Gunboat Diplomacy

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"Oh, this old thing? She's nothing really. You should see the real heat I'm packing back home."[1]

"Speak softly, and Carry a Big Stick; you will go far."

The use of a military force in a threatening manner, but without being blatant about it or actually opening fire on anyone.

For example, conducting a military exercise off an enemy's coast would be a clear example of gunboat diplomacy. The idea is to remind your enemies (and your friends) that you have a capable military force and you are willing to use it to defend your interests. Also, if the other side calls your bluff and sinks the gunboat (or you arrange a False-Flag Operation), it gives you a perfectly good Pretext for War.

Still pretty common today; it just involves aircraft carriers instead of gunboats.

Compare with: Screw the Rules, I Have a Nuke and Aggressive Negotiations. Overlaps considerably with Flaunting Your Fleets. See also Leonine Contract.

Examples of Gunboat Diplomacy include:


  • The Sand Pebbles depicts Western gunboat diplomacy in 1920s China. Quite literally: the setting is a gunboat.


  • The Howard Taylor novel Show of Force starts off as this by both sides over a missile deployment in the Indian Ocean and ends up turning into a full-scale naval battle.
  • Happens all the time in Tom Clancy novels. The Bear And The Dragon has attack subs maneuvering near the Chinese coast long before hostilities begin, along with naval ships anchored in Taiwan, and Executive Orders has a premier tank squadron training in the Negev desert just before the UIR's invasion of its neighbors. Debt Of Honor subverts the whole thing by having the US and Japan conducting a joint training mission, and then having the Japanese navy doing the equivalent of cold-cocking the American forces returning to Pearl Harbor.
    • Seriously. If you see the phrase "training exercise" anywhere in a Clancy novel, it's a safe bet it's actually this.
    • Considered, but not actually implemented in Rainbow Six, where the Rainbow troops were considering making their existence public just intimidate the to terrorists into keeping their heads down.
  • The New Republic did this to the Hutts in the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Darksaber.
    • And in The Thrawn Trilogy, Thrawn in the Chimera would, ah, persuade neutral worlds to support the Empire.
    • The Empire liked this. There's something called the "Tarkin Doctrine", which basically goes that it's better to rule by fear of force than force itself.
    • Threatened to happen in Starfighters of Adumar. Both the Empire and the New Republic were trying to win over a neutral world, and both had beforehand signed treaties stating that if they were not the favored party, they would withdraw all forces for three days and not return except under "formal banners of truce or war". The Empire intended to ignore that if it came to it, but the Imperial in charge hated being ordered to break his word so much that the New Republic ambassador, Wedge Antilles, was able to talk him out of it.
  • One of the space ships in Iain M. Banks Culture novels is actually named Gunboat Diplomat.
  • The final book in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar series features two spaceships. The first is Admiral Peary which is close to the conventional ships The Race uses and comes to negotiate on fair terms. The second is the Commodore Perry. Its purpose is not to negotiate on fair terms...
    • The Admiral Peary is armed with nukes, as a safeguard against the lizards doing anything bad to Earth in their absense. If that isn't gunboat diplomacy, I don't know what is. The Commodore Perry is an FTL-capable ship that took only 5 weeks to get to Tau Ceti. The mere fact that is was able to do that freaked out the Race more than the weapons it carried. Even if they managed to destroy the ship, the humans would just send another that could attack as soon as it arrived in orbit in a matter of weeks, as opposed to decades.
  • In the Vorkosigan Saga, Aral Vorkosigan pulls a clever reversal of this; he draws up a list of a neighbouring polity's top five requested diplomatic concessions and suggests it as an agenda for a summit. The diplomacy, in this case, is purely so that he can get his gunboat closer to where he suspects the action will take place. He's right, and it results in one hell of a Gunship Rescue moment.
  • Done by numerous parties in the Honorverse. In Silesia both the Manticoreans and the Andermani are constantly doing this. You would feel sorry for the locals except that they are a lawless bunch ruled by human traffickers and they kind of deserve what they get.
  • In Star Trek: Articles of the Federation, United Federation of Planets President Bacco resorts to this when overseeing negotiations between the Carreon and the Deltans. The Deltans require a new water reclamation system for their planet, and the Carreon have the design they need. Because of an old feud, however, the Carreon refuse to negotiate properly. Bacco ends up using the implied threat of Federation military strength to stop the Carreon messing the Deltans around. As she tells the Carreon Ambassador, diplomacy is the means by which conflict is avoided. If Carrea won't negotiate in good faith, the only remaining option is war- and she makes it clear Carrea wouldn't stand a chance.
  • Retaking the Lone Islands with one ship in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
  • The War of the Worlds is usually read as an allegory for the British Empire's gunboat diplomacy in the late nineteenth century.
  • This is standard policy for the Earth Federation when dealing with space-faring aliens in Mikhail Akhmanov's Trevelyan's Mission series. This is justified, as humanity's first (and many subsequent) encounters with aliens haven't exactly been on friendly terms. As such, all ambassadors are ferried by top-of-the-line cruisers. Then again, given that this 'verse has instant Casual Interstellar Travel, it's not that big a deal. The only time they did not do that is when a race of Technical Pacifists (who can somehow accurately predict possible futures using an advanced form of intuition) requested that no warships be present at negotiations.
  • In Jingo Vetinari shoots down the suggestion that Ankh-Morpork sent a warship to Klatch for this purpose on the grounds that, firstly, that sort of thing is not done in modern diplomacy and, secondly, Ankh-Morpork doesn't have any warships.

