Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Influence of Thinkers and Ideas on History: The Case of Alfred Thayer Mahan
The Influence of Thinkers and Ideas on  History: The Case of Alfred Thayer Mahan

The Influence of Thinkers and Ideas on History: The Case of Alfred Thayer Mahan


Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan stands out as one of the foremost thinkers on naval warfare and maritime strategy. Indeed, he might be considered the thinker on sea power, the essential starting point for studying the course and conduct of war at sea and for understanding the strategic importance of the maritime commons in determining the rise and fall of great powers. Respected as a scholar in his own times—he was elected President of the American Historical Association in 1902—Mahan is now best remembered as a naval historian, his reputation resting primarily on his famous books on The Influence of Sea Power Upon History.[1] These histories examine the role played by navies in determining the outcome of wars fought by the European great powers during the period between the end of the seventeenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, and remain valuable for their insight into sea power and strategy.

While made famous by the publication of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, Mahan was also a close student of international relations and policy analyst of strategic affairs. Indeed, he sought to apply the study of history to understand foreign policy and strategy problems of his own day. He served as a celebrated and prolific policy commentator for almost a quarter of a century. His views on strategy and international relations were highly sought after by news outlets, the public, and policy makers. None other than Franklin D. Roosevelt, to cite just one example, solicited Mahan to publish commentary on strategy and international affairs. Mahan’s words carried such weight that, after the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, President Woodrow Wilson issued a notorious gag order, meant to silence him because his candid remarks in support of Great Britain in the struggle against Germany contradicted the administration’s views on American neutrality. Wilson wanted Americans, including retired officers of the armed services, “to be neutral in thought as well as deed.”

Mahan’s thought belongs squarely within the power politics tradition in the field of international relations. This tradition traces its lineage back to Thucydides and includes such prominent thinkers as Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger. Mahan was certainly a close reader of Thucydides and examined the strategies pursued by the great powers of the Ancient Greek world.[2] Many of his tenets about world politics and strategy are mainstays of contemporary international relations theory. From his study of history, Mahan concluded that war and change in world politics was rooted in competitions among the great powers, which struggled for security, wellbeing, and leadership. He contended that the great commercial seafaring states in particular would play a leading role in world politics because of the wealth they generated from international trade. During the period examined by Mahan in his histories of sea power, the warring states of Europe — Spain, the Netherlands, France, and England — had struggled with one another for leadership of the international system.

Mahan’s study of history also made him dubious of the ability of states to promote cooperation by the means of international law or the organization and political activity of peace societies. Arbitration agreements among states and the establishment of norms for conduct in the international arena were likely to work only so long as the issues at stake were limited in importance. Once a great power’s vital interests were threatened, however, international agreements to promote cooperation would give way to armed force in the search for security. Nor did Mahan think that this Darwinian state of nature in the intensely competitive strategic environment was likely to change in the near future, despite the claims of liberal internationalists. His scathing comments on Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion show how far Mahan was from the view that great power rivalries were atavistic and suicidal. Mahan argued that the “entire conception of the work [by Angell] is itself an illusion based on a profound misreading of human action.”[3] Mahan thought that the threat or reality of war could never be banished from international relations. In Mahan’s view, the best way to prevent war was for a country to be so well armed that potential adversaries would be deterred from risking a conflict.[4]

In Mahan’s day, Britain was viewed as the leading world power. Britain’s leadership of the international system rested on its strength as a trading state, financial power, vast colonial holdings, and manufactures. Britain’s naval might protected this global system. Britain’s leadership position, however, was threatened by other great powers aspiring to change the system. Mahan considered the decline of British power in the face of challenges from other great powers as the cardinal feature of the international system in the early twentieth century. He was concerned with Britain’s ability to hold its position in world affairs against rising great-power challengers. Mahan was not alone among leading Americans who viewed British power as waning. The historian and public commentator Brooks Adams wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge: “England is sad — to me very sad. Like you I hope she may revive, but I admit my hope is faint. The current is flowing away from her.”[5] American security was wrapped up in this underlying dynamic in the international system of waning British power.

