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Pax Britannica: A Nautical Chart for Pax Americana?

Bryan McGrath

Rebecca Berens Matzke, Deterrence Through Strength: British Naval Power and Foreign Policy under Pax Britannica (University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

Through the entirety of my professional life, I apparently lived under a great misconception. I had not realized the idea of a “Pax Brittanica” between the defeat of Napoleon and World War I, underwritten by British power, including a globally deployed Royal Navy, had been seriously questioned. Much of my thinking on the modern relevance of conventional naval deterrence is built on this idea. It took Professor Matzke’s book, Deterrence Through Strength, to inform me that historians of the era had come to question both the pacific nature of the period and the contribution of Great Britain to it. In this fascinating work, Matzke thoroughly dispatches the doubters and revises the revisionists, returning the centrality of British naval diplomacy, deterrence, and power to their rightful places in creating the Pax Britannica. In her own words: “What follows aims not only to put the Britannica back into Pax Brittanica, but also to show how Britain’s influence, whether in Europe or the wider world, derived not just from industrial, financial and commercial dominance, but from naval power as well.”

Case Studies
Matzke focuses on three case studies between 1838-1846 in which British diplomacy featured the power and reach of the Royal Navy to deter or coerce others into accepting England’s interests. High school American history classes hint at just how close the U.S. and Great Britain came to war in the nineteenth century, but Matzke’s research brings border disputes in Maine and Oregon into context, in which neither side wanted war while understanding that it was still possible due to clashing interests. Great Britain was unwilling to see its interests in Canada trampled on, and it was willing to use the Royal Navy to safeguard them. At the time, the U.S. Navy was small and generally forward deployed supporting American commercial interests. Members of the administration and Congress were well aware that should Great Britain wish to blockade or even attack major U.S. commercial centers, it could do so with impunity. Lord Palmerston’s decisions to surge British seapower on the Great Lakes and off the coast of California and Oregon did little to disabuse the United States of these fears. Matzke sums up England’s approach thusly: “Britain’s strategy of deterrence through strength—a forceful diplomatic posture based on the projection of naval power—achieved its defensive goals in North America despite the distance involved and the continental resources enjoyed by the United States. Britain protected its citizens and the existing territory it considered vital; it gained a naval base that would help protect its trade; and it prevented a war with the United States that would have interfered with profitable commerce and investment. Britain preserved both its interests and the peace it desired.”

The second case study was one in which coercion, rather than deterrence, was the order of the day. In the Opium War of 1839-1842, Matzke meticulously demonstrates the effectiveness of forward deployed naval power in protecting Britain’s interests in China, even after efforts to deter aggression failed. Putting aside the morality of what Great Britain was fighting for, its ability to project power thousands of miles from its own shores, to resupply and re-arm that power, and to exercise command and control of such power, proved overwhelming to the Daoguang Emperor’s weak naval forces, poorly defended coasts, and under-equipped armies. Matzke’s deft treatment of this conflict, dissects the reasons that the world’s most powerful navy was unable to cow the Chinese with its might without fighting. Agreements forged with the East India Company decades earlier largely resulted in a “no-go” zone for the Royal Navy in the South China Sea. Whereas the Americans had in-depth knowledge of Great Britain’s naval power and its propensity to use it, the emperor had not yet been blessed with such experiences. This gets at the process of how deterrence works, and the signaling that is so important to it. Put simply, the emperor was not deterred because he did not understand that he had something to be afraid of. On the other hand, for deterrence (as a policy) to work, nations must be convinced of the deterring nation’s will to use force. This the British government did, sending messages by cannon around the world that were heard clearly in Washington, Paris, and Moscow.

The final case study is of the Syrian Crisis (1839-1841) in which the Royal Navy—acting nominally as part of a larger European concert—essentially destroyed an Egyptian uprising that threatened Ottoman control of the Levant. This was classic balancing behavior in action, in which a healthy and strong Ottoman Empire was seen as a bulwark for Britain’s interests against both Russia and France; and so, it was worth going to war over. Britain’s ability to carry out naval operations in support of Ottoman ground forces with little help from the other members of the European concert sent strong messages to France and Russia of its determination to be the pre-eminent power in the Mediterranean. Lord Palmerston famously summed up his disdain for French pretenses to naval power in that body of water by stating that France “…could no more think of opposing us in the Mediterranean than of conquering the moon.” And because of the strength of the Royal Navy, he was correct. Its defeat of Egyptian forces at Acre provided observers in the Polk administration in the U.S. with strong evidence of Britain’s capability and resolve, both of which hastened the compromises between those nations over border disputes.

