Gunboat diplomacy
In international politics, gunboat diplomacy refers to the pursuit of foreign policy
Foreign policy
A country's foreign policy, also called the foreign relations policy, consists of self-interest strategies chosen by the state to safeguard its national interests and to achieve its goals within international relations milieu. The approaches are strategically employed to interact with other countries...

 objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of military
A military is an organization authorized by its greater society to use lethal force, usually including use of weapons, in defending its country by combating actual or perceived threats. The military may have additional functions of use to its greater society, such as advancing a political agenda e.g...

 power — implying or constituting a direct threat of war
War is a state of organized, armed, and often prolonged conflict carried on between states, nations, or other parties typified by extreme aggression, social disruption, and usually high mortality. War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political...

fare, should terms not be agreeable to the superior force.

Origin of the term

The term comes from the period of colonial
Colonialism is the establishment, maintenance, acquisition and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a process whereby the metropole claims sovereignty over the colony and the social structure, government, and economics of the colony are changed by...

Imperialism, as defined by Dictionary of Human Geography, is "the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination." The imperialism of the last 500 years,...

, where the European powers would intimidate other states into granting trade
Trade is the transfer of ownership of goods and services from one person or entity to another. Trade is sometimes loosely called commerce or financial transaction or barter. A network that allows trade is called a market. The original form of trade was barter, the direct exchange of goods and...

 or other concessions (unequal treaties
Unequal Treaties
“Unequal treaty” is a term used in specific reference to a number of treaties imposed by Western powers, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, on Qing Dynasty China and late Tokugawa Japan...

) through a demonstration of their superior military power. A country negotiating with a European power would notice that a warship or fleet of ships had appeared off its coast. The mere sight of such power almost always had a considerable effect, and it was rarely necessary for such boats to use other measures, such as demonstrations of cannon
A cannon is any piece of artillery that uses gunpowder or other usually explosive-based propellents to launch a projectile. Cannon vary in caliber, range, mobility, rate of fire, angle of fire, and firepower; different forms of cannon combine and balance these attributes in varying degrees,...


A notable and controversial example of gunboat diplomacy was the Don Pacifico Incident
Pacifico incident
The Don Pacifico Affair concerned a Portuguese Jew, named David Pacifico , who was a trader and the Portuguese consul in Athens during the reign of King Otto. Pacifico was born in Gibraltar, a British possession. He was therefore a British subject...

 in 1850, in which the British
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston
Henry Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, KG, GCB, PC , known popularly as Lord Palmerston, was a British statesman who served twice as Prime Minister in the mid-19th century...

 dispatched a squadron of the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

 to blockade
A blockade is an effort to cut off food, supplies, war material or communications from a particular area by force, either in part or totally. A blockade should not be confused with an embargo or sanctions, which are legal barriers to trade, and is distinct from a siege in that a blockade is usually...

 the Greek
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

 port of Piraeus
Piraeus is a city in the region of Attica, Greece. Piraeus is located within the Athens Urban Area, 12 km southwest from its city center , and lies along the east coast of the Saronic Gulf....

 in retaliation for the harming of a British subject, David Pacifico, in Athens
Athens , is the capital and largest city of Greece. Athens dominates the Attica region and is one of the world's oldest cities, as its recorded history spans around 3,400 years. Classical Athens was a powerful city-state...

, and the subsequent failure of the government of King Otto
Otto of Greece
Otto, Prince of Bavaria, then Othon, King of Greece was made the first modern King of Greece in 1832 under the Convention of London, whereby Greece became a new independent kingdom under the protection of the Great Powers .The second son of the philhellene King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Otto ascended...

 to compensate the Gibraltar
Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located on the southern end of the Iberian Peninsula at the entrance of the Mediterranean. A peninsula with an area of , it has a northern border with Andalusia, Spain. The Rock of Gibraltar is the major landmark of the region...

-born (and therefore British) Pacifico.

The effectiveness of such simple demonstrations of a nation's projection of force capabilities meant that those nations with naval power, especially Britain, could establish military bases (for example, Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia is a tropical, footprint-shaped coral atoll located south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean at 7 degrees, 26 minutes south latitude. It is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory [BIOT] and is positioned at 72°23' east longitude....