One challenger to Britain that concerned Mahan was Imperial Russia. It was an axiom of world politics at the turn of the twentieth century that the imperial rivalry between Britain and Russia throughout Asia and the Middle East — the so-called “Great Game” — must sooner or later result in a diplomatic showdown and perhaps even war. Britain and Russia had already fought one another in a major conflict, the Crimean War, at the middle of the nineteenth century. Other crises in the Great Game over the next fifty years also threatened to erupt in war.

A corollary to this axiom held that Britain would not be able to contain Russia’s expansion in Asia without the support of major allies. In the United States, such prominent national leaders and commentators on world affairs as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Brooks Adams subscribed to this axiom and its corollary. Mahan belonged to this group who envisioned a showdown between Britain the sea power and Russia the continental state. They feared that an expansionist Russia would take control of an enfeebled China, and Britain would have difficulty stopping this Russian advance on the Eurasian land mass. Before Halford Mackinder wrote his famous article on the geographical pivot, Americans were alive to the looming clash of land and sea empires. This group wanted the United States to take a more active role in world politics in support of Britain’s position. In his 1900 book America’s Economic Supremacy, Brooks Adams declared “America must more or less completely assume the place once held by England, for the United States could hardly contemplate with equanimity the successful organization of a hostile industrial system on the shore of the Pacific, based on Chinese labor.”[6] Mahan argued that the United States should not only align itself with Britain, but with Germany and Japan as well, to contain Russia on the arc of Eurasia, stretching from Europe, through the Middle East, to China and Northeast Asia. This bloc of “sea powers” should act to prevent Russia from gaining “preponderant political control” of China.[7]

To check Russian power in Asia, Britain did take the extraordinary step of breaking out of its “splendid isolation” and concluding a formal alliance with Japan in 1902. This alliance, in turn, emboldened Japan to take on Russia, resulting in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. With British backing, Japan inflicted a stunning defeat on Russia. The United States, while on the sidelines during the fighting, played a prominent part in ending the war. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered an end to the fighting by hosting negotiations between Japan and Russia. In recognition of his role, Roosevelt would receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

For Mahan, the war between Japan and Russia held important lessons for the United States. He would write extensively about the war, and he wanted to stress the important role played by naval power in determining its outcome. Mahan argued that Russian leaders committed strategic folly in misusing the naval power at their disposal. If Russian leaders had concentrated their navy, massing its naval forces rather than scattering them, or showed more offensive zeal in the war at sea, then Russia would have defeated Japan. Russia’s strategic error in not concentrating its naval forces was the principal lesson that Mahan wanted Americans to learn.

Russia’s defeat, however, did not mean an end to Britain’s travails. In place of the Russian danger, Germany’s rise as a great naval power, along with Japan’s success over Russia, heightened Mahan’s concern about the balance of power in Europe and Asia. Mahan thought that a global rivalry involving the great powers in a quest for commercial and naval supremacy would characterize world politics in the twentieth century. These struggles for world power and naval mastery were viewed by Mahan as a twentieth-century replay of the wars that he had described in his volumes on The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. These coming struggles were likely to produce dramatic shifts in the power balances among the great powers. These shifts, in Mahan’s estimation, would have an impact on the security of the United States.

Germany’s rising power and ambitions, in particular, troubled Mahan. By 1908, he identified Germany as the most serious challenger to Britain. “The rivalry between Germany and Great Britain today,” Mahan told his readers, “is the danger point, not only of European politics, but of world politics as well . . . No such emphasized industrial and maritime competition between two communities has arisen since the time of Cromwell and the later Stewart kings, when England wrested from Holland her long possessed commercial supremacy, supported by a navy until then unconquered.”[8] Mahan’s study of history, his attempt to apply what he learned from historical cases to understand the kaleidoscopic international strategic environment of the early twentieth century, led him to warn of impending great power clashes. In assessing change in the international environment, Mahan took note of Germany’s rapidly rising population and industrial production. To Mahan, Germany’s dramatic demographic and industrial growth meant that it would demand overseas territories as an outlet for its growing population and as markets for its products. Mahan saw a close connection between Germany’s industrial growth, rising naval strength, and drive for world power. As Mahan put it, there is “an inevitable link in the chain of logical sequence: Industry, markets, control [of overseas territories], navy, bases.”[9]

