Does the Period 1800-1989 reveal the post-Cold War use of American, British and French Sea Power as historically anomalous?
First published: 9th October 2013 | Hal Wilson
By ending the Cold War, 1989 set the stage for western, liberal democracies to prioritise humanitarianism and international law-enforcement. For the navies of those democracies, this created the ascendance of two 'key missions' which, barring brief naval skirmishes with Iraq and Libya, have come to dominate the post-Cold War era.
To illustrate, the Marine Nationale's modern priorities are symbolised by its ongoing counter-piracy protection of humanitarian aid to Somalia. Likewise, the Royal Navy combated Caribbean smuggling until 2011; it continues to fight Somali piracy, and often delivers international relief. The United States Navy leads an international task-force against Somalian piracy - and has maintained annual, large-scale humanitarian visits to East Asia since 2004. All three have jointly patrolled the Persian Gulf to maintain "rights of passage under international law." Through these, we see the 'key missions' of supporting humanitarian action in various guises, and assuring oceanic legality.
Conveniently, solid criteria for these 'key missions' are easily available. For instance, the 2005 UN World Summit, which codified humanitarian intervention, offers insights we shall appropriate. Any humanitarian action requires a 'Just Cause Threshold' of "large-scale loss of life," whether deliberate or not, and the right intention of alleviating that suffering. Regarding oceanic legality, simply observe that the above-noted maritime security missions aim to assure free passage for legal seaborne trade, while targeting maritime crime. As will be shown, these are relatively novel challenges for France - but comparative traditions for the United States and Britain.
Naturally, British historical use of sea-power was never wholly defined by these tasks. As Nelson wrote, his objective was "to keep the French fleet in check and, if they out to sea... annihilate them." The Royal Navy aggressively hunted French sea-power until, in 1810, its remnants beyond Europe were snuffed out with the capture of the final French base at Guadeloupe. In 1814, with the French and Dutch Empires swallowed whole, even Napoleon admitted Britain was powerful enough to hold them. Self-evidently, Britain's use of sea-power in the Napoleonic Wars - engaged in fleet action and territorial conquest - bears little resemblance to our modern 'key missions.' Yet, this warrants stressing.
Firstly, that usage founded Britain's premier maritime position for the rest of the 19th century - with major implications for our investigation. Secondly, it arguably inspired Julian Corbett's 'command of the sea' concept. Corbett described 'command of the sea' as naval warfare's objective, allowing national protection and the chance to apply "direct military pressure upon the national life of our enemy..." This too warrants attention, as it implicitly addresses sea-power as a political tool - the ability to use the world's oceans to enforce or influence political decision. That political prism is indispensable to our investigation, highlighting the first 'strand' of Britain's 19th century sea-power usage - that driven by its liberal, Radical-Whig tradition.
Having survived Pitt's Terror, Britain's Radical movement scored important victories at the 1807 general election, one of which was the election of Thomas Cochrane - the famous 'sea wolf.' Through this, and Cochrane's deliberate deployment of naval prestige while campaigning, a small yet explicit link was arguably forged between Radicalism and British sea-power. Indeed, through Peterloo and post-war depression, such liberal ideals enjoyed growing influence post-1815. Accordingly, the Royal Navy's famous anti-slavery campaign commanded sincere domestic support - as a clear example of humanitarian action, it assuredly had the 'right intention' behind it.
True - competing anti-slavery motives did exist. Slavery's uneconomic aspects were attacked from 1774 onwards; even illiberal statesmen advocated abolition after costly Caribbean slave revolts  - and Napoleonic pressures temporarily made confiscating slave-ships a very desirable concept.  These motives are easily-overinflated, however. Instead, Lord Exmouth's 1816 expedition against Algerian slave-taking piracy reaffirms the centrality of liberal ideals. Before 1816, both Britain and Algiers enjoyed amiable coexistence - in 1810, Britain even safeguarded its trade near Algiers with a tribute of military supplies.  Yet, Exmouth devastated Algiers' port, destroyed its fleet, and liberated 1,200 European slaves.  Narrow pragmatism cannot explain this. Instead, the right intention behind Britain's anti-slavery campaign clearly prompted action against the Algerian corsairs. 
