The term comes from the nineteenth-century period of imperialism, when European powers would intimidate other, less powerful states into granting concessions through a demonstration of their superior naval 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 fire.
A notable and controversial example of gunboat diplomacy was the Don Pacifico Incident in 1850, in which the British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston dispatched a squadron of the Royal Navy to blockade the Greek port of Piraeus in retaliation for the harming of a British subject, David Pacifico, in Athens, and the subsequent failure of the government of King Otto to compensate the Gibraltar-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) 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, and expansion of empire.
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 materials and overseas markets.
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.”
E-3 AWACS, surveillance and radar aircraft often used in a modern day form of gunboat diplomacy.
Gunboat diplomacy is considered a form of hegemony. As the United States became a military power in the first decade of the 20th century, the Rooseveltian version of gunboat diplomacy, big stick diplomacy, was partially superseded by dollar diplomacy: replacing the big stick with the “juicy carrot” of American private investment. However, during Woodrow Wilson’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.
Gunboat diplomacy in the post-Cold War world is still based mostly on naval forces, owing to the U.S. Navy’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 administration in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s (in alliance with the United Kingdom’s Blair government) and elsewhere, using sea-launched Tomahawk missiles, and E-3 AWACS airborne surveillance aircraft in a more passive display of military presence
In the 1960s Britain’s government shut down pirate-radio ships not by sending the navy to attack them but by banning British suppliers and advertisers from doing business with them.
gunboat diplomacy replaced by economics politics…