Britain’s Career on the World Stage

Octopus grip of European trade

In the first few decades of the seventeenth century, jealous English merchants watched in horror as the Dutch steadily cornered the trade of the world. There was no ‘national navy’ until the English Civil War (1642-1651). The Crown had deployed English corsairs in the service of the state but the government had no monopoly of force at sea. England was a poor, disconnected, under-governed nation known for its pirates and adventurers. The triumph of Parliament during the civil war brought about a ‘commercial revolution’ – fusing trade, imperial, and foreign policies for the furtherance of the national mercantile interest. The Navigation Act of 1651[1] “marked the end of the middle ages in England.” The spectacular Dutch recovery after the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, alarmed the English. Parliament authorized a massive naval armament program. The navy doubled in size in 1649-1651. The naval expansion continued for a decade, adding a total of more than two hundred vessels between 1649-1660. The three Anglo-Dutch wars between 1652-1674, were purely trade wars. The problem, as Monck put it later, was straightforward: “The Dutch have too much trade, and the English are resolved to take it from them.”

The English prevailed in the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54) because the Dutch had failed to assemble a fleet sufficient to take on the newly powerful English navy. The momentary naval advantage was unlikely to last, and the Dutch handily won the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667). In the Third Anglo-Dutch War (1672-1674), the combined might of England and France proved insufficient to the task of crushing the United Provinces, and only the French threat from land got the Dutch to sue for peace. Indeed, the Dutch emerged from the contest with their trade, colonies, sea power intact. The reason that the Dutch maintained their economic supremacy is because the Dutch were simply superior to the English. They were considerably richer, with a much larger merchant fleet that was much more efficient than their rivals.

The trade wars with the Dutch consolidated the power-political framework that was to be the foundation of Britain’s world position. In the century between the victory of over the Spanish Armada (1588) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), the Royal Navy emerged as a powerful national weapon.

From being an assembly of vessels provided for by the monarch and certain nobles and merchants, it became a national force, paid for by regular votes of Parliament; from being an occasional and motley body, it became a standing and homogeneous fleet; from being almost without administrative and logistical support whatsoever, it developed a structure of dockyards, provisioning, accounting, recruitment and training which, although rudimentary by modern standards, were a distinct advance; and from being a force directed by gentlemen amateurs, whose own understanding of sea power was limited and whose private interests often conflicted with those of the State, it became one which was under the control of professional seamen, guided by its Fighting Instructions and Articles of War, and directly responsible to the government as an instrument of national policy.[2]

In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Dutch Stadholder, William of Orange, invaded England and ascended to the throne, a fusion of sorts took place, that put England on the road to the summit of world business. In the 1720s, Dutch capital migrated to England and underwrote the commercial expansion of England during the eighteenth century. At the same time, the societal foundations of indigenous British capitalism began to emerge. This was the process that led to that distinct English phenomena that has been labeled ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ by Cain and Hopkins:

The period 1688-1850 owes its unity to the economic and political dominance of a reconstructed and commercially progressive aristocracy which derived its power from land.[3]

The wealth of landed oligarchy was increasingly channeled by the City of London to underwrite the global expansion of trade and empire.

The City became a branch of gentlemanly capitalism and, as such, exercised a disproportionate influence on British economic life and economic policy-making.

 …the fate of the City was entwined with that of the aristocracy in Britain after 1688, with all the expected consequences in terms of wealth, prestige, and incorporation into the body politic.

It should be noted that these developments were just beginning at the end of the seventeenth century. At this point, London was a poor cousin of Amsterdam, the global entrepôt and financial center, which was the focal point of the world economy. Dutch primacy in world trade and finance eroded only slowly as the eighteenth century matured. The decline of Dutch hegemony unleashed a fierce succession struggle between leading European powers over control of the money spinner.

Succession Struggle (1688-1763)

England prevailed over her continental rivals before the onset of the industrial revolution — whose initial confinement to Britain was to extend British primacy by another century. Britain’s geostrategic location on the flank of the continent, the emergence of the national economy, the English financial revolution (1694-1756), the emergence of the modern fiscal state and its sustained mobilization in the service of the national mercantile interest, and perhaps most importantly, the absence of naval competitors outside Western Europe, enabled Britain to triumph against her continental rivals for control of the maritime and colonial world. The struggle began immediately with the outbreak of war with France in 1689. The period 1688-1815 saw five hegemonic wars in quick succession: War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), War of Jenkin’s Ear (1739-1748), Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Wars of the French Revolution (1793-1802), and the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). Although the last two are generally taken to be a single hegemonic war, all these wars satisfy Levy’s criteria:[4]

A decisive victory by one side is both a reasonable possibility and likely to result in the leadership or dominance by a single state over the system, or at least in the overthrow of an existing leadership or hegemony.