Wider observations further underline Radicalism's importance - consider 1827's intervention over Greek independence. In Wellington's ministry, Turkish suppression of Greek rebellion generated split opinion on how to respond  - Foreign Secretary Canning feared involvement simply risked empowering Russia.  Yet, symbolised by Delacroix's Massacre at Chios, Turkish bloodthirstiness enraged liberal sentiment; Cochrane's well-publicised fight for Greek independence "had a salutary effect on British diplomacy."  Radical impetus thus prompted British exertion of sea-power, snowballing into the decisive naval battle at Navarino.  Together, Algiers, Navarino and the wider abolition effort thus demonstrate a remarkable parallel to today's 'key mission' of humanitarian action.
That said, this 'strand' arguably faltered as the 19th century drew on. Certainly, it never accounted for all of Great Britain's sea-power usage. Rather, our second 'strand' of Great Power calculations played an increasingly important role. Of this, Britain's two 'Opium Wars' with China serve as ideal illustrations. The first arose from trade disputes rather than explicit imperialism - its goal was "the extension of British commerce... [not] the British Empire,"  as did the second.  Yet, as wars of outright aggression, both are utterly alien to the Royal Navy's post-Cold War norms. That said, British sea-power was also used aggressively to end wars - as with the Crimean conflict. In 1856 the Royal Navy destroyed then occupied Russia's Kronstadt naval base, near St. Petersburg  - a crushing show of force that embarrassed Russia into peace. Whether owing to international instability or permissive domestic attitudes to force, Britain's Great Power status clearly engendered sea-power usage contrary to current-day priorities.
Nevertheless, our Great Power strand was never incompatible with modern sea-power usage. Consider the Royal Navy's hunt for Spanish pirates across the Caribbean in the 1820s. The pursuit was driven by Foreign Secretary Canning's concern that the privateers could provoke an American occupation of Spanish Cuba, in turn leaving British trade at risk of American blockade.  Of course, Britain also pursued oceanic legality for its own sake; the Royal Navy's anti-piracy struggle went on into the early 20th century.  Further, as the Admiralty Board claimed in 1893, "There can be no greater danger to... the peace of Europe than a relatively weak British Navy."  The Royal Navy's contemporary superiority enabled another potential use - deterrence.
20th century developments rapidly ended that potential, however. Indeed, they diminished our Great Power strand - and killed its 'Radical-liberal' counterpart. Growing German naval power had made such concerns dangerous luxuries that potentially detracted from European naval control.  Between 1914-1918, Britain's naval war was largely defined by submarine-hunting and light skirmishes  which, as with the Napoleonic Wars, hold no relation to modern 'key missions.' Thus, the inter-war period holds greater interest for our investigation. Indeed, the aforementioned downfall of the Radical-liberal 'strand' is best illustrated by British involvement in the Greco-Turkish War.
In 1922, a British amphibious force deployed to Smyrna to keep order,  eventually evacuating 60,000 Greeks fleeing Turkish persecution.  Though outwardly a modern exercise of humanitarian action, the Greeks had actually committed atrocities from 1920 onwards  - and British sea-power provided battlefield support to their military.  Prime Minister Lloyd-George even "concocted" the report that served as pretext for Greek aggression and international involvement.  Lloyd-George's memoirs reveal humanitarian outrage at Turkey  - but despite its appearances, British sea-power had been used to illegitimate ends. The British liberal sea-power tradition, symbolised by Algiers and Navarino, had thus been abused by a re-assertive Great Power 'strand.'
Similarly interesting observations emerge through British naval conduct during Spanish Civil War. The current-day priority of oceanic legality seemingly provided the keystone to this use of British sea-power: A task-force including HMS Hood was deployed to protect British shipping from regional instability.  Yet within a year of opened hostilities, thirty-five merchantmen had been attacked,  while international 'non-intervention' patrols included the same Italian submarines sinking neutral shipping.  The Royal Navy was struggling with a hollow task - but the international context left no other option but to endure. Note the menacing symbolism of one interception made in April 1937: With Admiral Scheer watching "in the background,"  a Nationalist cruiser freely interdicted a British merchantman.
As Paul Kennedy observed of Britain's inter-war years, "The weary Titan was showing his age"  - domestic weakness and growing fascist power denied Britain's traditional freedom of action at sea. Nevertheless, despite the often invaluable nature of British sea-power between 1939-1945, World War II decisively challenged ideas of sea-power's importance.  Labour's 1945 election victory also "dashed any hopes of a substantial post-war fleet."  Following failure at Suez in 1956, alongside an ever-shrinking empire, Britain's naval capabilities were further limited in the 1960s.  By 1980, operating Britain's nuclear deterrence was deemed the "first and most vital task" of British sea-power.  Demonstrably, between World War II's legacy and the mounting pressures of the Cold War, a set of British naval priorities emerged - with little similarity to today's.
