Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 9, Issue 3, What Would the Greats Say About War in the 21st Century  /  

What would Julian Corbett Say About the Post 2014 Global Crisis?

What would Julian Corbett Say About the Post 2014 Global Crisis? What would Julian Corbett Say About the Post 2014 Global Crisis?
By Petty Officer Photographer Jay Allen -, OGL 3,, via Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the United Kingdom Open Government Licence v3.0.
To cite this article: Lambert, Andrew, “What would Julian Corbett say About the Post 2014 Global Crisis?,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 3, Special Issue, ‘What Would the Greats Say About War in the 21st Century’, spring 2024, pages 22-27.

Sir Julian Stafford Corbett (1854-1922), the most important strategic theorist to emerge in the United Kingdom, created a ‘British Way of War’ that located the use of force in the wider strategic context of a global maritime empire.[i] Widely travelled and dependant of global investment income Corbett was acutely aware of the political and economic bases of strategy. His legal education, training, and experience as a Barrister (courtroom advocate), provided him with the tools to analyse evidence and produce compelling arguments. His literary career honed an incisive, elegant, and expressive prose style that set him apart from most strategists. These skills were deployed in a long-term analysis of English/British strategic experience that provided the basis for contemporary thinking, and the doctrine publications that engaged his audiences in the armed forces and national government. At the same time his progressive Liberal politics marked him out from his uniformed contemporaries.

Corbett’s development of Clausewitzian theory to meet the peculiar, maritime demands of the British imperial state is among the most significant intellectual responses to On War, and a reaction to the highly militarised total war thinking of his German contemporaries, and those in the British Army who forgot the primacy of sea control in national strategy. Critically Corbett understood that Clausewitz’s work was a philosophy of war, not an operational manual, a treatise that had to be developed to meet the needs of different states, and different eras. To this end he replicated Clausewitz’s historical research, replacing the Prussian/continental focus of On War with those of a global maritime empire, from which he developed his own synthesis of British strategic practice.

Critically Corbett based his theory on English/British experience between 1570 and 1815, which included long periods of relative peace and armed diplomacy, when the national interest was advanced by the strategic movement of fleets. His work was aimed at the mid-career and senior Royal Navy officers, who he taught, and the civilian leadership, who might be called upon to conduct national strategy. Corbett knew many of these men through his political and cultural connections. His 1907 study England in the Seven Year’s War, a Study in Combined Strategy, examined how a brilliant statesman, Pitt the Elder, worked closely with outstanding naval and military leaders to develop a strategy for a global war. This book informed the development of the British Expeditionary Force, a small professional army that could be deployed to extend the reach of naval power. This work culminated in the semi-official doctrine primer of 1911 Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, another text that encouraged students to read and think, and avoided prescriptive solutions. He argued that Britain had survived the ‘total’ wars of the French Revolution and Empire by relying on a limited maritime strategy, one which attacked the economic foundations of French power, and avoided costly continental military operations.

Corbett stressed the primary role of economic pressure on British strategy, using money and munitions, not manpower, to support continental allies. By maintaining command of the sea Britain could prevent an invasion of the British Isles and wider empire, protect the vital food and raw material imports, sustain economic life, and project power onto the margins of Europe, destroy hostile naval bases and fleets, open key choke points, notably access to the Baltic, and secure strategic bases like Lisbon. These operations were necessarily asymmetric, relying on intelligence and sea power, not armies. They were more economical in money and manpower than those of continental military powers. Ultimately Britain was able to support European allies from 1812, with money and munitions, and secure the bases of maritime strategy and the Congress of Vienna. The British Government was acutely conscious of the immense National Debt created by 22 years of continuous ‘total’ war. It had carefully shaped the post-war settlement to stabilise the European System, enabling it to act as an ‘Offshore Balancer’, and avoid a return to the unlimited wars of 1793-1815. This approach to strategy remained central to British security throughout Corbett’s working life.

It is important to consider Corbett’s political agenda. He believed the British Empire was evolving into what he termed a ‘Sea Commonwealth’ of liberal, progressive trading states that agreed to cooperate to protect their vital interests, both territorial and maritime security. Corbett’s British model, which emphasised controlling sea and sub-sea communications, replaced the ‘decisive’ land battle with the sustained exploitation of communication dominance to impose crushing economic warfare. The sea was necessarily the primary focus of national strategy, while the likely opponents were major land powers, with far larger human and military resources. Britain had to rely on asymmetrical strategic responses to aggression on land.