Live-Action TV

  • In just the second episode of Yes Minister Hacker finds himself faced with a tricky situation involving the new dictator of an African state who, for various reasons, they need something from, but who is threatening to cause an embarrassing incident. The foreign secretary muses jokingly that in the old days they would just send in a gunboat. Hacker then asks if that is, absolutely, out of the question, to shocked stares.
    • In Yes Prime Minister, Hacker (now PM), arranges for a full battalion of paratroopers to pay a goodwill visit to a small third-world country that may just be about to suffer from a Communist uprising, against Sir Humphrey's wishes.

Hacker: And the Americans say they have an entire airborne division standing by in case we need reinforcements.
Sir Humphrey: Reinforcements of what, Prime Minister?
Hacker: Reinforcements of goodwill, Humphrey!

  • Happens quite often in the various versions of Star Trek. Captain Kirk does it well because he is such a Badass.
    • Federation Diplomacy seems to consist of sending two diplomats to discuss things in a patronising manner, then holding the talks on a massively over-armed starship in orbit above one of the party's homeworld.
      • To give them some credit, the interests they push with the show of force seem to be limited to "don't fight each other while you're supposed to be talking" and "don't try to fight us." Everything else is on the table pretty fairly.
    • This is lampshaded in the original script for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Scotty protests "I haven't served 30 years in the engine room of a Starship to be accused of gunboat diplomacy!"
    • In Starfleet's defence, one of the reasons why it happens so often is that the first contact goes violent often enough that you have to back it up with firepower simply to be safe — and as warp travel is generally too slow to get reinforcements there in reasonable time, that means the ships making first contact have to have that firepower. End result: the Federation keeps making initial agreements with newly discovered species while a starship capable of wiping out a civilization hangs around nearby.
  • In The Sopranos, a real estate agent refuses to do business with Tony, so he has some of his men park a boat next to the agent's beach house and play loud music.
  • Done by Delenn in Babylon 5, Severed Dreams. Widely considered a CMOA.
    • Earlier in the season, happens all over the place in A Voice In The Wilderness, with over a half-dozen races (including Earth and a previously-unknown race) all pulling this at once when it is discovered that there is some very powerful, very advanced technology buried beneath the planet that the station orbits. After a brief, inconclusive battle, the planet itself, now acting through its new caretaker, DRALL informs all involved parties that none of them can have the planet, and that any who approach without permission will be destroyed.
    • And Subverted in Rumors, Bargains, and Lies, when Sheridan orders the Rangers to attack and destroy some random asteroids. The League races know that the White Stars have far superior sensors to anything they have, and thus assume that they were fighting an invisible enemy. Sheridan does nothing to convince them otherwise, and welcomes them into a new military alliance.
    • A common accusation is the invitation for Earth to join the Interstellar Alliance happened during the end of the rebellion, and included dozens of advance warships doing a flyover of the capital.
  • The whole reason of the High Guard having such fancy and overly powerful warships designed by Now extinct Vedrans was so the High Guard could flaunt their unimaginable destructive potential and deter belligerent species from hostilities during negotiations. Usually these were discussions that involved joining the Commonwealth either by free will or with the guns of a mile long warship that looks like an Italian-sportscar-in-space trained on them. The XMC class or Glorious Heritage-class heavy cruisers like the Andromeda Ascendant were built for exactly this purpose. They were the diplomatic flagships of the Commonwealth that usually operated without a task force for extended periods of time. The stupid amounts of firepower and the ability to crack an M-class planet like an egg in only a few minutes and a legion of lancers gave the High Guard captain a pretty good bargaining position. XMC heavy cruisers were also used for long range exploration because of this capability.
    • This didn't do much good against the Pyrians, whose ships were at least a match for the Glorious Heritage class. Also, unlike the Commonwealth, the Pyrians never went anywhere.

