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The Risks of Coercive Naval Diplomacy

Painting of the wreck of USS Maine, by A. Melero

Not a month goes by without another book or article addressing the challenge of accommodating a growing China and a truculent Russia within the international framework, with a great deal of hand wringing about the implications of expanding Chinese and Russian capabilities at sea, in the air, in space, and in cyberspace. Military experts warn that operating US ships and aircraft on and above disputed waters is becoming increasingly dangerous as new generations of long-range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles becomes available to both first and second rate powers. One senses a growing awareness that naval diplomacy is becoming more risky, but most of the literature on coercion is mired in the language of the atomic age or echoes the logic of graduated escalation that led us astray in Vietnam. More attention needs to be devoted to the risks of naval or airpower diplomacy, and the slippery slope that leads from “naval incident” to intervention and war.

President William McKinley’s gradual embrace of naval coercion as part of his policy toward Spain over the course of 1897 provides a marvelous case study of the risks inherent in naval diplomacy. McKinley’s predecessor, President Grover Cleveland, recognized that gunboat diplomacy might draw the United States into a war with Spain, and had declined to employ it. He had rejected calls from his Consul General in Havana to station an American warship with marines at Key West, noting that he “did not want now anything of that kind made a convenient excuse for trouble with Spain.” McKinley chose otherwise, first sending the Maine to South Carolina, then Key West, and eventually to Havana. The battleship’s catastrophic destruction on 15 February 1898 and the subsequent slide to war have obscured the question about the purpose of the Maine’s visit. Why did McKinley employ naval diplomacy when his predecessor had deliberately suspended naval port calls to Cuba in order avoid some sort of incident? What purpose did the dispatch of the vessel to Havana serve? Lastly, did the Maine’s destruction deflect, accelerate, and leave unaffected the trajectory of McKinley’s policy toward Spain and Cuba?

The incident

As dawn broke on the clear Tuesday morning of January 25, 1898, the USS Maine sighted the Cuban coast as it approached Havana. The Maine, a second class battleship commissioned less than four years previously, bristled with a primary battery of four 10-inch guns, a secondary battery of six 6-inch guns, fifteen smaller rapid fire guns, and four Gatling machine guns. It had been ordered to Havana ostensibly to pay a courtesy call, though the timing of the visit – less than two weeks after serious rioting shook Havana – made many doubt the US government’s characterization of the port call as nothing more than a “purely friendly matter.” As the ship neared the harbor entrance, there was anxious tension onboard as to whether the Maine would be peppered with rifle and artillery fire or received in a friendly manner. The peaceful approach of a Spanish pilot boat dispelled this initial trepidation, with the Maine mooring near the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII and a visiting German training ship, the Gneisenau.

The McKinley administration went to great lengths to portray the Maine’s visit as nothing more than the resumption of friendly naval visits to Cuban ports following an interlude during which the US Navy had suspended port visitations after the outbreak of armed rebellion in Spain’s “ever faithful isle” in 1895. Secretary of the Navy John D. Long vented in his journal that American newspapers were attempting to “discover some hidden meaning” behind the port call when none existed. Captain Sigsbee recalled that his reception at the various customary visits to local dignitaries had been courteous, correct, and without incident. The subsequent twenty days gave little cause for concern, with Sigsbee showing off the ship to various official parties, attending dinners ashore, and even accepting the invitation of the acting Spanish governor general to attend a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros in nearby Regla. The port visit seemed on the verge of becoming one of those unremarkable, unremembered episodes of naval diplomacy when on February 15th, precisely three weeks after the Maine made fast to buoy nr. 4 in Havana harbor, catastrophe struck.

Captain Sigsbee was sitting in his port cabin finishing a letter to his wife shortly after taps had sounded when he recalled “a bursting, rending, and crashing sound or roar of immense volume…followed by a succession of heavy, ominous, metallic sounds” and a “trembling and lurching motion of the vessel, a list to port, and a movement of subsidence.” Lieutenant John J. Blandon, standing watch on the quarterdeck, recalled a dull, sullen roar followed by a sharp explosion that seemed to emanate from the port side forward. A shower of “missiles of all descriptions, from huge pieces of cement to blocks of wood, steel railings, fragments of gratings and all the debris that would be detachable in an explosion” rained down, with a chunk of cement striking him in the head and causing him to fall. Within minutes, the quarterdeck was awash with water.

As muster rolls and the coming of morning light slowly made clear, the casualties aboard the Maine were shocking. Of the Maine’s 328 enlisted crew, 250 died at the scene, 8 died later from wounds, and 54 were injured. Only 16 enlisted men emerged physically unscathed. Many of the injured suffered horribly from burn wounds, impact lacerations and the like.

Sending the Maine to Havana. Gunboat Diplomacy or Return to Normality?

