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Gunboat Diplomacy and the Ghost of Captain Mahan

Gunboat Diplomacy and the Ghost of Captain Mahan

Alfred W. McCoy

Amid the intense coverage of Russian cyber-maneuvering and North Korean missile threats, another kind of great-power rivalry has been playing out quietly in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The U.S. and Chinese navies have been repositioning warships and establishing naval bases as if they were so many pawns on a geopolitical chessboard. To some it might seem curious, even quaint, that gunboats and naval bastions, once emblematic of the Victorian age, remain even remotely relevant in our own era of cyber-threats and space warfare.

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From the article:

“Just as Brzezinski once warned,Washington’s failure to control Eurasia could well mean the end of its global hegemony and the rise of a new world empire based in Beijing.”

Left unaddressed is the question: why should the end of Washington’s hegemony be seen as a bad thing? It certainly is a staggeringly expensive project, the benefits of which do not accrue equally to all citizens, and one which creates more enemies than friends.

It’s as if Admiral Mahan never died. Rather than continuing to view the world as a chessboard to be dominated, we had better start looking at it as a living organism in need of care.


That is exactly the question I was asking myself reading this entire lengthy article. I see the OBOR initiative as inevitable, seen through the long lens of history, which would have happened sooner except for the severe socio/political upheaval in China in the last century. If you look at what has been written about OBOR you see these naval developments as part and parcel. It is a game of Risk that the US can’t win.

Perhaps FEMA can name its lifeboats after all of the grand floating shibboleth of the US Navy - to commemorate what we’ve lost.


Agree. The US cannot win this game now, as an empire in decline and another one, China, in its ascendancy–although like the cliche “wounded lion,” that could make the US more dangerous.

My major concern is in replacing one hegemon with another, which is something George Kennan warned about in his famous 1948 Policy Planning Study 48, in which he concluded that the US had limited options in Asia, and the best course would be to rebuild Japan to support Western business interests.


The “Silk road project” , which is being pursued by China in Concert with Russia to open massive transportation corriders through the center of the Eurasian landmass , makes US Naval power moot. Given Russia dominates central Asia just be virtue of geography, the US Empire feels it has to break Russia in order to maintain its ascendancy.

This is what the western “Russian narrative” is really all about. It the same crap other Fascists spouted when they claimed the need to deter Bolshevism eevn as they had their eyes on Eastern Europe for more “Lebenstraum”.

The great danger here is that the same “Imperial Hubris” (title of a 2004 book) in which our misleaders have increasingly been trapped since the beginning of the Nuclear Age may lead them to believe that they can subdue the world’s oldest continuous civilization by military might without destroying themselves–and us. No empire has ever voluntarily ceded its hegemony. Given not only climate disruption due to continued burning of carbon, but the breakdown of other critical systems of which evidence is mounting daily, if the USian Empire does not choose to be the first it will thereby become the last.

I share your concerns. I haven’t seen anything in the Chinese leadership or in the Chinese people that would indicate an outcome any different than our own greedy, life-consuming hegemons. It was only my intention to point out that the US will not prevail there, no matter what mad schemes are adopted by those of the security state.

Like I said originally - if you look at what is intended by OBOR - you see that the Chinese naval moves are part and parcel of that. The seagoing network they’ve envisioned seems just as important to them as the land-based new silk road. I agree that BECAUSE of the Eurasian land link, US naval efforts will in the long run be a tremendous waste of money and effort. Do you suppose that is China’s intention?

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“Do you suppose that is China’s intention?”

Quite possibly. When Sun Tzu wrote The Art Of War (c. 500 BCE) the Chinese had already been at it for some two millennia, and he–so doubtless others–had already figured out that the use of lethal force is a last resort, not least because the outcome is so profoundly unpredictable. Some of our generals understand that, but many of our politicians and most of the public do not, and the President* would be incapable of grasping the idea if it were presented to him at the level at which he apparently “reads.” Likewise his potential replacement: Onward, Christian soldiers!

Prior to WW2 the Battleship was considered Queen of the seas. Entire Countries treasuries were invested in the same. Of the major powers at the time, the USSR had the weakest Navy, not because they were weak, but because they had no real need of that sort of Naval Presence. They had no assets to protect that were overseas. At the same time, when war broke out, it was the Aircraft Carrier that was the true Queen of the Seas and the battleship was all but useless in its intended role.

The reason of course was range. Where the battleship could engage at a range of 18 miles at most , an Aircraft carrier could engage at ranges of a few hundred miles. Today the Aircraft Carriers ranges, even with planes added is dwarfed by the new generations of missiles and both China and Russia invest in cheap missile technologies that can counter a Carrier, even as the USA invests more money in its carrier fleets.The fact these Carriers seem to function well against third world nations that do not have such missile technologies gives the US navy a false sense of superiority. Even though China has constructed a few Carriers, i do not see them as feeling this to involve itself in a Carrier versus carrier action.

Yes , I think that China plays the long game here and that the USA is being suckered . They know full well the psychology of the US Government and its Military and it one very much like the neighbor who has to buy a BIGGER car just because Bob down the street just bought one even as that neighbor can not afford that bigger car.

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Indeed. Xi Jinping’s recent indefinite coronation is not an encouraging sign although our worry may be that it might inspire You Know Who to try something similar. Certainly his rant about the RBI raid on Cohen’s offices had a “l’etat, c’est moi” ring to it.

That doesn’t require much effort, as the US Government and its Military have once again volunteered. Plenty of fiction and non-fiction to that effect going back at least to Sinclair Lewis’s novel, It Can’t Happen Here(1935), and with a rich lode from the Viet Nam era.

The best way the U.S. can respond to the emerging Chinese fleet, is to abandon the “world empire” concept altogether and redirect our tax dollars at self-improvement. If that were to ever occur, the U.S. would quickly be rebranded as the “new ascending” global power, one in which the rest of the world would soon admire rather than despise. I’m sure if the U.S. announced to the world that the need for ‘military projection’ could be permanently laid to rest all together, the rest of the world would enthusiastically support such a bold and necessary vision. Either unilaterally withdraw or the U.S. can stick to Captain Mahon’s plan for a perpetual arms race to prepare for our seemingly inevitable clash of empires.
Despite a well researched article by the Professor, the assumption is that it is better to have an American Empire than a Chinese one. Obviously the best case scenario is that no empire exists at all. Is it possible than the Chinese buildup is merely reactionary after watching the United States government being completely subservient to the military industrial complex since the the Spanish-America War? It is not as if the U.S. has preached disarmament and led by example at anytime in living memory.
Colonialism should have died in 1945, but instead it was perpetuated by the U.S. The arms race was accelerated by the U.S. regardless of what America’s rivals did. And even when the Soviet Union imploded, U.S. militarism was quick to fill the void from expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe to the waging of war directly and indirectly in the Middle East.
How can someone argue that the U.S. military posturing in the western Pacific since WW11 has benefitted mankind at all? It’s time to bury the whole concept of challenging the world for naval supremacy and focus on more realistic forms of national security like ending poverty, ending a manufactured culture of consumerism, introducing universal healthcare and freeing our government from corporate subservience.

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