Tabletop Games

  • Leviathans notes this as a background for missions. In that there don't need to be a total war to have minor air fleet skirmishes around disputed or otherwise "hot" areas all the time, since inevitably some or other power is going to flex muscles now and then, and another may try to "show them who's the real boss here" outright, or just respond in kind and let it escalate.


  • "Please Hello" from Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures has America, British, Dutch, Russian and French admirals bringing Japan their demands for treaty ports and such, demands which are punctuated by cannon shots.

Video Games

  • Pissing off a superpower in Tropico 1 and 3 will have them sent out a gunboat that will sail menacingly around your island. Continue to piss off the superpower, and they'll follow up with troop deployments.
  • Works surprisingly well in Galactic Civilizations 2. Sure, your enemies won't like it, and they'll try to politically undermine you every chance they get, but hell if they aren't polite.

"Oh, [Player Name], what a delight it is to speak with y- ...look, just don't hurt us, ok?"

  • In Tales of Vesperia, The Empire stations the Heracles mobile fortress outside the city of Dahngrest during the negotiations with the leaders of the guilds, this is noted by the inhabitants of the guild city.
  • You can play a variant of this in Shin Megami Tensei II if your main character is sufficiently high level, when trying to bind demons. When the demon demands payment for joining you, simply refuse. It starts kicking up a fuss. You can then either calm it down, or rebuke it... which will scare it enough to immediately stop fussing and join you, for fear of what you might do otherwise.