We shall not go into any details here. Suffice it to say that Britain acted an offshore balancer and steadily consolidated her control over the maritime and colonial world. In this endeavour, she had already succeeded by mid-century.

World Power (1763-1900)

Britain emerged triumphant from the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) as the dominant world power. As a colonial and maritime power, she already had no peer competitors. The revolt in the American colonies (1776-1783) turned into an international war that pitted Britain against her continental rivals. Of the seven wars she fought against France in 1688-1815, this was the only war that she lost. Why? For the first and only time, France was not fighting on the continent. Also, this time around, Spain was fighting against England alongside France. Moreover, there was ‘no military solution’ to the American revolution. A naval blockage couldn’t bring the generously endowed colonies to heel. Britain did not have the wherewithal to mount a land campaign on the vast American continent. Even if Britain could raise sufficient divisions to hopelessly outnumber the revolutionaries in direct contest, she could not project enough power over the impenetrable American colonies.[5]

The 1789 revolution and France’s subsequent bid for mastery over Europe, prompted a coalition that crushed French ambition. The onset of peace in 1815, yielded two especially powerful states — Britain supreme in the maritime realm and Russia as the dominant land power. The European ‘concert’ of 1815-1856, was a period of Anglo-Russian ‘cohegemony.’ This was simply because Britain was weak on land.[6] During the Crimean war (1853-1856), British sea power proved insufficient for the task again, while French troops proved decisive in securing Russia’s defeat.

For only a brief period (1856-70), did the British reign alone. For these fifteen years, Britain was the strongest power in the world. By 1870, Bismarck had forged the German Reich. European affairs were again settled under continental leadership — ushering in yet another period of ‘cohegemony.’ Indeed, from this point onwards, the British became increasingly isolationist. When the words were first uttered by the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1896, Britain had effectively been living in ‘splendid isolation’ for a quarter century. Bismarck managed European affairs until his dismissal in 1890. In the decade that followed, seemingly out of nowhere, challengers to Britain’s position in the world emerged from all corners. Britain’s relative position went into precipitous decline as the unprecedented industrial growth of Germany, Japan, and the United States accelerated, and these challengers built ocean-going navies. But we are getting ahead of the story.

Britain’s naval mastery was based on the absence of naval competition from anywhere outside Europe. In other words, Britain’s geostrategic position made it the natural naval hegemon of Western Europe, but not the world. Paul Kennedy also emphasizes Britain’s geostrategic position “on the flank of the continent,” which enabled it to

‘isolate’ the world overseas from her European rivals, a policy which broke down permanently only in the later nineteenth century, with the rise of American and Japanese navies geographically invulnerable to such a throttling process.

On the continent, the rise and fall of land powers — Spain, France, Russia, and Germany — always threatened the precarious balance. If any state gained mastery of the continent, it could build a far larger navy than Britain and not have be distracted by the struggle on land. Britain’s preeminent position on the world stage during the long nineteenth century, in fact, depended both on maintaining a balance of power on the continent and maintaining her primacy in the maritime realm. Britain acted as an offshore balancer — allying with continental powers to check potential regional hegemons. Most spectacularly against Napoleon, but generally in the constant moves and counter-moves that were essential for the maintenance of a balance of power. For instance, during the ‘War in Sights’ crisis of 1875, she joined Russia to prevent Bismarck from intimidating France to make further concessions.

To ensure her maritime primacy, British foreign policy was build on a strategic triangle of ‘trade, colonies, and the navy.’ Britain’s naval supremacy and primacy in world commerce made the acquisition of strategic points — Singapore (1819), Falklands (1833), Aden (1839), Hong Kong (1841) — both achievable and useful; even as these acquisitions reinforced her naval supremacy and enabled the opening up of further markets. Many of these strategic acquisitions made the maritime encirclement of the Eurasian landmass along the ‘circumferential highway’ possible, allowing Britain to exercise an unprecedented degree of control over world affairs. Some acquisitions were critical in light of their use as coaling stations, once the age of steam had arrived. The tiny specs on the map coloured red were, thus, quite critical to Britain’s world position.