Was this link inevitable, was a clash between Britain and Germany foreordained, as Mahan maintained? Or, was the contest contingent on the choices made by the leaders of the great powers? It would seem clear that a clash between Europe’s strongest powers was not inevitable. To be sure, the growing German economy enabled Germany to challenge Britain at sea. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as the leader of the industrial revolution, Britain became the workshop of the world. As other countries industrialized, however, they challenged Britain’s leading position in world manufactures. The passing of the era when Britain was the world’s leading industrial power also pointed to a waning of its leadership as a naval power. On this connection between industrial and naval power, the historian Avner Offer writes: “In a world of many workshops, it became difficult [for Britain] to keep ahead in armored warships.”[10] But what made the contest inevitable was the conscious choice by Germany’s rulers to harness the economic power at their disposal to contest Britain’s dominance in the maritime domain.[11] Within Germany, a new generation of leaders wanted their country to take a larger role in world affairs. The champion of Germany’s development as a sea power was Kaiser Wilhelm II, a disciple of Mahan. “I am just now not reading but devouring Captain Mahan’s book, and am trying to learn it by heart,” Wilhelm proclaimed. “It is a first-class work and classical in all points.” An American journalist in Berlin observed: “I have heard several times of the Emperor’s references to Captain Mahan’s doctrines. The Emperor is familiar with all that Mahan has written.”[12]

The Kaiser sought to educate the German people into Mahan’s message. Where the Kaiser led, the German government and people followed. The eminent historian Friedrich Meinecke paid tribute to Wilhelm as the Flottenkaiser. The Kaiser, Meinecke intoned, “ceaselessly converted the nation and enticed it out onto the water . . . [and] he has the satisfaction of knowing that his conviction has become the conviction of the nation.”[13] To build the fleet, the Kaiser turned to Admiral Alfred Tirpitz, naming him navy secretary in 1897. Tirpitz wrote in his memoirs: “There was no way to the position of world-power than by building a fleet.”[14] By advocating the buildup of the navy, by stoking German nationalism and anti-British public opinion, by channeling popular passions toward the acquisition of naval weaponry to fight Britain at sea, Kaiser Wilhelm unintentionally contributed to his own downfall and Germany’s defeat in the Great War. By building a fleet against Britain, Germany raised British fears of a German super-state seeking European hegemony. One historian even argues: “Germany’s naval armament under Wilhelm II was a fundamental cause of the Anglo-German war.”[15] The choices in grand strategy made by Germany’s rulers — their decision to challenge Britain at sea — was conditioned in part by their reading of Mahan. The application by German leaders of Mahan’s writings on naval history and international relations was working to influence the unfolding of history in a destructive way.

Receiving praise from the Kaiser provided no comfort for Mahan. Indeed, that his German followers were building up a navy to challenge Britain greatly alarmed him. Germany’s stated program of naval construction, along with its decision to follow the lead of Britain in building “all-big-gun” or dreadnought battleships, triggered in Mahan a response to warn about the danger posed by German actions in upsetting the international equilibrium. He pointed out: “The huge development of the German Navy within the past decade, and the assurance that the present rate of expenditure — over 20,000,000 annually — will be maintained for several years to come, is a matter of great international importance.”[16] In this rivalry, Mahan was not an impartial observer: he took Britain’s side in the emerging competition and eventual showdown in the Anglo-German struggle for naval mastery.

