Historical Reflections on the Notion of “World War”
First thesis in this paper is: a World War was started in 1756, during the “Seven Years’ War” that occurred immediately after the “Austrian Succession War” and has lasted till now. We still experiment the effects of this 1756 World War and present-day events are far results of the scheme inaugurated during that remoted 18th century era.
Of course, it’s impossible to ignore all the dramatic events of the 17th century, which lead to the situation of the mid-18th century, but it would make this short paper too exhaustive. Even if Britain could already master the Western Mediterranean by controling Gibraltar and the Balears Isles after the “Spanish Succession War”, many British historians are anyway aware nowadays that British unmistakeable supremacy was born immediately after the “Seven Years’ War” and that seapower became the most determining factor for global superiority since then. Also it would be silly to forget about a certain globalization of conflicts in the 16th century: Pizzaro conquered the Inca Empire and stole its gold to finance Charles V’s war against the Ottomans in Northern Africa, while the Portuguese were invading the shores of the Indian Ocean, beating the Mameluks’ fleet in front of the Gujarat’s coasts and waging war against the Yemenite and Somali allies of the Turks in Abyssinia. The Spaniards, established in the Philippines, fought successfully against the Chinese pirates, who wanted to disturb Spanish trade in the Pacific. Ivan IV the Terrible by conquering the Volga basin till the Caspian made the first steps in the direction of the Russian conquest of Northern Asia. The war between Christianity (as defined by Emperor Charles V and Philipp II of Spain) and the Muslims was indeed a World War but not yet fully coordinated as it would always be the case after 1759.
For the British historian Frank McLynn, the British could beat their main French enemy in 1759 —the fourth year of the “Seven Years’ War”— on four continents and achieve absolute mastery of the seas. Seapower and sea warfare means automatically that all main wars become world wars, due to the technically possible ubiquity of vessels and the necessity to protect sea routes to Europe (or to any other place in the world), to transport all kind of materials and to support operating troops on the continental theatre. In India the Moghul Empire was replaced by British rule that introduced the harsh discipline of incipient industrialism to a traditional non hectic society and let the derelict Indian masses —of which one-third perished during a famine in 1769— produce huge bulks of cheap goods to submerge the European markets, preventing for many decades the emerging of a genuine large-scale industry in the main kingdoms of continental Europe. While France was tied up in a ruinous war in Europe, the British Prime Minister Pitt could invest a considerable amount of money in the North American war and defeat the French in Canada, taking the main strategical bases along the Saint-Lawrence river and conquering the Great Lakes region, leaving a giant but isolated Louisiana to the French. From 1759 on, Britain as a seapower could definitively control the Northern Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, even if the French could take revenge by building a new efficient and modern fleet in the 1770s anyway without regaining full global power.
The Treaty of Paris of 1763 marked the end of French domination in India and Canada, a situation that didn’t preoccupy Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour but puzzled the King’s successor, the future Louis XVI, who is generally considered as a weak monarch only interested in making slots. This is pure propaganda propagated by the British, the French revolutionaries and the modern trends in political thought. Louis XVI was deeply interested in seapower and sea exploration, exactly as the Russian were when they sent Captain Spangberg who explored the Kurils and the main Northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in 1738 and some years or decades later when they sent brilliant sailors and captains around the world such as Bering and his Lieutenant Tshirikov —who was the first officer to hoist the Russian imperial flag on the Pacific coast of Northern America— and Admiral von Krusenstern (who claimed the Hawai Islands for Russia), Fabian Gottlieb Bellingshausen (who circumnavigated the Antarctic for the first time in mankind’s history) and Otto von Kotzebue (who explored Micronesia and Polynesia), working in coordination with land explorers such as Aleksandr Baranov who founded twenty-four naval and fishing posts from the Kamtshatka peninsula to California. If the constant and precious work of these sea and land explorers would have been carried on ceaselessly, the Pacific would have become a Russian lake. But fur trade as a single practiced economical activity was not enough to establish a Russian New World empire directly linked to the Russian possessions in East Siberia, even if Tsar Aleksandr I was —exactly as Louis XVI was for France— in favour of Pacific expension. Tsar Nikolai I, as a strict follower of the ultraconservative principles of Metternich’s diplomacy, refused all cooperation with revolutionary Mexico that had rebelled against Spain, a country protected by the Holy Alliance, which refused of course all modifications in political regimes in name of a too uncompromising traditional continuity.