The acquisition of continental territory — India, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand — was quite another matter. These were strategic liabilities since they (with the exception of Oceania) could not be defended by the navy alone. In fact, their acquisition wasn’t determined by Westminster or the Admiralty’s strategy. The expansion of the white settlements was driven by the settlers themselves, who progressively stole native land, and attempted repeatedly to stabilize ‘crumbling frontiers.’ In India, the collapse of Mughal power created a vacuum that was filled in by the East India Company, only later to be taken over by the Crown in 1858.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution was almost exclusively confined to England. Around mid-century, she was producing half the world’s iron, two-third’s of the world’s coal, and seventy per cent of the world’s steel. When the Great Exhibition opened its doors at the Crystal Palace in 1851, Britain was at the height of her relative industrial strength. The French naval scares of 1844-1846 and 1852-1853 were easily overcome; not to be repeated till the last decade of the century. For, as Kennedy explains,

Once the age of the steamship arrived, Britain’s industrial strength enabled her to regain any temporary lead which the French may have obtained in the design of individual vessels. The ability to build more and faster than anyone else, the virtual monopoly of the best stoking coal, and the immense financial resources of the nation – it was upon these very firm foundations that Britain’s maritime mastery rested for the remainder of the century.

The Weary Titan 

Between 1895-1905, Britain lost both her naval mastery and her ability to hold the balance on the continent. The diffusion of the industrial revolution to the Continent, North America, and Japan, fatally undermined Britain’s world position. The key development was the coming of the railroad, especially in United States, Russia, and Germany. In the US, the railroad revolution — financed almost entirely by the City of London — forged a truly national economy from the ungovernable vastness of the American continent. It reoriented the economy from a North-South to an East-West axis, and undermined the dominance of the southern plantation interests, thus precipitating the Civil War. However, it was not until 1898, that the United States emerged as great power. In Germany, the railroad opened up the possibility of rapid troop deployments; making it possible, for the first time, to contemplate fighting a two-front war against France and Russia. Rail made Russia a great power in the the Far East. Specifically, the inauguration of the Trans-Siberian railroad immediately enabled Russia to project her power in the Far East, five-and-a-half thousand miles from the center of Russian power.

By the turn of the century, Germany had grown as strong as any combination of two from Britain, France, and Russia. And it was growing stronger still relative to all three states. Britain’s ability to hold the balance on the continent was increasingly under pressure. Indeed, Germany fought all three to a stalemate in World War I; to be put down only by the weighing in of the United States in the European balance. More to the point, both France and Russia were essential for balancing Germany on the continent.

In 1905, when the Russian army was put out of business by the Japanese and the Czar was facing revolution at home, France sat defenceless in front of Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm II failed to seize the moment. Had the Moroccan Crisis of 1905 led to war, German mastery over Western Europe would’ve been guaranteed. Just as in World War II, only an error at the highest strategical level saved France. With German access to the Mediterranean as well as the North Sea, the Royal Navy’s ability to bottle up the German fleet in the North Sea — which is all that British sea power accomplished in World War I — would’ve been compromised. The continent has always been the seat of a superpower.

The loss of naval mastery was a straightforward implication of the rise of extra-European naval powers. Britain decided to surrender naval supremacy in the Western Hemisphere and the Far East, and chose to concentrate her forces in the Channel and the Mediterranean — the “lungs of the empire”; as well as the Indian Ocean (where there were no challengers). The surrender of naval mastery happened early — 1901 — although the public and Parliament were kept in the dark till World War I. Why and how this was accomplished is a fascinating story and the secret reason for writing this piece.


Throughout the nineteenth century, the British were committed to maintaining their naval supremacy, which was widely recognized to be the font of her greatness. Paul Kennedy defined the term naval mastery as

A situation in which a country has so developed its maritime strength that it is superior to an rival power, that its predominance is or could be exerted far outside its home waters, with the result that it is extremely difficult for other, lesser states to undertake maritime operations or trade without at least its tacit consent. It does not necessarily imply a superiority over all other navies combined, nor does it mean that this country could not temporarily lose local command of the sea; but it does assume the possession of an overall maritime power such that small-scale defeats overseas would soon be reversed by the dispatch of naval forces sufficient to eradicate the enemy’s challenge.

