Seapower in the Post-Modern World


Seapower in the Post-Modern World. By Basil Germond. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2024

Reviewed by Tim Coyle

Commissioned by the British Admiralty in October 1787, a Fleet (subsequently named the ‘First Fleet’), commanded by Captain Arthur Phillip, Royal Navy, comprising HM Ships Sirius and Supply, six hired transports, three store ships, and a total of 1500 persons, sailed from Portsmouth on 13 May 1787. Phillip was to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay in the land named ‘New South Wales’, which was ‘claimed’ for Britain by Captain James Cook RN in 1770.

Arriving at Botany Bay on 18 January 1788, Phillip found the Bay had poor resources and no water supply. Noting a chart reference to an inlet, named by Cook as ‘Port Jackson’ (but not explored by him), located 20 miles to the north, Phillip decided to investigate, and, on 21 January, he embarked in a longboat. There, in the early afternoon, he was astonished to find ‘the finest harbour in the world’, in which ‘a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security’.

Two hundred and eighteen years later, the then US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen, advocated a ‘1000 ship navy’ to meet the maritime security challenges of the 21st century. Mullen’s vision encompassed an enhanced level of collaboration between like-minded nations’ navies, coast guards and maritime industries for their mutual benefits and to ensure freedom of the seas.

Mullen saw the Thousand Ship Navy as a ‘free form’ collaboration – not as a combined combat fleet, but as a forum in which nations could share maritime-related information, policies, and technical and operational environments on a cooperative basis.

Apart from their respective envisioning of a ‘thousand ships’, both officers saw their moments of history as two aspects of sea power. Phillip, as a Royal Navy post captain, commanded a fleet to the far corners of the world into which the British Empire was expanding. His ‘seaman’s eye’ immediately saw Port Jackson as a strategic naval base (which it subsequently became). Mullen, on other hand, was advocating a cooperative international strategy encompassing like-minded and diverse national maritime capabilities to safeguard the ‘rules-based order’ at sea.

Mullen’s 2006 concept has seen an exponential challenge from the maritime forces of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the past 20 years the People’s Liberation Army-Navy, the China Coast Guard, and the People’s Armed Police Maritime Militia have developed a powerful joint three-phase graduated capability to enforce their maritime claims in its self-proclaimed ‘9-dash line’ through ‘winning without fighting’ (or ‘grey zone’ operations). The PRC’s large merchant marine, vast shipbuilding and commercial ports and its Belt and Road Initiative have projected it into world power status rivalling and challenging  the United States.

Seapower in the Post-Modern World is a formidable study echoing maritime strategy in history to the contemporary scene.  The author, Basil Germond, is professor of international security and co-director of the Security Research Institute at Lancaster University in Lancaster, United Kingdom. The topic of Seapower is a well-travelled road which arguably formally began with the writings of the American naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan and the British strategist Julian Corbett in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A galaxy of scholars comprising academics and naval officers has followed the initial grandees from the early 20th century to the present, all contributing to the study of sea power as it evolved through the ensuing century.

In more recent years the concept of sea power progressed from being navy-centric to including para-naval or coastguard/constabulary agencies and supporting entities such as shipbuilding and maritime industries. Germond covers the vast field of sea power from ancient times to the present, expanding the field to incorporate technologies and concepts unknown to Captain Phillip in 1788, but broached by Admiral Mullen in 2006.

Seapower in the Post-Modern World is a heavyweight work. Germond uses a three-phase template in exploring pre-modern, modern and post-modern sea power concepts. These are broadly Elements and Forms of Sea Power, the Practical Enactments of Sea Power and Final Causes of Sea Power Consequences. The book’s seven chapters cover:

A Historiography of the Concept of Seapower,

Seapower in International Relations,

Seapower and (Post) Modernity: A New Framework for Analysis,

From Pre-modern to Modern Seapower,

Solidaristic and Civilian Seapower, and

The Future of Seapower.

Germond uses figures and tables to illustrate his sometimes-complex arguments; for example, the evolution of seapower is shown In a table of pre-modern, modern, post-modern and ‘neo-modern seapower against the Elements and forms of seapower, the Practical Enactment of Seapower and Final Causes of Seapower Consequences. The book is a valuable source for sea power research as Germond bases his arguments on 19th and 20th century scholars as well as contemporary academic writings. In addition to the extensive bibliography, he provides a useful table of ‘Contributors to seapower scholarship (twentieth to twenty-first centuries)’, listing the Authors, their Main Contributions and their Backgrounds (either Practitioners, that is naval officers or Academics.

Seapower in the Post-Modern World therefore builds on the historiography of the interconnection of strategic maritime engagements, geo-political positioning and maritime trade and commerce. The ancient characteristics remain; however, modern’ seapower (whether ‘post’ or ‘neo’ can be as wide as the imagination might encompass. Is it useful to compare, contrast and grade individual states’ sea power?  Did Britain have any more ‘sea power’ in the 1982 Falklands war, when it took up ships from trade, than it does now with very few merchant ships on its register? And can merchant ships be counted as belonging to individual nations’ sea power when shipping is owned, managed and crewed by a multiplicity of international entities.

Does the US suffer in sea power against China with the latter having a large mercantile marine against the minimal number of vessels under the US flag? Similarly, is the US inferior in sea power due to its shipbuilding and maintenance facilities suffering production shortfalls compared to China’s burgeoning maritime industries? What about medium powers, such as Australia with a navy at risk of surface and sub-surface capability gaps for the next decade while construction of new surface combatants and the transition to nuclear submarines (an enormous challenge) ensues. Does a squadron of P-8 Poseidons provide a credible alternative to an expensive frigate? And what about a couple of squadrons of F-35s configured for maritime strike? Or army anti-ship missile-equipped units? Does Australia’s vast coastline constitute an element of sea power? The extent of ‘sea power’ might also include mature and well-resourced and directed diplomacy and ‘soft power’.

Seapower in the Post-Modern World is a valuable resource for ‘academics and practitioners’ to formulate policy for decision makers and for the encouragement, development and dissemination of the concept. The topic must not remain an intellectual exercise but be recognised in the wider community as an essential component of the national and international security debate.

However, one issue remains unresolved for your humble reviewer: What is the difference between ‘Seapower’ and ‘Sea Power’?


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