We are the world’s most prolific trading nation, we inherited this title someplace in the late 19th century from Britain, the traditional “Nation of Shopkeepers” Why is this, how did it occur and what does it mean?
Note that my title does not refer to the UN Law of the Sea or anything other than the traditional meaning.
We all know that the Britain we rebelled against was a mercantilist nation, whose ruling class believed that colonies existed for the benefit of the motherland, hence duties on sugar and tea and most of the articles of domestic life. It also led to a ban on manufacturing in the colonies. That all well and good, for the motherland, anyway. The American colonists weren’t particularly happy about it, however, seeing as they believed (as it said in their charters) that they were Englishmen with all the rights and duties pertaining to that status.
A side note that we should make in these times is that those colonies were almost all corporations. Yes, they were, from Virginia and Massachusetts Bay on down to Georgia. Free associations of people banding together for a common purpose. And you thought America wasn’t grounded in business, what could be more American than that, the very founding of the 13 colonies was by business. The Empire in India came about similarly, most of the conquering was done by the British East India Company, the government took over later.
Anyway, the mercantilist vision wasn’t working all that well. First, the Americans revolted and made it stick, then they screwed up the triangular trade with the ban on the import of slaves after 1800, and then they were taking a lot of the trade in British bottoms away, too.
It was time for a rethink. A goodly part of the British upper class (as with America) had read their Adam Smith and were beginning to think about capitalism instead of corporatism. Obviously, it wasn’t anywhere near this clear-cut. We can’t say that on 2 February 1809 Britain abandoned mercantilism, it was a gradual shifting of view and traces of mercantilism remain to this day, that’s part of what tariffs and VAT taxes are about.
But by the time the Napoleonic Wars had ended, Britain looked around and found that they made far better profits by trading with everyone from Andorra to Zimbabwe, and ruling only enough to keep their shipping (and Navy) supplied. They also found that with other maritime powers in the world (The United States, the Dutch, and maybe the French) while their profit was lower (per item) but there were many more items.
From this came a new doctrine: Freedom of the Seas. Essentially this doctrine was pretty much the American position leading up to the War of 1812. International waters are free for the passage of all upon their peaceful pursuits. It has always been modified in time of war. The blockades of the Confederacy in the Civil War, of Germany (and England via the U-Boats) in World Wars 1 & 2, and of Japan in World War 2. They are still being used as sanctions against such countries as Syria and Libya today.
By 1815 Great Britain had found that the free republics of South and Central America had become quite large trading partners as had the United States (which had no small maritime fleet either, up till the Civil War when the Confederate raiders made insurance too expensive, the US was usually rated second only to Great Britain itself).
You may recall that I have referred to the War on the Barbary Coast (where Marine Officers got their sword), this was all about freedom of the seas, the Barbary coast pirates (an early form of state sponsored terrorism) were in the habit of demanding tribute for passage through the Mediterranean and often got it. When the USS Philadelphia went aground off the Tripoli Harbor, was captured and the crew enslaved the United States got fed up. Here’s a short story from Wikipedia.
Burning of the USS Philadelphia, via Wikipedia
She cruised off Tripoli until October 31, 1803, when she ran aground on an uncharted reef off Tripoli Harbor. Under fire from shore batteries and Tripolitan gunboats all efforts to refloat her failed, and she surrendered; her officers and men were made slaves of the Pasha.
The Philadelphia was too great a prize to be allowed to remain in the hands of the Tripolitans, so a decision was made to recapture or destroy her. Under the guise of a ship in distress in need of a place to tie up after having lost all anchors in a storm, on 16 February 1804 a volunteer assaulting party of officers and men under LieutenantStephen Decatur, Jr. boarded her from the ketch Intrepidand burned her where she lay in Tripoli Harbor. Horatio Nelson, known as a man of action and bravery, is said to have called this “the most bold and daring act of the age.”
Eventually, the Pirates learned that American ships were formidable fighters and pretty much left them alone after a regime change or two.
Meantime after the defeat of Napoleon, Great Britain had become anti-slavery and acting (again in consort with the United States) had forbidden the slave trade to the new world. They also provided the muscle to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, because their trade with Latin America was too great to risk losing. They also opposed the annexation of Texas by the US for the same reason.
Bases for the fleet in anticipation of the Panama Canal was one of the unstated reasons for the Spanish-American War, where we flirted for the first (and thankfully) last time with an Empire. We gained Puerto Rico, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Philippines (temporarily) from that conflict.
During the last half of the 19th Century, while we weren’t paying much attention to it, we became the largest trading nation in history, first as an importer and then as our industrial revolution went on as an exporter. This was also the era when the American harvest became an important thing worldwide. We had begun to feed the world and do it better than it had ever been done before.
By World War 1 we had become indispensable, although nobody really knew it yet. But the U-boat campaign nearly starved Great Britain, and the Allies nearly bankrupted themselves buying from such companies as Colt and Winchester. (And you thought the 2d Amendment was about politics, it’s about freedom, all over the world.)
At the end of the war, in the Washington Naval Conference, Great Britain ceded to the United States naval parity, knowing that it would turn into superiority. Here begins Britain descent into the second rank of powers, and the American duty of freedom of the seas.
It took a while for Americans to realize it of course, until 7 December 1941 to be exact. Since then we have never looked back, the paramount fleet in the world has been supplemented with both the paramount Army and Air Force. Is there really anybody in the free or quasi-free world that would have it any other way. Do we, or the Australians, or the South Koreans, or even the Indians, really want control of the seas to reside, even partially, with the Chinese?
Freedom of the Seas mostly kept the peace for most of the 19th Century with the Royal Navy in charge, and for the last 65 years with the United States in charge, those two periods have witnessed the largest growth in living standards all across the world ever seen. And it has averted many wars, including the unthinkable: a thermonuclear war between the United States and Soviet Russia in October of 1962, when the maritime exclusion zone was instituted (selectively, to be sure) around Cuba. Control of and freedom of the seas has been America’s first line of defense as long as there has been America.
Here’s John F. Kennedy’s take:
“Events of October 1962 indicated, as they had all through history, that control of the sea means security. Control of the seas can mean peace. Control of the seas can mean victory. The United States must control the seas if it is to protect your security….”
President John F. Kennedy, 6 June 1963, on board USS Kitty Hawk.
We seem to be seeing a resurgence of the isolationism that we had before the Second World War, their shortsightedness led to the Second World War. As much as we need to change the paradigm in Washington D.C., and we really, really do. I don’t think we want to risk World War Three, either.
First published on 13 December 2011.