Real Life

  • At the height of its power in the 1800s, the British Empire became famous for this. It was said that the empire could quieten the whole of China by simply dispatching a single warship. Boastful hyperbole, to be sure, but hyperbole with a point.
    • During the Second Opium War, the British and French sent what amounted to little more than three divisions to escort their ambassadors to Peking, so that they would be recognised as equals, rather than being made to do the kowtow and be recognised as vassals/servants. The Chinese umm-ed and ah-ed and eventually met them with armed force when they persisted, their disorganised and ill-led force of 200,000 being routed in due course. By that time the Imperial Court had fled the city and was still refusing to negotiate, so the Allies pillaged the place until they did.
  • The USA's Central-South American Banana Republics were, as per the page image, kept in line by constant reminders of the threat of force and the occasional USA-organised/supported coup d'etat. From a little after the US Civil War up until relatively recently - the Panama Canal incident being the latest example - this trope has been in force to some extent.
    • The page image also refers to a policy of gunboat diplomacy by proxy. The United States didn't want European warships intruding into the American sphere of influence; instead, the Europeans would ask the US to send a gunboat to apply pressure on their behalf.
      • Specifically, the page image is referring to the Monroe Doctrine - that the USA would resist all European attempts to interfere in 'their' zone of influence, i.e. the whole of the Americas. No-one took it seriously at the time, as the US was a third-rate power and it was clear that places like British Canada and Spanish Cuba were not part of the Americas, by this definition. Nor were places like Argentina, which was Britain's model Banana Republic. Anyhow, note how Roosevelt is aiming the gun at the monarchical European figure while the poor, defenseless Latin American cowers beneath him. The image doesn't actually show gunboat diplomacy as such but instead presents a benign ideal of it, as one would expect of a (biased) US political cartoon.
  • The SMS Panther is the Trope Namer and Trope Codifier, when it was dispatched by the German Empire to Morocco in 1905, during the Agadir Crisis. This incident popularised the phrase "gunboat diplomacy" and also contributed to the First World War.
  • The two Moroccan Crises of 1905 and 1911. Both also illustrate the major problem with the gunboat approach; you have to have the biggest stick around to pull it off, or you'll be slapped down by those who do.
  • American exercises off Libya in the 1980s, especially the Gulf of Sidra incidents.
    • Older Than They Think once you find on a map where the Barbary States were located. The Marine Corps hymn doesn't mention the Shores of Tripoli because of anything they did in the 20th century.
    • The Barbary Coast states were known as pirates and slave takers until visited in turn by the Americans, the British, and the French at the beginning of the nineteenth century. These three each persuaded them to turn to more gentle ways of life by the use of exceedingly strong persuasions.
  • The Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1995-6 was another instance, although some argue that the US overdid it—almost fatally, if you catch my drift—when Bill Clinton ordered two Carrier Battle Groups instead of just one.
    • The crisis also demonstrated the potential for gunboat diplomacy to backfire. The crisis was precipitated by the Chinese military conducting missile tests less than 40 miles from ROC-controlled territory as well as a mobilization of Chinese troops in Fujian province (the province closest to Taiwan) and several live-fire exercises. The actions were intended to scare the Taiwanese populace into not re-electing then-President Lee Teng-hui, who was seen by China as being pro-independence - the crisis actually boosted Lee's popularity in the 1996 election and gave him an outright majority in the polls as opposed to a mere plurality. China has since learned its lesson and hasn't tried anything so radical in subsequent Taiwanese elections.
  • Perhaps most famously, the diplomatic mission of Commodore Matthew C. Perry (not that one) to the Empire of Japan.
    • Subverted by his Russian equivalent, Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin who managed to open Japan for Russia after a tsunami destroyed his fleet.
    • This was only the most famous of several rounds of this trope with Japan; Britain, after an English businessman was murdered for refusing to dismount and pay his respects to a passing noble, sent a squadron to bombard the towns of Kagoshima and Shimonoseki. Part of why Commodore Perry's tactics worked was because a growing faction in the Shogunate were going "Guys, we have got to get some of that for ourselves!"
    • The final Japanese surrender in World War Two was signed on USS Missouri, a battleship. Perry's US flag was brought along for the occasion as MacArthur was descended from Perry.
  • Subverted repeatedly to its own ultimate detriment by Joseon Korea, which had seen what "opening markets" had done to China and wanted little part of it. The American armed schooner General Sherman was sent to Pyongyang in 1866, ostensibly to open trade relations, only to be destroyed by fireships when the crew refused to accept "no" for an answer. Later the same year, an estimated 800 French soldiers aboard six warships attempted to seize the mouth of the Han River and coastal access to the capital, only to be forced back by winter and overwhelming opposition. Talk of a joint French-American punitive expedition went nowhere, but in 1871, the Americans tried again with over 600 marines and five warships, taking five fortifications along the Han River and managing to only strengthen the regent's opposition to modernization, including new proclamations against "appeasing foreigners." It wasn't until their rapidly-modernizing Japanese neighbours threatened to fire on the capital Hanseong (today Seoul) itself that the Hermit Kingdom was finally forced to open its markets to foreign trade, with Japan, America, and Russia at the forefront.
