile industrial system on the shore of the Pacific, based on Chinese labor.”9 Mahan argued for U.S. alignment with Britain, Germany, and Japan to contest Russia in the rimlands, stretching from Europe through the Middle East to China and Northeast Asia, to prevent Russian domination of China.10
After Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War effectively halted Czarist Asian ambitions, Mahan turned his attention to Imperial Germany. “The rivalry between Germany and Great Britain today,” Mahan told his readers, “is the danger point, not only of European politics, but of world politics as well”—and it was a looming concern for the United States.11
The dramatic growth of Germany’s population and rapidly increasing industrial production meant Germany would demand overseas territories, for their own sake as outlets and markets and also to increase its relative international power. As Mahan put it, there is “an inevitable link in the chain of logical sequence: Industry, markets, control [of overseas territories], navy, bases.”12 What we might call the Mahan trap of leading-state competitions resulting in war was being sprung by Germany’s rising power and the growing international aspirations of its rulers. We know the outcome: the “Great War,” which brought the United States into the conflict on the side of countries menaced by Germany, just as Mahan sought to warn the U.S. public that the country could not remain neutral when so much was at stake.
Corbett on Command of the Sea
Sir Julian Corbett held as a strategic axiom: “The object of naval warfare must always be directly or indirectly either to secure the command of the sea or to prevent the enemy from securing it.”13 Securing command of the sea, however, did not always entail seeking out the enemy fleet and annihilating it in battle. On the Russo-Japanese War, for example, Corbett’s analysis of Japanese decision-making is especially valuable for understanding the role of fleet-on-fleet engagements in the contest to dominate in the maritime domain.14
At the outset of the war, Japan landed an army to fight in Korea and Manchuria, even though powerful Russian squadrons existed in the theater to contest the waters of Northeast Asia. Despite the presence of a powerful Russian battle fleet, Japan was not deterred from sending the army overseas, because the main Japanese fleet provided defensive cover. The risk in transporting and maintaining the army on the Asian mainland actually was low—as long as the Japanese fleet exercised sea control by providing a defensive shield. For Corbett, this example highlighted what he called the “paramount concern” of maritime strategy: “to determine the mutual relations of your army and navy in a plan of war.”15
Corbett defended the defensive posture of the Imperial Japanese Navy against critics who believed it violated the cardinal doctrine of offensive sea control. Corbett judged that Japan need not seek out and destroy the Russian fleet before sending the army overseas. Indeed, by acting aggressively, Japan might have taken on greater risk, endangering its control of the sea lines of communication linking the Home Islands to the Asian mainland, on which the army depended.
This danger was brought home to Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, the famed commander of the Japanese battle fleet, when he lost two of his six irreplaceable battleships in a single day to mines when operating close to the main Russian naval base at Port Arthur. Corbett instructed his readers: “Clearly, then, the maxim of ‘seeking out’ for all its moral exhilaration, for all its value as an expression of high and sound naval spirit, must not be permitted to displace well-reasoned judgment.”16 Defense of sea lanes—rather than aggressive operations to bring the enemy fleet to battle—served as the main purpose of the Japanese Navy.
The Young School
During Mahan and Corbett’s lifetimes, the problem of how to attack and disrupt seaborne networks, upon which sea powers depended, was examined by naval strategists of the Jeune École—the “young school” of naval thought. In France, naval planners sought ways to compete with Britain at sea without going head-to-head in acquiring battleships to fight for command of the maritime commons. In the aftermath of France’s humiliating defeat in the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian War, French leaders faced the daunting task of building a battle fleet to rival Britain at sea while trying to match Germany on land.
To compete with Britain, leaders of the French Navy thought they could strike directly at the shipping and financial networks on which the British economy depended. Cruisers could range far out on the world’s oceans, avoiding the superior British battle fleet, to sink British merchant shipping. The disruption to international supply chains would shock and produce a meltdown of financial markets. By bringing about the collapse of British shipping and credit, France could defeat Britain without having to fight a major fleet engagement; France could win without the expense of competing in battleships.