Therefore, current-day use of British sea-power represents a recovery of old 19th century habits - or else a rehabilitation from 20th century disturbances. While British historical usage never revolved around today's priorities of humanitarian action and oceanic legality, they enjoyed a surprising measure of importance.
By contrast, French maritime history shows little such emphasis. As with Britain, the historical experiences of the Napoleonic Wars arguably set a tone that was followed thereafter. That is, Admiral Villeneuve's moderately successful 1805 commerce-destroying raid into the Caribbean  - and his subsequent disaster at Trafalgar - epitomise the French naval experience of the Napoleonic era. Indeed, several French officers proved adept at the guerre de course commerce-raiding strategy.  Even by 1815, commerce destruction doctrines - utterly contrary to modern oceanic legality concerns - remained comparatively appealing.  As we shall see, this directly influenced later French uses of sea-power.
The Napoleonic wars' secondary value lies in illuminating the roots 19th-century French politics' infamous discord - and sea-power's place within it. As noted, war had destroyed French overseas holdings. Bourbon post-war efforts to return French influence to Latin America failed,  while only a much-diminished French missionary network remained in the Far East after 1815.  Further, Artz rightly argues that war's domestic aftermath made "continuity of policy impossible."  All this is pivotal to our analysis: Recovering wartime overseas losses, or overcoming domestic weaknesses - or both - would define much of that use for the 19th century.
To illustrate, note that a French squadron supported Britain at Navarino.  But, glibly considering this comparable to modern humanitarian action would be badly mistaken. Contrasting with the Radical liberal impetus compelling Britain's intervention, French action against Turkey was but one part of Bourbon France's international re-assertion. Note the symbolism of French amphibious operations to retake Madagascar in 1829,  or the 1830 invasion of Algeria. On this last naval expedition "ministers placed their highest hopes,"  but both were rooted more in combating deteriorating domestic support than anything else. Demonstrably, initial post-war use of French sea-power was directed at domestic and foreign audiences alike - delivering inchoately imperialist and aggrandising messages.
Note also that France lacked the cohesive force of Britain's Whig-liberal 'strand'. Indeed, up to 1870, French regimes struggled to endure for twenty years. Accordingly, French sea-power was subject to capricious circumstances. For instance, "Louis-Philippe from the beginning showed himself a lover of peace."  Combined with a hostile international context and still-limited overseas holdings, French use of sea-power abruptly diminished. For example, Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers was dismissed over his forthright support for Mehemet Ali despite European opposition.  Potential escalation to actual use of sea-power was clearly deemed too dangerous to allow.
Even relatively harmless opportunities for using sea-power floundered under King Louis-Philippe. The de facto need for British approval strictly constrained these opportunities,  hamstrung further by domestic concerns. For instance, it was the July Monarchy that enacted the French counterpart to the Royal Navy's anti-slavery patrol.  Yet, French abolitionism only truly flourished under Napoleon III - as a tool of oblique regime criticism.  Accordingly, the July Monarchy could not enlist widespread moral indignation to "forbid its citizens from dealing with slave traders."  French use of sea-power to combat slavery thus became an ephemeral gesture.
Under Napoleon III, only the extent and complexity of French sea-power usage would change - a shift best approached through two conceptual categories. Our first is the physical use of sea-power, in which France's limited Crimean War naval experience offers little insight.  An 1860 expedition to Syria, however, presents considerable value - despite its blurred boundary between maritime and land concerns.
Following Muslim massacres of Christians, Napoleon III used sea-power to support a French intervention force, nominally "only intended to bring about the pacification of [Syria]."  Like the Bourbons at Navarino, however, French sea-power use over Syria was not towards modern ends of humanitarian action. Empowered through "nostalgic memories of imperial glory,"  Napoleon III instead wanted a French puppet regime "adjacent to the line of the Suez Canal..."  Without British pressure compelling French withdrawal,  'humanitarian action' might easily have become imperial occupation. Nevertheless, Syria also hints at our second category of contemporary French sea-power use: the symbolic-strategic dimension.
