The bombing of Houthis in Yemen is reminiscent of the War of 1812, when America found itself in a situation it could not control

click to enlarge The bombing of Houthis in Yemen is reminiscent of the War of 1812, when America found itself in a situation it could not control
The Houthis aim to shut down one of the world's busiest shipping lanes in the Red Sea.

Following almost two months of attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, U.S. and British forces have launched repeated strikes against Houthi rebel military sites in Yemen. Named for their founder Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, the Yemen militia group are militant Islamists, who claim that their missile and drone strikes on merchant ships in the Red Sea are designed to support the Palestinian people during Israel's invasion of Gaza. Though the Biden administration has largely been supportive of Israel's military response to the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, 2023, the White House has framed the recent U.S.-led military strikes in Yemen as a defense of free trade, rather than as a new front in Israel's war.

The Red Sea is part of one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, as it lies south of the Suez Canal, which connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. The Houthi campaign threatens to close this critical artery of international trade, which would have serious implications for the global economy because of the increased cost and significant delay of rerouting traffic around the cape peninsula of South Africa.

America has fought for the cause of free trade from its founding. But the War of 1812 reminds us that these conflicts can be unpredictable and ultimately self-defeating.

Free trade was one of the great promises of the American Revolution. Before independence, the British Empire had governed colonial trade through the Trade and Navigation Acts passed by Parliament in the 17th century. Based on mercantilist principles of finite wealth, these rules restricted trade between Britain's colonies and those of its European rivals, like France and Spain. Britain did not want its colonies enriching the economies of its rivals. Independence freed the United States from these economic constraints.

Some of the Founders, notably Thomas Jefferson and his protégé James Madison, also believed that free trade could revolutionize world affairs by making war obsolete. If the nations of the world formed mutually beneficial trade ties between them, there would no longer be any need for countries to go to war.

Ironically, the United States went to war to realize its vision of a new era of global peace through free trade.

The United States fought for free trade in 1812. The fledgling republic found itself stuck in the middle of the titanic death-struggle between Great Britain and Napoleonic France. While U.S. merchants had once successfully exploited their neutral status to capture trade from the two belligerent powers, both Britain and France soon tried to blockade one another into oblivion. U.S. merchants found themselves targeted by both navies, but after Britain's decisive victory over the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the Royal Navy emerged as the chief antagonist of free trade. Jefferson tried to coerce the belligerent powers into respecting neutral trading rights through the Embargo and Nonintercourse Acts, but all this did was cause financial hardship in American port cities as ships were laid up and sailors unemployed.

"Ironically, the United States went to war to realize its vision of a new era of global peace through free trade."

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The United States went to war with the British Empire in 1812 with the rallying cry of "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights." Britain was distracted by its struggle against Napoleon in Europe, but there were no easy victories for the United States. The U.S. Navy distinguished itself in small actions during the opening months of the war, but the American invasion of Canada proved disastrous. The war was a divisive conflict among the American people, who suffered the indignity of British troops capturing Washington, D.C., and burning the White House in 1814.

While Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans bolstered American morale, the public was overjoyed to learn that the battle took place after the war had already ended when news of peace arrived from the negotiations in Ghent, Belgium, in early 1815.

The United States has a long history of supporting free trade for both ideological and economic reasons. But the War of 1812 reminds us that these conflicts can all too easily escalate, particularly in the context of a wider conflagration like the Napoleonic Wars in 1812 and the Israeli invasion of Gaza today.

The truth is that it wasn't the War of 1812 that ended up protecting free trade, it was actually the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the extended period of peace that followed in Europe that meant that U.S. merchants no longer needed to fear the intervention of Britain or France in their business.

If the Biden administration wants to protect maritime shipping in the Red Sea, it would be better off helping to end the war in Gaza than launching ineffective strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen. ♦

Lawrence B.A. Hatter is an award-winning author and associate professor of early American history at Washington State University. These views are his own and do not reflect those of WSU.

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