Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Winston Churchill plans Armageddon, and the pitfalls of Grand Strategy

Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty 

     While most of us are used to seeing Winston Churchill as a rotund older gentlemen sporting a yachting cap and large cigar, his less familiar, younger, more nattily attired self seen here was equally interested in all elements of grand strategy. While not the primary character in British historian Nicholas Lambert’s 2012 book, Planning Armageddon, British Economic Warfare and the First World War, he is one of its most recognizable characters.  Lambert explores the extensive efforts that originated in the British Admiralty in the years before the First World War to craft a grand strategy of economic warfare. British admirals, intelligence officials and politicians, notably Admiral Sir John Fisher, and later Churchill himself, while serving as First Lord of the Admiralty intended that the British would leverage their virtual control over the world’s shipping, energy, communications, economic, and financial systems to create a global economic blockade of the German state. This bold plan’s objective was to cripple the Imperial German war effort at the beginning of hostilities and promote a swift conclusion of conflict. German merchant ships would be seized on a global scale, cutting the German state off from vital trade goods such as iron ore, chemicals, and foodstuffs necessary for a protracted war. Neutral shipping bound for Germany would also be targeted and the British government would support the overall effort by using the financial power of the City of London, then the world's center of economic power to penalize those nations and companies doing business with the German state. 
      When war came in August 1914, nearly all of the British leadership except Churchill hesitated to pull the switch on such a mighty war plan for fear of antagonizing both allies and important neutrals like the United States. This British version of the Schlieffen plan for a swift end to the war might have succeeded in significantly shortening the First World War, but it threatened to cause such upheaval in the globalized economic world of 1914 that despite Churchill’s vehement protests, the British govt. shelved the full implementation. The Royal Navy’s more conventional blockade ultimately had the effect of starving somewhere between 400,000 to 800,000 Germans (mostly civilians) to death during the course of the war, but it did not have the shock value at the outset great enough to compel Germany to sue for peace.
     While the book leaves the reader wondering if the First World War’s mass trench warfare casualties might have been adverted, it also serves to warn of the awesome power of global economic connections, even in 1914. The United States today is in a position analogous to that of Great Britain in 1914 in that much of the globe’s communication, energy, transportation, and financial systems either have their roots in Anglo-American initiatives or remain in the control of the "Anglosphere" and/or friendly allies’ hands.  The United States might seek to exploit this system in war, or perhaps other nations might desire to attack the global economic system outright for their own wartime gain. The same pitfalls however that prevented the British from potentially saving millions of lives in 1914 will likely again confront any nation who attempts to cripple any part of today’s even more networked global economy.  While opinions may vary on how successful the British might have been in 1914, or any other nation could be today, this book should be a useful addition to any grand strategist’s library.

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