Note that this is an ex post — proof of the pudding is in the eating — definition. What sort of naval forces Britain ought to deploy to have a high expectation of eating the pudding was quite another matter. Not much attention was paid to this question when the going was easy. Although long familiar to naval strategists, it was only in 1889, that an ex ante numerical standard, the two-power standard, was adopted formally by Parliament, in response to the growth of French and Russian navies. Articulated by the First Lord of the Admiralty, George Hamilton, as a codification of long-held wisdom, the two-power standard required the Royal Navy to be at least as strong as the next two navies combined.

What does it mean to be as strong as another navy? Here, the navalist, Alfred Thaler Mahan exercised a decisive influence on British thinking. In 1890, Mahan published The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1660-1783), which argued for

that overbearing power at sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive, and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and fro from the enemy’s shores.

Mahan argued that large battlefleets and a concentration of force decided command of the seas. This meant that the naval balance was dictated by the number of capital ships commanded by the largest navies. The navalist ‘capital-ship-command-of-the-sea’ doctrine immediately became the reigning orthodoxy.[7] Indeed, Mahan was preaching to the choir; British navalists had long held the same beliefs.

In order to operationalize naval strength, therefore, it was enough to compare the number of capital ships between navies. For Britain to maintain a two-power standard equated to building and deploying at least as many capital ships as the number two and three navies. Officially, despite the sharply rising financial costs of keeping it up — naval spending was £13m in 1887, £21m in 1895, rising to a staggering £41m in 1904 — Britain kept the two-power standard:


Before 1905, the real challengers were assumed to be France and Russia, which had formed a hostile alliance. The two-power standard provided a margin of safety against the Dual Alliance:


However, by the turn of the century, it was recognized that including the United States in the two-power standard would lead to financial ruin. The Admiralty had decided in the late 1890s to exclude the United States in its computation of the “two-power standard.” Britain had been dragging her feet on the question of the construction of the Panama Canal. It was realized that the Panama Canal, by allowing the rapid deployment of naval squadrons between the Pacific and the Atlantic, would immediately, permanently, and totally undermine Britain’s naval supremacy in the Western Hemisphere.

The decision to go ahead with the construction of the Panama Canal was effectively a decision to surrender Britain’s naval mastery. The final nail in the coffin was the signing of the Hay–Pauncefote Treaty on 18 November 1901. For a long time, the War Office kept enquiring on the navy’s plan for the defence of Canada — another ‘problem without a solution’ that it was better not to speak of. It was only in May 1903 that the War Office, which had based all its plans on the assumption that the Royal Navy will control the seas, grasped the full import of the Admiralty’s decision from two years before:

…the conclusion appears to be unavoidable that the present strength of His Majesty’s Navy would not suffice to defend on the high seas the interests of the Empire; in other words, that the Two Power Standard, up to which the country has been given to understand the Navy is maintained no longer exists.[8]

The reason the Admiralty surrendered Britain’s naval supremacy was because it wanted to solve the problem of containing the Dual Alliance. This required a reallocation of naval squadrons from the peripheries to the Mediterranean, where the Russian fleet threatened to join forces with the French fleet, thereby threatening to cut off the “lungs of the empire”; and home waters, where the existing fleet was fast losing its precarious numerical superiority with the expansion of the German, French, and Russian fleets. The second was even more threatening than the first, for it raised the spectre of losing naval control of the English Channel, and thereby, jeopardizing the security of the homeland.

Once the Admiralty had made the decision to surrender naval supremacy in the Western Hemisphere, the squadrons based at the Hong Kong station also looked ripe for redeployment in European waters. Since many squadrons were now pinned down in the Channel, the North Sea, and the Mediterranean, providing reinforcements to the Hong Kong station would be courting disaster. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy’s forces in the region had become completely insufficient to the task of imposing primacy:

Russia France Britain Japan










On September 4, 1901, the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Selborne, made a note titled “The Balance of Naval Power in the Far East,” wherein he noted the advantages of a naval alliance with Japan:

Great Britain would be under no necessity of adding to the number of battleships on the China Station, and at least would be in a position to contemplate the possibility of shortly establishing a small margin of superiority in reserve at home; the number of our cruisers could be reduced on that station, and increased on other stations where badly needed; our Far East trade and possessions would be secure.

          [It would] add materially to the naval strength of this country all over the world, and effectively diminish the probability of a naval war with France or Russia, singly or in combination.

Having made the decision to push for a naval alliance with Japan, Selborne told the cabinet on November 16, 1901,

The Standard which I believe now to be the true one is not one which could be publicly stated. In Parliament I would always speak in general terms, of not falling below the Two Power Standard. To the Cabinet I would suggest that if we make such provisions as will offer us the reasonable certainty of success in a war with France and Russia, we shall have fully provided for all contingencies.