The famous 1909 “naval panic” in Britain heightened Mahan’s concern about Germany’s foreign policy aims. Prompted by the naval panic in Britain, he tried to alert American readers to the political significance of the growing German battle fleet. For Collier’s Weekly, he wrote an article entitled “Germany’s Naval Ambition: Some Reasons Why the United States Should Wake Up to the Facts About the Kaiser’s Battleship-Building Program — Great Britain’s Danger Exaggerated, But Not Her Fright.” He reminded his readers of the German involvement in Venezuela in 1902 — “a condition almost sure to arise” again — and warned that Germany would “have the whip hand” in a future crisis if it possessed “a decisively superior navy.” He asked whether the Monroe Doctrine should be “dependent upon the uncertain indulgence of a foreign state, which is notoriously thirsting for colonization in the supposed interest of racial development?” Only by building “a navy adequate to prevent such humiliation” could the United States be prepared for the crisis to come. In the years between 1909 and his death on 1 December 1914, one of Mahan’s biographers calls him “a journalistic Paul Revere” alerting his English-speaking audience “to the fact that the Germans were coming.”[17]

Mahan also believed that Germany’s ambitions would almost inevitably lead to a contest with the United States. He wanted the United States to prepare for that looming clash. Of great concern to Mahan was that Americans would not realize the danger from Germany and fail to build a sufficient number of modern battleships to match the German naval program. Mahan lamented in 1909:

The German Navy will in 1912 — in three years — have a stronger battle fleet in A[ll]-B[ig]-G[un] ships than we. What then shall we say, upon what shall we rely, if she, on occasion arising, defy us in the Monroe Doctrine? How do we propose to keep that national idol on its feet without a superior navy?[18]

The U.S. Navy’s General Board shared Mahan’s anxiety about Germany rapidly outstripping the United States in naval strength. The President of the General Board, Admiral George Dewey, the celebrated hero of the Battle of Manila Bay, famously predicted that the next war fought by the United States would be against Germany. The General Board argued that the United States needed to maintain a condition of rough parity with Germany’s battle fleet. But no political consensus existed in the United States to meet this standard of keeping pace with Germany in the building of capital ships. Given German naval ambitions, the cost of achieving this goal was going to be substantial and, as it turned out, more than what the American public was willing to afford — that is, until the United States entered into the war against Germany, as foretold by Dewey and Mahan.

Mahan also advocated that the existing American force of battleships be massed on the east coast of the United States, where it could be more readily assembled to defeat a German move to seize territory in the Western Hemisphere.[19] The Navy’s General Board agreed that Germany represented a “more formidable” enemy than other threats to American security, even greater than that posed by Japan in the Pacific. Concentration against the German battle fleet constituted the strategic fulcrum of United States naval planning.[20] Whenever asked for his views, Mahan never wavered in his conviction that Germany posed a grave danger. Since he feared that a fickle and ignorant public might pressure an administration into dividing the fleet, Mahan made repeated efforts to publicize his views on strategy. One of Mahan’s avid readers, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the rising young politician and assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Woodrow Wilson administration, also thought it important to educate the public about naval strategy and geography. In the spring of 1914, Roosevelt wrote Mahan to enlist his support in writing “an article or articles” because his “voice will carry more conviction than that of anybody else.” Roosevelt thought the “people can be educated, but only if we all get together ahead of time and try to show the average ‘man in the street’ the military necessity of keeping the Fleet intact.”[21]

Concentration of naval force was a strategic necessity because Mahan feared that a collapse of British power would usher in an era in which Germany was the leading world power. Unlike Britain, a satiated power, Germany was in Mahan’s assessment aggressive, expansionist, seeking new colonies. The growth of German power might result in a challenge to the United States’ position in the Western Hemisphere. Britain and the United States had a common interest in working to preserve the existing international order from which both benefited during the nineteenth century. Mahan argued that the United States was better off strengthening Britain’s strategic position rather than in undermining it. By aligning itself with Britain, the United States would be in a stronger position to contain German expansion. Faced by an Anglo-American strategic alignment, Germany might be deterred from foreign policy adventures. Theodore Roosevelt agreed that the United States needed to play a larger role in upholding the international system against any German attempt to overthrow it. Roosevelt bluntly told one German diplomat: “As long as England succeeds in keeping ‘the balance of power’ in Europe, not only in principle, but in reality, well and good; should she however for some reason or other fail in doing so, the United States would be obliged to step in at least temporarily, in order to restore the balance of power in Europe, never mind against which country or group of countries our efforts may have to be directed.”[22]

