Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 2, Issue 3  /  

Living in a Mahanian World

Living in a Mahanian World Living in a Mahanian World
To cite this article: Armstrong, Benjamin, “Living in a Mahanian World”, Infinity Journal, Volume 2, Issue No. 3, Summer 2012, pages 11-14.

In the second decade of the 21st century the United States Navy faces a multitude of challenges. Operational requirements outpace the ability of the Navy to maintain and deploy the required assets to meet the demands of combatant commanders. Maintenance and readiness issues that have been put off for a decade, in order to cut costs and support the Navy’s Fleet Response Plan deployment concept, have begun to impact the fleet.[i] Budgetary struggles look to shrink the future force and only make the problems worse.[ii] With these administrative and force disposition challenges as a background, the United States faces a world defined by globalization, instability, and rising powers. As the Department of Defense and the United States Navy enter a time of change and restructuring, there must be a strategic vision behind the decisions that are made for the future.

In recent years it has become common for naval leaders and analysts to discount the strategic thinking and writing of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan. They tell us that he wrote for a different time, and a different United States of America. They point to his book The Influence of Seapower Upon History, with its focus on the age of sail, and say that he has nothing to offer the modern and high technology military forces of today. We have been encouraged to dismiss him because of his focus on battleships, or because his approaches are outdated.[iii]

These writers and thinkers are mistaken. While they focus on his single most famous work, and unthinkingly repeat decades old analysis taught by some academics, few of these writers appear to have actually read the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan. As the 20th century approached, and after its turn, the preeminent American Navalist penned over a dozen books and several dozen articles. His writings cover a multitude of topics from combat leadership to global strategy. The world that his Navy faced at the end of the 19th century has many similarities to the one we are experiencing at the opening of the 21st century. Much of his strategic thinking is applicable today, and deserves consideration as the maritime world faces the challenges of the new century.

Turn of the Century

Mahan wrote in a time of change and international development. Increasing consumption at the end of the 19th century led to a rise in living standards for most Americans, and other Western nations, when compared to the rest of the world. Economic interests took a primary place in the interaction between nations and the development of rapid transportation and communication systems, driven by steam power and undersea telegraph cables, began to link the globe. Today’s writers would have said that the world was experiencing globalization. Mahan wrote that, “the vast increase in the rapidity of communication, has multiplied and strengthened the bonds knitting the interests of nations to one another, till the whole now forms an articulated system.”[iv] He recognized that the interaction between nations was increasingly economic. It was apparent to him that in the new century’s international relations “the maintenance of the status quo, for purely utilitarian reasons of an economical character, has gradually become the ideal.”[v]

The rapid advance of modern technology created an increasingly interconnected world and Mahan perceived that while there were reasons to maintain the status quo, there were also other motivations at play. He believed that the increased speed of communication, and a view of national greatness that was purely economic, tended to make the new global international order excessively sensitive to disruption. He wrote that “commerce, on the one hand deters from war, on the other hand it engenders conflict, fostering ambitions and strifes which tend toward armed conflict.”[vi] In a statement reminiscent of another great strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, Mahan wrote that “War is simply a political movement, though violent and exceptional in its character.”[vii] Yet Mahan took a step beyond Clausewitz and tied the political, and military together with economics. He admitted that economic considerations can have a stabilizing effect on world affairs, but he also pointed out that though they were “logically separable, in practice the political, commercial, and military needs are so intertwined that their mutual interaction constitutes one problem.”[viii] Economic or commercial motivations could drive a nation to military conflict just as easily as they could encourage stability in the global commons.

Looking East

With these conclusions as background Mahan looked at the world in an attempt to determine the next area of great conflict. His focus settled on Asia. Almost a century before today’s writers and thinkers identified the start of a Pacific century;[ix] Mahan suggested that Japan, India, and China would become central players in a great economic and political conflict with the West. Mahan knew that the economic and political could not be separated from the military, and saw trouble in the future. He wrote, “as we cast our eyes in any direction, there is everywhere a stirring, a rousing from sleep,” in the non-Western world, and a craving for the two advantages of the West at the turn of the last century: “power and material prosperity.”[x]

His first indicator was the early development of Japan, and the Japanese adoption of some parts of Western culture and economics. He also saw India as having great potential. He saw in both countries the chance that they might adopt important portions of Western culture, resulting in what he called a “conversion”. China, however, was a different story. Mahan admitted that generally the Western world knew less about China, but he argued that experience had already shown a forceful and determined character in the Chinese people. He suggested that there was a general conservatism in Chinese culture, and he wrote that “comparative slowness of evolution may be predicated [sic], but that which for so long has kept China one, amid many diversities, may be counted upon in the future to insure a substantial unity of impulse.” He feared that China would lead a rejection of Western values, and would pull the other future powers of Asia toward a conflict with the West.[xi]