Louis XVI, after having inherited the crown, started immediately to prepare revenge in order to nullify the humiliating clauses of the 1763 Paris Treaty. Ministers Choiseul and Praslin modernized the dockyards, proposed a better scientific training of the naval officers and favoured explorations under the leading of able captains like Kerguelen and Bougainville. On the diplomatic level, they imposed the Spanish alliance in order to have two fleets totalizing more vessels than the British fleet, especially if they could table on the Dutch as a third potential ally. The aim was to build a complete Western European alliance against British supremacy, while Russia as another latent ally in the East was trying to concentrate its efforts to control the Black Sea, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Northern Pacific. This was a genuine, efficient and pragmatical Eurasianism avant la lettre! The efforts of the French, Spaniards and Dutch contributed to the American revolt and independance, as the colonists of the thirteen British colonies on the East Coast of the present-day US-territory were crushed under a terrible fiscality coined by non-elected officials to finance the English war effort. It is a paradox of modern history that traditional powers like France and Spain contributed to the birth of the most anti-traditional power that ever existed in mankind’s history. But modernity is born out the simple existence of a worldwide thalassocracy. The power which detains seapower (or thalassocracy) is ipso facto the bearer of modern dissolution as naval systems are not bound to Earth, where men live, have always lived and created the continuities of living history.
Pitt ,who was governing England at that time, could not tolerate the constant challenge of the French-Spanish-Dutch alliance, that forced Britain to dedicate huge budgets to cope with the united will of the challenging Western European powers. This lethal alliance had to be broken or the civil peace within the enemies’ borders reduced to nothing in order to paralyze all fruitful foreign policies. French historians such as Olivier Blanc put the hypothesis that the riots of the French Revolution were financed by Pitt’s secret funds in order to annihilate the danger of the French numerous and efficient vessels. And indeed the fall of the French monarchy implied the decay of the French fleet: for a time, vessels were still built in the dockyards to consolidate the seapower of which Louis XVI dreamt of but as the officers were mainly noblemen, they were either dismissed or eliminated or compulsed to emigrate so that there was no enough commanding staff anymore and no able personnel that could have been easily replaced by conscription as for the regiments of the land forces. Prof. Bennichon, as a leading French historian of navies, concludes a recent study of him by saying that workers in the dockyards of Toulon weren’t paid anymore, they and their families were starving and consequently looted the wood reserves, so that the new Republican regime was totally unable to engage the British forces on sea. Moreover, the new violent and chaotic regime was unable to find allies in Europe, the Spaniards and the Dutch prefering to join their forces to the British-lead coalition. The English were then able to reduce French naval activities to coastal navigation. A British blocus of the continent could from then on be organized. On the Mediterranean stage, the French after the battle of Abukir were unable to repatriate their own troops from Egypt and after Trafalgar unable to threaten Britain’s coasts or to attempt a landing in rebelling Ireland. Napoleon didn’t believe in seapower and was finally beaten on the continent in Leipzig and Waterloo. Prof. Bennichon: “Which conclusions can we draw from the Franco-British clash (of the 18th century)? The mastery of seapower implies first of all the long term existence of a political will. If there is no political will, the successive interruptions in naval policy compels the unstable regime to repeated expensive fresh starts without being able in the end to face emergencies... Fleets cannot be created spontaneously and rapidly in the quite short time that an emergency situation lasts: they always should preexist before a conflict breaks out”. Artificially created interruptions like the French revolution and the civil disorders it stirred up at the beginning of the 1790s, as they were apparently instigated by Pitt’s services —or like the Yeltsin era in Russia in the 1990s— have as an obvious purpose to lame long term projects in the production of efficient armaments and to doom the adverse power plunged into inefficiency to yield power on the international chessboard.
The artificially created French revolution can so be perceived as a revenge for the lost battle of Yorktown in 1783, the very year Empress Catherine II of Russia had taken Crimea from the Turks. In 1783 the thalassocratic power in Britain had apparently decided to crush the French naval power by all secret and unconventional means and to control the development of Russian naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Black Sea, so that Russian seapower couldn’t trespass the limits of the Bosphorus and interfere in the Eastern Mediterranean. What concerns explicitly Russia, an anonymous document from a British government department was issued in 1791 and had as title “Russian Armament”; it sketched the strategy to adopt in order to keep the Russian fleet down, as the defeats of the French in the Mediterranean implied of course the complete British control of this sea area, so that the whole European continent could be entangled from Norway to Gibraltar and from Gilbraltar to Syria and Egypt. This brings us to the conclusion that any single largely dominating seapower is strategically compelled to meddle into other powers’ internal affairs to create civil dissension to weaken any candidate challenger. These permanent interferences —now known as “orange revolutions”— mean permanent war, so that the birth of a global seapower implies quasi automatically the emerging process of permanent global war, replacing the previous state of large numbers of local wars, that couldn’t be thoroughly globalized.