The Jeune École put its faith in the latest technologies—torpedoes and mines—to hold hostage and keep at bay Britain’s capital ships. A relatively cheap torpedo boat or mine could sink a battleship. A swarm of torpedo boats would prevent the British battle fleet from operating forward in France’s littoral waters and instituting a close blockade of French naval bases. The Jeune École argued that the increasing lethality of naval weaponry was working to the competitive advantage of the weaker navy. By making British admirals more risk averse, France would find opportunities to overcome the Royal Navy’s traditional lead on the high seas.17
Mahan took seriously the strategic views of the Jeune École. He feared that the Jeune École doctrines for fighting at sea would take hold in the United States as the country sought to rebuild its navy at the end of the 19th century. The U.S. public and its government leaders would forgo building a powerful battle fleet and, instead, acquire a coastal defense force and cruisers to carry out commerce destruction raids. This alternative doctrine Mahan regarded as “a delusion, and a most dangerous delusion, when presented in the fascinating garb of cheapness to the representatives of a people.” Mahan sought to counter what he considered the misleading strategic and force structure prescriptions of the Jeune École. “The harassment and distress caused to a country by serious interference with its commerce,” he conceded, “is doubtless a most important secondary operation of naval war.” He denied, however, that the strategy proffered by the Jeune École would prove decisive against a country in possession of “the two requisites of a strong sea power, a wide-spread healthy commerce and a powerful navy.”18
World War I would show that Mahan’s view about the ability of sea powers to fight protracted wars, despite the advent of new naval weapons and the changing character of warfare, was sound. German attacks on seaborne commerce did not cause the collapse of Britain’s financial system. Nor did Britain’s efforts to damage the German economy bring about a rapid end to the war. While Britain’s economic warfare hurt the German economy and people, Germany kept fighting for more than four years, inflicting heavy casualties on its enemies, including the British Empire, which suffered more than 700,000 dead on the Western Front. Both the British and German economies were made of sterner stuff, transitioning to conduct a protracted war, withstanding adversary attacks, and renewing their powers of armed resistance.
New technologies, however, did change how war would be fought at sea, as the Jeune École predicted. Mines, torpedoes, submarines, small surface craft, and coastal artillery batteries did make for a powerful antiaccess/area-denial strategy. The Royal Navy could not force the rudimentary defenses erected by the Ottoman Empire at the Dardanelles. Meanwhile, in the North Sea, Britain’s admirals feared risking their Grand Fleet by attacking inside German home waters in search of a new Trafalgar. The admirals refused to attack despite the pressure exerted by Britain’s political leaders, who pushed for an aggressive strategy to destroy the German fleet. Mahan’s praise of aggressive, risk-taking admirals—such as the embodiment of Britain’s sea power, Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who aimed to annihilate the enemy’s fleet—did not resonate with British naval leaders during the Great War.19 Better to preserve the Grand Fleet than to risk it to the hazards of offensive action.
In addition, Germany’s campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare inflicted staggering losses on the merchant shipping underpinning the war effort of the Allied and Associated Powers, even if it did not shut down Britain’s supply chains. Still, in the spring of 1917, First Sea Lord Sir John Jellicoe told British leaders the war was lost. Winston Churchill characterized the fight to defeat the German submarines as “a life-and-death struggle” on which the war’s outcome turned.20 By taking defensive measures to protect shipping—adopting a system of convoys as Mahan would have recommended—Britain staved off the German submarine offensive and went on to defeat Germany.
A Design for Maintaining Maritime Relevance
So, what can Mahan and other classic works on sea power and maritime strategy offer for understanding America’s strategic predicament today? A 21st-century Mahan would surely warn about the shifting balance of global power. Commentator Fareed Zakaria describes the present age as “the rise of the rest,” in which “the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance” toward a “post-American world.”21 Zakaria’s prediction calls to mind Britain’s declining strategic position at the beginning of the 20th century, the changes toward the post-British world that Mahan identified. China’s economic growth especially has increased that country’s international power and visibility. What Brooks Adams foresaw in 1900 appears even more applicable today: On “the fate of China may, perhaps, hinge the economic supremacy of the next century.”22
China’s aspiration to assert itself as a leading world power, to usher in a post-American world, manifests itself in that country’s naval buildup. Projected increases in Chinese capabilities to fight on the maritime commons is a telltale sign of how determined China’s rulers are to compete in the world arena. China’s reported ambition to possess a high-seas fleet of six or more aircraft carriers is as much a statement of foreign policy intent as it is a plan to enhance its naval capabilities.23 Building and maintaining such a large navy will prove costly, requiring a significant long-term commitment of resources.
The regime’s commitment to building the navy of a superpower was prominently put on display at China’s fleet review in 2018. The parade of ships and aircraft before President Xi Jinping harkens back to the spectacles of naval nationalism exhibited by Imperial Germany that alerted Mahan to Kaiser Wilhelm’s world power aspirations. Channeling his inner Kaiser for the fleet review, Xi proclaimed that building “a strong and modern navy is an important mark of a top-ranking global military.”24 Xi’s public pronouncements faithfully reflect his beliefs about the connection between sea power and national greatness expressed in an internal speech to China’s Central Military Commission:
In the 21st century, mankind has entered the age of the large-scale exploitation of the sea. . . . History and experience tell us that a country will rise if it commands the oceans well and will fall if it surrenders them. A powerful state possesses durable sea rights, and a weak state has vulnerable sea rights. . . . We must adhere to a development path of becoming a rich and powerful state by making use of the sea.
