Sir James Cable

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James Eric Cable, diplomat and writer: born 15 November 1920; CMG 1967; Ambassador to Finland 1975-80; KCVO 1976; married 1954 Viveca Hollmerus (one son); died Cambridge 27 September 2001.

James Cable was a career diplomat whose working life as such spanned 34 years and was both able and distinguished. Yet he is likely to be remembered for a different, though related, field of endeavour: the study of, in his definition, the political applications of limited naval force – or, in his more trenchant phrase, "gunboat diplomacy".

Educated at Stowe and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Cable served for the last four years of the Second World War in the Royal Signals, reaching the rank of Major. He joined the Diplomatic Service in 1947 and was stationed first in Indonesia, then Finland (where he met Viveca Hollmerus, who became his wife in 1954). While he tended to gravitate to South East Asian affairs, his postings ensured a wide experience, including South America, Eastern Europe (he was in Budapest for the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956) and the Middle East (where he was in Beirut for the Six Days' War in 1967).

He was drawn to writing and, under the pseudonym of Grant Hugo, published at the end of the 1960s books on Britain in Tomorrow's World (1969) and Appearance and Reality in International Relations (1970). The Foreign Office condoned, even if they did not endorse, these works. Cable was then released for a year as a research associate at the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and it was here that he embarked on the topics that took up his academic attention for the rest of his life.

He was always irritated by cant, and deeply suspicious of the glib phrase, more so if it was fashionable. And "The age of gunboat diplomacy is over" certainly was fashionable, a slogan regarded as a truism by most commentators – and many in the Foreign Office itself – at that time. Cable therefore set out, during his sabbatical, to analyse what might be meant by the term in the modern context, and what instances of it might be found in recent history.

The result was the book Gunboat Diplomacy, published in 1971. It had an immediate, and dramatic, impact on strategic studies in general and work on maritime power in particular. Cable identified, in this first edition, well over 120 instances of limited naval force employed for political ends since 1920, with absolutely no diminution in frequency over the years. He was able to group these into categories – uses of "definitive", "purposeful", "catalytic" and "expressive" force – and to assess, in a table that was one of the most impressive parts of the book, the degree of success each had achieved.

He made no concessions to national sensitivities; if a weak country tweaked the tail of a powerful one, it was the "assailant" and the bigger one the "victim". The body of the text sought to extract theory from this mass of data, with some more detailed examination of cases of particular interest and excursions into such topics as "The Soviet Naval Enigma" – a subject of great debate at the time.

Though he continued his diplomatic career – he was head of the FCO Planning Staff from 1971 to 1975 and Ambassador to Finland from 1975 to 1980, being knighted (KCVO) in 1976 – Cable was frequently to be observed at conferences or lecturing, where his bearded, genial presence and deliberate manner – lento assai, as someone said, with traces of pesante – were unforgettable.

The effect on naval and indeed strategic thinking was highly significant. Armed services that had thought their roles entirely, or very largely, as war-fighting began to remind themselves of what they had actually been doing in periods of (another Cable phrase) "violent peace". It was not that Cable was the only writer looking at limited force; other writers on defence, for example Robert Thompson and Frank Kitson, were seeking to systematise it. But Cable was among the most incisive, and his work gave to navies in particular a basis of both fact and theory that helped their sense of purpose. As one commentator wrote: "Since 1971 nobody has been able to discuss sea power without mentioning Cable."

While he brought out two further editions of Gunboat Diplomacy, in 1981 and 1994, Cable did not alter his general thesis or conclusions. In his view, he did not need to; the incidents in the updated tables, he believed, bore out his analysis. He extended his studies to many related fields. Diplomacy at Sea (1985) was perhaps closest to the mainstream; Britain's Naval Future (1983) ranged across a series of contingencies (Cable rejected the "single Nato scenario" as a basis for planning); Abadan in 1951 (Intervention at Abadan: Plan Buccaneer, 1991) and Bilbao in 1936 (The Royal Navy and the Siege of Bilbao, 1979) both occupied whole books; and his own personal favourite was an account, published in 1986, of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indo-China, in which he had been closely involved as a member of the British Delegation. In all, his published work amounted to 14 books and over 70 major articles.

James Cable did not formulate grand theories of sea power in the Mahanian sense, nor theories of war in the Clausewitzian. He did something that may prove just as valuable: to illuminate facets of strategy in the brilliant light of facts, in a way that demonstrated to practitioners what they were doing, and why.

J. R. Hill