After Waterloo and the Vienna Conference, Britain had no serious challenger in Europe anymore but had now as a constant policy to try to keep all the navies in the world down. The non entirely secured mastery of the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans and the largely but not completed mastery of the Mediterranean was indeed the puzzle that British decision-makers had to solve in order to gain definitively global power. Aiming at acquiring completely this mastery will be the next needed steps. Controling already Gibraltar and Malta, trying vainly to annex to Britain Sicily and Southern Italy, the British had not a complete grasp on the Eastern Mediterranean area, that could eventually come under control of a reborn Ottoman Empire or of Russia after a possible push in direction of the Straights. The struggle for getting control overthere was thus mainly a preventive struggle against Russia and was, in fact, the plain application of the strategies settled in the anonymous text of 1791, “Russian Armament”. The Crimean War was a conflict aiming at containing Russia far northwards beyond the Turkish Straights in order that the Russian navy would never become able to bring war vessels into the Eastern Mediterranean and so to occupy Cyprus of Creta and, by fortifying these insular strong points, to block the planned shortest highway to India through a future digged canal through one of the Egyptian isthmuses. The Crimean War was therefore an wide-scale operation directly or indirectly deduced from the domination of the Indian Ocean after the French-British clash of 1756-1763 and from the gradual mastery of the Mediterranean from the Spanish Succession War to the expulsion of Napoleon’s forces out of the area, with as main obtained geostrategical asset, the taking over of Malta in 1802-1804. The mastery of this island, formerly in the hands of the Malta Knights, allowed the British and the French to benefit from an excellent rear base to send reinforcements and supplies to Crimea (or “Tavrida” as Empress Catherine II liked to call this strategic place her generals conquered in 1783).
The next step to link the Northern Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean through the Mediterranean corridor was to dig the Suez Canal, what a French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps did in 1869. The British by using the non military weapon of bank speculation bought all the shares of the private company having realised the job and managed so to get the control of the newly created waterway. In 1877 the Rumanians and the Bulgars revolted against their Turkish sovereign and were helped by Russian troops that could have reached the coasts of the Aegean Sea and controled the Marmara Sea and the Straights. The British sent weapons, military trainers and ships to protect the Turkish capital City from any possible Bulgarian invasion and occupation in exchange of an acceptance of British sovereignty on Cyprus, which was settled in 1878. The complete control of the Mediterranean corridor was acquired by this poker trick as well as the English domination on Egypt in 1882, allowing also an outright supervision of the Red Sea from Port Said till Aden (under British supervision since 1821). The completion of the dubble mastery upon the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, that had already been acquired but was not yet fully secured, made of Britain the main and uncontested superpower on the Earth in the second half of the 19th century.
The question one should ask now is quite simple: “Is a supremacy on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and in the Mediterranean area the key to a complete global power?”. I would answer negatively. The German geopolitician Karl Haushofer remembered in his memoirs a conversation he had with Lord Kitchener in India on the way to Japan, where the Bavarian artillery officer was due to become a military attaché. Kitchener told Haushofer and his wife that if Germany (that dominated Micronesia after Spain had sold the huge archipelago just before the disasters of the American-Spanish war of 1898) and Britain would lost control of the Pacific after any German-British war, both powers would be considerably reduced as global actors to the straight benefit of Japan and the United States. This vision Kitchener disclosed to Karl and Martha Haushofer in a private conversation in 1909 stressed the importance of dominating three oceans to become a real global unchallenged power: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean. If there is no added domination of the Pacific the global superpower dominating the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, i. e. Britain at the time of Kitchener, will be inevitably challenged, risking simultaneously to change down and fall back.