American public opinion, however, made a formal alliance between Britain and the United States outside the bounds of practical politics. Still, Mahan urged what amounted to a foreign policy of tacit cooperation with Britain. This strategic alignment entailed that the United States build a powerful navy, while at the same time eschewing any policy of provoking a naval competition with Britain. Mahan wanted to impress upon American readers the seriousness of the threat posed by the German battle fleet for the security of the United States. He warned that the growth of the German battle fleet was rapidly overturning Britain’s naval supremacy. In 1910, in The Interest of America in International Conditions, Mahan told his fellow countrymen that they could not remain unconcerned to this German challenge to Britain because it might prove successful. Americans must ask themselves “whether they can afford, to exchange the naval supremacy of Great Britain for that of Germany; for this alternative may arise.” Mahan advanced the lurid scenario that, once the European balance was overturned, “a German navy, supreme by the fall of Great Britain, with a supreme German army able to spare readily a large expeditionary force for over-sea operations, is one of the possibilities of the future.”[23]

In Naval Strategy, published in 1911, Mahan drew attention to the importance of the decline of British power for the United States. “The power to control Germany does not exist in Europe,” he wrote, “except in the British Navy; and if social and political conditions in Great Britain develop as they now promise, the British Navy will probably decline in relative strength, so that it will not venture to withstand the German on any broad lines of policy, but only in the narrowest sense of immediate British interests . . . for it seems as if the national life of Great Britain were waning at the same time that of Germany is waxing.” Mahan argued “it is this line of reasoning which shows the power of the German Navy to be a matter of prime importance to the United States.”[24]

For Mahan, then, it was essential that Britain and the United States attempt to defeat Germany’s naval challenge. But Mahan was not sanguine that either Britain or the United States — despite his estimation that they possessed superior economic resources — would be able to keep ahead of Germany in this naval rivalry. Mahan was concerned that governments representative of the people might not pursue a long-term strategy to beat back Germany’s challenge. Despite their superior resources, Britain and the United States appeared incapable of harnessing them. Germany’s government, in Mahan’s estimation, appeared better able to mobilize the resources of the country to support its foreign policy aims. “The two English-speaking countries,” Mahan wrote, “have wealth vastly superior, each separately, to that of Germany; much more if acting together. But in neither is the efficiency of the Government for handling the resources comparable to that of Germany.” Mahan argued that “the habits of individual liberty in England or America [do not] accept, unless under duress, the heavy yoke of organization, of regulation of individual action, which constitutes the power of Germany among modern states.”[25] Mahan, then, questioned whether democratic governments would be able to make and carry out a long-term strategic plan.[26]

When war engulfed Europe in the summer of 1914, Mahan worried that this prediction might soon come about if Germany quickly defeated her enemies. He told interviewers from The New York Evening Post:

If Germany succeeds in downing both France and Russia, she gains a respite by land, which may enable her to build up her sea power equal, or superior to that of Great Britain. In that case the world will be confronted by the naval power of a state, not, like Great Britain, sated with territory, but one eager and ambitious for expansion, eager also for influence. This consideration may well affect American sympathies.

To one of his English correspondents, Mahan expressed the fear “that if Germany wins by a big margin she is likely to be nasty to us [in the United States].” Thus, Mahan’s sympathies were squarely for Britain in the Great War at the time of his death. Moreover, he deeply resented the gag order imposed by the Woodrow Wilson administration that prevented him from arguing the case for containing German power.[27] On the outbreak of war, Mahan urged Franklin D. Roosevelt “that the fleet should be brought into immediate readiness, and so disposed as to permit of very rapid concentration.”[28] Mahan’s correspondence with Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of the last services that he would give to his country and navy. In failing health, he would pass away only four months after the outbreak of fighting in Europe. He would not live to see how well his views on sea power, strategy, and international relations would play out during the war. Mahan would no doubt have viewed the Great War’s outcome — that Britain the sea power, supported by the naval and military might of the United States, defeated the challenge from Germany the continental state — as a vindication of his theories on history, strategy, and international politics.

