war on the rocks

‘A Record of Exploded Ideas’: History and Strategic Commentary in the 21st Century

November 27, 2018

The centenary of World War I has brought that conflict back into the popular imagination in a way which would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Whether public attitudes to the conflict have altered in a meaningful way as a result of the centenary remains a source of debate. What can be said is that the conflict has provided a rich source of analogies with which to animate debates about contemporary affairs. This is particularly true of comparisons between the multi-polar world of pre-1914 Europe, and the evolving picture of great power competition in the Asia Pacific.

Superficially, these two epochs appear temptingly similar: a maritime, off-shore power, dedicated to free market economics and liberal political values facing down a nationalistic continental challenger with ambitions to build a fleet and secure its interests over-seas. It is thus unsurprising that the comparison has been used to advance a range of arguments about U.S. maritime power today. These range from the need to build a stronger fleet, to the challenges of ensuring war-fighting effectiveness after a period of prolonged peace — what Andrew Gordon referred to in his classic work The Rules of the Game as the “long calm lee of Trafalgar.”

In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Sidharth Kaushal used the example of the pre-1914 Royal Navy to put forward an elegant argument about how U.S. maritime strategy should adapt in the face of Russian and Chinese anti-access/area denial capabilities (A2/AD). He argued that the United States ought not to challenge Russian and Chinese A2/AD capabilities head on, but that American strategy should instead focus on using its strength against more vulnerable targets such as opponents’ overseas bases and vulnerable communications choke points. This approach could be facilitated by making greater use of asymmetric approaches within U.S. strategy itself. By denying areas of ocean which Washington has little interest in using anyway through relatively cheap methods such as missile defense and minefields, he reasons that America would be better able to concentrate its forces at crucial points and to maximize their offensive potential against an enemies crucial vulnerabilities.

Kaushal likened this approach to Basil Liddell Hart’s idea of a “British way in warfare” and to the concept of strategic maneuver — applying one’s own strength against an enemy’s weaknesses in order to achieve maximum effect. According to him, this was precisely the strategy that the Royal Navy of the early 20th century — under the leadership of the dynamic and controversial Adm. Sir John Fisher — intended to use to balance the challenge of a rising Germany with the need to project power globally.

There is much to be said for many of the ideas in Kaushal’s argument. The cultural assumptions within navies who self-identify as being dominant or “ocean going” can militate against the consideration of denial strategies, and his argument in favor of them is persuasive. As the Royal Navy itself experienced after 1914, mine warfare is not inherently the weapon of the weaker power — particularly if viewed within the context of a global war effort which placed multiple and conflicting demands upon the armed services, industry, and domestic economies.

These merits aside, however, important aspects of the history on which Kaushal’s argument lies are misleading. It would be tiresome and pedantic to dredge up the past in order to deconstruct an interesting argument about the present. Instead, what follows is an attempt to use the history of the period to illustrate some alternative ways of thinking about the legitimate grand strategic issues raised in the original article.

The Center-Periphery Issue

How Britain planned to fight a future war before 1914 has been hotly debated by historians for decades. As part of this discussion, some have claimed that Adm. Fisher developed an ambitious ‘high technology’ approach to war against Germany. This idea, so the argument runs, would have seen swarms of cheap torpedo craft and submarines used to protect British waters, whilst higher value units were used to project power on a global basis. Kaushal accepts this argument uncritically, and uses it as the basis for his historical analogy about U.S. strategy today.

Yet the notion that sea denial strategies could free U.S. forces for potentially more worthwhile operations against peripheral targets such as Russian bases in the Mediterranean, or a strike on Djibouti, is not supported by mainstream historical interpretations of British strategy in the early 20th century.

Far from making plans to send British capital ships out across the world to secure her imperial interests, Fisher ruthlessly concentrated as much force as possible close to home. This reflected the simple reality that the British Empire’s core interests were near the British Isles themselves, where the overwhelming majority of her trade was concentrated. This trade was not merely of economic significance — over 60 percent of the calories consumed in the United Kingdom by 1914 arrived by sea. Seaborne trade was thus quite literally Britain’s lifeline, and she relied upon it in a manner far more existential than will ever be the case for the United States, whose size affords it much greater opportunities for autarchy. It was thus not adequate to deny an enemy access to the sea around Britain by using mines or torpedoes. Britain had to dominate the Channel and Eastern Atlantic, and ensure those waters were safe for her own merchant shipping. This degree of sea control required a full-spectrum high-end warfighting capability – and that is precisely what Fisher built and kept close to home before the outbreak of war.

When war broke out in 1914, Britain and her allies quickly captured the Central Powers’ modest number of overseas territories and bases. Yet doing so exercised precious little impact upon the course of the subsequent conflict. The few German raiders who continued to operate on the high seas were able to secure fuel and supplies from neutrals or friendly civilians, and their activities were not halted by the absence of overseas bases. More fundamentally, the loss of peripheral bases was not a pressing concern to Berlin because they were just that — peripheral. Far-flung territories in Africa or Asia had not yet come to occupy a prominent part in German popular culture, or in its public consciousness. Economically worthless and strategically expendable, the loss of such possessions thus exercised a limited impact upon the German leadership.

