By Marc R. DeVore
Paper presented at the International Commission for Military History Annual Congress, Madrid, August 26, 2005
Introduction: Britain’s naval dominance between 1692 and 1922 is an aberration in terms of international relations theory. One of the fundamental precepts of realist international relations theory is that states “balance” the power of other states. Faced with a threat to the balance of power, states form alliances, levy resources and develop the military capabilities needed to frustrate a potential hegemon.
Politics in continental Europe tend to correspond to this model. Dominant powers, such as Philip II’s Spain, Louis XIV’s France or Wilhelm II’s Germany, were counter-balanced by coalitions of threatened states. When an expansionist leader relied on new tactics or technologies, such as Frederic the Great and Napoleon did, other powers quickly copied their military innovations, preventing any state from carving out a lasting hegemony based on a military advantage. From one war to another, the relative military power of France, Prussia (later Germany), Austria and Russia shifted dramatically. For example, the Prussian victory at the Battle of Rossbach (1757) had as its successor the French victory at Jena (1806), which in turn was followed by Sedan (1870), another Prussian victory.
This pattern of continental politics has no maritime equivalent. Between 1692 and 1815 Great Britain not only maintained its position as the dominant naval power, but also improved it. By gradually expropriating its rivals’ overseas possessions and periodically defeating their fleets, Britain went from being the world’s foremost naval power in 1697 to being a global naval hegemon in 1815, before eventually accepting parity with the United States in 1922. By historic standards, the duration of Britain’s naval dominance was exceptional. Equally exceptional is the fact that for more than a century, the British Royal Navy won every decisive battle it fought. From Barfleur (1692) to Cape Passaro (1718) Quiberon Bay (1759) the Saints (1782) and finally Trafalgar (1805) British fleets won a series of annihilating victories that its enemies could not match.