Essays & Reviews

The Whale or the Elephant

In the Winter 2015 issue of the journal ORBIS, Williamson Murray and Peter Mansoor urge U.S. policymakers and strategists who are considering the formulation of a grand strategy in the coming decades, to examine the fate of other great maritime/island powers which have wrestled with similar challenges. Of primary concern in this respect concerns the rise of China and the impact of its nascent power, both regionally and globally. The basic choice, they argue, is between a continental strategy, involving a land force commitment to allies in Eurasia; and one of an offshore balancing-maritime (blue water-limited liability) strategy, as being urged by scholars such as Christopher Layne, John Mearsheimer, and Stephen Walt.

The latter school, as characterized by Murray and Mansoor, argues that U.S. ground forces should not play a major role in future conflicts, leaving fighting on the continent to regional allies absent a wholesale breakdown in the balance of power. Quoting Layne: “America’s comparative strategic advantages rest on naval and air power, not on sending land armies to fight ground wars in Eurasia. Thus the United States should opt for the strategic precepts of Alfred Thayer Mahan (the primacy of air and sea power) over those of Sir Halford Mackinder (the primacy of land power).”

In evaluating this debate, the authors explore insights from a variety of other Classics and notable books, including those of Thucydides, Clausewitz, Julian Corbett, B.H. Liddell Hart, and Michael Howard.

The authors’ conclusion: The historical record shows that every time maritime powers attempt to fight a major war without continental allies and without a ground force commitment to support them, they lose. Land power has been the crucial component of major power conflict throughout history. States are often unwilling to commit their soldiers to the uncertainty of battle without a tangible commitment of blood and treasure from their major power allies. The fact is that ground forces lend a permanence and shared risk to conflict that more transitory air and naval forces lack. Inevitably, boots on the ground largely determine the political and strategic results of war. Continental powers have no choice than to fight land wars. Maritime powers apparently have more strategic choices, but as history has proven time and again, they cannot win wars on land with naval or air power alone. They must develop a grand strategy that utilizes the maritime dimension to establish an alliance or coalition that allows the projection of land power to defeat their opponents. Inevitably such a strategy will prove costly in lives and resources. Not to do so, however, is to court the disaster suffered by Athens in the fifth century BC or the defeat inflicted on Britain and France in 1940.

Needless to say, there is room for debate here. One might add the observation that there are probably no absolutes in grand strategy, given the existence of contingent factors outside of relatively permanent features such as geography (and even these can be modified by technology or engineering). Working through the Murray-Mansoor argument, with its historical case studies and use of the Classics, we can observe that there are choices as to when and where a maritime power might deploy land forces to decide the outcome of a continental war, or to deter such a war. Does the land-force commitment need to be made in peacetime (as it was for the United States and Britain in NATO), or can it be in the form of an expeditionary force? What makes the deployment of an expeditionary force credible to allies and potential adversaries?

We might note that Churchill made the distinction between the main theater (typically, the prize over which the war was being fought) and the decisive theater. The two might be identical but oftentimes a maritime power like Britain would be operating at a disadvantage in the main theater, especially as combat operations moved inland; and/or if the terrain, military situation and political circumstances favored the opposing continental power. In that case, the maritime power might seek out another theater where it could deploy its resources, including its ground forces and those of local allies, in such a fashion as to change fundamentally the overall balance of forces, so that the effort in the main theater was much easier, or unnecessary. This was the basis for Churchill’s argument for opening a major front against Turkey in World War I in early 1915. The fact that the execution of this strategy at the time failed does not necessarily tell against the principle.

We might also note that maritime powers, often for domestic political reasons, have sometime adopted a compromise strategy, involving both continental and maritime elements, and not always to their disadvantage, despite the risk of falling between two stools.