The Sinews Of Empire

Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 02559, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 02559, Hoover Institution Archives.

Modern scholars of politics revel in their complex descriptions of state action. Rather than oversimplifying and reducing the state to a unitary body, they separate its internal components and assess each of their relative strengths. There’s something to this. However, politics are contradictory. Man may create sprawling decision-making bodies, and systems that disperse power at multiple levels. Nevertheless, states are remarkably like people. They feel pride and anger, loyalty and hatred, fear and hope.

States are also structured like people. They have minds, hearts, and amorphous limbs with which to influence the world around them. Moreover, they have sinews, connective links that unite their metaphorical bone and muscle, tie their appendages together, and enable the use of power. Roads and internal thoroughfares are sinews common to every state.

But empires, the titans that shape the international system, derive their power from the seas, and their control over portions of international trade. As such, naval forces are the sinews of great powers. They ensure the free movement of goods between friendly ports, the transit of forces between far-flung bases, and uninterrupted communications between the core, its distant commercial partners, and allies.

Two historical examples help suggest the effect of the sustained cuts to American seapower that began with the Cold War’s end and have continued to today. First, the experience of Habsburg Spain, an empire that neglected consistently to fund its naval forces, and paid the price in its loss to a distinctly inferior power. Second, the experience of the Soviet Union, an empire that saw its naval power grow from 1945 until 1980, followed by an increase in its ability to shape international events.

Spain—Force Decline and Imperial Collapse

Ancient empires controlled a vast amount of the world without sophisticated technology—Macedonian, Roman, and Mongol territorial expansion are examples. But 16th-century Spain is the first modern empire in geographical scale and logistical scope. With its significant holdings in the Southwest Pacific, the Americas, and Europe, the Habsburg-run empire was the first upon which the sun never set.

Spain maintained its imperial power through control of international trade, facilitated by its naval and merchant fleets. The Spanish commercial system was global. Beginning in the Philippines, the Manila galleons would transport Chinese goods from the Western Pacific to Mexico. These would join the gold and silver extracted from Central America and Peru that fueled the Spanish economy. The West Indies Fleet of merchant galleons would bear this treasure and trade from the Caribbean to the Iberian Peninsula, and return via convoy to the Indies to take on another opulent cargo. Spain combined its Atlantic treasure fleet and Pacific galleons with a Mediterranean galley fleet that it used to challenge Ottoman expansion and gain control over still-critical Mediterranean trade flows. Naval superiority in each of these theaters nourished Spanish prosperity.

Despite the importance of maritime trade to the Spanish Empire, Spain’s 16th-century Habsburg monarchs consistently refused to fund Atlantic naval forces, despite the Spanish crown’s 1550s annual income of 2.5 million pesos and 1590s annual income of 14 million pesos. Habsburg claims to the former Duchy of Burgundy drew the Spanish Empire into decades of land wars against France, while Charles V’s position as Holy Roman Emperor entangled him repeatedly in campaigns against Protestant North German princes. Most important, the Dutch Revolt against Philip II in 1568 initiated 80 years of European and colonial warfare, leading to the continual diversion of funds to Spanish ground forces.

The Habsburg monarchs may have considered land campaigns the strategic jewel in their crown. However, setbacks at sea doomed the Spanish Empire, not defeats on land. The Dutch Revolt inaugurated the era of privateering, first with the Northern European-centered “Sea Beggars” who prevented Spain from blockading the newly established Dutch Republic, and later with privateers who harassed Spanish treasure convoys. Elizabethan England also joined the fray. England’s Sea Dogs like Francis Drake, John Hawkins, and Walter Raleigh chewed away at Spain’s New World revenues while bolstering English coffers.

Anglo-Dutch harassment disrupted Spanish revenue flows, thus undermining Spain’s war of attrition against the Netherlands that was centered on laying siege to fortified towns. Moreover, Spain’s lack of sea control in Northern Europe enabled the English resupply of the Dutch rebels, allowing them to sustain their war effort despite distinct material disadvantages. The Spanish Armada was conceived as Philip’s decisive stroke against England and the Netherlands. The 130-ship fleet would sail north from Spain and destroy inferior Anglo-Dutch naval forces in the English Channel. After establishing sea control, it would transport the Duke of Parma’s army from the Netherlands to England. This 55,000-man force of Spanish tercios would knock England out of the war. Parma’s force would then descend upon the now-unsupported Dutch, ending their costly rebellion.

Most accounts of the Spanish Armada’s failure focus on tactical issues. Creative Anglo-Dutch tactics and poor weather felled Spain’s poorly trained and badly led armada. However, the long-term strategic impact of force decline cannot be overstated. Inconsistent funding meant that Spain lacked a modern offensive fleet. It was forced to rely on a small core of hastily constructed galleons, supplemented by outdated armed carracks and hulks, along with light ships. An armada comprised of fighting ships, rather than converted medieval merchantmen, would have stood a better chance to succeed than the fleet that sailed. A more professional and better-trained fleet could likely have managed the poor weather the armada encountered.