Mahan made an important contribution to public policy debates by helping to inform and educate Americans about the international strategic environment. He attempted to highlight the importance of the international balance of power for the security of the United States and how emerging geopolitical threats to Britain’s world position also posed a danger to American security. Theodore Roosevelt had reached the same conclusion: “we ourselves [the United States] are becoming, owing to our strength and geographical situation, more and more the balance of power of the whole world.”[29] Mahan argued that the United States needed to play a role — an increasingly important role — in upholding the balance of power on a global scale. Mahan was warning his American readers that “the age of free security” — to use C. Vann Woodward’s apt phrase — was passing away.[30] The security of the United States could no longer depend, as it largely did during the nineteenth century, on latent military power buttressed by the natural moat formed by the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the icebound wastes of the Arctic. Instead, the United States was moving from an era of inexpensive security to expensive insecurity — from the “age of free security” to the age of “the national security state.”

So what can studying Mahan and turn of the twentieth century America’s strategic predicament offer for understanding the place of the United States today in the international arena? What value do Mahan’s writings on American grand strategy and the international balance of power have for understanding the unfolding history of the twenty-first century? What dangers would Mahan forecast in surveying the international strategic environment?

Mahan, if writing today, would certainly take note and warn about the shifting global balance of power. Our current age is witnessing what the policy commentator Fareed Zakaria describes as “the rise of the rest.” In Zakaria’s view, “the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.” This transformation of power balances augurs a “post-American world.”[31] These underlying changes in the international system identified by Zakaria resemble Britain’s declining power position at the beginning of the twentieth century, about which Mahan wrote. In particular, China’s growing economy has increased that country’s power on the international stage. What Brooks Adams wrote in 1900 seems even more relevant in our time than his own — namely, that on “the fate of China may, perhaps, hinge the economic supremacy of the next century.”[32]

What makes China’s rising power appear so ominous is that its rulers’ foreign policy ambitions and increasing military might presage a violent replay of past struggles for security and mastery, as occurred before the First World War. The columnist George Will sees the parallel: “At the start of the turn of the 20th century, the world’s most formidable challenge was to integrate into the international system a rising, restless, assertive Germany. This did not go well. Early in the 21st century, China poses a comparable challenge. If this does not go well, the differences might be arbitrated by weapons undreamt of a century ago.”[33] China’s leaders, to be sure, have called for “a new type of great-power relationship.” But the steady buildup of the Chinese armed forces and blustering foreign policy actions hardly seems new at all. Today’s Asia seems poised to fall into what Graham Allison has labeled the Thucydides trap, where rising great powers take on the international system’s leading power.[34] The clashing foreign policy ambitions and naval buildups taking place in Asia thus would seem to follow the iron logic of inexorable great-power competition that Mahan examined in his writings.

Mahan would recognize these dangerous undercurrents in the international security environment. Robert Kaplan writes: “Tellingly . . . the Chinese avidly read [Mahan]; the Chinese are the Mahanians now.”[35] Chinese strategists draw from Mahan and the American experience a blueprint for how a rising power can build up anti-access, area-denial capabilities to fight in the interlocked aerospace, information, and maritime domains on their way to asserting regional dominance and global leadership. President Xi Jinping certainly sounds like he is as much a committed disciple of Mahan’s school of sea power. In an internal speech to the Central Military Commission, Xi made clear the connection between sea power and national greatness:

In the 21st century, mankind has entered the age of the large-scale exploitation of the sea. . . . History and experience tell us that a country will rise if it commands the oceans well and will fall if it surrenders them. A powerful state possesses durable sea rights, and a weak state has vulnerable sea rights. . . . We must adhere to a development path of becoming a rich and powerful state by making use of the sea.

