Since there are no pressing global issues that cannot wait until next week, I’ll devote my column to a book I’ve just finished reading. Its title, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans (Penguin, 2017), and the reputation of its author—retired admiral James George Stavridis, who ended his career as NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe—promised an enlightening or at least interesting read.  

The first problem with this book is that it contains so many errors of judgment and fact, distortions and omissions, that already after the first chapter (“The Pacific, Mother of all the Oceans”) I could not take it seriously. Coming from a run-of-the-mill academic hack, or a New York Times Pulitzer-winning columnist, this would be unremarkable and unsurprising. Adm. Stavridis, however, is a hugely respected and influential military intellectual. Let’s be specific.

P. 20 “Over time the Spanish influence weakened, reflecting events in Europe (including the wars of the Reformation) that bled the peninsular nation. By the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it was the Dutch and British who were in the ascendance . . . ”

Imperial overreach did play a part, but the nation was very far from being “bled” by the wars of the Reformation. The key causes of Spain’s decline during and after Philip II’s reign were primarily economic and institutional. Glutted with enormous quantities of gold and silver from the New World, Spain experienced commerce-destroying hyperinflation. Instead of using the windfall for investment at home, the Crown spent heavily on all sorts of imports—including many essential military and naval wares manufactured by her Protestant foes—and neglected domestic production. The price revolution ensued, but even the copper needed to make the debased vellon (aka billon) was purchased in Holland, with silver! Her aristocratic elites were contemptuous of commerce. The Spanish Crown declared bankruptcy four times even during the Kingdom’s “golden age” (1557, 1560, 1576, 1596), but its grotesquely inefficient taxation system—it exempted the nobles, and kept increasing the burden on the rest—was not reformed thereafter, thus stifling the growth of a commercially active and wealth-generating middle class.

Same paragraph, also on p. 20: “In 1743, one of the massive Spanish treasure galleons was seized off Manila by British navy commodore George Anson, striking another significant economic blow against the Spanish.”

By the middle of the XVIII century Spain was long finished, a shadow of her former self both militarily and economically. Anson did capture Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, possessing 1,313,843 pieces of eight on 20 June 1743, but that episode was but a belated footnote in the story, and certainly did not qualify as “another significant economic blow against the Spanish.”

P. 21: “James Cook . . . circled Australia . . . ”

Oh, dear . . . Captain Cook did no such thing. In 1769-1770 he did circumnavigate (“circle”) New Zealand and mapped its complete coastline. He then proceeded west to the southeastern coast of Australia—the first recorded European to do so—and continued up the coast to the continent’s northern tip to Torres Trait, from where he proceeded to the Dutch East Indies’ capital of Batavia (today’s Jakarta). Cook sailed along, and partially mapped, approximately one-fourth of Australia’s overall coastline. The first to circle (i.e. circumnavigate) Australia’s mainland (as well as the island of Tasmania) was Captain Matthew Flinders, RN, in 1802-1803.

P. 22: “The Russian toehold in the Pacific was transitory, retracting from Fort Ross in the 1840s as the weight of its large empire became too burdensome and the czarist façade began to crack.”

“The czarist façade” only began to crack some six decades later, with the revolution of 1905. In the second half of the XIX century, far from finding the empire “too burdensome,” Russia’s strategists merely shifted emphasis to Central Asia. Its borders expanded by leaps and bounds, adding over 1.5 million (!) square miles between 1853 and 1895. The Russians first built a line of forts from the Aral Sea eastward up the Syr Darya river (1853), then they crossed the eastern Kazakh steppe and built a line of forts along the northern border of today’s Kyrgyzstan. Then they moved south, captured Tashkent and Samarkand and brought the Khanates of Kokand and Bokhara under their control. By that time they held a vast triangle whose southern point was 1000 miles south of Siberia and 1200 miles southeast of their supply bases on the Volga. The next step was to turn this triangle into a rectangle by crossing the Caspian Sea, taking Khiva and Turkmenistan, and finally in 1895 occupying the high Pamirs in the southeast. Some burden . . .

P. 28: “ . . . and the ruling claque in St. Petersburg could not fully focus . . . ”

Claque?! It is a body of sycophantic professional applauders, typically encountered in European opera houses after fading divas barely execute a demanding aria, and in America at presidential speaking engagements. The term is singularly inappropriate to a powerful ruling group of any kind. Clique, perhaps; but certainly not claque. Adm. Stavridis may not know the difference, but Penguin’s editors?

P. 32: “The Japanese war machine was churning in high gear . . . Things looked bleak in early 1942 for the United States and its Pacific allies.”

Wrong. Things may have looked “bleak” for Britain in Europe before the Barbarossa, or for the Soviets before the Wehrmacht onslaught collapsed at the gates of Moscow in December 1941, but the outcome in the Pacific was never in doubt. Imperial Japan was doomed from the outset, in any event FDR wanted that war, and nobody in any position of influence in the United States, military or political, doubted the outcome at any moment, even before Midway.

P. 37-38: “[China’s] shift from “peaceful development” to the notion of “active defense” is likely designed to mask internal problems and attempt to shift the focus of its population away from its own contradictions to external challenges.”

