The Internet is a funny thing. Anyone that’s ever gone down a Wikipedia hole realizes that, pretty soon, that one thing you needed to look up can turn into a two-hour deep dive into barely-related topics.
It’s also weird. There’s so much content—so much that we can’t really quantify it—you’re bound to stumble upon something interesting. It is, perhaps, a sad commentary of the human condition that, given unlimited access to information and knowledge, we use the Internet primarily for mundane purposes, and frequent the same dozen websites everyday.
Of course, that’s also the problem of abundance. People can’t handle that many choices, and there are only so many spare hours to cram in unorganized knowledge.
That’s how I came to stumble upon the topic of today’s post, thalassocracy, or “rule by the sea.” I recently purchased a very nerdy space exploration strategy game called Stellaris (itself a recommendation from a member of Milo’s Telegram chat). Stellaris has a steep learning curve, so it’s a game that basically requires the player to do homework to figure out what they’re doing (my race of peaceful, space-faring platypus people has surely suffered from my ignorance).
That homework assignment (no, seriously, it’s a fun game!) sent me down a rabbit hole on the game’s wiki, and one of the in-game events involves a group called the Bemat Thalassocracy. I’d never heard the term before, and searched out its meaning. That brought me to a website called Friesian, which is apparently a site promoting the philosophy of Jakob Friederich Fries, an eighteenth-century philosopher opposed to that ponderous windbag Hegel. The website dates back to 1996, when it began as a community college website.
It definitely has that look of the old Internet, a look I appreciate (as opposed to the cookie-cutter but sleek design of this free WordPress blog). What is also has are some looooong essays on a number of topics.
The essay that my Bing!ing (yes, I use Bing! as my default search engine, even though I will call it “Googling”) produced was “The Fragility of Thalassocracy, Pericles to Heinlein.” As an overview of world history from the perspective of seafaring powers, it’s a wonderful read.
It’s also quite interesting as an implicit challenge to Alfred Thayer Mayan, the admiral who encouraged the United States to develop a strong navy (which it did in the 1880s) in his magnum opus The Influence of Seapower upon History, one of those books that’s been gathering dust on my nightstand for years. Mayan’s basic argument (from my understanding of reading reviews) is that a robust navy is key to a nation’s national defense, and that a strong navy is the mark of a free people.
I’ve long accepted that without much thought. Yes, of course—our system of global trade is made possible by, among other things, the strong presence of the United States Navy all over the world. Where that presence is lacking, piracy flourishes. But globalization and trade are implicitly underwritten by America’s naval presence.
But in “The Fragility of Thalassocracy, Pericles to Heinlein,” author Kelley L. Ross argues that a reliance on naval power above all else is inherently fragile. It may afford the thalassocratic nation some temporary leverage over less well-equipped naval powers, but all it takes, in many cases, is one massive naval defeat to undo that nation’s power.
The earliest well-known example is Athens, which under Pericles came to dominate the Delian League, a collection of Greek city-states united against the Persians. The League shared a common treasury on the island of Delos, from which it funded its naval armaments. Then Athens unilaterally seized the funds, brought them to Athens, and used the city-states’ own cash to oppress them with a beefed up Athenian navy.
The land-lubbing Spartans took awhile to do so, but with some Persian cash, they built their own makeshift navy, which decisively defeated Athens navy in one stroke near the end of the Peloponnesian War. With Athen’s impressive navy crushed, Sparta just had to march into Athens (well, that’s the gist of it, anyway).
That’s one example among many that Ross offers. We often learn of the key naval victories—like Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars, that effectively cut off Napoleon at sea, allowing or his slow strangulation—or the use of naval power in the American Civil War (the Union’s “Anaconda Plan” depended on blockading the South and disrupting Confederate shipping lanes). But Ross argues that all the naval victories in the world can be undone with one decisive defeat.
It’s an interesting point, and it’s the “fragility” alluded to in the title. I do think a robust navy is necessary in the modern age to project power and to protect shipping and other vital American interests. But it’s a sobering point to consider that an over-reliance on naval power can be detrimental, too. Ross makes the point that navies are expensive—he points out that the British essentially ran out of money in the First World War—and can be of limited effectiveness given their immense cost (the First World War is instructive here, too, as the massive naval build-ups of the 1880s-1910s proved almost completely wasteful and useless in what became a brutal ground war).
Conventional wisdom says “Never fight a land war in Asia.” But maybe we shouldn’t expect to do everything at sea, either. Ross’s essay has given me a good bit to mull over; I hope you enjoy it, too.