In an ambitious and provocative work that spans 25 centuries, Andrew Lambert, a professor of history at King’s College, London, draws a sharp distinction between seapower states and sea power (two words) states. The former, he writes, are political entities that fully embrace the sea both strategically and culturally; the latter are simply nations with large navies. Lambert argues that throughout history there have been only five true seapower states: Athens, Carthage, Venice, the Dutch Republic, and Britain, which he somewhat mournfully brands “The Last Seapower.”
What these seapower states had in common, Lambert asserts, was not only maritime identities that bound them to the sea but also national institutions that were compatible with such a status: democratic politics, a capitalist economy, and the rule of law. In this respect, he contrasts the five states with great powers that employed navies as national instruments of power but did not embrace the sea as a hallmark of their culture because of their commitment to continental hegemony. These include Rome, the France of Louis XIV, Imperial Germany, Peter the Great’s Russia, and, in modern times, the United States. Occupying a status between seapowers and sea powers were small sea states that thrived when they could avoid being squeezed by great power rivalries. These include Rhodes, Genoa, and Florence, as well as Portugal, which, despite its maritime empire, Lambert writes, “never placed the sea at the centre of state policy.”
Lambert offers thoughtful histories of the five seapowers and equally in-depth explanations about why other nations either did not or could not fit this classification. His narrative is filled with scores of challenging and provocative assertions, such as: “Athenian seapower was tyranny”; the Punic Wars were a victory over seapower, not a victory of seapower; the Dutch Republic, as a seapower, was “a fool’s paradise”; and in Britain, “the navy served the City of London, not the Crown.”
Lambert carries his analysis up to the modern era to include both current and emerging sea powers (but not seapowers). The United States, he says, ceased to be a seapower after the Louisiana Purchase, and instead became “another Roman Republic bent on continental hegemony.”
Lambert argues that “there are no more seapower great powers.” Though the United States has the most powerful navy in the world, he writes, it is not an essential element of the American economy. Nor is China currently a seapower or likely to become one, despite the alarm some have expressed at its actions, for example, in the South China Sea. China’s navy, Lambert argues, “only exists to support the internal political agenda.”
These and other provocative sallies in this intriguing book will surely fuel an ongoing conversation among both scholars and the public about the character of sea power—and seapower.
Craig L. Symonds is the Ernest J. King Professor of Maritime History at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of World War II at Sea: A Global History (Oxford University Press, 2018).
This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue (Vol. 31, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Review | Sea Change
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