This statement reflects a profound misunderstanding of China’s grand strategy and an equally spectacular ignorance of China’s internal political situation. Far from being “likely designed” as a distraction for the restive masses (which have never been less restive than now), Beijing’s “active defense” strategy actually aims to break through the first island chain, to effect a lasting change the regional balance of power, and to establish China as a world-class power by the middle of the century. (BTW, “contradictions” . . . such a lovely Marxist term! Reminds me of those long-forgotten high school sociology classes in Tito’s Yugoslavia.)

Even when the author is not wrong, his ideas are often pedestrian and the prose stultifying, e.g. on p. 40: “This maritime arms race in Asia comes from each state’s perception of external threats.” Is there, has there ever been, an “arms race” with different causes? In the next paragraph we are told that the “best chance we have to avoid conflict rests in maritime diplomacy”—it turns out we should continually talk to the Chinese about “points of friction”—and that the U.S. should encourage cooperation between its regional allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia et al) “in a way that does not create an Asian cold war between China and a U.S.-led bloc of nations.”

What way precisely? This is neither analysis nor policy, this is unadulterated b-s; but Stavridis manages to take the reader to a whole new level of triteness by calling on the nations of the region to “work together on soft-power projects using their militaries for disaster relief, humanitarian operations, and medical diplomacy in the coming decades.” This will elicit a hearty chuckle in Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, and along all points south. The good admiral has more in the same vein:

“The Pacific Ocean arms race is real and dangerous. Transparency, cooperation, and diplomacy can mitigate the potential for open conflict. Now is the time to put such mechanisms in place—before the nations are tempted to reach for the military instrument and exercise hard power in addressing their geopolitical concerns. Despite the tensions and the risks in our modern Pacific Rim, the odds are better than even that the region will develop peacefully.”

The next chapter, “The Atlantic Ocean”, is not much better on geopolitical analysis—but it has even more egregious mistakes. On p. 60 Stavridis writes that after the Seven Years’ War “Britain developed a strategy that served it well for the next three hundred years . . . ” Now let’s see: that war ended in 1763, so presumably Britain will continue to use offshore balancing successfully against France, or any other continental European foe, until 2063.

OK, once we may discount “the next three hundred years” as a mistake, of course it should have been “two hundred,” errare humanum est etc . . . But in the same paragraph, six-seven lines later, we are told that “the creative geostrategic genius William Pitt” developed the balancing strategy which “continued to be seminal for England for the next three centuries.” Well, here we go again: William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham, decided in 1757 to commit whatever resources were necessary to defeat the French in North America and on the European continent. To that end he provided generous funding to Prussia and for the expansion of provincial militias in North America. That was his “plan,” in 1757. The tail-end of “the next three centuries” is in 2057, when I’ll be dead or 103 years old.

On p. 61 we learn that “slavery formed but one part of an enormous migration across the Atlantic that has continued to this day, resulting in the eventual settlement of more than a billion people in the Americas today.” Neither slavery nor enormous migration produced anything near today’s “eventual settlement of more than a billion people.” Between one-third and one-half of that number are native Amerindians (pueblos indígenas)—from Bolivia, Belize and Brazil to Mexico,  Central America and Peru, and their mixed-race descendants of every color and hue.

With similar carelessness, in the last paragraph of the same page (61) it is claimed that “the five imperial powers of the Atlantic Ocean—France, Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and Portugal—embroiled themselves in a series of colonial wars” over the ensuing two centuries—but it is not clear from what date exactly this epic bicentennial struggle (“what might be termed the ‘Wars of the Atlantic’”) is supposed to have started.

Equally puzzling is the absurd notion of “the natural geopolitical chaos resulting from five national entities competing in a relatively small space” (p. 63). “Natural geopolitical chaos” means nothing, it is lofty-sounding verbose rubbish. But Stavridis never tires of the word “geopolitical,” however badly misunderstood. On p. 65 he claims that, by 1783, the British faced considerable “geopolitical challenges and turbulence at home.” Geopolitical challenges at home? The misuse of that term can hardly be more absurd.

The noun “geopolitics” and the adjective “geopolitical” are increasingly present in the public discourse on foreign policy on both sides of the Atlantic. In principle this is a good thing: relating power interests to the imperatives of space and resources is essential to the analysis of world affairs which is free from ideological noise and foggy rhetoric (“shared values,” “exceptional nation,” “international community,” etc). The trouble is that many commentators and authors, like Stavridis, use geopolitics imprecisely and often erroneously. Geopolitics needs to be freed from such semantic and conceptual confusion in order to release its potential. As the study of international relations from the vantage point of space, of resources contained in that space, and of people inhabiting that space, geopolitics offers a truly global vision of the relationship between Raum and power.

Equal historical and geopolitical ignorance is on display in the author’s feeble attempt to explain the causes of Napoleon’s defeat (pp. 66 and 68-68). Stavridis manages to cover this episode without mentioning once the Grande Armee, or Russia, or the year 1812. This is the exact equivalent of discussing the causes of the defeat of Nazi Germany without mentioning Russia and the Red Army. In both cases, it was the titanic struggle of land power with land power that decided the issue. Had there been just the Royal Navy vs. the continental hegemon, with Russia left out of the picture, the Thousand-Year Reich would still have 915 years to go.

I can go on and on, ad nauseam, but you get the picture. Sloppy, flawed, banal, and—worst of all—not a good read. 


[Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans, by Adm. James Stavridis (New York: Penguin Press) 384 pp., $28.00]