Corbett’s ‘Sea Commonwealth’ concept and progressive views secured him a role in the Phillimore Committee, the British Government’s 1917 enquiry into the implications of a League of Nations. Recognising the incompetence of the Chairman Corbett effectively took control of the process, compiling the first draft Charter for such a League. He did this to preserve the right to apply economic warfare at sea, which he believed was essential to the maintenance of British power while the ‘Sea Commonwealth’ came into being. He also provided the critical briefs that enabled the British Government to prevent absolute Freedom of Seas, which would prevent Britain from using economic blockades against neutral shipping in wartime, from becoming part of the Versailles Settlement.

British Experience:

Between 1815 and 1914 Britain avoided wars against contemporary ‘Great Powers’, with one significant exception. The Crimean War, 1853-56, saw Britain, France and the Ottoman Empire defeat Russian aggression in Europe and Asia. It is significant that the war was sparked by Russian security anxieties, profound cultural differences, and economic rivalry. Russia demanded effective strategic control of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, to prevent hostile (British) naval forces dominating the Black Sea and crippling the movement of Russian land forces. At the same time, Russia’s domination of the Baltic region had been challenged by British liberalism, Scandinavian neutrality, and new steam technologies. However, the fundamental concern for Russia was cultural: the autocratic political system was challenged by the personal freedoms and economic dynamism of western liberalism. Russia was seeking strategic barriers and buffer zones to hold these existential threats at a distance from the ‘Old Russian’ centre of the Czar’s sprawling empire.

While Allied troops landed in the Crimea to capture and destroy the fleet and naval base at Sevastopol, they did not leave the coast. When the destruction of that base and a devastating economic blockade, basically blocking Russia’s bulky low cost exports (grain, timber and forest products then, oil, gas, fertiliser and grain today) from reaching foreign markets, leading to a collapse in national credit and a socio-economic crisis, including bread riots and conscription protests, failed to secure peace Britain built a massive coast assault armada and publicly threatened to bombard St. Petersburg, the Imperial capital. The Imperial capital was a critical element in the system of prestige that held the Russian system together. Rather than risk a humiliating loss of the city, and potentially the dissolution of the empire, Russia accepted a limited defeat. The allies imposed peace terms that blocked Russian aggression in the Baltic and neutralised the Black Sea to secure Istanbul against an amphibious strike, by denying Russia the right to maintain a fleet on that sea. This defeat forced Russia to focus on coast defences, military reforms, and economic recovery. Renewed aggression against Turkey and Afghanistan in the 1870s and 1880s prompted Britain to assemble powerful fleets to threaten St. Petersburg. In both cases Russia backed down without a single British soldier being moved. Deterrence was effective because the British Admiralty had been monitoring and assessing Russian naval capabilities since 1700. Sea power was an effective strategy against Russia, and therefore a useful deterrent in a crisis prompted by Russian aggression. Little wonder the Admiralty examined Alfred Thayer Mahan’s critical essay of 1900 The Problem of Asia, which echoed their assessment.

The Russian invasion of the Crimean in 2014 elevated existing tensions between Russia and the West, led by NATO and the United States to the point of crisis. In assessing how Corbett might have responded to the 2022 invasion of the Ukraine it is important to stress that Corbett had planned to study the Crimean War. Those plans were overtaken by other demands, including writing a confidential strategic analysis of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, which contains his most significant thinking about strategy in a conflict with Russia. In both wars, Russia had been defeated by a combination of limited naval and military defeats, notably the loss of two advanced naval bases, Sevastopol, and Port Arthur, along with most of the Russian Navy, and the collapse of the economy following a naval blockade. It is equally significant that Russia remains an imperial power, the drive to retain or recover ‘imperial’ possessions is central to the Putin model, along with the trappings of pre-1917 imperial might, palace décor, outsized guardsmen in nineteenth century uniforms, and anxieties about strategic depth. The narratives Russia deployed when attempting to justify the Crimean and Ukrainian invasions follow an established pattern of Russian exceptionalism, which is used to justify aggression.

The experience of sustained and persistent Russian aggression in key maritime zones, the Baltic and the Black Seas, shaped British responses to Russia deep into the twentieth century. In 1919 Britain deployed naval forces into the Baltic to support the newly independent Baltic States and Finland. The emergence of these new states reduced the Baltic coast under Russian control to little more than 200 miles, deep inside the Gulf of Finland, greatly enhancing the strategic leverage of economic warfare. By 1920 most of the major ports that Russia had used to export produce were held by pro-western nations anxious to remain independent, while the Soviet regime feared an attack on Leningrad, which remained a critical industrial base and symbol of Bolshevik power. Russia’s current Baltic coastline is only marginally longer than it was in 1919, and every other kilometre is now controlled by a NATO power.

