Image from Nick Humphries
“[L]ast year less than one-half of one percent of ships transiting the Horn of Africa were attacked, and most of those attacks were not successful.” Despite those low odds Max Boot goes on to argue in Pirates, Then and Now (Foreign Affairs subscription required) that governments should “make ship owners and insurers take the problem [of piracy] more seriously”. His reasoning is twofold: 1) piracy threatens sea lanes through which half the world’s cargo and a third of Europe’s oil is shipped; and 2) “piracy may wind up underwriting an extreme Islamist movement”. Granted, those are pretty serious stakes. However Boot refuses to do any sort of cost-benefit analysis to determine whether taking the problem “more seriously” is in our interest. He just seems to be itching to hang those scurvy seadogs.
Not to say that the article is pointless. It is a great read for his sweeping history of piracy from the 17th century and his overview of anti-piracy strategies to those from the age of sail. For example:
Countries took a dozen or so steps to safeguard the seas during the pirate wars that stretched roughly from 1650 to 1850. These included changing public attitudes, hiring private pirate hunters, rooting out corruption, improving the administration of justice, offering pardons to pirates who voluntarily surrendered, increasing the number of naval ships dedicated to antipiracy duty, cooperating with other nations, convoying merchant ships, blockading and bombarding pirate ports, chasing pirates both at sea and on land, and, finally, occupying and dismantling pirate lairs.
These days ship owners and insurance companies accept increased insurance premiums due to paying out million-dollar ransoms on that less than half of one percent of ships hijacked. It is probably cheaper than sending the navy in, and arming up crews will only escalate the violence, right? Boot replies:
Similar concerns once led airlines to tell crews not to resist hijackers. This approach changed after 9/11, and one hopes it will not take a similar disaster at sea for ship owners to reconsider their policies.
Boot suggests some policies that would help close the gap between modern times and the 17th century. First of all, the US and UK need to stop the shrinkage of their fleets and buy more warships (Boot recommends the LCS). Until the fleet gets back up to scratch, let private security companies fill the gap. That said, Boot thinks reviving letters of marque might be a step overboard (to coin a phrase). The biggest problem that needs tackling is the legal situation: there are no clear-cut rules of engagement. Pirates picked up by military forces are treated as civilians and the web of international human rights laws and conventions make prosecution convoluted. Much like terrorists, there exists no international criminal court for suspected pirates. As German defence minister Franz Josef Jung said: “No one wants a Guantánamo of the sea.”
In fact, I agree with Boot on all accounts. These are all good suggestions — especially the comments about preventing the deterioration of navies and the proposal for new laws for processing captured pirates. These things need to be done, regardless of the current craze over piracy. Note that I am agreeing in the general while disagreeing with Boot’s position as it is stated specifically in this article. It seems to me that Boot is too focused on piracy itself. It reminds me of how the security community a few years back was overly focused on “the terrorists”. Remember: terrorism is a tactic, not an entity. The same could be said of piracy. And like terrorism, tackling root causes could be more effective (and economic) than simply blasting each individual Blackbeard out of the water. Remember what Kaplan said: Anarchy on Land Means Piracy at Sea.