Because other parts of the world aspired towards the power and material prosperity of the West, Mahan believed conflict would begin in the realm of economic competition. He believed that access to markets, as well as the raw materials needed for production, were at the heart of the economic competition between nations. He wrote that “as the interaction of commerce and finance shows a unity in the modern civilized world, so does the struggle for new markets and for predominance in old, reveal the un-subdued diversity.”[xii] As the large populations of Asia struggled to gain their economic strength, and achieve the power and prosperity of the West, Mahan thought that they were likely to do so based on their own cultural norms, rather than those of the West. Of China and the West he said that “they are running as yet on wholly different lines, springing from conceptions radically different.”[xiii] In the future he believed that these differences would result in competition and conflict.

Mahan believed that the world was “at the beginning of this marked movement” toward economic cooperation balanced by competition that would bring nations into political and military conflict with one another.[xiv] He reminded his readers that “those who want will take, if they can, not merely from motives of high policy and as legal opportunity offers, but for the simple reasons that they have not, that they desire, and that they are able.” Because of this, and because of the fact that “we are not living in a perfect world, and we may not expect to deal with imperfect conditions by methods ideally perfect,” Mahan turned his attention to military policy.[xv]

Preparing for Conflict

As the United States approached the beginning of the 20th century, Alfred Thayer Mahan looked at his nation’s military policy and saw disaster on the horizon. If his analysis of international affairs was correct, if the United States faced a time of rapid globalization, rising powers from the non-Western world, and particularly the awakening giant of China and Asia, then the military policy of the United States was in need of a drastic overhaul.

Mahan was living in a United States that considered the Army more important to national security than the Navy. He lamented the fact that “of invasion, in any real sense of the word we run no risk, and if we did it must be at sea…yet the force of men in the navy is smaller, by more than half, than that in the army.”[xvi] He felt it clear that overseas commerce, overseas political relationships, and commercial routes that were maritime in nature, would dominate as “the primary objects of external policy of nations.” It was only logical that “the instrument for the maintenance of policy directed upon these objects is the Navy.”[xvii] The nations of Europe, at the time the great powers of the world, were on the same page as Mahan. He noticed that the newspapers and political journals of Europe were showing an appreciation for the importance of naval forces in the new century, and it was reflected in the growth of naval spending and sizes of fleets.[xviii]

Approaching the question of military organization for the United States, Mahan wrote that it was wrong to start with the sizes of the armies and navies of the world with the idea of coming up with a mathematical equation that would allow you to ensure your own superiority. Instead he felt that it was better to determine “what there is in the political status of the world, including not only the material interests but the temper of nations, which involves a reasonable, even though remote, prospect of difficulties which may prove insoluble except by war.” Those prospective difficulties provided the guidance for the strategic vision of the nation. He continued that “it is not the most probable of danger, but the most formidable that must be selected as measuring the degree of military precautions to be embodied in the military preparations thenceforth to be maintained.”[xix]

Mahan believed that, because of the challenges faced by the United States at the start of the 20th century, a military organization that favored naval power was the most strategically viable course for his country. The most reasonable “prospective difficulties” that the United States would face would be overseas. The most formidable danger, an attack on the United States itself, would have to come from overseas. He wrote, “every danger of a military character to which the United States is exposed can be met best outside her own territory – at sea. Preparedness for naval war – preparedness against naval attack and for naval offence – is preparedness for anything that is likely to occur.”[xx]

Responding to both of these threats, the most reasonable and the most formidable, required a strong and forward deployed naval presence. Despite the clarity of his reasoning, Mahan feared the political process in the United States would never be able to provide the nation with a defense policy based on such a strategic foundation. He knew that the political establishment was more interested in making everyone happy and was “too often equally unable to say frankly, ‘This one is chief; to it you others must yield.” Instead he foresaw a pendulum that would swing wildly between extremes, or even worse in his opinion, “all alike receive less…in other words, the contents of the national purse are distributed instead of being concentrated upon a leading conception, adopted after due deliberation, and maintained with conviction.”[xxi] It was a recipe for strategic failure for a great power.

The Modern World

While the technology of today’s United States Navy has developed far beyond anything Mahan could have conceived, it is unlikely that it would surprise him. He recognized the importance of what he called “rapid mechanization” or what we call the development of high technology. The political state of the world that the United States faces today, meanwhile, would not have surprised Mahan at all. Globalization, rising powers, Asian development, and the impact of technology were just as important a century ago as they are today.

As the defense budgets of the United States and the European Union contract in the early 21st century it is important that policymakers understand the world that they face, and consider the strategic questions that should guide their decisions. Alfred Thayer Mahan laid out the questions that need to be asked when facing similar challenges. Answering them can help create a sound foundation for any new approach to defense spending, as the 21st century progresses.