In 1909, Russia had sold Alaska to the United States (1867) and had only reduced ambitions in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, especially after the disaster of Tshushima in 1905. France was present in Indochina but without being able to cut maritime routes dominated by the British. Britain had Australia and New Zeland as dominions but no strategical islands in the Middle and the Northern Pacific. The United States had developped a Pacific strategy since they became a bioceanic power after having conquered California during the Mexican-American war of 1848. The several stages of the gradual Pacific strategy elaborated by the United States were: the results of the Mexican-American War in 1848, i. e. the conquest of all their Pacific coast; the purchase of Alaska in 1867; and the events of the year 1898 when they colonized the Philippines after having waged war against Spain. Even if the Russian Doctor Schaeffer tried to make of the volcanic archipelago of Hawai a Russian protectorate in 1817, US American whale hunters used to winter in the islands so that the islands came gradually under US domination to become an actual US strong point immediately after the conquest of the formerly Spanish Philippines in 1898. But as Japan had inherited in Versailles the sovereignty on Micronesia, the clash foreseen by Lord Kitchener in 1909 didn’t happen in the Pacific between German and British forces but during the Second World War between the American and Japanese navies. In 1945, Micronesia came under American influence, so that the United States could control the entire Pacific area, the North Atlantic area and gradually the Indian Ocean, especially when they finished building a navy and airforce strong point in Diego Garcia in the very middle part of the Indian Ocean, from where they can now strike every position along the coasts of the so-called “Monsoon countries”. According to the present-day American strategist Robert Kaplan, the control of the “Monsoon lands” will be crucial in the near future, as it allows the domination of the Indian Ocean linking the Atlantic to the Pacific where US hegemony is uncontested.
Kaplan’s book on the “Monsoon area” is indeed the proof that American have inherited the British strategy in the Indian Ocean but that, contrary to the British, they also control the Pacific except perhaps the maritime routes along the Chinese coasts in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea, that are protected by a quite efficient Chinese fleet that is steadily growing in strength and size. They nevertheless are able to disturb intensely the Chinese vital highways if Taiwan, South Korea or Vietnam are recruited into a kind of East Asian naval NATO.
What could be the answer to the challenge of a superpower that controls the three main oceans of this planet? To create a strategical thought system that would imitate the naval policy of Choiseul and Louis XVI, i. e. unite the available forces (for instance the naval forces of the BRICS-countries) and constantly build up the naval forces in order to exercice a continuous pressure on the “big navy” so that it finally risks “imperial overstretch”. Besides, it is also necessary to find other routes to the Pacific, for instance in the Arctic but we should know that if we look for such alternative routes the near North American Arctic bordering powers will be perfectly able to disturb Northern Siberian Arctic coastal navigation by displaying long range missiles along their own coast and Groenland.
History is not closed, despite the prophecies of Francis Fukuyama in the early 1990s. The main problems already spotted by Louis XVI and his brilliant captains as well as by the Russian explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries are still actual. And another main idea to remember constantly: A single World War had been started in 1756 and is not finished yet, as all the moves on the world chessboard made by the actual superpower of the time are derived from the results of the double British victory in India and Canada during the “Seven Years’ War”. Peace is impossible, is a mere and pure theoretical view as long as a single power is trying to dominate the three oceans, refusing to accept the fact that sea routes belong to all mankind.
(Vorst-Flotzenberg, november 2013).
Philippe Conrad (ed.), “La puissance et la mer”, numéro spécial hors-série (n°7) de La nouvelle revue d’histoire, automne-hiver 2013.
Philippe Conrad, “Quand le Pacifique était un lac russe”, in “La puissance et la mer”, op. cit..
Philippe Bonnichon, “La rivalité navale franco-anglaise (1755-1805)”, in “La puissance et la mer”, op. cit.
Niall Ferguson, Empire – How Britain Made the Modern World, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 2004.
Richard Harding, Seapower and Naval Warfare – 1650-1830, UCL Press, London, 1999.
Robert Kaplan, Monsoon – The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, Random House, New York, 2011.
Charles King, The Black Sea – A History, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Frank McLynn, 1759 – The Year Britain BecameMaster of the World, Pimlico, London, 2005.
Richard Overy, Atlas of 20th Century History, Collins Books, London, 2005.
Tom Pocock, Battle for Empire – The Very First World War – 1756-63, Caxton Editions, London, 1998.
Robert Steuckers, “Karl Haushofer: l’itinéraire d’un géopoliticien allemand”, sur: http://robertsteuckers.blogspot.com (juillet 2012).