When Military Strategy Ignores Economics: The Sad Story of Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan
It is a great tragedy that many modern military leaders and strategists do not understand economics. If they did, I suspect that there would be a lot less war, a lot less military spending, and a lot less wastefulness. Certainly, there would be greater awareness of the appalling human and economic costs of war in a capitalist age.
Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian economist, understood this point well. In his 1927 book Liberalism, he noted that as late as the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), the world was divided into self-sufficient economic blocks.1 This factor helps explain the failure of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Continental System, a blockade designed to ruin Britain by excluding it from Continental European commerce. The system was poorly run, but Mises emphasizes that even if it had been meticulously implemented, neither side would have starved for want of trade with the other. For example, Continental communities would have been able to rely on their own agriculture for necessities. Only certain luxuries, such as sugar, would have been unavailable or very difficult to obtain.
By the twentieth century, the situation had changed. The world had become more integrated; the division of labor, fostered by liberal ideals, meant that many territories were no longer self-sufficient. In particular, several industrialized countries relied on imported food and materials for food production. To deprive them of these goods would be catastrophic.2
Astonishingly, this economic shift – so plainly evident to Mises and other astute liberal economists – was lost on Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan of the United States Navy, the most influential naval strategist in modern times. Mahan became an international celebrity after the publication of the first volume of The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890, which proclaimed the geopolitical importance of maritime commerce and naval prowess. In an age of rampant imperialism, great powers across the world followed Mahan’s advice and constructed (or upgraded their existing) battle fleets of heavy ships to defend – and expand – their overseas interests.
Mahan has long been stigmatized as a proponent of big battleship battles aimed at seizing control of the sea. More recent
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