Gunboat Diplomacy: Does It Have A Place In The 1990's?
AUTHOR LCDR Thomas D. Goodall, USN
SUBJECT AREA - Foreign Policy
TITLE: GUNBOAT DIPLOMACY: DOES IT HAVE A PLACE IN THE 1990's?
Historically navies have been the tools often used by maritime
nations for expressing the threat to resort to force. This use of
maritime power is frequently defined as "Gunboat Diplomacy." This
employment of sea based power to further the national interests, whether
on the high seas or within the jurisdiction of a foreign state, has been
described by some as an obsolete practice. An examination of the praxis
of gunboat diplomacy questions this claim.
Naval power can be applied either in a latent form as illustrated
by the routine operations of navies in peacetime or in its active form.
The active component can take the form of deterring an adversary,
expressing support for an ally, or compelling foes to modify their
actions. The unique abilities of navies as instruments of foreign
policy, when contrasted with that of other military and diplomatic
forms, provides gunboat diplomacy with some unequaled capabilities to
assert diplomatic influence. The United States Navy with its unmatched
ability to project power via aircraft carrier based aviation, ship
launched cruise missiles, and amphibious assault forces furnishes the
Unites States with a unique ability to exercise gunboat diplomacy. The
careful management of this capability offers political leaders the
opportunity to tailor the national response with an unequalled degree of
Gunboat Diplomacy has been likened to a screwdriver used to torque
a particular screw, not a hammer used to drive home a point. As such it
will continue to be an important term in the vocabulary of diplomacy
during the 1990's. The challenges that face both political and military
leaders are two fold. The first and most important is the optimum
employment of naval forces when practicing gunboat diplomacy. The
second is designing and maintaining a force structure to support the
practice to the maximum degree possible while taking into account other
competing missions. The concept is not obsolete, but does require
refining in response to changes in both the diplomatic calculus and the
The 1990's will demonstrate that gunboat diplomacy is in fact still
a valid tool of diplomacy. It will continue to play an important roll
in diplomatic calculus, just as navies will continue to be important
instruments to be used in support of national interests.
GUNBOAT DIPLOMACY: DOES IT HAVE A PLACE IN THE 199O's
Thesis. Some maritime strategists associate gunboat diplomacy with
the bygone era of colonialism, concluding that it is an obsolete
concept; however, gunboat diplomacy will be a vital element in the U.S.
maritime posture of the 1990's.
I. Definition of gunboat diplomacy.
A. James Cable's definition.
B. Cable's method of examining gunboat diplomacy.
C. Edward Luttwak's paradigm for naval (gunboat)
D. Differentiation between "gunboat diplomacy" and
"showing the flag".
II. Contention that Gunboat Diplomacy is obsolete.
A. Peter Nailor's opinion that the utility of gunboat
diplomacy is declining.
B. Ken Booth's assertion that there is no prospect for
the revival of gunboat diplomacy.
III. Why gunboat diplomacy will continue to play a vital role
in the global calculus of the 1990's.
A. Unique ability of Maritime forces to further
diplomatic interests in the 1990's.
B. Situations in which naval leverage is appropriate.
C. The future of gunboat diplomacy.
Historically, navies have commonly been the instrument of choice
for expressing the threat to resort to force by maritime nations. A
1976 Brookings Institution report concluded that naval forces
participated in 177 of 215 recorded instances of U.S. military diplomacy
between 1946 and 1975. The researchers summarized: "Naval units
participated in more than four out of every five incidents. Land-based
forces were used in fewer incidents, and rarely without simultaneous
participation of naval units."1
The use of maritime power represented above fits the definition of
Gunboat Diplomacy as defined by Sir James Cable in his thought provoking
work, Gunboat Diplomacy 1919-1979. He provides the following
Gunboat Diplomacy is the use or threat of limited naval
force, otherwise than as an act of war, in order to
secure advantage, or to avert loss, either in the
furtherance of an international dispute or else against
foreign nationals within the territory or the
jurisdiction of their own state.2
For the purpose of analysis, Cable defines the uses of Gunboat
Diplomacy as either "definitive," "purposeful," "catalytic," or
"expressive."3 A more useful concept for this evaluation is that
outlined by Edward Luttwak in his study, The Political Uses of Sea
Power. Luttwak defines what he terms "naval suasion," a "conveniently
neutral term... whose own meaning usefully suggests the indirectness of
any political application of naval force."4 Luttwak's suasion is
either "latent" (routine undirected naval operations) or "active"
(consciously designed naval operations). These "active" operations
could be developed to deter an adversary, express support of an ally or
compel a foe or potential foes to modify their action(s). In its
"latent" form naval forces may be coincidentally positioned while
exerting coercive influence. In the majority of instances the
influential positioning is unplanned; the victim instead infers it.5
Luttwak concludes that accidental latent naval diplomacy can be
converted to its active form with ease.6 Thus the transition from
routine peacetime operations for naval forces to gunboat diplomacy is a
diplomatic tool available in the arsenal of statecraft, even when the
latent diplomacy is purely accidental.