France's naval arms build-up of the 1860s epitomises this, as does the inseparable development of the later 'Jeune École.' Through them, inchoate Bourbon-style assertiveness was refined into a technological challenge - squarely aimed at the Royal Navy.  As Lambert notes, the purpose of the 1860s' battleship mania "was to secure diplomatic leverage rather than to fight."  In this, symbolism and strategy converged. Through his growing 'fleet-in-being,' Napoleon III evidently sought to use French sea-power as a hypothetical threat to Britain's jugular vein - its oceanic trade - and so retrench France's strategic position. Although the Jeune École emphasised smaller torpedo-boats over battleships, it too remained "a reversion to that old herring... the guerre de course,"  serving similar political ends.
Consider also that Admiral Théophile Aube, a key Jeune École advocate, declared "war is the negation of law... Everything is therefore not only permissible but legitimate against the enemy."  That Aube became Minister of the Marine in 1886  underlines commerce-raiding's enduring centrality to even late-19th century French conceptions of sea-power. Just as humanitarian action was a pretext for imperial expansion, oceanic legality ran contrary to the French Navy's fundamental strategic purposes. However, the Jeune École represents more than persistent French obsession with Napoleonic naval strategy - it was the beginning of French sea-power's final downfall.
That is, the Jeune École was conceived in the Third Republic, which itself "was born in defeat and grew up facing the military might of the German Empire."  Its abandonment of costly battleship construction for cheaper platforms thus represented not just doctrinal, naval development, but a forced realignment to a new, landward threat. Note that almost all the First World War's major allied naval tasks were undertaken by Britain; "the French had not even suffered a [naval] defeat that might have brought a surge of patriotic interest."  Nor would inter-war penury and growing European fascism permit much scope for French naval exertion.
For instance, pre-war plans by the French Navy for a simplistic Mediterranean offensive were "probably overambitious without British help."  Even the commanding Admiral of French Indo-China observed that "the fate of the French Empire... will be settled... on the Rhine."  Of course, 1940's collapse of metropolitan France complicates our investigation no end. After the German-French armistice, "the French [Mediterranean] squadron practically ceased to exist"  - while some of France's surviving naval capabilities fell into Vichy hands. These in turn used sea-power to ends alien both to modern French sea-power priorities, and liberal principles. 
Nor would the post-war context herald a sudden shift to current-day 'key missions.' For instance, a ramshackle French naval taskforce was used in support of counterinsurgency in Indochina  - but their purpose, as General Leclerc put it, was "to reclaim our inheritance."  Similarly, French sea-power infamously deployed alongside Britain over Suez in 1956.  Such openly imperialist uses of sea-power are remarkable not just for running contrary to modern priorities - but as effectively the last pre-1989 usage altogether. Thereafter, France withdrew into Algerian land-warfare, and then effectively into itself,  with little residual interest in sea-power.
Albeit imperfectly, Britain's maritime history reflected a clear, recurring parallel with today's 'key missions' - a parallel absent in the history of the Marine Nationale. By contrast, the United States more closely echoes Britain's historical use of sea-power: For instance, long before Exmouth's sortie, a young United States was fighting North African piracy.
Arrangements from 1785 to pay Tripolitanian pirates tribute had simply prompted ever-harsher attacks on American shipping from Algiers and Tripoli.  In a consequent 1801-1805 war, an American squadron threatened to bombard Tripoli - exacting compensation.  In 1815, another expedition saw the Algerian Grand Admiral killed, his fleet outmanoeuvred, and Algiers itself vulnerable to American attack.  Already, a parallel to today's oceanic legality concern emerges. Note also that only quick naval build-up made these expeditions possible - achieved despite opposition to military establishments dating back to American independence. 
Indeed, until John Adams' administration, America "had no navy worthy of the name."  As the 1812 war with Britain shows, American sea-power usage was hugely challenged by this legacy. Even as war was declared, the Secretary of War was unsure how many sailors were available,  nor could the US Navy prevent British 'command of the sea.'  By 1814's peace, American annual seaborne exports were valued at "$7,000,000 whereas in 1807... they had been $108,000,000."  Moreover, "not a single one of the original causes of war received any mention in the treaty of peace."  These blows were deeply ironic. The American hawks' pretext had been British interdiction of Europe-bound American trade. 
American politicians had thus used sea-power along the lines of today's oceanic legality priority. Moreover, as if the US Navy were atoning for its failure, this priority enjoyed renewed emphasis by 1820. Specifically, Latin American instability was creating piracy, commercial loss and American casualties.  Capital-ship designs were accordingly forfeited to permit designs better suited to coastal counter-piracy tasks.  Even if one infers this as a pessimistic American emphasis on the possible, rather than the desirable, we nevertheless find another parallel with today's 'key missions.' That a comparatively close-range task was emphasised, however, points us towards two integrally-linked observations: The recurring motif of American isolationism - and the aftermath of 1812's damage to American seaborne interests.
