Gunboat Diplomacy – a dying art?


On 7th October 2023, a new conflict erupted between Israel and Hamas, to date resulting in over 10,000 dead and 1.6 million displaced on both sides. Four days later, the USS Gerald R Ford arrived in the Eastern Mediterranean, most likely as a show of force against Hamas and Hezbollah, and as a reminder to Iran of the continued American military presence in the region, despite a gradual retreat from Syria and Afghanistan between 2019 and 2021.

Israel, standing as an essential ally for American interests in the region, is evidently not going to be left alone in this crisis. Thus, despite the political and physical risks that President Biden could be subject to during his visit to Israel, he still decided to visit the country on the 18th October to bolster the American presence in the region.

The United States resorting to the so-called ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’ is not a new development in American foreign policy. In fact,
the first time the Americans used this method was back in 1815, more than two centuries ago, during the Second Barbary War against the Regency of Algiers. Now, the US Navy is back in the Mediterranean, and again, it is there as a show of strength towards the Middle Eastern countries who have been vociferous in their opposition to the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas. This new expedition by the USS Gerald R Ford and the USS Eisenhower, along with their accompanying strike groups, is a “part of [an American] effort to deter hostile actions against Israel or any efforts toward widening this war following Hamas’s attack on Israel,” according to Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. The choice to deploy the USS Gerald R Ford is substantial, as this carrier is the Navy’s newest and most advanced aircraft carrier. Compared to the deployment of USS Carney in the Black Sea as a show of force against Russia in 2019, the deployment of the USS Gerald R Ford proves how much of an essential ally Israel is to the United States.

The first time the Americans used this method was back in 1815, more than two centuries ago, during the Second Barbary War against the Regency of Algiers

However, does the United States run the risk of having its forces overstretched, especially considering the number of international disputes the superpower is involved in? Despite the belief that the US is hugely involved in this war, it has taken little military action. It is highly unlikely that the country will decide to get itself militarily involved in this conflict, especially considering the fact that Vice-President Kamala Harris has stated that the US has “absolutely no intention” of sending American combat troops to Israel. There may be many reasons behind this, such as avoiding an escalation of the conflict. However, a key reason for this position is the looming elections in November 2024. If the current administration decides to send troops to fight an ally’s war, it runs the risk of losing popularity among the American electorate, similar to how Lyndon B. Johnson lost his popularity by sending troops to Vietnam, which
caused him not to run in the 1968 presidential elections.

President Biden is currently facing a fierce challenge to his campaign, with his approval rate decreasing from 53% at the beginning of his presidency to 40% today. This decline is due in substantial part to issues surrounding the removal of troops from Afghanistan, the War in Ukraine and high inflation. If the government decides to send troops to Israel, it faces the difficulty of harsh opposition and a major fall in the already low approval rates. Meanwhile, the administration faces the looming shadow of national debt nearing $35 trillion USD, a number unprecedented in American financial history. Any substantial increase in military expenditure could spiral American debt out of control, deepening the country’s political divide even further.

Does the United States run the risk of having its forces overstretched?

Gunboat diplomacy has historically been effective for the United States. In 1853, the US Navy was able to take Japan out of its isolationist policy. Nevertheless, diplomacy has changed over the past decade, especially since the start of China’s Belt and Road
Initiative. Though its effectiveness is disputed, with several countries on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of Chinese financing, the
scale of the project eclipses the US’ Marshall Plan, or indeed any other global investment effort. The true effects of the Belt and
Road Initiative, and whether it can supplant ‘gunboat diplomacy,’ may not be known for decades. Although military diplomacy is not
as common as it was in the 20th century, the recent developments in the Middle East show that the United States is still engaging in
this kind of diplomacy to support its allies, potentially opting out of direct intervention, but still acting as a ‘passive-but-biased’ bystander.

Image: Official US Navy Page via Flickr

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