When examining the praxis of gunboat diplomacy, one must take care
not to confuse the practice with the much more common naval practice of
"showing the flag." Showing the flag becomes gunboat diplomacy only
when the risk of encountering armed resistance is expected.7 Showing
the flag can be nothing more than a gentle reminder of the existence of
the navy concerned. It can be either invited or uninvited, but there is
no real intention to use force. The resultant expectations of the
nation showing the flag are extremely limited in their scope. The
symbolic conduct of diplomacy finds its naval equivalent in this
practice. A practice that may involve showing either a friendly flag to
reassure a threatened government or an unfriendly flag to underscore a
particular point in the diplomatic arena.8
For purposes of this examination I will define Gunboat Diplomacy as
Cable does, "the use or threat of limited naval force, otherwise than an
act of war." This act of coercive diplomacy finds itself embedded in
the political application of limited naval force, whether it is defined
as active or latent in Luttwak's model. Some maritime strategists
associate gunboat diplomacy with the bygone era of colonialism,
concluding that it is an obsolete concept; however, gunboat diplomacy
will be a vital element in the U.S. maritime posture of the 1990's.
Is Gunboat Diplomacy An Obsolete Tool?
It has been postulated by some that gunboat diplomacy has outlived
its usefulness as a major instrument of foreign policy. Peter Nailor
writes that gunboat diplomacy is an outdated tool that was important
when the global community consisted of a smaller number of sovereign
states controlling or dominating a larger number of dependencies. He
concludes that with the much greater degree of global interdependence,
faster and more accurate means of communication, more developed and less
complex international organizations, and growing sophistication of
intelligence networks this traditional means of expressing national
power is obsolete. Nailor relegates gunboat diplomacy to an era in
which, "The use, or the threat of use, of force was a practical and
legitimate tool of statecraft in a world where no one state was so
powerful that its pretensions were incontestable."9
In his work Law, Force & Diplomacy At Sea, Ken Booth claims the
relative utility of warships with respect to diplomacy has declined
and will continue to do so. He does concede that for some nations,
warships will remain important diplomatic tools and defenders of what he
terms "maritime sovereignty."10 Booth very correctly points out that
warships have the ability to "get countries into trouble" diplomatically
as to well as further those same nations interests.11 He illustrates
his point by referring to the U.S. Navy presence offshore Beirut in
1983. A situation in which warships "were not only providing to US
troops and friendly Lebanese ashore, but were offering dangerous
hostages to fortune in an overheated situation."12
Why Gunboat Diplomacy Will Be Important In The 1990's
The ability of navies to influence the global diplomatic calculus
as tools of their respective governments in situations short of war has
not entered a period of relative decline, as Nailor and Booth both
contend, but instead will play an increasingly important role in the
future. Clausewitz's dictum that "war is a continuation of policy by
other means,"13 will continue to ring true within the limited scope of
A more contemporary, but nevertheless enduring, view of the utility
of naval forces can be found in the writings of the chief architect of
the modern Soviet Navy, Admiral of the Fleet Sergei Gorshkov. He fully
understood the importance and influence of naval diplomacy when he wrote
in his classic, The Seapower of the State:
Demonstrative actions by the navy in many cases have
made it possible to achieve political ends without
resorting to armed struggle, merely by putting on
pressure with one's own potential might and threatening
to start military operations. Thus. . .the navy has
always been an instrument of the policy of states, an
important aid to diplomacy in peacetime.14
The 1990's will be characterized by movement toward multi-polar
global spheres of influence. As the Soviet Empire contracts and focuses
inward, the economic interdependence of nations increases, and the
economic clout of the United States relative to other developed nations
wanes, the 1990's present a new and dynamic diplomatic challenge to the
global community. Europe, with its rapidly changing political map, and
the Islamic world, with its inherent instability, present some of the
most important challenges that will shape the diplomatic milieu of the
last decade of this century. Armed forces will continue to be relevant
to the equation, either showing support for a friendly government in
"latent" terms or, at the other extreme of the diplomatic spectrum,
launching a cruise missile attack against state supported terrorism.