Xi calls for “accelerating construction of a modernized navy, enhancing the capability to ensure our maritime rights, and resolutely acting to guard those maritime rights and interests.”[36] Meanwhile, Chinese naval leaders want to possess a high sea fleet of five carrier battle groups, as well as the forces to carry out an anti-access, area-denial strategy. Sounds like pure Mahan. Economic development and increased naval armaments go hand-in-hand to rising challengers who harbor grand ambitions to act on the world stage. China’s strategy resembles that of Kaiser Wilhelm and Tirpitz in building up their armed might as a precondition for furthering their geopolitical ambitions on the world stage. The slogan “China Dream” — like the German demand to attain the status of world power, a place in the sun — might appear vague but it nonetheless stands for real aspirations to achieve greater international standing and security, to dictate change in global affairs.[37]

That Beijing is flaunting its flouting of the recent Hague ruling is another indication of Mahan’s cautionary views on the limits of international law and liberal norms when a powerful country seeks to impose its will on the weak. In the famous Melian Dialogue, Thucydides called attention to this stern dictum of international relations that great powers act differently toward weaker states than they do toward their peers. China’s actions would not at all surprise Mahan, who would undoubtedly caution readers that to think otherwise is to indulge in an “illusion” about the behavior of great powers in international disputes. China wants weapons to command respect from other great powers and to intimidate countries — big or small — that stand in the way of Beijing’s ambitions.

In Mahan’s own troubled times, he called for the United States to play a larger role in world affairs. He feared that, if the United States abdicated its responsibility to uphold international order, rising imperial powers would move aggressively to exploit Britain’s deteriorating strategic position. To Mahan, there was no elegant way for a superpower to decline. A great power unable to defend itself would be picked apart by rivals, eager to expand and emerge as the new hegemon. The two world wars and the decline and fall of the British Empire provide a hideous validation of this theory about the workings of the international system. By pivoting against rising aggressors, by building up American naval power, by forming coalitions with other countries invested in upholding and benefiting from the existing international order, the United States could have contributed to avoiding these horrors and helped to preserve the peace. Alas, American domestic politics prevented the United States from playing the role envisioned by Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt. The American people preferred to act out a different foreign policy script of reducing armaments to a low level and avoiding making security commitments that risked international entanglements. American power would come into play only after aggressor states had initiated fighting, with the United States intervening to win the world wars rather than prevent them. American leaders took this grim experience to heart. After the Second World War, the United States brought its power to bear to prevent a recurrence of great-power wars. These policy and strategy prescriptions offered up by Mahan more than a hundred years ago thus have enduring value for American decision makers in the twenty-first century. The renewal of American power and its exercise on the world stage remains the best guarantee of a lasting peace.[38]


[1] See, for example, Philip A. Crowl, “Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Naval Historian,” in Peter Paret, editor, Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 444-477.

[2] Captain A.T. Mahan, Naval Strategy Compared and Contrasted With the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land (Boston: Little, Brown, 1911), 222-230.

[3] See Robert Seager II, Alfred Thayer Mahan: The Man and His Letters (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1977), 586-591. Hereafter cited as Seager, Mahan.

[4] See Mahan’s short article “Why Not Disarm?” in Robert Seager II and Doris D. Maguire, Letters and Papers of Alfred Thayer Mahan (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1975), volume 3, 685-687. Hereafter cited as Seager and Maguire, Mahan Papers.

[5] Brooks Adams to Henry Cabot Lodge, 14 October 1900, Lodge MSS., quoted in Howard K. Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power (New York: Collier Books, 1962 edition), 450.

[6] Brooks Adams, America’s Economic Supremacy (New York: Macmillan, 1900), 197-198.

[7] See A.T. Mahan, The Problem of Asia and Its Effect upon International Policies (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat, 1970 edition), passim. This book first appeared in 1900. On Roosevelt’s views that the United States might be drawn into a war with Russia, see Beale, Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power, pp. 263-4; and, Seward W. Livermore, “The American Navy as a Factor in World Politics, 1903-1913,” The American Historical Review, volume 63 (July 1958), 877.