The post 2014 global crisis, like that of the early 1850s that precipitated the Crimean War (1853-56) followed a combination of sustained Russian threats against neighbouring states, followed by overt aggression to secure territory and strategic advantage. The problem has been complicated by the latent threat of an increasingly belligerent, and economically challenged China, and links with the Middle Eastern crisis driven by the Iranian theocracy, and its’ satellites.

At the level of strategic principles, Corbett would condemn the failure of the British Government to settle on a clear overall strategic concept. His maritime strategy was a national concept, embracing all aspects of national power, civil and military. It was not restricted to naval forces. Unlike the United States Britain was never sufficiently powerful to consider dominating all elements of war, it has had to make hard choices, and those choices tended to follow Corbett’s model. He believed the entire war-planning effort of the British state should be explicitly focussed around maintaining and exploiting command of the sea to secure floating trade, not least vital food, and raw material imports, along with economic prosperity, and the stability of global trade. The task of the Army within this model was to secure key territory and provide an offensive extension of sea control onto the littoral to weaken or destroy hostile naval assets or hold critical ports and locations that might compromise the use of the sea for trade and or war.

The failure to prioritise the maritime domain in British thinking made some sense during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact were powerful, and threatened the Inner German Border. It does not appear to be correct when Russia has been reduced to a pale shadow of its former strength, and NATO nations have a very large number of troops and hardware between the Ukrainian-Polish border and the English Channel.

So, as a matter of first principles, reinforce the maritime focus of British strategy, and work with allies and partners that offer complementary land and air strengths. Corbett would urge us to re-engage with the long history of Anglo-Russian tension, between 1700 and the present day, rather than obsessing over the strikingly infrequent conflicts. This field remains under-researched. He would have little trouble developing a coherent picture, informed by the work of his contemporaries and friends Alfred T Mahan and Halford Mackinder, whose key geopolitical treatises of 1900 and 1904 had highlighted Russia’s strengths and weaknesses as a great power, while his own work on the Russo-Japanese War study provided more detailed insight. Long term analysis remains critical to sound strategic thought.

Within the wider ‘western’ alliance he would stress Britain’s critical role as a leading maritime power with powerful economic and legal levers, to develop and apply sustained pressure on the Russian economy. This approach enabled sea power to generate enhanced strategic leverage with limited or no use of kinetic force. He had been actively engaged in defending the legal basis of economic blockade before the First World War, because it was – and remains – an obvious and largely bloodless curb on the aggression of continental military powers. On this issue he was at one with Mahan, and Admiral Lord Fisher. In 1899 Mahan disobeyed explicit American Government orders to support ‘Freedom of the Seas’ for private property in wartime at the First Hague Peace Conference, because he believed this would limit American strategy now that the United States had become a major naval power. It would be able to use the same tools as Britain. In 1907 both Mahan and Corbett published powerful essays defending economic warfare ahead of the Second Hague Conference, and these were reprinted in the same volume with the support of Corbett’s friend First Sea Lord Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher. Both men understood that economic warfare was the right arm of sea power, and critical to the strategic power of a maritime state. In 1914-18 Corbett was closely involved in the development of British economic warfare policy, which he saw as the key to an effective League of Nations security system, (he had drafted the charter of the League in 1917). As the Director of the British official history project Corbett ensured the state conducted a thorough analysis of the lessons to prepare for a future conflict. Economic warfare, the critical strategic element of sea control, remained central to British war planning in 1939.

The contemporary relevance of this debate is obvious. Russia, China, and Iran are anxious to deny access to their coasts and impose terrestrial forms of control over the open ocean, while the liberal democracies prefer an open ocean order. The emergence of a serious missile threat to global shipping in the Red Sea from Houthi actors, using the same Iranian manufactured drones that Russia has deployed against the Ukraine, highlights the connectivity of these threats. The Red Sea crisis has provided an opportunity for Western powers to coalesce around maritime safety – the list of those countries participating is short, and significant. As a leading maritime power, Britain has a key role in facilitating and enforcing freedom of the seas, as a critical pushback against the totalitarian attempts to close them. The sea is a critical flash point – and success in the Red Sea would have wider ramifications.

