Naval diplomacy in the 21st Century: From Gunboats to Disaster Relief

Huw Jones

The ‘Great White Fleet’ returns to the United States, 1909. This circumnavigation by some of the United States’ most powerful warships demonstrated the United States’ increasing status as a great power. Photo Source: Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

In December 1902, British and German warships imposed a blockade upon Venezuela after the refusal of the Venezuelan government to repay debts it owed those governments; in 2013, ships from a spectrum of states deploy in providing disaster relief to the Philippines, following the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. Both events strike stark contrasts but what connects the two is their place within the consistently evolving discourse over the nature and role of naval diplomacy in the toolbox of state. Since the inception of the warship there has been a recognition of their value beyond fighting capability. Indeed, if warships themselves are to be thought of along the same lines as Martin’s “small mobile pieces of national sovereignty”, the linkages between warships and foreign policy become more explicit. By utilising the world’s oceans, navies have a presence, manoeuvrability, flexibility and sustainability which cannot be matched by armies and air forces. As such, navies can be used to support foreign policy objectives by supporting allies, deterring enemies, and provide options to policymakers both inside and outside of crisis. For example, a port visit by a warship can be made with the intention of demonstrating the presence of a state in a region, so too can that ship’s deployment both reassure allies and deter potential adversaries in that area. Despite relatively modest initial recognition of the value of warships as diplomatic tools, the discourse surrounding the subject has grown significantly since Détente in the 1970s, and cooperation in anti-piracy operations and disaster relief efforts to name but a few developments have led to new avenues of discussion on the concept.

Whilst writers as early as Thucydides have recognised the prestige value of warships, there was comparatively little written on the role of navies beyond warfare before the 20th Century. Aside from the value of ships in ‘flying the flag’, Mahan’s analysis briefly recognises the value of the fleet in both coercive and deterrent postures. Indeed, the century in which Mahan was writing would become well known for what would be retrospectively labelled the most coercive expression of naval diplomacy: Gunboat Diplomacy. In this function, navies were used primarily by the Great Powers to force concessions from weaker states with the use of force or the threat of its limited use. This ranged from the Perry Expedition to Japan in 1853, coercive deployment of the German warship, SMS Panther, during the Second Morocco Crisis in 1911. It was only in the bi-polar world order of the 1970s, however, that the concept of gunboat diplomacy came under increasing scrutiny, as the debate surrounding naval diplomacy began to gain momentum on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Edward Luttwak, for example, began to discuss the concept of ‘Suasion’, where image and perception, sometimes over that of actual capability, were emphasised. More importantly, Luttwak used ‘suasion’ to supplant the term ‘gunboat diplomacy’ as a means of demonstrating the indirect aspects of naval diplomacy, placing more weight on influence over action. This includes the indirect diplomatic value of ships carrying out regular deployments (termed latent by Luttwak) and the specific (termed active) actions aimed at soliciting specific reactions. True, this era of revision of naval diplomacy was dominated by the great power confrontation of the Cold War, despite Détente. And on the other side of the Iron Curtain during this period, the head of the Soviet Navy, Sergei Gorshkov, placed great stock on the utility of naval diplomacy in the wider ideological struggle between the East and West. Nonetheless, all of this discourse marked a decisive step forward in the development of the concept moving towards the end of the Cold War.

The Post-Cold War world and the subsequent naval hegemony of the United States, bought about a new context in which naval diplomacy has evolved. This environment has fostered a stronger emphasis on the constabulary roles that navies can execute as platforms which has been reinforced by the rise of transnational security threats such as piracy and the importance placed on norm-based by actors such as the United States. Tellingly, gunboat diplomacy gave way in Western Navies to new terminologies such as ‘forward presence’ and ‘prevention’. As writers such as Peter Viggo Jackobsen began to argue that instead of solely focusing on the more coercive aspects of naval diplomacy, there needs to be an additional focus on the more cooperative aspects of naval diplomacy. And looking at more recent events there is the case to be made that these aspects of naval diplomacy have become increasingly widespread, from the extensive use of naval assets in multi-national disaster relief efforts such as those seen following Cyclone Haiyan and multi-national anti-piracy missions off the Horn of Africa, there has been a demonstrable growth in the cooperative face of naval diplomacy. To solidify this, the capability to carry out the missions that encompass the core of contemporary naval diplomacy such as relief efforts are becoming increasingly important in the design of naval platforms. However, the assertive behaviour of navies in locally contested water and the growing demand for resources being found at sea makes confrontation at sea increasingly common, and has led to a suggestion that Gunboat Diplomacy may be making a strong return to the debate. Indeed, in the South China Sea, China’s use of both its navy and coast guard in support of its claims in the area, and the counteractions by other navies in the region mean that naval diplomacy could become an increasingly balanced concept as coercion and cooperation gain parity in the execution of naval diplomacy.

While emphasis on primary warfighting function remains, there has been a demonstrable increase in the recognition of the value of warships in diplomacy and the tasks they undertake are being increasingly associated with naval diplomacy, tasks that they undertake more frequently than the wartime functions that they are designed for. However, this discussion is now moving towards an environment where local naval rivalries are increasingly commonplace and naval diplomacy may once again undertake another transformation. While there has been a considerable increase in recognition of the more cooperative aspects of Naval Diplomacy, Gunboat Diplomacy make its return.

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