The Political Influence of Naval Force in History

By Van Tol, Jan | Naval War College Review, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

The Political Influence of Naval Force in History


Van Tol, Jan, Naval War College Review


Cable, James. The Political Influence of Naval Force in History. New York: St. Martin's, 1998. 213pp. $59.95

Sir James Cable is a noted writer on naval affairs. His Gunboat Diplomacy, 1919-1991 is a well regarded classic on the role of naval force.

His latest work is a historical survey of the political purposes for which governments have made use of naval force. Cable defines "naval force" as that "exercised by fighting ships manned by disciplined sailors at the direction of a central command responsible to the political leadership." His definition is necessary to distinguish naval force as we understand it today from the force exercised by pirates, privateers, adventurers, and users of "landing craft" (such as those that brought Roman soldiers to Britain in 55 A.D.) or galleys, which served merely as conveyances to bring soldiers together for seaborne hand-to-hand combat.

Cable examines the extent to which naval force furthered the political purposes of the governments that used it-the scale and nature of the force employed are not otherwise considered relevant. He focuses on examples of the use of force "for political purposes in which the naval element is significant, the facts are reasonably well established, and the degree of success or failure and the durability of the result are clear enough for useful conclusions to be drawn."

This definition thus largely excludes consideration of fighting at sea before the 1500s, because standing navies were rare, thus precluding the presence of disciplined officers and sailors. Portugal in the sixteenth and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century first used naval force for political purposes, with great success in founding large empires. The establishment of global empires and expanded seaborne trade fostered the emergence of significant national navies (as opposed to privateers and pirates).

Cable surveys various instances when the use of naval force had profound, long-lasting political effects. Obviously, victories in major sea battles like Trafalgar or Tsushima, the ultimate use of naval force, could have significant political fallout. Yet the uses of naval force did not have to be that dramatic to have such effect. Cumulative efforts-such as those of the British to attain command of the seas in the eighteenth century; of the British (and others) to stamp out the slave trade in the nineteenth century; of the Union navy to blockade the Confederacy during the Civil War; of the German submarine campaigns to interdict sea traffic to Great Britain; and of the Japanese campaign to conquer Southeast Asia-all had long-lasting political consequences, even if the eventual outcomes were not always intended.

Discrete exercises of noncombat naval forces have also had huge political consequences. For instance, the Dutch navy's successful landing of William of Orange in England enabled the Glorious Revolution and all that followed from it in Britain (and Ireland). …

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