It is also worth noting that Fisher had the chance to enact some of the strategies he had postulated in the pre-war period when he was recalled to service in October 1914. His return was to be short-lived – but the reason for his abrupt departure was instructive. By early 1915, Fisher’s relationship with Winston Churchill — political head of the Royal Navy at the time — had deteriorated to breaking point. Fisher finally resigned in protest at Churchill’s desire to send precious naval resources away from the crucial North Sea theater and to commit them to “peripheral” operations at the Dardanelles. There were certainly circumstances in which Britain would have sought to conduct expeditionary warfare outside Europe during this period. However, her geographical proximity to potential maritime rivals and her dependence upon seaborne trade were powerful constraints to her doing so. The United States today is thus much more able to project power than early 20th century Britain, owing to her lack of competitors in her near abroad.

Liddell Hart Redivivus

This leads onto a broader point about Liddell Hart’s idea of an “indirect approach,” predicated upon deploying strength against an enemy’s weakness. As David French, Hew Strachan, and others have argued — in this respect Liddell Hart’s ideas were historically inaccurate and strategically unoriginal. British practice in the 20th century had been to raise mass armies to fight in the main theater of combat, and she had also made significant military contributions to continental wars in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were massive discontinuities from Liddell Hart’s imagined “British way,” and he had no means of explaining them. Ultimately this was due to the fact that his “indirect approach” was, in modern parlance, focused at the operational level, and used simplified history to justify his own views on British strategy in the inter-war years. In this respect, his example is not one to be emulated. Arguments about the present are seldom strengthened through careless historical analogy. More importantly, the notion of long-term continuity in operational methods is open to serious challenge as it imposes an artificial impression of continuity upon an issue subject to continuous change.

Where Liddell Hart’s writings do possess an enduring relevance is in how they understood the direction of war at the highest levels — in other words what they said about strategy. Rather than a solely military activity, he depicted strategy as being performed at the national level, and involving the co-ordination of multiple instruments of state power. Here Liddell Hart drew his inspiration from a close confident and advisor to Fisher — the historian Julian Corbett. Corbett and his interlocutors espoused an approach to strategy predicated upon the efficient co-ordination of national naval, military, diplomatic, and economic resources. By utilizing these sources of strength together — via effective co-ordination within government — they developed a strikingly modern vision of grand strategy.

There is thus good reason to suppose that — even if they ever held any truth for Britain — the operational aspects of Liddell Hart’s “indirect approach” are of little value to modern discussions of U.S. grand strategy. As Fisher himself argued: “History is a Record of Exploded Ideas! In what sense? Conditions all altered!” If historical analogies are to aid us in our discussion of the present, they must employed in other ways.

History and Strategy in the 21st Century

Historians are fond of complaining that politicians and military intellectuals ought to pay more attention to the past, and then of lambasting them for getting it wrong when they do so. A more profitable approach is to engage in a meaningful dialogue about what the past can, and cannot, tell us about the present. In this respect, the example of the Royal Navy before 1914 does certainly offer insights into the making of strategy, although how helpful they are to U.S. maritime strategy today is open to argument.

First and foremost, it is vital to appreciate that comparisons between Sino-U.S. relations today, and Anglo-German relations in 1914 are fundamentally artificial. The United States has an almighty navy, but America will never be as dependent upon the sea as Britain was in the early 20th century. Nor will seapower ever be the ubiquitous cultural reference point for Americans that it was for the British in the “age of navalism.” Moreover, contemporary Britain was committed to laissez faire free-trade economics, and depended upon their smooth functioning for its day-to-day needs. As President Donald Trump escalates protectionist trade wars with a growing number of countries, the comparison between the Britain of 1914 and the United States of the early 21st century stretches to its breaking point.

Yet this does not mean that history has nothing to offer debates about strategy today. Rather, it is to say that we must cast our lens away from the realm of military operations and focus on issues such as culture, organization, and strategy, in order to make meaningful comparisons.

As Richard Dunley and James Goldrick have argued, the pre-1914 Royal Navy was too slow to adopt sea denial and mining strategies owing to ingrained cultural presumptions about what it meant to be the world’s greatest navy. It took years of frustrating experience after 1914 to recalibrate these expectations, much to the frustration of many within the navy and the government. By becoming too wedded to an idea about what fighting the next war would look like, the British thus reduced their agility and capacity to respond to unexpected challenges that emerged at the outbreak of hostilities. History ought never to presume to offer definitive lessons. Yet about the closest it can come to doing so is by highlighting the recurrent trend that militaries who develop an overt focus upon an imagined future prepare themselves for nothing other than failure.

In an organizational and strategic sense, Adm. Fisher’s Royal Navy never realized its ultimate potential. This was due to a series of institutional, bureaucratic, and personal factors which combined to hamper the formation of strategy in Britain before 1914. Naval and military plans were conceived in isolation and quickly became fundamentally incompatible. Politicians were unable or unwilling to consistently devote their attention to disentangling these competing agendas, and their infrequent interventions only served to stoke tensions between them and their military advisors. The resultant frustrations led to the leaking of official information, and other unsubtle attempts to appeal to public opinion in order to win political arguments. These dynamics are all-too-familiar today, and history can exert its purchase by throwing them into sharper relief — much more so than at the operational level of war-fighting.


David G. Morgan-Owen is an historian and lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London, where he works at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the Defence Studies Department, or of King’s College London.

Image: Daily Telegraph