  • As the undisputed naval power of the era Victorian Britain came to rely heavily on this tactic, almost to the level of neglecting other approaches. The most ridiculous example is probably the Don Pacifico Affair, where the incumbent Foreign Secretary responded to a British subject in Greece getting robbed by sending the Navy round to break stuff until the Greeks agreed to compensate him.
    • The man responsible for this reaction was The Viscount Palmerston, who was infamous for this sort of thing. Perhaps the best known - and in China, infamous - event to his name was the Arrow War.
  • In order to construct the Panama Canal, US President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged the Panamanians to revolt against their Colombian rulers, promising assistance from the US Navy. The rebellion was successful mainly because the USS Nashville just happened to be in local waters, discouraging the Colombians from sending troops to quell the rebels.
  • Used without end by both sides during the Cold War with various degrees of success. There were many versions, from troop movements around the border, military exercises that were either intentionally leaked or outright covered by the media, nuclear weapons testing... The who blinks first attitude shared by both sides nearly led to World War Three and The End of the World as We Know It, multiple times.
  • Hilarious version: Every time Malaysia decides to taunt Indonesia about its territorial borders, Malaysia does indeed send a warship, only for Indonesia to send several bigger warships (sometimes with an extra Cool Plane).
  • An interesting dueling version: During the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, the US sent in the Enterprise battle group to threaten India to stop curb-stomping the Pakistanis, only for the Soviets (who were sympathetic to India) to do the same thing. To prevent this from becoming a Pretext for War, the Americans stood down.
  • The order of the day between North and South Korea: if you don't like how things are going in the diplomatic table, you arrange a "joint military exercise (with live rounds!)" near your neighbor's land or naval border. Sometimes the "training bullets" fly outside the exercise zone, too.
  • Both China and America have been sending their magnificent naval fleets to the South China Sea. The PRC, to defend the undersea resources they claim to be rightfully theirs;[2] America, to curb China's claim by protecting the interests of their South-East Asian allies, who under international law have a legal claim to it.
  • Several Middle Eastern countries were suspected by the British secret service of being more cozy then they should with Germany during World War II. The result tended to be a large number of British soldiers showing up on their doorstep in a manner that Disraeli would approve no end.
    • Alan Moorehead happened to be in Iran in the aftermath of a joint Allied-Russian coup in Iran to chase away a local German enclave and by the way, get a hold of a trucking route to Russia via the Persian Gulf. This was one of the few actual joint ops between the Western Allies and the Soviets on more then the tiniest scale(though separate offensives sometimes took place at the same time at distances apart and were likely coordinated to do so).
    • Vichy got a lot of this from both sides
    • Germany several times did this to recalcitrant clients who wanted to defect or weren't all that enthusiastic about the whole thing in the first place. Usually this ended in a German occupation. One notable exception was Finland which turned out to be as good at killing Germans as Russians.
  • At one time in the 1800's a British ship was in a Turkish port when someone got the charming idea of holding an anti-Armenian pogram. Whereupon the captain went on shore imperiously clad in all his brassy finery and told the locals, "Let us begin. Tell these ugly bastards that I am not going to tolerate any more of their bestial habits.”
    • On a similar occasion when a pogram took place with an American Warship in port the American Captain simply threatened to blow up the the town.
  • During World War I the Germans made several attempts to subvert India, all unsuccessful but enough to cause nervousness in the British. At one time the Afghan tribes were starting to get yet another notion of going on Jihad and incidently plundering a lot. So the British governor at Peshawar invited hundreds of chiefs to a jirga (diplomatic congress) along with those of their followers who had come to decorate their bosses dignity or just to enjoy the partying. At the jirga the British governor gave them an increase in subsidy as a generous gift of gratitude for their loyal friendship. During the feast the British governor had them entertained by having the British Bomber Command do fly overs and target practice. As a result the tribes decided to be peaceful.
  • Rome (of course) had its own version of this. While despite the reputation they were often wise enough to use it with reasonable thrift they certainly had no problem making their displeasure known.
    • St. Paul a couple of times appealed for this from local officials when in danger of rioters or assassins on the grounds of being a Roman Citizen. It is from this that we get the phrase Civis Romanus Sum, "I am a Roman."
  • The original Marine Small Wars Manual was a handbook on this for the US Marines, especially for long term operations. Applications range from the brutal and embarrasing by modern standards sorts of things through "operations other than war" (low key favors to allies, public relations, etc, like escorting food caravans, being a first responder, etc) and it just requires a flexible imagination on the part of the man on the spot. Much of the book is about things like logistics, local relations, and so forth. It was based on a more generic guidebook published by a British soldier and in turn was updated for the modern era.
  1. President T. Roosevelt depicted as defending the United States' commercial interests in Latin America from the European powers.
  2. this isdespite being WAY out of what it should be in international law, which put a country's "EEZ" to 200 miles out from their coastline. The South China Sea dosn't actually align with China's Coastline, and much is beyond what would be their EEZ even if it was.