As a progressive Liberal Corbett would stress inclusive politics as a primary weapon for liberal states, adjusting strategy to emphasise the distinction between the two sides. That the underlying threat to Russia remains political rather than strategic would be obvious. He would recognise the contested election in Minsk in 2021 as a key moment in the descent into war. Demands for democracy highlighted Russia’s core weakness, the lack of political accountability. The attack on Ukraine in 2022 was a reaction to the ideological threat posed by a former Russian province becoming a Western democratic state, and potentially a member of key political and strategic alliances.

The Ukraine conflict provides another legal/strategic opportunity, to weaponize Russia’s failure to meet international standards in the conduct of diplomacy and war. Terror bombardments of civilians, the systemic abduction of children, and mass murder cannot be allowed to pass without sanction in the 21st century. The current sanctions regime is weakening the Russian economy, but such measures are cumulative, and rarely decisive on their own. In the past Russian regimes have been brought to accept defeat by the combination of economic, diplomatic and military pressure, reinforced by growing domestic discontent. There is no reason to think that these realities have changed, or that Vladimir Putin’s regime is any more capable of meeting the long-term threat than its’ Imperial and Soviet precursors. The sanctions regime has been compromised by all the usual measures, smuggling, dark sales and fraud, while Russia is buying diplomatic support among a wide range of non-aligned countries with cheap or free oil, grain and fertiliser. How long the Western coalition can sustain these measures is unclear, but the consequences of failure would include a seismic shift in the nature of the global order, and the value of international law. By contrast defeating Russian aggression would change the tone of other anti-western powers and increase the possibility of effective global cooperation – something Corbett had been anxious to promote. How the current Russian regime could deal with failure is unknown, but other Russian leaders have accepted limited defeats, notably in 1856, 1905 and 1919, rather than risking the collapse of the state.

Success here would have major implications for other autocracies reliant on the uncontrolled use of force for their continued security. At the same time Corbett’s instinct to focus on limited-economic methods would chime with contemporary anxieties about escalation and weapons of mass destruction.

Corbett would argue that Britain needed to focus its’ necessarily limited strategic resources on areas of maximum interest, and capability. His ‘Maritime’ strategic concept would work with the more land focussed efforts of allies, as in the Crimean War, when France and the Ottoman Empire provided far more soldiers but relied on the Royal Navy to deploy and sustain them. British contributions to the current crisis should focus on applying pressure to Russia’s maritime flanks, the Arctic and Pacific Oceans, and the landlocked Baltic and Black seas, an option exercised in conflicts in 1854-55, and 1919, but also in periods of heightened tension across the longer period. At present these options are largely in hand, with NATO forces deployed on station, conducting confidence-building exercises, and sustaining presence. These measures have never been a short-term approach, nor do they guarantee Russia will concede defeat. That said the forward deployment of naval forces has long been a potent confidence-building measure to re-assure regional powers, enhance alliance solidity, in this case that of NATO, and protecting critical shipping from shore-based threats. The outlying oblast of Kaliningrad is an obvious pressure point: it is isolated by land, and Russia’s relatively limited means of seaborne supply are exposed to local interdiction.

Even in Corbett’s day the bulk of this ‘pressure’ was applied ashore through banking, insurance, and other controls that half the flow of exports. His elder brother, also a barrister, and a Member of Parliament, worked as a City of London financier, he was versed in these issues. So was the Admiralty, which worked closely with Lloyds of London to develop convoy systems and economic warfare policy in the Napoleonic era, in the First World War, and across the century between. Corbett’s work demonstrated how, in several cases, pressure from the sea could either force the enemy to concede defeat or attempt to release the pressure by local or strategic offensives. The obvious locations are Russia’s maritime flanks. All are exposed to ‘western’ pressure, and Russia cannot concentrate resources in any one theatre.

The long history of Anglo-Russian stand-offs in and around the Baltic reinforces the wartime lessons of 1807-11, 1854-56, and 1919. The symbolic and economic value of the Baltic was and remains far greater than that of Russia’s other seas: St. Petersburg remains the largest port, a cultural and political icon, and the ultimate statement of Russian power. The importance of a state shaped history narrative in Russia’s political, economic, and cultural, agendas would make contesting the history narrative used by the Putin regime far more effective than post-modern western policymakers realise. In economic terms Russia has always been vulnerable to export denial. At the same time western sanctions are slowly wearing down Russia’s ability to service existing markets, rising costs and cheaper competition will ultimately break the Russian economy, with serious consequences for the population, if a settlement is not reached.

