Seapower can be defined in two ways — one narrow, the other broad. The narrow definition is military power deployed at or from the sea, and for the purposes of this chapter, this is the one that will primarily be used. The broader definition, however, a nation’s general capability, both military and civil, to use the sea for economic and political advantage, cannot be separated from military seapower. Expressions of that capability are a nation’s fishing fleet, its offshore oil and gas platforms, its shipbuilding industry and, most of all, its merchant shipping fleet. Merchant ships still carry by weight the vast bulk of a growing amount of world trade. They remain a key form of sea use that military navies protect. Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American naval officer whose century-old writings still form the basis of modem seapower theory, went so far as to argue that: ‘The necessity of a navy in the restricted sense of the word springs, therefore, from the existence of a peaceful shipping and disappears with it.’1 Yet in the modern world the relationship of merchant shipping and state power has changed. Many ships owned by the nationals of Western capitalist states no longer fly the flags or are manned by the nationals of those same states. In an expression of economic liberalism that would have shocked Adam Smith, many Western merchantmen have been transferred to operating regimes and foreign flags that mean they are no longer clearly national assets. This has potentially highly significant implications for the availability of shipping to protect military power overseas when required and to sustain sea-dependent nations in crisis and war. It also means that when Western warships assert the freedom of the seas they sometimes face problems in defining which ships they may legitimately protect.


Nuclear Weapon Modern World International Security Forward Strategy Missile Attack 
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© Eric Groves 1992

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