War Studies: Naval Diplomacy… What Navies Do.

Naval diplomacy, the peaceful use of the possibility of force…

“Naval diplomacy is about what navies actually do, rather than what they train for.”

– Kevin Rowlands

Naval diplomacy, a maritime, non-violent state’s activity that pursuits the national interest; an old practice, even observed by Thucydides’ when accounting of the power of the Athenian Fleet when it was deployed to impress members of the League of Delos, who threatened with independence. The hegemonic stability achieved by the Royal Navy during Pax Britannica (19thcentury), and the avoidance of nuclear conflagration in October 1962 are just two (out of multiple) historic examples of it.  

Naval diplomacy can be interpreted as the peaceful use of maritime-armed forces in relationship with foreign policy and the interest of the state. Its role as a builder of bilateral relations is invaluable and perhaps represents the most influential form of diplomacy throughout history. Today, naval diplomacy is applied by many nations; U.S., Russia, China, Japan, France, U.K., etc. are some examples of powerful states that make use of their sea forces to shape the world according to their survival needs. 

Can naval diplomacy be considered merely as a “subset” of coercive diplomacy? Kevin Rowlands, a Commander in the Royal Navy who has served in various ships and shore-based staffs and who holds master’s degrees in defense studies and a PhD in war studies from King’s College London (asks and) answers: “Not necessarily, because there are myriad ‘soft’ power initiatives from capacity building to the cultivation of friendships, the reassurance of allies, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, […] naval diplomacy is about what navies actually do, rather than what they train for.” (Kevin Rowlands, 2018: Loc. 362-364

Some Implications of the Practice of Naval Diplomacy 

In one of his works, Rowlands (2014) identifies several hypothesis that elaborate on the idea of Naval diplomacy and its implications in today’s world, out of which these three caught my attention:

  • Naval diplomacy is a subset of general diplomacy and will be used as a means of communication by maritime states in pursuit of their national interest. 
  • Existing models of naval diplomacy were developed in the Cold War and are products of their time. 
  • Existing models of naval diplomacy are limited by generally assuming a bilateral, mechanistic relationship between the actors involved. 

Rowlands explains that naval diplomacy can be expressed in several degrees and forms, beginning with “goodwill visits” by armed ships, simple, small-scale exercises, larger exercises that build up military capacity, provision of specialist capacity, security ties and simple operations, and interoperability and complex operations; to explain each, he mentions US examples, in the same order: US port visit to Ghadaffi-era Libya, Arab-Israeli SAR exercises, NATO partnership for peace exercises with former Warsaw Pact navies, Indian hydrographic surveys of Indian Ocean island states maritime domain, Indonesian / Malaysian / Singaporean Malacca strait patrols, and finally, US-UK Gulf war operations (ibid.) 

Joint operations are one of the forms of naval diplomacy explained by Royal Navy’s Commander Kevin Rowlands. Photo: A Canadian vessel interacts with Japanese ones.

Why is Naval Diplomacy necessary?

The simple answer: because tensions between nations have always been present, and ultimately because the goal of the state is survival. 2020 started with maritime frictions; e.g. in the Arabian-Persian Gulf, a strategic crossroads where almost a third of the world’s oil transits. Attacks on two oil tankers increased pressure in the sea corridor the previous summer following the US rejection of the Iranian nuclear treaty, and Washington had called for an international coalition to ensure the security of navigation against Iranian threats (Marion Soller, 2020). In another region of the planet, the South Chinese Sea has also witnessed quasi permanent conflicts between Chinese, American, Japanese, Cambodian, etc. actors.

Naval Diplomacy as a key component of Defense Diplomacy

Defense diplomacy is a concept recently introduced into the doctrines of armed forces around the world, which designates “all the non-violent activities of the armed forces which can contribute (…) to the international influence of a State” (Rowlands, 2018). Naval diplomacy is a key element of defense diplomacy, a subject which has been studied (only) since the 1970s, and as pointed out by Rowlands (ibid.), is a byproduct of the Cold War; two classic works of this period that refer to naval diplomacy include Sir James Cable’s “Gunboat Diplomacy” published in 1971, and Sergei Gorshkov’s -the man to whom the shape of the Soviet Navy is attributed- “The Sea Power of the State” published in 1979. 