) and arrange economically advantageous relationships around the world. Aside from military conquest, gunboat diplomacy was the dominant way to establish new trade partners, colonial outposts
In politics and history, a colony is a territory under the immediate political control of a state. For colonies in antiquity, city-states would often found their own colonies. Some colonies were historically countries, while others were territories without definite statehood from their inception....

 and expansion of empire
The term empire derives from the Latin imperium . Politically, an empire is a geographically extensive group of states and peoples united and ruled either by a monarch or an oligarchy....


Those lacking the resources and technological advancements of European empires found that their own peaceable relationships were readily dismantled in the face of such pressures, and they therefore came to depend on the imperialist nations for access to raw material
Raw material
A raw material or feedstock is the basic material from which a product is manufactured or made, frequently used with an extended meaning. For example, the term is used to denote material that came from nature and is in an unprocessed or minimally processed state. Latex, iron ore, logs, and crude...

s and overseas market
A market is one of many varieties of systems, institutions, procedures, social relations and infrastructures whereby parties engage in exchange. While parties may exchange goods and services by barter, most markets rely on sellers offering their goods or services in exchange for money from buyers...


The British diplomat and naval thinker James Cable spelled out the nature of gunboat diplomacy in a series of works published between 1971 and 1994. In these, he defined the phenomenon as "the use or threat of limited naval force, otherwise than as an act of war, in order to secure advantage or to avert loss, either in the furtherance of an international dispute or else against foreign nationals within the territory or the jurisdiction of their own state." He further broke down the concept into four key areas:
  • Definitive Force: the use of gunboat diplomacy to create or remove a fait accompli
    Fait Accompli
    Fait accompli is a French phrase which means literally "an accomplished deed". It is commonly used to describe an action which is completed before those affected by it are in a position to query or reverse it...


  • Purposeful Force: application of naval force to change the policy or character of the target government or group

  • Catalytic Force: a mechanism designed to buy a breathing space or present policy makers with an increased range of options

  • Expressive Force: use of navies to send a political message - interestingly this aspect of gunboat diplomacy is undervalued and almost dismissed by Cable.

Gunboat diplomacy comes in contrast to the views held prior to the 18th century influenced by Hugo Grotius
Hugo Grotius
Hugo Grotius , also known as Huig de Groot, Hugo Grocio or Hugo de Groot, was a jurist in the Dutch Republic. With Francisco de Vitoria and Alberico Gentili he laid the foundations for international law, based on natural law...

, De Jure Belli ac Pacis
De jure belli ac pacis
De jure belli ac pacis is a 1625 book in Latin, written by Hugo Grotius and published in Paris, on the legal status of war. It is now regarded as a foundational work in international law....

, in which he circumscribed the right to resort to force with what he described as 'temperamenta'.

Gunboat diplomacy is distinct from "Defence Diplomacy
Defence diplomacy
In international politics, defence diplomacy refers to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives through the peaceful employment of defence resources and capabilities.-Origin of the Concept:...

", which is understood to be
the peaceful application of resources from across the spectrum of defence, to achieve positive outcomes in the development of bilateral
Bilateral may refer to any concept including two sides, in particular:*Bilateralism, the political and cultural relations between two states*Bilateral symmetry, symmetry between two sides of an organism...

 and multilateral relationships. "Military diplomacy" is a sub-set of this, tending to refer only to the role of military attachés and their associated activity. Defence diplomacy does not include military operations, but subsumes such other defence activity as international personnel exchanges, ship and aircraft visits, high level engagement (e.g. Ministers and senior defence personnel), training and exercises, security sector reform, bilateral military staff talks, etc.

Modern contexts

Gunboat diplomacy is considered a form of hegemony
Hegemony is an indirect form of imperial dominance in which the hegemon rules sub-ordinate states by the implied means of power rather than direct military force. In Ancient Greece , hegemony denoted the politico–military dominance of a city-state over other city-states...

. As the United States became a military power in the first decade of the 20th century, the Rooseveltian
Theodore Roosevelt
Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was the 26th President of the United States . He is noted for his exuberant personality, range of interests and achievements, and his leadership of the Progressive Movement, as well as his "cowboy" persona and robust masculinity...

 version of gunboat diplomacy, big stick diplomacy
Big stick diplomacy
Big Stick ideology, Big Stick diplomacy, or Big Stick policy is a form of hegemony and was the slogan describing U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt attributed the term to a West African proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far," but...

, was partially superseded by dollar diplomacy
Dollar Diplomacy
Dollar Diplomacy is a term used to describe the effort of the United States—particularly under President William Howard Taft—to further its aims in Latin America and East Asia through use of its economic power by guaranteeing loans made to foreign countries. The term was originally coined by...

