Whale vs. Elephant

In the history of empire and geopolitics there has been a series of classic imperial “match ups” that reflect different imperial regimes. I like to call these narratives, colloquially, whale versus elephant. The Whale is always a maritime empire, whose strength rests on commerce, an assortment of allies and colonies, with a republican type of government. The Elephant is a land-based empire who strength rests on large, powerful armies; its government tends to be autocratic. There are of course many exceptions which keep the comparison interesting; I will try to touch on as many of these as I can.

Here are the classic match-ups: Athens (Whale) vs. Sparta (Elephant), Carthage (Whale) vs. Rome (Elephant), England (Whale) vs. France and later Germany(Elephants), and finally, USA (Whale) vs. USSR (Elephant).

Das Zeitalter des Perikles / Foltz - The Age of Pericles / Foltz - L'epoque de Pericles / FoltzAthens and Sparta are the first, and as you might expect, represent the classic imperial conflict. This rivalry operated on many different levels. Most striking is the different political and cultural rivalry between the two. The image here on the right depicts Pericles’ Funeral Oration during the Peloponnesian War (the war between Athens and Sparta, in which Athens is destroyed). The Funeral Oration itself depicts Athens at its full imperial glory, where Pericles explains what makes Athens special and different. As you can gather from the picture, there are a number of important cultural and artistic references, and the crowd listening to Pericles both indicate the republican, democratic, as well as artistic nature of the Athenians. Most Greek city-states would have been oligarchic in nature, and we know that there was major tensions between the aristocrats and the people in each city; Athens achieved a extremely high level of citizen participation (reading their constitution, one wonders if they had time for anything else but to sit on committees). The interesting contrast with Sparta is that, while Sparta was indeed a conservative, oligarchic place, it was famous for its militaristic, communal way of life. In this sense, the Spartans had a very egalitarian society, making it the model for weird utopian visions from Plato’s ‘The Republic” onward.

BattleofZamaTrans Carthage (in modern day Tunisia), was an oligarchic trading empire in the eastern Mediterranean.  Rome, also on the rise, was a aristocratic republic whose strength led in the tactical power of the legion, in turn based on the discipline inspired by citizenship. In the picture to the left, it is the Carthaginians using the war elephants (but they are more of the whale here), and the infinity on the right represent the ultimately successful Roman legions. Politically speaking, the Romans are more interesting then the Carthaginians due to the enormous expansion of the Roman Republic. Sparta was never good at converting its communal warrior-monks into an attractive model for other peoples. To this day, people and governments draw history and legacy from the Romans. It is also interesting to note that in these ancient imperial rivalries, it is the Elephant that wins (usually after the Whale is defeated or neutralized on the sea).

Skipping hundreds of years, we reach the early modern period of the 17th century, where France was emerging as a cultural and military powerhouse. The resplendant Louis XIV, known as the Sun-King due in part to his claims to Absolutist monarchy, inheriting a France which had been carefully and consciously reformed  by previous kings and officials, embarked on a series of expansionary wars. France’s expansion in the 17th century marked the beginning of a power dynamic in Europe that would remain valid for several hundred years. As France emerged as the Elephant, England, partially in response, began to emerge as the Whale. To contain the Sun-King, England subsidized European powers, especially the Hapsburg Austrian Empire to fight the French, while England maintained a naval blockade of the French, attacked and annexed their colonies. This strategy reached its climax with French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars that followed.

Napoleon_returnedIt is at this time, that the English start to pick up on the narrative of the Whale and the Elephant, or the autocratic land power versus the republican, democratic, sea power. What you can also see happening is that the Whale starts to win over the Elephant, which I think reflects changing economics and technology more than anything else.  At the height of the British Empire, a British geographer, Mackinder, formulates his global Heartland theory. This is very much a geographer’s attempt at geopolitics; but he postulates that world history rests on the pivot of roughly modern day central asia as the center of the largest land mass; ultimately, he who controls this central pivot area can control the world. This may seem worn and dubious today, but at the time it reflected England’s global empire, and its anxiety in maintaining it in the face of the Elephants of Europe (namely France, or Germany, or Russia).


Above, we have some modern replicas of the ancient Greek tireme (three banks of oars for the best possible ramming speeds; but also useless for trade and commerce). On the right, we see poster which shows us part of the narrative of the sea power. England, having been the leading empire for hundreds of years, is an “island fortress” sustained by a massive naval and commercial presence (threatened by various land-power attempts to gain control of the seas). After the victory of England in the Napoleonic Wars, and the unification of Germany into an empire in 1870, Germany increasingly plays the role of Elephant, which again looses in a series of wars to Whale.


The final match up, the Cold War of USA vs USSR is much better known. It is interesting to note the role of Mackinder’s Heartland thesis plays in the doctrine of Containment; they are psychologically and emotionally linked. There is a sense of playing for global domination, so one side must gather as much land as one can to ultimately win. The above picture really does a good job of illustrating it. USA military strategy to this day is based on the doctrine of power-projection, a quintessential sea power tactic. The image of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier, capable of delivering an air force anywhere, easily contrasted with the image of hundreds of Soviet tanks pouring into Germany, captures the essence between the Whale and the Elephant.

Maybe a separate post later about exceptions and dubious cases to this model.




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