Book Review: Deterrence through Strength: British Naval Power and Foreign Policy under Pax Britannica


by Rebecca Berens Matzke

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. Pp. xiv, 306. Maps., notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN: 0803235143

The notion that the Royal Navy enforced a Pax Britannica during the nineteenth century, keeping the world in order, as it were, is long standing.  But a few recent historians have argued, citing events such as the Crimean War, that there was no Pax Britannica in nine decades that followed 1815, and Prof. Matzke (Ripon), proceeds to demonstrate otherwise.

Matzke opens by pointing out that what didn’t happen is more important to an understanding a policy of deterrence than what did happen.  To demonstrate this, she looks at three crises in the period 1838-1846.  These are:

·       Anglo-American tensions over the Maine and Oregon boundaries and American support to Canadian rebels. 

·       British differences with France over colonial territories, naval primacy, and the multi-faceted
“Eastern Question”

·       The origins of the “Opium War” with China. 

In the case of the tensions with America and France, the situation was complicated by the fact that had Britain gone to war with one of these powers, the other may well have jumped in to take advantage of the situation.  A look at public and government responses in France and the U.S. to the possibility of war with Britain very strongly demonstrates that the great strength of the Royal Navy played a critical role in averting armed conflict.  In contrast, Matzke notes that deterrence failed in the case of the Opium War because Chinese leadership lacked any sense of Britain’s enormous power.  This last case, of course, also has some bearing on the problem of the outbreak of the Crimean War.

Deterrence Through Strength  is a particularly valuable read for students of the often complex nature of deterrence, as well as those interested in diplomatic history, the nineteenth century, or the Royal Navy.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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