Alfred Thayer Mahan

The Middle Game; according to my teacher in management and former manager of Royal Dutch Shell, Rob Pieters, The middle game in chess is the most important part. The first player to take a piece of the opponent is starting the war and mostly not certain about his position 1.

Alfred Thayer Mahan

Alfred Thayer Mahan


Alfred Thayer Mahan
Some weeks ago I concluded my blog with the name of Alfred Thayer Mahan and his rise in Asia. Today I will clarify why he has become so popular in Asia and why his book might be a good guideline for the future of the world. Alfred Thayer Mahan or shortly known as Mahan was born on 27 September 1840, New York. Since then he has always had an affection for the sea. During the American Civil War Mahan served as an officer and instructor at different navy ships. In 1865 he was promoted to lieutenant commander, in 1872 as commander and finally in 1885 he became captain. After his military career Mahan started to lecture naval history and tactics at the Naval War College. In the meantime 1890 and 1905, Mahan wrote four different books on the topic, Sea Power. Mahan was and is still considered to be one of the best theorist on military power on sea and an excellent Geo-strategist 3.

His most famous writing, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 is a historic overview of naval warfare which he completed in 1890. The book details the role of sea power by countries during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, it discusses the factors that are needed to support and achieve sea power, especially with the emphasis of having the largest and most powerful fleet. Before the start of the first world war the recommendations of Mahan were quickly adopted by the most important navies especially Germany and the United Kingdom. His policies were then again adopted before the start of the second world war by; Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Since these wars the books of Mahan have always stayed popular among navy commanders or as we would say in the Netherlands; “Obligatory Reading Material”. To conclude Mahan stated in his book that countries that have either access to the Indian or Pacific ocean have the best geopolitical locations at hand. 3.

A small sidestep here towards what I wrote some weeks ago. Russia was during the second world war one of the decisive powers, however Mahan has never taken the country serious when he was asked towards the power of the country. Russia is a big country but has along its borders no possibilities to develop maritime powers, this is also the main reason why the country is annexing the Crimea. The Russians, Black Sea Fleet was in danger and Putin understands the importance of this fleet, besides this fleet rumours are going that Russia has taken possession of one of the two dolphin armies in the world which belonged to Ukraine 5.

Importance of Sea power
Sea power is best described as silent power, the United States has 10 aircraft carriers operational around the world. Some years ago it topped out all countries in the world combined by having more aircraft carriers than all countries in the world combined, however the question is do we notice this form of Maritime power? In my own experience I have never ever noticed the maritime power of the United States or felt insecure about this. People don’t realize soon what is happening on the sea, because it is not in our nature to look in the sea as a part of where possible threat’s might come from.

However Mahan but also other professors like Lincoln Paine & Julian Corbett argue that sea power does not only come forward from naval power. The seas have always carried out an important role towards civilizations and in politics. Lincoln Paine states with scientific evidence that probably 70 percent of the meetings between different civilizations has taken place via the Sea, during this events the two parties trade resources that were unknown for each other. Probably the first country to take up sea power were the Egyptians around 1550 BCE sending a navy ship along with a trading mission just to protect the traders 6.

In short the sea connects civilizations with each other and allows us the possibility to trade. The sea is the most important trade form especially when it becomes to mass consuming. Besides this the Sea also offers a great aspect for initiating and maintaining International Relations. In the next picture we see the most important trading routes according to the Asian Civilization Museum in Singapore.

Southeast Asian Trading Route, Asian Civilisation Museum, Singapore

Southeast Asian Trading Network, Asian Civilisation Museum, Singapore

Lack of Space
To get to the important morale of the story why Mahan his literature is so interesting we need some more additional literature. The book; Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the second Nuclear age, written by Paul Bracken in 1999. Paul Bracken who is professor in Political Science at Yale University, refers in his book to the American-Hungarian Mathematician John von Neumann (1903 – 1957) who stated the following; “There are no places on earth anymore where you’re safe for the most advanced weapons”. Bracken then continues that the Geographical evanescent of the planet can cause for highly unstable situations. The growing prosperity and liberalization in Asia have as a consequence that hard and software for warfare also manage to make the distances on the world map smaller, not even spoken of the rising military budgets in Asia the last years.

China vs. India part 2
As continuation of last week when I wrote, tensions between China and India are growing due to the prosperity of both countries. Especially the lack of space to house the countries combined population of 2.4 billion people and satisfying the needs of their people, space is getting a real concern. Besides this also China has found the way to sea and is willing to become a maritime power with its nuclear submarines and the development of its second aircraft carrier on the way 7. India who can be seen as a maritime power since the existence of the country, already owes two aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines.

During a Symposium in Beijing in 2004, different professors cited the works of Mahan. Among them were James R. Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara that both professors at American Naval War College cited the most combative works of Mahan. Since this symposium Beijing has started to invest and expand their navy capabilities, this expansion is an effect of the fear by the Chinese government for India’s expansion on sea. At the other side also India is expanding and improving its fleet. Among this improvements them the INS Vikramaditya which is likely to be one of the most modern aircraft carriers in the world.

India's aircraft carrier; INS Vikramaditya

India’s aircraft carrier; INS Vikramaditya


Alfred Thayer Mahan part 2
Back to the central question; “Why Mahan is so popular in Asia?” Mahan wrote the following points in his book; “the right use of the seas and the hegemony over this seas, is only a small link in the commercial chain that causes a countries prosperity” 9. With this Mahan means that the route to power that both countries are trying to obtain has a vital key concept which is Maritime power. Mahan is now being published and read by Asian generals and military commanders especially in China Mahan is popular. The Chinese even translate his complete book collection into Chinese to give everyone the possibility to read his books 10.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, was a very clever man and even though his books have since its existence been challenged a lot by different geo-politicians, his knowledge is still being used today. It is interesting to see that his literature nowadays is popular among students, military and generals in Asia. As his book was a forerunner for important maritime developments before the first and second World War, might we be up for a new world war? As a matter of fact tensions in Asia are growing just as military budgets.

In my next blog I will write about the (Geo)political situation in Myanmar, working towards the endgame!

  1. Rob Pieters, Course Committee Meeting, Leeuwarden, 6 June 2013
  3. Robert D. Kaplan – Revenge of Geography, 2013, Random House, Inc, New York, P.116
  4. Robert D. Kaplan – Revenge of Geography, 2013, Random House, Inc, New York, P.116
  6. Lincoln Paine – The Sea & Civilization, 2013, Knopf Doubleday, New York, P.36 – 57
  9. Robert D. Kaplan – Revenge of Geography, 2013, Random House, Inc, New York, P.118
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