Because it refused to match its naval forces to its strategic commitments, Spain suffered a crushing defeat at English hands, from which the Spanish navy and Empire never recovered. Growing Anglo-Dutch naval power wrested control of international trade from Spain, resulting in its ultimate imperial decline and collapse. Great states depend on globe-encircling seapower. Seapower depends on sufficient numbers of good ships, and leadership that is as capable as the fleet’s well-trained crews. None of this is possible without sustained, consistent resources.

Soviet Naval Policy, 1956-1985

Spain’s experience illustrates the peril of failing to match force size and shape with strategic commitments—an issue that lies at the heart of the U.S. Navy’s downsizing. Alternatively, the Soviet experience demonstrates the increasing strategic flexibility and potency that a properly funded, well-equipped navy can provide any great power.

Land powers that seek greater international influence are wont to expand their fleets. The Soviet Union was no exception. It derived its structural military strength from its population and geography—a strength that Soviet military engagements demonstrated even before the Second World War. However, from its founding the USSR lacked major naval forces. Imperial Russia’s 1905 defeat in the Pacific eliminated the core of its naval combat power, while war with Germany in 1914 precluded significant naval expansion. Landward threats consumed Soviet military attention in the interwar period, preventing investments in a navy, and war with Germany once again in 1941 forced the USSR to direct all its military resources to land operations. The “Red Navy” had little effect on the conflict, with 400,000 of its sailors dispatched as infantrymen to the Eastern Front.

Russia entered the Cold War at a maritime disadvantage. Its significant power was trapped in Central and Eastern Europe. Although it could foment revolution and bully regional actors into submission, the Soviet Union lacked tools directly to pressure the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrates American naval power’s ability to control escalation. Despite President Kennedy’s diplomatic weakness and strategic miscalculation, the U.S. could use its naval forces to quarantine Cuba, an act that froze the situation and demonstrated Cuba’s isolation from Soviet support in a wider conflict. Khrushchev’s nuclear ploy backfired. By raising the escalatory stakes, he cut off his own flexibility.

Under the thirty-year stewardship of Admiral Sergey Gorshkov, the Soviet Navy was transformed from a coastal force into one that could project global power. Gorshkov understood the geographic constraints that trapped Soviet power projection, namely the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap and Dardanelles, both of which were in Western hands. Just like the Imperial and Nazi German naval services, the Soviet Navy needed to pierce the West’s “far blockade” to operate internationally, and do so without a global network of bases.

Gorshkov constructed a fleet centered on its submarine service. Attack boats and cruiser submarines were intended to pressure American and allied shipping, while SSBN’s (ballistic missile submarines) afforded the USSR second-strike capabilities. Gorshkov combined this subsurface fleet, which reached 260 boats in the early 1980s, with a collection of small surface combatants, light aircraft carriers, and long-range strike aircraft designed to give Soviet forces maritime breathing space closer to home, and show the flag abroad.

The Soviets benefitted from their naval expansion most clearly in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Latin America and Africa. The U.S. policy of détente in the 1970s was intended to decrease American commitments abroad by limiting competition to Central Europe. As such, détente catalyzed a reduction in American naval forces—a reduction concurrent with Gorshkov’s expansion. From the late 1970s onward, Soviet naval power facilitated communist support for anti-American regimes throughout Latin America. In 1981, Soviet surface combatants escorted 63,000 tons of arms shipments to Cuba, which were in turn distributed to various Latin American communist groups. Soviet assistance helped the Sandinistas gain power in Nicaragua in 1979, and sustained the regime throughout the Cold War.

Soviet military aid to Cuba outclassed U.S. assistance to all Latin America tenfold. Such an effort would have been impossible without Soviet ships and submarines operating from Cuban, Peruvian, and Chilean ports. Moreover, the mere presence of Soviet forces on the critical sea-lanes in the Gulf of Mexico gave the USSR greater potential escalatory control. The Soviet navy had a similar effect in Africa. Although the Soviet navy never obtained a permanent African base, the USSR’s maritime presence helped deter more open American intervention in Angola and Somalia.

The Cold War’s conclusion is typically linked to an overextension of Soviet military capabilities, especially as they applied to its economic capacity. However, the Soviet navy was a marginal investment success. It gave the Kremlin significant increased policy flexibility from the mid-1970s onwards. The Cuban Missile Crisis might have played out very differently with Gorshkov’s fleet on patrol in the West Atlantic.

The Vatican is the one land-locked state in the world that wields global influence. The others that suffer from similar geographic position are limited in their aspirations, whether for good or ill. The U.S. remains the world’s most influential nation and is still the world’s greatest seapower. History suggests an inexorable link between consequential influence and seapower.

About the Author

More from Foreign Affairs & National Security