: replacing the big stick with the "juicy carrot" of American private investment. However, during Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was the 28th President of the United States, from 1913 to 1921. A leader of the Progressive Movement, he served as President of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, and then as the Governor of New Jersey from 1911 to 1913...

's presidency, conventional gunboat diplomacy did occur, most notably in the case of the U.S. Army's occupation of Veracruz in 1914, during the Mexican Revolution
Mexican Revolution
The Mexican Revolution was a major armed struggle that started in 1910, with an uprising led by Francisco I. Madero against longtime autocrat Porfirio Díaz. The Revolution was characterized by several socialist, liberal, anarchist, populist, and agrarianist movements. Over time the Revolution...


Gunboat diplomacy in the post-Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

 world is still based mostly on naval forces, owing to the United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...

's overwhelming seapower. U.S. administrations have frequently changed the disposition of their major naval fleets to influence opinion in foreign capitals.
More urgent diplomatic points were made by the Clinton
Bill Clinton
William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton is an American politician who served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. Inaugurated at age 46, he was the third-youngest president. He took office at the end of the Cold War, and was the first president of the baby boomer generation...

 administration in the Yugoslav wars
Yugoslav wars
The Yugoslav Wars were a series of wars, fought throughout the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. The wars were complex: characterized by bitter ethnic conflicts among the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, mostly between Serbs on the one side and Croats and Bosniaks on the other; but also...

 of the 1990s (in alliance with the United Kingdom's Blair
Tony Blair
Anthony Charles Lynton Blair is a former British Labour Party politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2 May 1997 to 27 June 2007. He was the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield from 1983 to 2007 and Leader of the Labour Party from 1994 to 2007...

 government) and elsewhere, using sea-launched Tomahawk missiles, and E-3 AWACS airborne surveillance aircraft in a more passive display of military presence. The term "gunboat diplomacy" has been superseded in many circles by the more euphemistic
A euphemism is the substitution of a mild, inoffensive, relatively uncontroversial phrase for another more frank expression that might offend or otherwise suggest something unpleasant to the audience...

 "power projection
Power projection
Power projection is a term used in military and political science to refer to the capacity of a state to conduct expeditionary warfare, i.e. to intimidate other nations and implement policy by means of force, or the threat thereof, in an area distant from its own territory.This ability is a...


18th century

19th century

  • Second Barbary War
    Second Barbary War
    The Second Barbary War , also known as the Algerine or Algerian War, was the second of two wars fought between the United States and the Ottoman Empire's North African regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algeria known collectively as the Barbary states. The war between the Barbary States and the U.S...

  • Opium War (first one in 1840, the second one in 1856)
  • Nguyen-France war
  • Don Pacifico Incident
    Pacifico incident
    The Don Pacifico Affair concerned a Portuguese Jew, named David Pacifico , who was a trader and the Portuguese consul in Athens during the reign of King Otto. Pacifico was born in Gibraltar, a British possession. He was therefore a British subject...

  • Opening of Japan by Commodore
    Commodore (USN)
    Commodore was an early title and later a rank in the United States Navy and United States Coast Guard and a current honorary title in the U.S. Navy with an intricate history. Because the U.S. Congress was originally unwilling to authorize more than four ranks until 1862, considerable importance...

     Matthew C. Perry and his Black Ships
    Black Ships
    The Black Ships was the name given to Western vessels arriving in Japan in the 16th and 19th centuries.In 1543 Portuguese initiated the first contacts, establishing a trade route linking Goa to Nagasaki...

  • Anglo-Zanzibar War
    Anglo-Zanzibar War
    The Anglo-Zanzibar War was fought between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar on 27 August 1896. The conflict lasted 38 minutes and is the shortest war in history. The immediate cause of the war was the death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini on 25 August 1896 and the subsequent succession...

  • Yangtze River Patrol

20th century

  • Venezuela Crisis of 1902–1903
    Venezuela Crisis of 1902–1903
    The Venezuela Crisis of 1902 was a naval blockade from December of 1902 to February of 1903 imposed against Venezuela by Britain, Germany and Italy over President Cipriano Castro's refusal to pay foreign debts and damages suffered by European citizens in a recent Venezuelan civil war...