William McKinley assumed the presidency with full knowledge that Congress would surely revisit the Cuban question in the near future if he failed to move toward a resolution of the issue. McKinley had not made Cuba a significant component of his 1896 bid for the presidency, and at the start of his campaign he put off questions about Cuba by blandly noting that “I most politely decline to go on record. At this time I do not care to speak about it.” His inaugural address discussed the economy, bimetallism, tariffs, and civil service reform but made no mention of Cuba, instead reminding listeners that in general “War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed; peace is preferable to war in almost every contingency.” While there is no indication that McKinley wanted war, a careful look at his diplomacy shows that he was willing to back diplomatic demands with veiled threats, not ruling out the resort to force should declaratory pressure be insufficient.

McKinley may not have wanted war, but he diverged from the Cleveland administration’s policy by adding coercive ingredients to his diplomacy. Alexander George’s concept of “coercive diplomacy” comes closest to capturing McKinley’s willingness to employ subtle, understated, but implied threats of force. George conceives of coercive diplomacy as the symbiosis between negotiations, threats, and incentives where force plays a “modest, and often inconspicuous, role” and threats and incentives can be employed either to stop a state from undertaking certain actions (deterrence) or to convince it to do something it otherwise would not do absent external pressure (compellence). McKinley sought both to deter and compel Spain. He sent protests demanding that Spanish authorities release Americans detained in Cuban prisons and he insisted that they do more to alleviate the situation of the unfortunate reconcentrados dying in Cuba. He appealed to Congress for money to aid Americans in Cuba, and subsequently persuaded Spain to open Cuban ports to the delivery of food and medicines to desperate reconcentrados as well. Most directly, in September 1897 he directed his Minister to Spain, Stewart Woodford, to inquire whether the time had not arrived for Spain to put an end to the war in Cuba. The diplomatic clock was ticking, though courtesy dictated against setting a time limit or specifying the consequences for Spain should it ignore the President’s advice and offer.

McKinley’s more assertive tone appeared to bear fruit. By December 1897, the last Americans incarcerated or facing charges had been released or expelled from Cuba. Disputes related to filibustering had been largely resolved, with Spain apologizing for incidents at sea where Spanish vessels had mistakenly intercepted or fired upon US merchant ships. Most striking, Spain repudiated “Butcher” Weyler’s counterinsurgency strategy of forcibly relocating Cuba’s rural population to Spanish controlled zones in order to deprive rebels of food, supplies, and assistance, revoking the infamous reconcentrado edicts. It appeared to the administration that McKinley’s tougher – though “most courteous and friendly” – diplomacy was bearing fruit.

Nevertheless, McKinley’s assertive diplomacy fell short in several essential areas if one considers the prerequisites for successful coercive diplomacy which Alexander George and others have derived from a wide range of case studies. While McKinley clearly desired that the new Spanish government should embark on a course of action that previous governments had spurned, he gave no indication of what such a settlement might entail. McKinley backed his demands with such veiled, opaque threats that the consequences of Spanish inaction were unclear. Using the diplomatic language of the era, McKinley informed the Spanish government that “should his [McKinley’s] present effort be fruitless his duty to his countrymen will necessitate an early decision as to the course of action which the time and the transcendent emergency may demand.” What the Spanish were to make of this is unclear. The lead theorist of coercive diplomacy, Alexander George, theorizes that successful coercive diplomacy springs from clear objectives, a sense of urgency, strong leadership, domestic support, and clarity concerning the precise terms of settlement. McKinley’s diplomacy – persuasive with a whiff of compellence - lacked both clarity and precision.

A subtle shift from purely persuasive diplomacy to gentle coercion can be detected in the McKinley administration’s embrace of naval diplomacy. McKinley’s Secretary of the Navy, John Long, recorded in his private journal that in the first meetings of the new administration, “consideration was given to the suggestion to dispatch a man-of-war to Havana.” The administration deferred the matter, preferring not to “arouse the suspicion that the United States was applying pressure” on Spain. This was in line with the preceding Cleveland administration’s policy, as was the Washington’s negative response to Consul General Lee’s request to send an American warship to Havana in June 1897. Yet when Lee again raised the issue in late November, asking that at least two warships be sent to Key West so that he might call upon them should the situation in Havana deteriorate, the McKinley administration met him halfway by sending the USS Maine to Key West.

The administration surely knew that Spanish agents would inform Madrid that the United States had sent a battleship to Key West. In addition, shortly before Congress broke for its winter recess, the administration announced that the North Atlantic Squadron would resume its former practice of holding winter drills and squadron maneuvers off the Keys. The administration assured the Spanish government that the measure was a return to normalcy, but coming on the heels of McKinley’s State of the Union address where he alluded to taking “further and other actions” should the Spanish government veer away from “the new order of things to which she stands irrevocably committed,” the signal was clear. The administration characterized these measures as routine in public, able to politely downplay its subtle threats because the yellow press was trumpeting the obvious.

