Plucky upstarts: the brave history of seapowers

A review of Andrew Lambert's Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World (Yale, 399pp)

The Spectator, November 24, 2018

by Ian Garrick Mason

The sea – that wine-dark whale road, to mix Homeric and Anglo-Saxon evocations of it – has ever held a special place in the human psyche. A site of both great peril and great opportunity, it has influenced our languages and our cultures, just as it has our economic systems and the contours of our many histories. A presence experienced almost as universally as the sun and the soil, the sea is one of human civilization’s shared foundations.

Andrew Lambert, an eminent naval historian, is a strong believer in the power of the sea to shape the destiny of nations. In Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict that Made the Modern World, Lambert looks in detail at five historical polities – Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic, and England – which he holds up as prime instances of “seapowers”: states that deliberately chose to place the sea at the centre of their political and cultural identities, and used the “asymmetric” capabilities this granted them to make their way in the world as trade-oriented great powers. At least for a time.

In emphasizing politics and culture, Lambert aims to rethink the importance traditionally placed on “sea power” (two words, not one), by which he means the possession of a large-scale navy. The United States, for example, with its “continental” self-identity, is a land power with a lot of ships. It has “sea power”, but it is not a “seapower” like Venice was: a state that placed all its bets on the sea, did so consciously, and became distinct from other states in doing so.

This distinctiveness, in fact, is the foundation for the “conflict” referred to in the book’s title. To Lambert, the sea’s beneficial impacts – which he grandly summarizes as “the economic, political, and intellectual agendas of progress” – were enjoyed by seapowers alone, rather than shared in varying amounts by all states. Indeed, the less sea-favoured states were the seapowers’ mortal enemies: “continental imperial hegemons, dominated by military power, absolute rule, terrestrial imperialism and command economies” who feared the sea and the dangerous ideas sailors and merchants carried from port to port. Ancient Persia, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bourbon France (and several others), in Lambert’s telling, each aimed to crush the plucky upstarts and their “progressive and inclusive” politics. This didn’t always work for the hegemons, of course: Carthage is no more, but England and the Dutch Republic managed their declines from power more elegantly.

If the use of the terms “progressive” and “inclusive” in the last paragraph strike you as surprisingly ahistorical language – the author is covering more than 3,000 years of history in his book, after all – you’re having a reasonable reaction. The problem is this: rather than limiting himself to identifying and understanding the attributes that five sea-oriented states may have had in common and to tracing the lines of cultural inheritance that connected these states to each other, Lambert enlists his seapowers in an ancient and apparently unending war between sea and land, freedom and slavery.

In fact, many of Lambert’s assertions draw on the language and conceptual framework of the Cold War. For example, he uses “command economy” – a twentieth-century term applicable in its era to the USSR and similar totalitarian states – to characterize both the Roman Empire (which would have surprised its private landowners and merchants) and China in 2018 (which would surprise that country’s immense and thriving business class) – even going so far as to make the humorously antiquated claim that, lacking a free market, “Chinese industry remains unresponsive and outmoded”. Tell that to Alibaba, Tencent, Huawei, and Haier, and to the Western firms that face the strenuous challenge of competing with them.

Other arguments are stretched to the breaking point to support his freedom versus slavery dualism. While the first chapter introduces the thesis that the expense of maintaining fleets required ancient sea states to include wealthy merchant families in their power structures in order to access their funds – and thus that the requirements of seapower were drivers of “inclusive” political developments – the second chapter acknowledges that for Athens, “seapower was only possible in the wake of the democratisation of domestic politics engineered by Cleisthenes in 508-507 BC”, decades before the city decided it needed to build a battle fleet to oppose Persia. More broadly, the argument that expensive public goods require political inclusivity should have been testable against many other cases not related to sea power: the road-building imperialism of Rome, the pyramid-raising Egyptian monarchy – even, perhaps most appositely, the drafting of Magna Carta as a check on arbitrary taxation for land wars in France – yet Lambert seems satisfied that because seapowers needed fleets and those same states happened to have less absolutist political structures than did their opponents, the seapower-begets-freedom case has been made.

Throughout the book, Lambert praises seapowers repeatedly for their wisdom in seeking to fight only limited wars. Had he applied this rule to his own work, he could have created a fascinating cultural history of a concept – and avoided burying it in the rubble of a much vaster, and much less convincing, argument.

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