First, what in the “temper of nations” around the world could lead to a reasonable expectation of armed conflict? Considerations should include growing movements in the non-Western world for freedom and representative government and the potential conflict of that temperament with the spread of radical and religious ideologies. The role played by smaller nations like Iran and North Korea, in attempting to exploit the divisions and uncertainty that have been introduced by the most recent round of globalization, must also be taken into account. The growing potential for economic competition between the rising powers of China, India, and Brazil on the one hand and established great powers like the United States and European Union on the other raises a reasonable expectation of conflict in the future. The diplomatic and military wrangling in the South China Sea revolves around economics as much as nationalism and militarism.[xxii]

Secondly, what is the most formidable of these potential conflicts? While the clash between authoritarian governments and the building momentum of freedom movements is likely to create conflict, it produces little direct strategic threat to the United States as a nation. Likewise, attempts to exploit international instability by regional powers will probably impact American policy and interests, but not the security of the country’s borders. The prospect of an armed conflict between the United States and China or one of the other rising powers, sparked by economic competition, is a very formidable challenge and a more direct threat to the United States.[xxiii] Mahan would not suggest ignoring the first two reasonable expectations, but according to his strategic approach the focus should be on the final, and most formidable, threat to American security.

The makers of defense policy today face the same challenges in the development of sound, defense policy shaped by a clear strategy as Mahan lamented in his day. The tendency in the halls of power to avoid making hard decisions has not changed. As the United States approaches significant cuts in defense spending there have already been calls to divide the cuts evenly between the budgets of the services, ignoring Mahan’s warning against the great risks of such a policy. The rise of counter-insurgency theory, or COIN, and the identified risk of applying that operational and tactical template to strategic problems, also demonstrates a potential risk of the pendulum that the Captain warned about.[xxiv]

A Mahanian World

The world of Mahan is today. The international challenges that the United States faced, that sparked Mahan’s writing and thinking, are strikingly similar to those which we face a century later. The basic principles of national strategy and armed conflict have not changed, despite the rapid advancement of technology and a new version of globalization that has left the colonial model behind. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote about much more than simply battleships and overseas colonies. His voluminous books and articles provide illumination and insight that would serve today’s military leadership as well as the commonly discussed lessons of other great strategic thinkers like Clausewitz or Sun Tzu. To help face a world of globalization, rising powers, increasing worldwide spending on naval forces, and a rapidly developing Asia, students, officers and policymakers will all benefit from reading the works of America’s great strategic thinker, Alfred Thayer Mahan.


[i] Philip Ewing, “Study Says Aegis Radar Systems on the Decline,” Navy Times, 5 July 2019, available at
[ii] Robert Haddick, “The New Defense Budget Does Not Support the Pentagon’s Strategy,” Small Wars Journal, 14 February 2012, available at’s-strategy
[iii] R.B. Watts, “The End of Sea Power,” USNI Proceedings, Vol. 135, No. 9, September 2009.
[iv] Alfred Thayer Mahan, “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies,” in Retrospect and Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1908): p. 144.
[v] Alfred Thayer Mahan, “A Twentieth Century Outlook,” in The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1897): p. 222.
[vi] Mahan, “Considerations,” p. 145.
[vii] Alfred Thayer Mahan, “Preparedness for Naval War,” in The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1897): p. 177.
[viii] Mahan, “Considerations,” p. 140.
[ix] Frank Gibney, The Pacific Century: America and Asia in a Changing World, (New York: C. Scribner and Sons, 1992) and Mark Borthwick, Pacific Century: The Emergence of Modern Pacific Asia, (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007).
[x] Mahan, “Twentieth Century,” 244.
[xi] Ibid., 237.
[xii] Mahan, “Considerations,” 146-7.
[xiii] Mahan, “Twentieth Century,” 228.
[xiv] Mahan, “Considerations,” p. 147.
[xv] Mahan, “Twentieth Century,” p. 230, 244.
[xvi] Mahan, “Preparedness,” p. 212.
[xvii] Mahan, “Considerations,” 149.
[xviii] Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Future in Relation to American Naval Power,” in The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company, 1897): p. 184.
[xix] Mahan, “Preparedness,” p. 180.
[xx] Ibid., 214.
[xxi] Ibid., 175-6.
[xxii] Robert D. Kaplan, “The South China Sea is the Future of Conflict,” Foreign Policy, No. 188, September/October 2011.
[xxiii] Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).
[xxiv] Gian P. Gentile, “COIN is Dead: U.S. Army Must Put Strategy Over Tactics,” World Politics Review, 22 November 2011, available at