#Reviewing Titan: The Art of British Power in the Age of Revolution and Napoleon

Titan: The Art of British Power in the Age of Revolution and Napoleon. William R. Nester. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.

Power, William Nester argues at the outset of his latest volume, “...is the art of doing what one can to get what one wants.”[1] This seemingly simple definition, while perfectly accurate, obscures a more complex reality. What one can do is the product of a host of elements, and the sources of power within a nation often come into conflict. Nester is fully aware of this, of course, and his book clearly demonstrates that having the elements of power and using them well are two markedly different things. Standing over the ashes of France’s failed Revolution in 1815, Britain proved itself beyond dispute as a nation that both possessed and knew how to use power. Yet in an age when practitioners long to translate America’s vast military might into clear victories, it is worth remembering that such dominating status never comes without heavy costs, and more than a few short-term defeats. Even the most powerful nations must endure to achieve their ambitions.

The Britain that vanquished Napoleon had the benefit of some remarkable practitioners of the art of power—notably William Pitt the Younger and Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington. Yet, Britain also staggered under the weight of more than a few incompetents, and France had one of history’s great military geniuses at the head of her armies. A handful of exceptional leaders cannot compensate for an inadequate or broken system. What separated the British from the French Empire, in Nester’s estimation, was a government and military that, on the whole, knew how to utilize and use all elements of power in a coherent fashion.

Few scholars are more prolific at dissecting the art of power in history than Nester. A professor of government and politics at St. John’s University, he boasts over thirty books on the subject, including a textbook on international relations and volumes detailing the use of power in the lives of George Rogers Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Andrew Jackson. None of these leaders, of course, presided over anything like the hyper-power that the United States has become today, and in Titan Nester turns his attention for the first time to a true global hegemon. The British Empire by the time of the French Revolution had suffered a crushing setback in the loss of its American colonies, but it was still the world’s foremost empire, boasting a navy that dominated the seas, and a colonial reach that stretched from  the Caribbean to India.

"Trafalgar Battle - 21st of October 1805 - Situation at 13h" by Nicholas Pocock (Wikimedia)

Nester zeroes in on the most crucial piece of Britain’s international power early on and keeps it at the forefront of his analysis throughout the book. Important as they were, it was not Britain’s navy or generals that enabled her to achieve her aims in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars; rather, it was because Britain possessed an economy that far surpassed any other in its strong credit and production capacity. While no commander matched Napoleon’s tactical skill on the battlefield, and no nation surpassed France in mobilizing the zeitgeist of the Revolutionary Era to engage in total war, neither was enough to stave off defeat. Britain emerged from what has been, credibly, called the world’s first total war because of its superior use of the era’s other revolution, the Industrial Revolution.[2] British leaders were able to use the industrial economy to buy a series of allies, and to fund the war machine that ground down France’s military might on sea and land.

It was this economic might that not only sustained Britain, but allowed it to minimize (in varying degrees) the impact of two decades of warfare on its population. While the Royal Navy stood at the heart of British power, Parliament was perfectly happy to outsource the war on land, fielding seven separate coalitions in which the bulk of the troops came from continental powers dependent upon British financing. Indeed, Nester argues that perhaps the most crucial factor of all was William Pitt the Younger’s prudent economic policies in the years leading up to the French Revolution, for these peacetime policies placed Britain in a position to win a long war when the moment came.

For all his expertise on power, Nester leans heavily on debatable definitions of hard and soft power. Titan defines soft power as psychological, in opposition to physical hard power.[3] Thus, he includes things like training, superior gunnery practice, and troop morale as soft power. He includes no discussion, however, of the appeal of Britain’s stable mixed constitution versus France’s revolutionary bloodbath and then military dictatorship. Nor does he fully define whether Britain’s economic might constituted hard or soft power. These definitions clash with the more widespread understanding of hard power as coercive versus soft power as persuasive, and indeed Nester’s understanding of the two is murkier than the traditional definitions.[4]

Thanks to the genius of Pitt, Wellington, and Nelson, but also to a government and military bureaucracy structured to succeed in the Industrial World, it was Britain who used all the elements of its power more effectively.

"William Pitt the Younger as Prime Minister of Great Britain" by Thomas Gainsborough (Wikimedia)

At the core of Titan’s argument, however, is the much more significant concept of smart power—the exercise of coercive and persuasive, economic and military, tactical and diplomatic power in wise measure. In short, smart power is the use of hard and soft power, however defined, in a way that best achieves the desired end. For France, the end goal was first the spread of its Revolution across the continent, and then under Napoleon the establishment of a continental empire under his rule. Britain sought to roll back the French Empire, establish a stable French government (which called for restoring the Bourbons more by default than any particular enthusiasm for their rule), and the maintenance of a balance of power that kept any one nation from dominating the continent. In the end, Britain achieved everything it wanted, and set up a system that lasted a full century. France’s short-term successes, however brilliant, gave way to complete and total collapse. Thanks to the genius of Pitt, Wellington, and Nelson, but also to a government and military bureaucracy structured to succeed in the Industrial World, it was Britain who used all the elements of its power more effectively.

While Nester does a laudable job summarizing the elements of power that came together in British victory, some still deserve more attention than they receive. One aspect of Britain’s triumph that held far greater significance than its coverage here would indicate is the sheer doggedness of the war effort. For twenty-two years, Britain stayed almost perpetually at war with France, and while it was possible to outsource most of the fighting to allies, thereby avoiding mass conscription, the conflict took an undeniable toll on the British public. The extent to which Parliament had to respond to public opinion, and the population’s willingness to buy in to the war effort were both vital elements of Britain’s ability to project power, and merit greater discussion here.

When the European order came crashing down in 1914, one of the casualties of the ensuing Great War was the idea that mankind had somehow progressed beyond major wars. The fact that another major European War could even occur took many observers by surprise. That such an attitude had a chance to develop is a testament to the century-long peace Britain forged in the aftermath of Napoleon’s reign. Just as Britain ultimately exercised power effectively enough to topple Napoleon (with help from Russian and Prussia, of course), she also used her combined military, economic, and diplomatic power to build a peace that endured over the rubble. The titanic struggle between Britain and France (and their respective allies) has been told many times, but the narrow focus here on Britain’s use of power is a welcome addition indeed, and Titan builds a compelling case for what made British victory possible. It will certainly prove useful to strategists and foreign policy practitioners, for while much has changed in the realm of war and diplomacy since the early nineteenth century, the need for smart power will not be ending anytime soon.

Thomas Sheppard is a historian at Naval History and Heritage Command. He is currently writing a book on civil-military relations in the early U.S. Navy. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: "The Battle of Waterloo" by Jan Willem Pieneman (Wikimedia)


[1] William R. Nester, Titan: The Art of British Power in the Age of Revolution and Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), 3.

[2] David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).

[3] Nester, Titan, 4.

[4] See: Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (Public Affairs, 2004); Giulio M Gallarotti, “Soft Power: What It Is, Why It’s Important, and the Conditions Under Which It Can be Effectively Used,” Journal of Political Power vol. 4, issue 1 (2011), 25-47