Friday, 31 March 2023 to Sunday, 2 April 2023

Commerce, neutrality and blockade: lessons from Britain’s relationship with the Baltic Sea Region, 1766-1815

Fri31  Mar02:50pm(20 mins)
Senate Room


Hugo Bromley1
1 Centre for Geopolitics, University of Cambridge, UK


In the second half of the eighteenth century, the Baltic sea region was the centre of emerging debates over neutrality, and the use of naval military power over commerce. From the 1766 Treaty of Commerce between Britain and Russia to the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain sought to  impose new rules on Baltic commerce, in service of geopolitical aims. The consequences of Britain’s actions have shaped neutrality as we understand it today.This paper will use primarily British government documents, including diplomatic correspondence, private letters and papers, and the advice of multiple Advocates General, to explore how the British understood the law of neutrality in the Baltic Sea region. It will argue that throughout the period, the practice blockade exposed the weakness of international law, but also left the blockading power vulnerable to widespread opposition. Successful blockade remained heavily dependent on networks of diplomacy with multiple nations and their various political institutions. Crucially, these networks were also vital for states looking to maintain neutrality in an increasingly geopolitically fraught environment. Neutrality did not remove the need for active diplomacy to prevent conflict, but in fact made it far more important for all powers in the region. As international sanctions and blockade are once again raised as major issues in geopolitics, returning to the origins of these debates can provide important lessons for actors today.