Historically, the idea of Naval Diplomacy has been mainly related to J. Cable’s concept (1994), a tactical action that consists of applying pressure on an actor by sending a fleet which is always ready to use armed force, whatever the pursued objective is. Hervé Coutau-Bégarie (1956-2012), a French historian, political scientist, strategist (and laureate of the French Academy at 26 years old) considered Naval diplomacy as a form of Soft-Power, that at the same time implies a communication technology, which can easily turn into a strategic advantage (e.g. as the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba showed in October of 1962). According to Coutau-Bégarie, it is important to pay attention to the “weak signals”: “The extraordinary of naval diplomacy, that is to say, some major operations, is perhaps less important than the ordinary, that is to say, the almost uninterrupted succession of operations most often modest, sometimes even insignificant, but which, put end to end, reveal an influence, this notion almost impossible to define rigorously, but nevertheless unanimously understood” (Coutau-Bégarie, as cited in Soller 2020). Naval diplomacy also adds up to national prestige, e.g. last April the naval magazine celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Chinese navy underlined Beijing’s maritime ambitions, highlighting the participation of the first destroyer type 055, a particularly heavy one and powerfully armed. (ibid.)

Naval diplomacy can be considered as old as the oceans have been navigated, and a permanent expression of soft-power

Naval diplomacy as a deterrent

“While the primary purpose of navies is obviously to deal with high-intensity conflicts, a range of actions below this threshold can also influence the behavior of another state.” (Soller, 2020). The most obvious of these forms refers to the pressure that can represent the simple deployment of a fleet in a theater of operations, in most cases to dissuade another actor from intervening, the model of the British concept of “fleet in being” or “deterrent fleet”. If we exclude here the direct use of force, it is nevertheless a threat of this use, which then approaches a coercive logic and is not unlike a modern form of ” gunboat diplomacy” (Ibid.). In her analysis, Soller mentions that this logic has not changed up to the present day (Ibid.); she explains that in September 2018, first-class Russian ships led by the cruiser Marshal Oustinov, carried out a large-scale exercise in the eastern Mediterranean; the message was clear to Westerners but also to Turkey. Moscow’s objective was to dissuade NATO from intervening in the Syrian conflict, while asserting itself in its negotiations with Ankara over the province of Idlib.

The symbolic meaning of navies and their role in diplomacy

Naval diplomacy is currently practiced by several states, not only the most powerful ones; It’s not exclusive of the displaying of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines or of the latest generation of destroyers anymore; in fact, several countries with no significant fleets, have even built or adopted training vessels for officers, cadets, petty officers and sailors, which for the same token are used to build up bilateral relations with other nations, participate in international-maritime events, etc., i.e. the idea of power (by definition: the capacity to influence the actions of other actors), implies that Naval diplomacy might as well, win “hearts and minds” around the world and so, contribute to the achievement of the objectifs set by the state.


1. Cable, James. 1994. Gunboat Diplomacy 1919–1991: Political Applications of Limited Naval Force. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

2. Coutau-Bégarie, Hervé. 2010. Le meilleur des ambassadeurs : Théorie et pratique de la diplomacie navale. Paris, France: Economica, p. 89.

3. Gorshkov, Sergei. 2013. The Sea Power of the State. Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press. 

4. Rowlands, Kevin. 2018. Naval Diplomacy in 21st Century: A Model for the Post-Cold War Global Order. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

5. Rowlands, Kevin. 2014. Cable in the Wireless Age: Naval Diplomacy in the Post-Cold War Global Order. Consulted on June 26th, 2018. 

6. Soller, Marion. 2020. “La diplomatie navale : un outil de soft power ?” Areion24News, 25 juin 2020. Consulted on June 26th, 2018.

7. Wikipedia. 2020. “Hervé Coutau-Bégarie”. Consulted on June 25th, 2020. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hervé_Coutau-Bégarie

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