The most commonly cited criticism of Matzke’s scholarship is that the period 1838-1846 was potentially too narrow to draw general conclusions across the breadth of the Pax Britannica. This is the academic equivalent of “cherry picking” and it is a strong charge. Matzke anticipates this somewhat with her discussion of the Royal Navy’s contributions in the Crimean War, especially the Black Sea campaign of 1854, and Disraeli’s decision to send a squadron to Constantinople in March of 1878 in order to shore up its support for the Ottoman Empire (vis-à-vis Russia) at the Congress of Berlin. Closer to home, Abraham Lincoln’s desire to fight “one war at a time” was recognition that Great Britain’s seapower was not to be trifled with over what came to be called the Trent Affair in 1863. While the choice of those eight years may strike some as limiting, Matzke is on safe ground in citing the role of the Royal Navy and British diplomacy in those years as the glue that kept the Pax Britannica together throughout.

As a navalist, I suffer from a preference bias for works that point to the contributions of seapower. I see in Matzke’s work the historical foundations for arguments that I make every day for a larger, more powerful, and more active U.S. Navy. It has become common for strategists and policy-makers to speak of the end of the Pax Britannica and the beginning of a Pax Americana, especially as a parallel to America’s response to China’s rise. I will not add to this literature beyond stating that I believe, with careful stewardship, the Pax Americana can continue throughout the twenty-first century. To understand how, we need look no further than how Great Britain conducted its affairs in the nineteenth century, especially against France.

During this period and others, France was Great Britain’s bête noire, as a power against which war was often planned, while simultaneously enjoying a great deal of intercourse in trade and culture. Throughout, British policymakers never forgot that as a continental power France had to divide its attention between an army and a navy, while island Britain could concentrate its resources in its navy. Britain’s aim was to ensure that France would continue to have to divide its attention. Are there parallels for American foreign policy and defense planning today? I believe so. It is in our interest to see to it that China divides its attention between its maritime and continental interests. Great and rising powers sit on China’s borders and our diplomacy toward them should mimic that of Great Britain toward the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, like France of the nineteenth century, China is facing the possibility of major domestic disorder. France faced the barricades and China’s middle class grows while Chinese peasants challenge the state’s land policies and abuses.

Is the modern United States that different from nineteenth century Great Britain? Need we continue to maintain a massive, powerful and combat-ready army while our borders are secure and our interests far flung? Or should the United States act “like France” in the nineteenth century and divide its resources between an army and a navy? France’s actions were rational—it had a powerful neighbor with which to contend. Can the same be said for us?

There are in this book, additional lessons to be learned from Great Britain’s treatment of the United States in the 1840s that can be applied to the modern relationship between the United States and China. Matzke provides us with two Palmerston quotes that I found notable, especially if China is substituted for the United States. In the first, Palmerston opined that in dealing with the United States, “…a little Firmness and spirit shewn in Time save many quarrels.” In the second, he explained, “With such Cunning Fellows as these Yankees, it never answers to give way, because they always keep pushing on their Encroachments as far as they are permitted to do so; and what we dignify by the names of moderation and conciliation, they naturally enough call Fear.”

This book came to my attention through one of those great email circulars with which many of us contend. First, as a forwarded book review, in which I was one of the nameless hundreds to receive it. Then, that same review circular was forwarded to me by a man whose judgment on matters of naval strategy I respect above all others, with a one sentence message: “You need to read this.” I did, and I am grateful. Rebecca Berens Matzke chairs the history department at Ripon College, an undergraduate university of about 1,000 students in Wisconsin. This book was presumably her PhD dissertation at Cornell. I am confident that she did not set out to write a book that might someday influence the course of American seapower and grand strategy, that her aims were more limited and scholarly. She has, however, handed modern policymakers a coherent view of how one maritime nation once protected its interests as the most powerful nation on earth, doing damage to Nicholas Kristof’s recent argument that academics are somehow becoming irrelevant to real-world concerns.

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