The strategic arena in which naval diplomacy functions will continue to
constantly evolve at an ever increasing rate. As one German general has
noted, not since the time of Moltke, has the strategic scene been so
The greatest challenge in the exercise of gunboat diplomacy will
continue to be, that in its active form, the next step up the escalatory
ladder is a huge one. In 1961, a brigade of British infantry prevented
an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by going there and telling Iraq "not to be
silly."16 Those days of easy authority are not lost forever, but they
certainly are not the luxury of states facing large, modern and battle
hardened foes across the international table. The lesson here is one of
the cost of relative decline of military leverage and the resultant
decline in diplomatic leverage. Gunboat Diplomacy has been and will
continue to be a calculated diplomatic approach that offers maritime
nations an important tool not available to those nations who either
abolish or fail to establish this capability.
Unique Abilities Of Navies To Influence Events
A navy brings to the diplomatic process its unique ability to
assert influence. As a general rule, the global political environment
continues to make the stationing of troops on foreign soil a less
palatable proposition for both host and providing nations. There is no
reason to believe that in the last decade of the twentieth-century this
trend will change, hence the advantage of navies, particularly those
which maintain significant amphibious forces. Amphibious or marine
forces bring to the calculus the ability to introduce quickly ground
forces, forcibly if required. These same amphibious forces can be just
as quickly withdrawn if required and are an important element in
"rescuing" friendly nationals. The ability to influence from off-shore
also provides an important advantage in that, should withdrawal be
required, it can be done with much less fanfare and virtually no impact
on the local populace.17 The political costs associated with a naval
withdrawal are much less than those associated with the removal of
ground based forces.
The utility of naval forces is additionally magnified by
technological advances that broaden the capabilities of modern navies.
The existence of vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft
means that large aircraft carriers are no longer required in order for
navies to project power or maintain the threat to apply power beyond the
range of naval gunfire. The advent of the ship-launched land attack
cruise missile (SLCM) further extends that reach hundreds of miles
inland. This allows unmatched precision without the risk of losing
valuable pilots or aircraft costing tens of millions of dollars.
The economy of force available within naval forces means that
states can posture their forces without a great drain on their national
treasury. The movement of light airborne forces can be done in many
instances more quickly than naval forces, but they lack the
sustainability of naval forces. More critically, they require either
the acquiescence of a host nation or forced entry with all its resulting
costs. Air forces can respond with the greatest haste of all, but their
ability to linger on station and influence the diplomatic posturing is
severely limited. This flexibility to manage carefully the escalation
of power application is critical to understanding the inherent
capabilities naval forces bring to the diplomatic environment. The
nation that maintains escalation dominance across all aspects of the
spectrum will retain the upper hand in shaping the diplomatic
environment, if that dominance is used wisely. An implied threat to use
naval power cannot be discounted by any nation. Recent demonstrations
of the ability to do so reinforce the validity of a threat, either
implied or specified.
The aircraft carrier, so much a symbol of the United States Naval
power in the late twentieth-century, provides the United States with a
unique ability to expand the spectrum of actions associated with gunboat
diplomacy beyond those available to any other contemporary nation. The
aircraft carrier and associated escort ships can be called upon to
exert influence "gently" by sailing a single escort ship within sight of
a foreign port. It can very rapidly transition to the far extreme of
the spectrum and apply large amounts of high-tech ordnance with great
accuracy. The multitude of options organic to the U.S. Navy aircraft
carrier is universally recognized, this serves to increase the leverage
associated with those platforms. This ability to manage carefully the
spectrum offers American political and diplomatic leaders the
opportunity to tailor the national response.
Situations In Which Naval Leverage Is Appropriate
Luttwak's paradigm for naval diplomacy divides the spectrum into
"latent" and "active" components. Latent diplomacy can be seen in the
operational patterns of the U.S. Navy during the 1980's. As Admiral
Watkins explained in his exposition of the U.S. Maritime Strategy, "in
this age of violent peace, the Navy is on the front lines already."18
This stabilizing presence that the U.S Navy undertook during the Cold
war was much more demanding in many respects than routine operations or
The U.S. Navy's presence mission can be expected to support
allies, influence neutrals, deter potential enemies, protect friendly
interests, and support a maritime nation's interests with respect to
international law and convention.19 This "latent" use of naval power
can be considered a preventive mechanism that provides a stabilizing
influence. When the application of military power turns to an "active"
employment many of the signals generated and ends served remain
constant. Before proceeding to the active application of gunboat
diplomacy it is important to note that the withdrawal of routine latent
maritime power can have important repercussions. A considerable
backlash can result from the phase-out or drawdown of force levels,
regardless of the reason. An example can be seen in the considerable
consternation the withdrawal of one of the two Sixth Fleet aircraft
carriers for just a few days caused NATO when in the late 1970's. The
United States required one of those two aircraft carriers to boost force
levels in the Indian Ocean in response to a deteriorating diplomatic
The active use of naval power as a diplomatic tool allows the state
an important political-military signalling tool. This signalling can
take place at any stage in a diplomatic crisis, with perhaps the most
utility being when the signaling prevents the interchange from ever
reaching the crisis stage. As a crisis unfolds the signalling will as a
general rule become more focused in both context and time-frame.
