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The Maritime Classics and the New Eurasian Age

In another recent book and article, Geoffrey Gresh has addressed what he characterizes as the real competition that has emerged in recent years across maritime Eurasia between the continent’s main rivals—China, Russia, and India—as they vie to achieve great power status and to expand beyond their regional seas. He argues that the rising competition will dominate and shape the upcoming century as each power increases its geoeconomic, geopolitical, and naval embrace of maritime Eurasia from the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean Seas to the Indian Ocean, Pacific Asia, and the Arctic. In his introduction, he reviews the relevance of Mahan and Corbett to this discussion. But in Gresh's view, what Mahan and geographer Nicholas Spykman never imagined was the melting of the Arctic, the subsequent growing unification of maritime Eurasia’s disparate regions, and the emerging competition between Eurasia’s land powers at sea. That said, Gresh contends that the study of Mahan does have its utility in this context. None of the three Eurasian land powers he examined have achieved global maritime dominance similar to that of the United States today or Great Britain at the end of the nineteenth century, but the work of Mahan in his opus The Influence of Seapower upon History, 1660–1783 helps contextualize those characteristics that assist a great power in achieving global preeminence on the high seas.

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Mahan, Choke Points, and the Panama Canal

The recent blockage of the Suez Canal by the container ship Ever Given is a reminder of the importance of maritime choke points as they concern international commerce and national security. Choke points are primarily the effect of natural geography, which is one of the critical dimensions of strategy. In some cases, however, human agency, especially technology, can affect the strategic importance of natural geographic features and relationships. The shift from sail to steam, then from coal to oil-fired ships. From roads to railways. From horses to internal combustion engines. From the ground to the skies — aircraft to ballistic missiles, to drones, and hypersonic vehicles. Another human agency is the construction of canals in a way that significantly alters the geopolitical terrain.

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Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future (1897)

A prolific writer, Mahan became one of the most famous naval and sea power prophets of the late nineteenth century.  Concerned with the United States’ place in the world, Mahan wrote to influence both policymakers and common Americans.  Although some of his articles and books are less resonant today, they still provide a fascinating glimpse into the state of the world of in the 1890s, shortly before the Spanish-American War, and how it was perceived by many Americans. 

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Mahan’s Influence on the Chinese National Security Debate

The strategic culture formed by China’s history and political geography is a profoundly continentalist one.  Looking at China’s current maritime transformation in a longer historical perspective, though, it is possible to overstate the extent to which Chinese strategic culture over the centuries has been strictly continentalist.   The critical contemporary question is whether China’s traditional continentalist strategic culture will constrain the country’s development as a maritime power.  The Chinese themselves are not entirely of one mind about this. Indeed, for the first time there is a robust debate within the Chinese national security community concerning the meaning and limits of China’s turn to the sea.  In this debate, according to the Naval War College editors, Chinese navalists have become avid students of Mahan.

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