war on the rocks

Suicide is not a war-winning strategy

August 4, 2013

Nicholas Lambert, Planning Armageddon, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012)


World War I is like cricket.  The British find it mesmerizing and the Americans find it frightfully dull.  Furthermore, in the minds of Americans, cricket and World War I led to much more exciting, dare we say, better things: baseball and World War II, respectively.

Well, Americans are absolutely correct in their views about cricket.  Let’s just put that out there.  However, they are flat wrong about WWI.  As we are presently in the 99th anniversary of the first days of that war, the timing seems good to review a book on the subject.  Nicholas Lambert’s 2012 book Planning Armageddon is just the latest data point showing that there was a lot going on in the Great War that was interesting and that some of it may even be relevant to today’s world.

Lambert is an Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London who has previously written about Admiral Jackie Fisher.  His Planning Armageddon is a revisionist work that seeks to throw an entirely new light on British grand strategy in WWI.  In fact, the book is about as far away from the trenches of France as it is possible to be.  This voluminous work (Lambert seems never to have met a memorandum he didn’t find worth summarizing) describes how between approximately 1905 and 1912, the idea of “economic warfare” emerged and took hold in the British government as a way of rapidly and decisively beating Germany should war come.
The idea of economic warfare, as Lambert describes it, came largely out of Britain’s Naval Intelligence Department (NID).  These officers observed that Britain was the center of the world in many ways.  It had the largest Navy.  It had the largest merchant fleet.  Most transoceanic communications cables touched the soil of the British Empire.  Its banks granted the credits that made most international trade work.  Lloyd’s of London was the single most important insurer of merchant ships in the world.

The NID and others in the Admiralty, with help from civilian naval analyst Julian Corbett, put these facts together with the key ideas behind the French jeune école: that the point of war was to inflict the maximum damage on the enemy and that sometimes this could be accomplished by attacking the enemy’s economy rather than his fleet. While for France this meant building cruisers and torpedo boats—a force optimized for guerre de course—the NID and other Royal Navy officers suggested that Britain could quickly defeat Germany by crashing the world’s economic system.  To this end, Britain negotiated international agreements that regulated the conduct of shipping in wartime in ways that would support its strategy.  Next, in the event of war, the British government planned to put in place legal barriers that would prevent British firms and assets from facilitating international trade that might have the slightest chance of benefitting Germany.  Finally, the Royal Navy would mop up any stray merchant ships that put to sea carrying goods to Germany.  The expected result was rapid economic strangulation that would paralyze Germany and bring its war effort to an unceremonious halt.

Lambert tells us that when war came in August 1914, the British government actually started implementing this strategy.  However, it soon became untenable.  Why did economic warfare turn out to be such a sticky wicket?  The title of the book, Planning Armageddon, gives a clue.  The word “Armageddon” implies a certain drastic and universal quality.  It turned out that while the Admiralty was perfectly willing to countenance ending the economic world as they knew it, other parts of the British government were far less enthusiastic about that prospect.  First off, the War Office had never been tremendously interested in this whole plan because it didn’t involve the British Army, which was fighting tooth and nail in Belgium and France and so was no help.  Therefore, while not opposed to the plan, it was unwilling to expend its political capital helping the Admiralty get a reluctant Cabinet to push the necessary policy levers forward and keep them in that position.  More to the point, the Board of Trade did not want to strangle British exports and thereby British economy and it brought tremendous pressure to bear in Whitehall.  Also, the Foreign Office found that dealing with the diplomatic fallout, most particularly from the United States, was quite trying.

The fallback strategy was the ad hoc development of a blockade of Germany, a much less innovative strategy which the British had applied against Napoleonic France a century before.    The central quality of this blockade was that it sought to apply pain only to Germany instead of laying waste to the entire economic landscape.  The blockade involved extensive intelligence collection and the creation of enormous bureaucracies to handle the resulting data.  Unfortunately, it proved impossible to adequately process the data and, in any event, the proper analytic groundwork had not been done in advance.  For instance, it was proposed that neutral states near Germany—the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—be allowed to import goods up to the level of their prewar consumption, but that everything beyond that should be stopped on the presumption that it was probably passing through to Germany.  The problem was that there was no baseline for measuring how much steel, rubber, or anything else the neutrals normally consumed.  Finally, the embargo also entailed a major operational commitment on the part of the Royal Navy.  The result was a very leaky blockade, albeit one that over time inflicted a great deal of hardship on Germany.

The end of economic warfare and the evident fact that the blockade wasn’t going to quickly defeat Germany was, in Lambert’s telling, one factor that led the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill (who does not come off as very level-headed in these pages), to look for other indirect approaches that could circumvent the increasingly costly and protracted battering against the German wall in France.  That search for alternatives led ultimately to the debacle at Gallipoli, a disastrous attempt to weaken Germany by knocking its ally Turkey out of the war by means of an amphibious invasion, one of the riskiest kinds of military operation imaginable.

The “economic warfare” that Lambert describes is somewhat similar to T.X. Hammes’ idea of “Offshore Control,” an idea that he has discussed on this site as well as elsewhere, for using naval and air assets to establish a distant blockade, cutting off China’s raw material imports and deny the country the benefit of exports.  However, Hammes means his military strategy to be declared publicly so as to have deterrent value and then to gradually ratchet up pressure on China in the event of a war so as to bring about a negotiated settlement.  By contrast, Britain’s economic warfare was intended to be a lethal grand strategic sneak attack.

Lambert describes a failed indirect strategy at the grand strategic level: seeking to use non-military means to win a war by snuffing it out before it has much of a chance to even get started.  As such, it reminds me of some of the visions of new wars that have been bandied about in recent years.  For instance, some people have speculated about massive, strategic-level cyber attacks launched against the United States.  There has also been concern that China could potentially bring the United States to heel with economic leverage should there be a crisis over Taiwan or some other drastic Sino-American confrontation.  China holds something like $1.7 trillion of American debt.  Some people have argued that in a crisis, China might decide to dump its holdings of American securities.  This could cause other countries to dump their holdings as well, while they still had some value.  The result would be a nearly valueless dollar and an American economy in shambles.

The problem with these sorts of attacks is that they would suffer from the same kind of self-regulating feedback that Britain’s economic warfare did.  They would create all sorts of system-wide problems that would come back and bite the country that launched them.  Cyber Armageddon is unlikely, at least according to the National Intelligence Council.  It’s not clear why they think that, but one can reasonably speculate that among the reasons would be that a nation state would not know what would happen after it launched its own attack—even laying aside American retaliation.  Along the same lines, a Pentagon study determined that a Chinese dumping of Treasury securities “likely would do more harm to China than to the United States.”  (It also concluded that the effects on the U.S. wouldn’t be that bad anyway.)  The problem is that devaluing the dollar would severely harm the Chinese economy itself by decreasing the value of China’s own enormous dollar holdings and by sharply limiting the ability of anybody spending dollars to buy Chinese goods.  Lawrence Summers has referred to this as a “balance of financial terror.”

Summers’ metaphor isn’t quite apt.  The “balance of terror” in the nuclear age referred to the prospect of an assured and brutal second strike.  Britain’s economic warfare, strategic cyberwar, China’s financial attack options—all of these are threats or strategic concepts that contain the seeds of their own deterrent even absent any retaliation.  Perhaps they are like strategic nuclear warfare once the idea of nuclear winter started being bandied about.

Certainly it is worth examining doomsday scenarios in the context of international competition.  However, Nicholas Lambert’s book prompts us to recognize that while nation states frequently misjudge each other with disastrous consequences, they seldom undertake hostile actions that are in themselves self-destructive.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, DC.