There is perhaps no more momentous great-power strategic decision, short of launching a war, than to develop a power-projection, war-winning maritime capability--thereby challenging, and risking heightened conflict with, an established maritime power. The likely costs of such a decision should caution the rising power against pursuing expansive naval ambitions. Such costs include the long-term costs of building the requisite number of surface ships that possess the advanced engineering and military capabilities necessary to enable maritime security; of diverting resources from other pressing territorial-defense and domestic demands; of suffering the predictable societal, economic, and security impacts of heightened and protracted great-power conflict; of preparing for the possibility of great-power war; and ultimately, perhaps, of losing a great-power war.
Despite these generalized risks entailed in pursuing destabilizing maritime capabilities, and frequently despite particular risks inherent to their insecure geopolitical circumstances and interior borders, many great powers have pursued extensive great-power maritime capabilities. In the past two hundred years, France twice challenged British maritime hegemony. The United States initiated its effort to develop global maritime capabilities in the early twentieth century. Germany challenged British maritime security in the early twentieth century. Russia frequently sought great-maritime-power capabilities, including in the 1850s, in the 1890s and the early twenty-first century, and in the late 1970s and '80s. Japan simultaneously sought maritime hegemony in the western Pacific Ocean and continental hegemony on the East Asian mainland in the 1930s. In the twenty-first century, China has launched an extensive buildup of its navy to secure great-power maritime capabilities and to challenge U.S. maritime dominance in East Asia.
Great-power development of destabilizing maritime capabilities frequently has reflected the nationalist aspirations for great-power status associated with the possession of large capital ships and a reputation for maritime dominance. Great-power nationalist aspirations may reflect the personal ambitions of autocratic leaders, the pressures on unstable autocratic regimes to use nationalism to enhance domestic legitimacy, the popular aspirations of voters in a democratic state for international prestige, or a combination thereof. But whatever its particular sources, naval nationalism can have the effect of encouraging expansionist maritime policies, which can force acquisitions that are not informed by strategic interests and that ultimately undermine security and contribute to unnecessary and costly great-power conflict, including war.
This article examines three case studies of nationalist-driven great-power maritime aspirations from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It addresses the role of nationalism in driving French maritime ambitions in the 1850s and 1860s, under the leadership of Louis-Napoleon; German maritime ambitions in the early 1900s, under the leadership of Kaiser Wilhelm II; and U.S. maritime ambitions in the late 1890s and especially at the beginning of the following decade, during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. In each case, the article examines the high cost of the revisionist powers naval expansionism, the relative importance of its strategic and economic maritime interests to its naval buildup, and the nonmaterial nationalist sources of its expanding maritime ambitions and quest for great-power status. It places these countries' naval nationalism within the context of...