[8] A.T. Mahan, The Interest of America in International Conditions (Boston: Little, Brown, 1918 edition), 163-164. This book first appeared in 1910.

[9] Mahan, Interest of America in International Conditions, 87.

[10] Avner Offer, First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, paperback edition, 1991), 220.

[11] The relationship between economic power and naval strength is well told by Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: Ashfield Press, paperback edition, 1983). 

[12] Elmer Roberts to Stephen B. Luce, May 13, 1910, Luce Papers, Naval War College Archives.

[13] Thomas A. Kohut, Wilhelm II and the Germans: A Study in Leadership (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 191.

[14] Alfred von Tirpitz, My Memoirs (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1919), vol. 1, 230.

[15] Offer, First World War, 324.

[16] Admiral A.T. Mahan, “Britain and the German Navy,” The Daily Mail, July 4, 1910.

[17] Captain A.T. Mahan, “Germany’s Naval Ambitions: Some Reasons Why the United States Should Wake Up to the Facts About the Kaiser’s Battleship-Building Program — Great Britain’s Danger Exaggerated, But Not Her Fright,” Collier’s Weekly, volume 43 (April 24, 1909), pp. 12-13; Seager, Mahan, p. 468. On the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-3, see Beale, Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise to World Power, pp. 357-358; and Seward W. Livermore, “Theodore Roosevelt, the American Navy, and the Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-1903,” The American Historical Review, volume 51 (April 1946), 452-471.

[18] Mahan to Charles W. Stewart, March 19, 1909, Seager and Maguire, Mahan Papers, volume 3, 290- 2.

[19] John H. Maurer, “American Naval Concentration and the German Battle Fleet, 1900-1918,” The Journal of Strategic Studies, vol. 6, no. 2 (June 1983), 147-181.

[20] Dewey to the Secretary of the Navy, November 17, 1910, and Secretary of the Navy George von Lengerke Meyer’s endorsement, November 17, 1910, General Board Papers, File 420-1.

[21] Franklin D. Roosevelt to Mahan, May 28, 1914, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Collection, Box 137, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

[22] Beale, Roosevelt and the Rise of America to World Power, 447.

[23] Mahan, Interest of America in International Conditions, 161-162.

[24] Captain A.T. Mahan, Naval Strategy Compared and Contrasted With the Principles and Practice of Military Operations on Land (Boston: Little, Brown, 1911), 110.

[25] Mahan, Naval Strategy, p. 109; and Mahan, Interest of America in International Conditions, p. 163. The seemingly chaotic German decision making structure in this era might undermine Mahan’s contention that Germany possessed these attributes of governmental efficiency. Still, Tirpitz did put forward a plan for Germany’s naval development and the German government set out to execute it, building a powerful naval force to rival that of Britain over a twenty-year period before the First World War.

[26] On this theme, see Mahan’s “Britain and the German Navy,” in The Daily Mail.

[27] Seager, Mahan, 689, note 31.

[28] Mahan to Roosevelt, August 3, 1914, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Collection, Box 137, Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

[29] Beale, Roosevelt and Rise of America to World Power, 447.

[30] C. Vann Woodward, “The Age of Reinterpretation,” American Historical Review, vol. 66, no. 1 (October 1960), 11-19.

[31] Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World (New York: Norton, 2011 edition), 2, 4.

[32] Adams, America’s Economic Supremacy, 196.

[33] George Will, “A Restless China Flexes Its Muscles, But Americans Are Interested in Other Matters,” accessed at National Review Online, July 16, 2016, accessed at

[34] Graham Allison, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” The Atlantic, September 24, 2015, accessed at

[35] Robert D. Kaplan, “America’s Elegant Decline” The Atlantic, volume 300, no. 4 (November 2007).

[36] John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, “China’s Security Agenda Transcends the South China Sea,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, vol. 72, no. 4 (2016), 218.

[37] Liu Mingfu, The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era (New York: Beijing Mediatime Books, 2015).

[38] Samuel P. Huntington, “The U.S. — Decline or Renewal,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 67, no. 2 (Winter 1988/89), pp. 76-96.