  • Panama separation from Colombia
  • Great White Fleet
    Great White Fleet
    The Great White Fleet was the popular nickname for the United States Navy battle fleet that completed a circumnavigation of the globe from 16 December 1907 to 22 February 1909 by order of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. It consisted of 16 battleships divided into two squadrons, along with...

  • Agadir Crisis
    Agadir Crisis
    The Agadir Crisis, also called the Second Moroccan Crisis, or the Panthersprung, was the international tension sparked by the deployment of the German gunboat Panther, to the Moroccan port of Agadir on July 1, 1911.-Background:...

  • First Taiwan Strait Crisis
    First Taiwan Strait Crisis
    The First Taiwan Strait Crisis was a short armed conflict that took place between the governments of the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China . The PRC seized the Yijiangshan Islands, forcing the ROC to abandon the Tachen Islands...

  • Second Taiwan Strait Crisis
    Second Taiwan Strait Crisis
    The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, also called the 1958 Taiwan Strait Crisis, was a conflict that took place between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China governments in which the PRC shelled the islands of Matsu and Quemoy in the Taiwan Strait in an attempt to seize them from...

  • American threat to the sovereignty of India during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971
  • Third Taiwan Strait Crisis
    Third Taiwan Strait Crisis
    The Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, also called the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis or the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis, was the effect of a series of missile tests conducted by the People's Republic of China in the waters surrounding Taiwan including the Taiwan Strait from July 21, 1995 to March 23, 1996...



  • Cable, James: Gunboat diplomacy. Political Applications of Limited Naval Forces, London 1971 (re-edited 1981 and 1994)
  • Wiechmann, Gerhard: Die preußisch-deutsche Marine in Lateinamerika 1866-1914. Eine Studie deutscher Kanonenbootpolitik (The Prussian-German Navy in Latin America 1866-1914. A study of German Gunboat diplomacy), Bremen 2002.
  • Wiechmann, Gerhard: Die Königlich Preußische Marine in Lateinamerika 1851 bis 1867. Ein Versuch deutscher Kanonenbootpolitik (The royal Prussian navy in Latin America 1851 to 1867. An attempt of German gunboat diplomacy), in: Sandra Carreras/Günther Maihold (ed.): Preußen und Lateinamerika. Im Spannungsfeld von Kommerz, Macht und Kultur, p. 105-144, Münster 2004.
  • Eberspächer, Cord: Die deutsche Yangtse-Patrouille. Deutsche Kanonenbootpolitik in China im Zeitalter des Imperialismus (The German Yangtse patrol. German Gunboat diplomacy in China in the age of imperialism), Bochum 2004.
  • Healy, D.: Gunboat Diplomacy in the Wilson Era. The U.S. Navy in Haiti 1915-1916, Madison WIS 1976.
  • Hagan, K. J.: American Gunboat Diplomacy and the Old Navy 1877-1889, Westport/London 1973.
  • Preston, A./Major, J.: Send a Gunboat! A study of the Gunboat and its role in British policy, 1854-1904, London 1967.
  • Krüger, Henning: Zwischen Küstenverteidigung und Weltpolitik. Die politische Geschichte der preußischen Marine 1848 bis 1867 (Between coastal defence and world policy. The political history of the prussian navy 1848 to 1867), Bochum 2008.

  • Long, D. F.: "Martial Thunder": The First Official American Armed Intervention in Asia, in: Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 42, 1973, p. 143-162.
  • Willock, R.: Gunboat Diplomacy: Operations of the (British) North America and West Indies Squadron, 1875-1915, Part 2, in: American Neptune, Vol. XXVIII, 1968, p. 85-112.
  • Bauer, K. J.: The "Sancala" Affair: Captain Voorhees Seizes an Argentine Squadron, in: American Neptune, Vol. XXIV, 1969, p. 174-186
  • N.N.: Die Vernichtung des haitianischen Rebellenkreuzers "Crete à Pierrot" durch S.M.Kbt. "Panther" (The destruction of the Haitian rebel cruiser "Crete à Pierrot" through His Majesty´s gunboat "Panther"), in: Marine-Rundschau, 13. Jahrgang, 1902, S. 1189-1197.
  • Rheder: Die militärische Unternehmung S.M.S.S. "Charlotte" und "Stein" gegen Haiti im Dezember 1897 (The military enterprise of His Majesty´s schoolships "Charlotte" and "Stein" against Haiti in December 1897), in: Marine-Rundschau, 41. Jahrgang, 1937, S. 761-765.

External links

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