In his demand for the accelerated “construction of a modernized navy,” Xi sure sounds like a devoted disciple of Mahan!25 As Robert Kaplan has observed: “Tellingly . . . the Chinese avidly read [Mahan]; the Chinese are the Mahanians now.”26
While Mahan is read in China, his writings have been dropped from the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program.27 Nowadays, it seems that Mahan is a prophet not honored by his own country’s navy. Mahan’s writings remain applicable at a time when the Secretary of Defense calls on the armed services to “prioritize China as our number one pacing challenge and develop the right operational concepts, capabilities, and plans to bolster deterrence and maintain our competitive advantage.”28 Pushing Mahan away makes no sense when the United States’ principal competitor draws on him for policy and strategy guidance.
China’s study of Mahan indicates how its leaders intend to impose greater risk on the United States in the power struggle for mastery in Asia. Corbett’s works offer guidance for managing just such risks. The great U.S. naval leaders who won the victory at sea during World War II read Mahan and Corbett as part of their strategic education at the Naval War College. Today’s naval leaders would be wise to follow in their footsteps and do likewise. Both authors belong on the reading list of those who consider themselves strategic leaders.29 Their insights on policy, strategy, and sea combat counsel the United States to acquire the naval strength to command the great common and to exert overbearing power on the sea. These ideas have enduring value for U.S. decision-makers in the 21st century, just as they did at the dawn of the previous century.30
1. CAPT A. T. Mahan, USN, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1890); Captain A. T. Mahan, USN, The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 (Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1892), two volumes.
2. Sir Julian S. Corbett, Naval Operations: History of the Great War (London: Longmans, Green, 1920–23), three volumes.
3. For an examination of Mahan’s views on international relations, see John H. Maurer, “The Influence of Thinkers and Ideas on History: The Case of Alfred Thayer Mahan,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, 11 August 2016.
4. Charles Carlisle Taylor, The Life of Admiral Mahan (New York: George H. Doran, 1920), 275.
5. RADM A. T. Mahan, USN (Ret.), “The Great Illusion,” The North American Review 195, no. 676 (March 1912): 319–32.
6. See Mahan’s “Why Not Disarm?” in Robert Seager II and Doris D. Maguire, Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan, vol. 3 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1975), 685–87.
7. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, 1660–1783, 25.
8. Howard K. Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), 447.
9. Brooks Adams, America’s Economic Supremacy (New York: Macmillan, 1900), 197–98.
10. See A. T. Mahan, The Problem of Asia and Its Effect upon International Policies (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1970).
11. RADM A. T. Mahan, USN (Ret.), The Interest of America in International Conditions (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1918), 163–64.
12. Mahan, Interest of America in International Conditions, 87.
13. Julian S. Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London: Longmans, Green, 1911), 87.
14. Julian S. Corbett, Maritime Operations in the Russo-Japanese War 1904–1905 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994), two volumes.
15. Corbett, Some Principles, 14.
16. Corbett, 171.
17. Theodore Ropp, “Continental Doctrines of Sea Power,” in Makers of Modern Strategy, Edward Mead Earle, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944); The Development of a Modern Navy: French Naval Policy 1871–1904, Stephen S. Roberts, ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987).
18. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, 1660–1783, 539.
19. CAPT A. T. Mahan, USN (Ret.), The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1897), two volumes.
20. Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures, James W. Muller, ed. (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009), 134.
21. Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: Norton, 2011), 2, 4.
22. Adams, America’s Economic Supremacy, 196.
23. Ronald O’Rourke, China Naval Modernization: Implications for U.S. Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service Report RL33153 (9 March 2021).
24. John H. Maurer, “Kaiser Xi Jinping,” The National Interest (September–October 2018), 28–35.
25. John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, “China’s Security Agenda Transcends the South China Sea,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72, no. 4 (2016): 218.
26. Robert D. Kaplan, “America’s Elegant Decline” The Atlantic 300, no. 4 (November 2007).
27. Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program, www.navy.mil/CNO-Professional-Reading-Program/.
28. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, “Message to the Force,” 4 March 2021.
29. For example, see John B. Hattendorf, ed., Mahan on Naval Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).
30. Mahan, Influence of Sea Power, 1660–1783, 138.