With NATO nations (including Sweden) now holding all but 250 miles of the Baltic coast this enclosed sea is no longer accessible to Russian forces, or trades. The self-destruction of NordStream II suggests the Russian leadership recognise NATO’s ability to apply economic pressure from the sea. Current Baltic questions include Kaliningrad. Is it an A2/AD bastion able to deny the central Baltic to NATO forces, or a withering asset cut off from Russia and possessing only limited stocks of now very familiar missiles. The entry of Sweden into NATO completes the isolation of the oblast.

The Bosphorus is the next maritime choke point to be addressed. Currently the Turkish Government is holding the Straits closed to warships, due to the state of war, a choice that clearly favours Russia, and to the economic and strategic disadvantage of the Ukraine and NATO. In 2014 the presence of the American Destroyer USS McFaul in the Black Sea had a significant impact on Putin’s invasion of Georgia. Turkish attempts to navigate between Russia and the West are fraught with risk. It was always the dream of Russian and Soviet rulers from Peter the Great to Stalin to have such an ally in Istanbul, while an attempt to seize control of the Bosphorus sparked the Crimean War.

Defeating Russia would have a major impact on the wider global crisis. As China’s economy struggles, and dissent grows the removal of an obvious authoritarian ally would be a serious blow to the prestige of a regime that had been so supportive of Putin’s war. Improved relations with Russia and China would have a wider impact on global order. One key area to examine would be the shipment of munitions from North Korea to Russia although rail links via Vladivostock would be invulnerable they are less efficient than sea-based transport. In December 1855 Britain warned the Prussian Government that if it did not stop violating the economic blockade of Russia by smuggling goods through Prussian Ports those ports would be included in the blockade. Prussia complied, and this decision by a critical friendly neutral was an important element in Russia’s decision to accept defeat.

It may be that Iran and its satellites hold the key to the current global crisis. The theocracy is already at war with the western world and its’ own people, while sanctions have crippled the economy. Iran’s actions and influence across the Middle East have stretched Western powers and limited their capacity to focus on Russia. The attempt to interdict global shipping through the Houthi rebels may be a sign of desperation: the response needs to go beyond defending ships at sea. The Houthi have been warned that counter strikes are likely. Robust action would force Iran to act, or step back. The replacement of the Iranian regime by a less overtly anti-western government would significantly impact Russia’s ability to challenge western sanctions. The Assad regime in Syria, another international pariah that relies on Iran and Russia, is a weak link in the chain of powers that are driving the current crisis. This coalition is anxious to block the spread of liberal politics and open government, and these should be the primary weapon against them. The current stasis in the Ukraine is feeding global insecurity, hampering trade, and distorting resource flows, not least the supply of basic food stuffs and fertilisers to developing countries. The economic, political, and social impacts of this war are significant and persistent. Effective action is essential to maintain the security of the free world.

Corbett understood global war, having served in the British defence system between 1900 and 1922, helping to develop strategic thought, rationalise law, strategy and security policy, and plan major campaigns. His work drove the development of his historical and theoretical expertise, using previous global conflicts to enhance preparation for the future and write the national strategic doctrine. He recognised the vital role of informed and educated political leadership in developing strategy but did not live long enough to contrast the expertise of William Pitt the Elder with the Liberal leadership of 1914, most of whom knew nothing of war, and allowed the Army to embed Britain in a continental total war.

Corbett would suggest that British interests would be best served by adopting a coherent sea-based strategic approach to global politics, working with NATO allies and other engaged nations to bring the current war to an end by a combination of economic pressure, support for the Ukrainian military effort, a wider and more ambitious sanctions regime, and the full range of measures that are covered by existing international legal regimes, including restricting the unlawful assertion of territorial waters. The tools to enable this strategy existed two hundred years ago, they need to be revived – despite the prominence of international actors anxious to preserve their market share. Working from the sea would avoid the need to enter Russian territory, while distinguishing between a Russian state and the wider area of the Russian Empire would highlight the absurdity of Putin’s contention. The Ukraine is an independent state, not a rebel province.

Russia and its acolytes will persist with their current campaigns of aggression, disruption, and subversion because they fear the liberal progressive politics that were at the heart of Corbett’s thinking a century ago. His strategy was shaped by the need to defend peace and progress, concerns that would shape his approach to the current crisis.


[i] This essay is based on Lambert, Andrew, The British Way of War: Julian Corbett and the Battle for a National Strategy, (Yale University Press, London 2021).