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

Rebecca Berens Matzke. Deterrence through Strength: British Naval Power and Foreign Policy under Pax Britannica. Studies in War, Society, and the Military series. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8032-3514-4. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. x, 306. $45.00.

In the past few decades some historians have cast doubt that there was ever a Pax Britannica during the nineteenth century.  They argue that British power began to decline after the Napoleonic Wars.  These historians believe that Britain had limited means of using power after 1815 and that British military and naval power played a small role in preserving peace during the nineteenth century.

Dr Rebecca Berens Matzke, an Associate Professor of History at Ripon College in Wisconsin, refutes these arguments.  The author professes that Britain’s diplomatic and naval power during the mid-nineteenth century was based on economic and naval strength.  She stresses that the Royal Navy’s primary role was as a deterrent force in the nineteenth century.  With its intimidating fleet, enhanced by steam-powered warships, supported by strong political, economic, and financial backing, British naval power was a real threat.  British leadership had the primary goals of maintaining peace, stability, and equilibrium, in the quest of promoting and securing British interests.  Naval power was used to intimidate other states, deter conflict or limit the scope of conflict, as well as press home British offensive power when required.  Naval power allowed Britain to exert a free hand policy, instead of relying on allies, in crisis situations.

Matzke examines three diplomatic crises during the early Victorian Age (1838-1846).  These include crises with the United States over boundary issues in Maine and Oregon, along with the Alexander McLeod incident; the First Opium War with China (1839-1842); and the Syrian Crisis (1839-1841) in the eastern Mediterranean.  In her examination of the crises in North America, China, and the Mediterranean, Matzke shows that British naval power did influence other states during the early Victorian era.

The author makes a convincing argument that British diplomacy, backed by the Royal Navy, put Britain in the forefront of the Great Powers in the early Victorian age.  Her study is based on primary source research including private correspondence, notes, and journals of statesmen.  This study should be read by students and scholars interested in British diplomacy and international relations in the nineteenth century.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota

About William Young

Dr William Young is a retired historian with more than 30 years of experience in teaching and research. He has 18 years of teaching experience at the University of North Dakota and Valley City State University. Moreover, he was a historian in the United States Air Force History Program for 15 years. He possesses a doctoral degree in international and military history and master’s degrees in history and international relations. Young is the author of German Diplomatic Relations, 1871-1945 (2006), International Politics and Warfare in the Age of Louis XIV and Peter the Great (2004), and European War and Diplomacy, 1337-1815 (2003). He has also written 42 official Air Force unit histories, two monographs, and other studies. Young is the recipient of many history awards, including three U.S. Air Force Historian of the Year Awards and a U.S. Air Force History Program of the Year Award. He has studied and worked for 13 years overseas in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. He has traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East. His hobbies include collecting and reading history books and attending college ice hockey games.
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