British diplomat Sir James Eric Sydney Cable captures the subtleties of naval coercive diplomacy better than anyone, and his work on gunboat diplomacy provides an additional set of concepts helpful to understanding McKinley’s use of naval diplomacy in early 1898. Cable held that naval power can be used in four different ways to support diplomacy. It can be used as a definitive force that creates a fait accompli. It can be a purposeful force that aims to change the policy or character of a targetted government. It can be used to buy breathing space or to increase the range of options available to policy makers, a role he terms catalytic force. Lastly, one can use naval power as expressive force to send a political message.

McKinley’s decision to send the Maine to Havana neither sought to create a fait accompli nor to change the policy of the new Spanish government. Instead, it sought to reinforce and render irrevocable the Spanish government’s change of course. McKinley sought to avoid American intervention except as a last resort. He wanted a peaceful resolution to the conflict but reserved the right to use force should it be necessary. He sent the Maine to Havana to buy time (catalytic force) and to reinforce the message (expressive force) that he delivered in the State of the Union: the war in Cuba must end. The ambiguities of this demand would come home to roost after the Maine’s destruction.

Sending a ship to Havana served to placate jingoes in the House and Senate and reinforced McKinley’s reminder to Spain that time was of the essence. The Maine steamed into Havana Harbor on the morning of 25 January, less than 24 hours after Day first broached the topic of naval visits with the Spanish Minister in Washington. In Madrid, the Minister of State was notified of the visit by the US minister to Spain some twelve hours after the Maine dropped anchor in Havana. While McKinley, Day, and Long might claim that the visit was merely a resumption of routine and mutual naval visits to one another’s ports, the Spanish understood that it was more. Dispatching the Maine to Havana was sending a signal, though what that signal was and to whom it was directed was not particularly clear.

Members of Congress were delighted by news that the Maine had been sent to Havana. The American press trumpeted the arrival of the ship as a signal of American strength and determination. The Spanish press was less enthused about the visit, portraying it as an affront to Spain that only served to encourage Cuban insurgents in their obstinacy. Sigsbee noticed that beneath the veneer of formal courtesy and strict adherence to protocol, his Spanish hosts were less than pleased with a naval visit they had not requested but could not reject without diplomatic incident. Spain, after all, had not protested when Imperial Germany sent its officer training ship, the SMS Gneissenau, to Cuba the week before.

John Long, the Secretary of the Navy, noted that the administration initially intended that the Maine’s port visit should be brief. In addition to the Maine, the United States sent the cruiser Montgomery on a port visit to a different Cuban port. The administration hoped that the simultaneous port visits would underscore the United States’ keen interest in a rapid settlement of the Cuban problem. Once in Cuba, it became difficult to extricate the vessels without undermining this message. Fitzhugh Lee, the American consul general, cautioned against pulling out the Maine without replacing the ship with another American warship, preferably a first-class battleship. This assuredly would have upped the ante, but events took another course. Three weeks to the day after arriving in Havana, the Maine exploded in the harbor.

McKinley’s reputation has increased in stature over the last half-century, in part because biographers have assessed his performance as a war leader more favorably over the course of time. Yet if one considers McKinley’s goals and preferences before the war, the record is less impressive. McKinley sought to use naval diplomacy and coercion to push Spain to settling the Cuban issues without resorting to war. McKinley sought to use expressive and catalytic naval power to send a political message and to buy time in December 1897 –January 1898. The Maine’s destruction and the subsequent interaction of domestic forces in the United States pushed McKinley along a path he had not intended to follow. War unleashed forces that McKinley and Cleveland had held at bay. Diplomatic historian Ernest May’s quip that McKinley “led his country unwillingly toward a war that he did not want for a cause in which he did not believe” still holds.

U.S. naval and air forces are currently engaged in a dangerous dialogue with their Russian and Chinese counterparts in the Baltic, Black, Barents, and South and East China Seas. In April, the USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) was buzzed multiple times by two Russian Su-24 attack aircraft while operating in international waters roughly 70 nautical miles from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. The incident mirrored similar episodes in the Black Sea, where Russian aircraft intercepted the USS Ross (DDG 71) off the Crimean peninsula in international waters in May 2015 and conducted low pass overflights of the USS Donald Cook the year before. The Chinese have likewise reacted aggressively to US freedom of navigation and ISR operations in the South and East China Seas. In May 2016, Chinese J-11 fighters closed to within 50 feet of a U.S. Navy EP-3 Aries aircraft operating over international waters off Hainan island, an incident reminiscent of the 2001 aerial collision of a Chinese J-I interceptor and an EP-3 Aries II signals intelligence plane. Underlining its insistence that China will pay no attention to the ruling due to be issued on 12 July by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague on conflicting Chinese and Philippine claims in the South China Seas, the communist party’s People’s Daily recently editorialized that China will not be intimidated by US naval diplomacy. This administration and its successor should think clearly about what it will do if Russia, China, or another state accidentally or deliberately sinks, captures, or detains an American ship upholding international rights and principles. If deterrence fails, pressure will build quickly for a response, and the options available may be unpalatable.