Starr wrote his book to respond to Alfred Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783. Many consider that work an indispensable classic, an essential plank in the argument for sea power trumping land power. What drew me to Starr’s tome was his criticism of Mahan’s “lackluster prose,” and essential “indigestibility.” I too dipped my toe in Mahan’s waters and had the impression that it was a book that everyone says they’ve read without actually doing so.
After that, Starr gets into his thesis, which is that sea power has not been nearly as decisive as we might think. For Starr, Mahan was not all wrong, but at least mostly wrong . . . in certain ways.
And with this moderately wishy-washy thesis lies most of the problem with Starr’s book. In the end, he can’t quite deliver the coup de grace to Mahan. He only wishes us to modify Mahan . . . somewhat. This stance has the advantage of being eminently reasonable, but the disadvantage of being rather dull and not very helpful. And he only wants us to think about the ancient world. The modern era he leaves untouched and unresolved, even though that was the era Mahan mostly dealt with.
So, this book is hardly Mahan’s nemesis, but Starr still has some good points.
The first is that most major ancient empires eventually acquired navies, yet none of them met their end at sea. Persia finished off Egypt by land, the Greeks finished off Persia by land, Sparta took Athens on land (at least at the very end of the Peloponnesian War), Hannibal brought Rome to its knees via a land invasion, and Rome itself met its doom from the northern barbarians who were light years away from having fleets. So how could naval power be all that decisive?
If we carry his point to the modern era, naval dominance did not help Portugal, Spain, or the Netherlands maintain their role in world affairs for very long.
With his second major point Starr approaches something of a broad analysis applicable across time. Naval powers will usually face a Catch-22 of sorts. Only a well-organized, wealthy, and successful state can achieve naval superiority, giving that state a much wider reach. But this wide reach comes with great responsibility. As Admiral Crowe commented,
Sea Power is more potent than land power, because it is pervading as the element in which it moves and has its being. . . . A maritime State, is, in the literal sense of the world, the neighbor of every country accessible by sea. It would be natural that a State supreme at sea should inspire universal jealousy and fear, and be ever in danger of being overthrown by a general combination of the world. Against such a combination no single nation could in the long run stand, least of all a small kingdom not possessed of a people trained to arms, and dependent on overseas commerce for food.
The danger in practice can only be averted . . . on condition that the national policy of the naval State is so directed to harmonize with the general desires and ideals of all mankind, and more particularly, that it is closely identified with the primary interests of the majority of mankind.
By the time most states have the infrastructure to have a big navy they also have the arrogance to match. England avoided Athens’ fate in part because of her geography, though she certainly had arrogance. America today finds that our global reach makes us many enemies as well as friends.
Naval power opens a state up to other temptations. More efficient global markets reduce the need for self-sufficiency and fosters increased specialization. But if the global network fails, the naval power may look homeward and find an empty shell. Thus did Starr anticipate some of the problems of modern globalization.
Starr had some good ideas, but needed more audacity to carry them through. Well, perhaps Mahan’s massive reputation cannot be felled at a single blow.