The Anglo-Japanese alliance was signed on January 30, 1902, to be renewed until it was superseded by the Washington Conference of 1922. On May 27, 1905, Japanese forces destroyed Russia’s entire Far Eastern fleet including 14 capital ships (out of a total of 21 in the Russian navy). Russia was eliminated as a major naval power in a single day’s action. This improved Britain’s advantage over the Dual Alliance from 4 capital ships in 1904 to 20 in 1906. Fisher, now the First Sea Lord, pronounced the outcome “most satisfactory” from Britain’s standpoint.


It was only in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905 that the attention of the Admiralty shifted decisively to Germany. So, I was wrong when I wrote:

When Great Britain went into relative decline from 1895, she responded by concentrating her attention to the biggest threat to her survival – Germany. She resolved all her outstanding issues with other great powers. She signed a strategic alliance with France, sought the friendship of the United States, and even started a diplomatic charm offensive aimed at Czarist Russia. She let France take over the protection of the Western Mediterranean, conceded the Western Hemisphere to the United States, and accommodated a rising Japan in Northeast Asia. This strategy brought Great Britain’s commitments in line with her capabilities, and maximized her alliance partners. With the First World War looming over the horizon, she had secured the neutrality or strategic partnership of all other great powers. It is hard to think of a better response to relative decline.

The only thing right here is the strategic alliance with France (April 1904), and the much later charm offensive aimed at Czarist Russia. The surrender of naval supremacy in the Western Hemisphere was not driven by fear of a rising Germany, but by the impossibility of balancing the United States coupled with the threat from the Dual Alliance. Similarly, the German threat was not responsible for the surrender of naval supremacy in the Far East and the alliance with Japan; the threat from the Dual Alliance was.

Now, let’s consider Friedberg’s judgement on the surrender of naval supremacy in the Far East:

Given the underlying differences between the two island empires, the geography of the region, and the distribution of their interests within it, the British would probably have been wise to do what they could to maintain their independent position in Asian waters.

Does this make sense? Suppose Britain had pushed the financial limits and deployed sufficient battleships in the Far East. In effect, Britain would’ve been balancing Japan. Since Germany did not pose any threat to Japan, there is no way Japan would’ve been an ally in the fight against Germany. With most of the Royal Navy tied up to bottle up the German fleet in the North Sea and the British nation already stretched to the limit in the total war against Germany, it would’ve been mighty hard to balance an expanding Japanese navy in its home waters. Perhaps impossible.

Friedberg insists that trusting Japan was risky, as was trusting the US. Agreed. But balancing Japan in Asia would’ve been riskier. The risk of Japanese unilateralism inherent in ceding Asian waters to Japan would’ve been exceeded by the risk of Japanese hostility. And unlike World War II, the United States would’ve been unwilling to take on Japan to protect British interests. Moreover, there was no oil embargo forthcoming from the United States to strangle Japan for the simple reason that the military was not yet using oil. Although the surrender of naval supremacy in Asian waters was not done out of fear of Germany, it did prove useful. The surrender of naval mastery in 1901 brought Great Britain’s commitments in line with her capabilities, and maximized her alliance partners: which was just as well, for she was just about to enter into a fight for her very survival; one that would terminate her career as the dominant world power.

[1] The Dutch were the true inheritors of Iberian world power. Their advantage in commerce was so acute that at the close of the English Civil War, a delegation was sent to the United Provinces to seek a political union. The Dutch sought an economic union instead, which would’ve given them the upper hand. A furious Parliament passed the Navigation Act of 1651, in a direct attack on the Dutch entrepôt trade.

[2] Kennedy, Paul M., and Peter John Keating. The rise and fall of British naval mastery. London: Allen Lane, 1976.

[3] Cain, Peter J., and Anthony G. Hopkins. “Gentlemanly Capitalism and British Expansion Overseas I. The Old Colonial System, 1688‐1850.” The Economic History Review 39.4 (1986): 501-525.

[4] Levy, Jack S. “Theories of general war.” World Politics 37.3 (1985): 344-374.

[5] Had this contest occurred after the railroad revolution, perhaps the outcome could’ve been otherwise.

[6] Minus her geostrategic advantage, Russia, Spain, and France were all stronger than England before the industrial revolution.

[7] As it remains to this day. Perhaps rightly so, it must be said.

[8] Quoted in Friedberg, The Weary Titan, Page 188.

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