Without careful control, crisis management can lend itself to reactive
signalling rather than carefully postured decisions.
Active suasion moves along a continuum that at its lowest level can
be termed a "show of interest." The next step up the spectrum of crisis
is a "show of resolve." The final step is the recourse to a "show of
force." When a show of force fails so does gunboat diplomacy, the
parties concerned move into either limited or general war.21
The Future Of Gunboat Diplomacy
As the reach of modern navies is extended by technology (do not
disregard the dimension deployment of conventional land attack cruise
missiles in submarines adds) the symbolic value of a warship increases
correspondingly. In the past, the full weight of sea power appeared to
be concentrated in the capital ships of the era, whether they were
cruisers, battleships, or the more modern aircraft carrier. Today, the
demonstrated ability of a cruise missile to fly down the streets of a
hostile capital dramatically illustrates the ability of navies to
influence diplomatic events. This ability to influence with near
surgical precision the course of events hundreds of miles from the sea
adds to the number of littoral states that naval diplomacy can affect.
The ability of maritime forces to insert forcibly landing forces
is an important weapon in the arsenal of maritime powers. This reach
ashore and beyond is continuing to expand. As an example of advancing
technology the introduction of air cushion landing craft allows
amphibious landings on beaches previously unsuitable. The development
of a tilt-rotor aircraft that will allow the incursion of forces
hundreds of miles behind the surf-line will enhance the ability of naval
forces to exert influence. These developments in the tools available to
maritime powers will continue to add additional leverage to their
As Cable points out, "Gunboat Diplomacy is a screwdriver intended
to turn a particular screw. It is not a hammer that will bang home any
old nail." 22 This political application of maritime power will
continue to play a role in the unpredictable and multi-dimensional
global calculus of the 1990's. The challenge for military leaders is to
design a force structure capable of exploiting its full diplomatic
potential. The corresponding challenge faced by the political and
diplomatic communities is to employ effectively gunboat diplomacy when
are where it is appropriate. To relegate this important diplomatic
instrument to the history books would be a grievous error.
1 Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan, The Use of Armed Forces as a
Political Instrument (Washington D.C., 1976), p. 4.
2 Sir James Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy: Political Applications of Limited
Naval Force (New York, 1971), p. 21.
3 A critic of Cable's classifications as he presents them in his 1971
book, "Gunboat Diplomacy: Political Applications of Limited Naval
Force," is provided by Edward Luttwak. He contends that Cable's
classifications are flawed as they "intermingle functional and intensity
criteria." Luttwak finds that Cable's classifications are "more Useful
for descriptive than analytical purposes." For addition discussion see
Luttwak's work cited in note 4.
4 Edward N. Luttwak, The Political Uses of Sea Power (Baltimore, 1974),
5 Brent Alan Ditzler, Naval Diplomacy Beneath The Waves: A Study of the
Coercive Use of Submarines Short of War (Naval Postgraduate School
Thesis, 1989), p. 6.
6 Luttwak, pp. 1-38.
7 "Showing the Flag: Past and Present," Naval Forces, VII (No.
III/1987), p. 38.
8 Sir James Cable, Navies in Violet Peace (London. 1989), pp. 71-72.
9 Peter Nailor, "A New Environment for Navies?" Maritime Strategy in
the Nuclear Age, Geoffrey Till ed., 2nd ed. (New York, 1984), pp.
10 Ken Booth, Law, Force and Diplomacy At Sea (London, 1985), p. 170.
11 Ibid., pp. 190-191.
13 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret eds.
(Princeton, 1976), p. 69.
14 Sergei G. Gorshkov, The Sea Power of the State (Annapolis, 1976),
15 "A New Flag: A Survey of Defense and the Democracies," The
Economist, (September 1, 1990). p. 18.
16 Ibid., p. 6.
17 Charles D. Allen, Jr., The Uses of Navies in Peacetime (Washington
D.C., 1980), p. 15.
18 James D. Watkins, The Maritime Strate (Annapolis, 1986), p. 5.
19 Allen, p. 18.
21 For a comprehensive discussion of the political-military signals
concerned and their relationship to naval forces see Charles D. Allen's
The Uses of Navies in Peacetime (Washington, D.C., 1980).
22 Sir James Cable, "Gunboat Diplomacy's Future," United States Naval
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