MTimonen then left this comment:
Might consider the difference between Mahan-capable nations and, well, France, and maybe Germany, as being the difference between naval and maritime nations - maritime nations tend to have a large population which makes a living from the sea, and so has a large pool of potential sailors and ship builders to draw on at need. Naval powers often have impressive navies, but from necessity rather than inclination.
Which started to create an out of control response, so I decided to write a whole damn post on the idea.
First, we need to draw a very specific distinction between continental powers and maritime powers. Since I feel like writing analogies, I’ll describe things in a goofy way. A continental power is like a lion, while a maritime power is like a shark. You don’t want to mess with a bear on land and you don’t want to mess with a shark at sea, but you’ll rarely see them mess with each other. There’s simply very little incentive for one type of power to go in to the other’s territory. Meanwhile, they can become the apex predator in their native environment and be quite happy, thankyouverymuch.
The quintessential conflict between lion and shark came during the reign of Napoleon. Napoleon owned Europe and the British were hopeless to dislodge him. At Trafalgar the British destroyed any hope Napoleon had of invading the British Isles, but they did not topple Napoleon’s Empire. The British and French could well have settled down in to a stalemate and held to this day were there no outside forces for the British to muster in to an alliance capable of taking on Napoleon on the continent itself. Had Napoleon been able to enlist the full support of the Dutch against the British and combined Spanish, Dutch, and French naval forces, the reverse might have been true.
We also see this continental v. maritime dichotomy with the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese defeated the Russian fleet in detail and conquered their only warm water port, but the Japanese did not take down the Russian Empire by any stretch of the imagination. During World War II the Japanese even tried to take on Russia on land. It did not go over well for the Japanese.
It is, in fact, quite easy to draw parallels between Great Britain and Japan. Throughout the medieval period the British were mostly content to stay on their island and let geography be their best defense. During the first century of the Age of Exploration they were almost non-participants. Then in 1588 the Spanish Armada forced the British to crash-build a navy. After that victory, the British took to the seas with a vengeance. The Japanese under the Shoguns were quite content to stay at home, too. They barred almost all foreign trade and strictly controlled the shores. Then came Commodore Matthew Perry and the Japanese realized that they could no longer trust that the sea was their friend and protector. Sixty years later they would shock the world at Tsushima.
The question, then, is of what to make of the United States.
At the time of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s treatise the United States was undeniably a continental power. It had spent the 19th Century expanding its frontiers westward through the Louisiana Purchase, Mexican-American War, and the waves of settlers that struck out to gain their own parcel of America’s vast hinterland. Other than the brief flurries of activity around the War of 1812 and Civil War, the United States regarded distance as its greatest defense against foreign adventurism.
Still, the United States had the capability of becoming a maritime power. The ports of New England engaged in global trade, hauling American goods to every corner of the Earth. The vast amounts of coastline on the East, Gulf, and West coasts ensured that there were plenty of people who were quite familiar with the sea. And the United States was always capable of finding competent and eager naval architects and officers. The rapid expansion of the Union Navy and creativity in finding solutions to vexing problems shown by both sides in the Civil War provide ample proof of this.
When the United States decided to step on to the world stage there wasn’t a single, shocking event like we saw with Great Britain and Japan, however. The rise of South American naval powers and the Spanish-American War were basically the necessary impetus, but such things were still difficult to sell as clear and present issues to the American taxpayer. The vast moat of oceans security. Moreover, your average citizen of Kansas City really didn’t have to worry about the imminent arrival of foreign troops on their doorstep.
American isolationism was, in short, alive and well. And although the decision was made to create navy that was second to none in 1916, it wasn’t really until Pearl Harbor that Americans got on board with the idea of being able to project power around the world.
So, in a way, there was a single, traumatic event. It just came long after America had bought in to the idea of sea power. As the architect of the attack said, a sleeping giant awoke on December 7th, 1941.
I’ve oversimplified things a bit for the sake of comparison. It cannot be doubted that the British were far less isolationist than the Japanese. But it must also be remembered that the British were far more continental in origin than the Japanese, haven been conquered and/or settled by waves of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Normans. Also, Britain is a lot closer to Europe than Japan is to Asia.
When I went to Galveston last month it was the first time I’d touched a body of water larger than Lake Michigan. I’m just sayin’…