Prior to 1812 New England's Atlantic-focused traders exerted major effort to prevent conflict, fearing inevitable losses.  But, wider American communities prioritised landward expansionism.  Through the aforementioned obliteration of American seaborne exports, this landward trend was reinforced. Already lacking new capital ships capable of true strategic reach, the United States Navy's political importance was further diminished. The results are evident in the United States' 1842 commitment to anti-slave trade patrols: The American contribution was critically undermined by insufficient resources  - diminishing an otherwise modern-style use of sea-power.
Even in 1861, the Navy Secretary practically "had to start from zero to establish the [Union's] blockade"  of the south. Achieving that blockade was American sea-power's "most noteworthy [Civil War] accomplishment" - but through its ironclad monitors, it was also explicitly used for deterring European, pro-Confederate intervention.  That ironclad construction persisted even as the South fell  reveals that deterrence was integral to post-war sea-power usage - but one limited to North American littoral regions. Isolationism's predominance over American sea-power thus re-asserted itself through novel technology and strategic purpose.
Where that predominance began to falter was 1898's Spanish-American War. Alfred Mahan, a contemporary American strategist, described imperialism as "a noble aim"  - but also emphasised "the avowed purpose and cause of our action were... to enforce the departure of [Spain] from Cuba."  Likewise, after rejecting imperialism, a former Congressman declared the 1898 war "a humane intervention which made external action for the moment necessary."  In other words, despite growing imperialist overtones, American use of sea-power against Spain was literally conceived as humanitarian action. Yet, the 20th century challenge of global war brought a massive change in American sea-power usage.
Though seeing little naval action in 1917-1918, American interest in the use of sea-power was definitively established. Inter-war innovations such as naval aviation were vigorously pursued,  enabling a highly aggressive use of sea-power in World War II. For instance, with 'command of the sea' established by US Pacific carrier forces, American submarines were left free to pursue their own guerre de course - sinking 322,265 tonnes of Japanese shipping in October 1944 alone.  Undeniably, this Pacific experience defined the core purposes of the United States' Cold War uses of sea-power.
As Baer notes of the US Navy in the Cold War, "Conceptually, [Pacific campaign-style] sea control had to underlie all Navy missions."  This doctrinal inheritance created an aggressive strategic posture - ultimately manifesting in American deterrence strategy. The 1980s saw the zenith of this approach, with ever-more advanced nuclear-armed submarines deployed - and naval exercises around the Soviet periphery deliberately intended to 'hem in' Moscow.  As such, we find the transition to the post-1989 'key missions' was not just sudden - but a massive break with recent strategic priorities.
In a more historic sense, the United States' similarity to Great Britain's approach to sea-power is surprisingly clear. Both nations emphasised combating the challenge of piracy; both nations were (at times) unafraid to use their sea-power to support humanitarian action. During periods of global conflict, both used sea-power to pursue Corbett's 'command of the sea.' Nevertheless, stark differences do exist. Through the existential challenge of the Confederacy, for instance, drastic variations were needed in how the United States used its sea-power. New, ironclad deterrence was the result, shielding the crushing of southern rebellion. Conversely Britain's usage, as the global power of the 19th century, was sometimes determined by our 'strand' of Great Power imperatives.
The only convincing explanation for this lies in a synthesis of politics and geography. Namely, the United States and United Kingdom shared strong, well-grounded traditions of liberalism - and comparative geographic security. Conversely, France was effectively dominated by authoritarianism until Napoleon III's downfall, compelling different priorities regarding the use of sea-power: Under the July Monarchy, a precarious power-base sapped political will for using sea-power altogether. Under the Bourbons, the priority of French sea-power lay in grand gestures like invasion of Algeria - not something as pedestrian as chasing pirates. By the time of the Third Republic, however, France's new strategic reality demanded it look to the East - not to the sea.
To conclude, this author is surprised by the apparent historical depth of today's key naval missions. Assuredly, the pattern of warfare between 1800-1989 ensures they remain historically dwarfed by more 'intensive' naval engagements. But, at least in the 'peacetime' naval behaviour of the United States and the United Kingdom, the post-Cold War use of sea-power enjoys true historical roots.
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