Significant piracy has been so long gone from the world that the very word “pirate” evokes only images of 17th-century sailing ships armed with blackpowder weapons. Now pirates have returned to the choke points of the world’s oceans. What has changed? Why could we deal with pirates 150, 100 or 50 years ago but we can’t deal with them today?
I think that, as with terrorism, the return of piracy indicates the collapse of international law and the liberal order it establishes. It tells us how dysfunctional international law has become.
The navy of the British Empire, with some aid from other western navies, wiped out piracy in the first half of the 1800s. British sailing ships with muzzle-loading blackpowder cannons fought pirate sailing ships using the same technology. In a time without steam, radio, aircraft, satellites, etc. they tracked pirates down to their bases and brought them to justice.
Yet, today, in a world of universal. instantaneous, world wide communication, satellite surveillance and weapons of such reach and accuracy that the President of the United States can order a missile shot through a particular window in a particular building on the other side of the world, we can’t seem to prevent a bunch of Somali rednecks in bass boats from seizing giant container ships. [h/t Instapundit]
Clearly, we find ourselves paralyzed due to the collapse of our trust in international maritime law. In the past, broad international agreement existed on how to deal with pirates. Any naval or police power of any state could attack any vessel attacking a merchant vessel of any state. Any port that harbored pirates’ ships was liable to attack itself. Pirates disappeared from the seas because the swift and sure universal response to piracy made piracy suicidal. Today, when faced with piracy, we dither. Maritime law, once considered clear and long-established, suddenly now is viewed as ambiguous and unsupported.
As I wrote before, liberal orders do not transform into authoritarian ones by a gradual process of the accretion of state powers. Instead, liberal orders fail when they become paralyzed and ineffective. The resulting chaos causes the sudden collapse of the liberal order into either warlordism or authoritarianism.
The return of international lawlessness on both land and sea arises from a paralysis brought on by the breakdown of internal trust and cooperation in the developed nations. We cannot enforce international law because half of our polity believes we have no right to. Half of our polity is more concerned with using piracy and other forms of lawlessness as sticks with which to attack their internal political enemies than they are with defending international law. The Geneva and Hague conventions have died in the last few years as it became evident that the principles of those conventions will only be applied to actions of the militaries of liberal democracies, and to no one else. Systematic violation of the Conventions has become the accepted road to political power, personal wealth and, occasionally, a Nobel Peace Prize.
Half of the polity now argues that unlawful and inhumane tactics merely represent the desperation of the justified underdog instead of the callousness of the cruel and greedy. In such a moral environment, those who must fight and apprehend pirates understand that they will face far harsher judgment, with far less presumption of innocence, than will the pirates. Why should they risk their reputations, careers, freedoms and lives just to uphold the law when they know their most likely reward will be a knife in the back?
In a world in which a country is sanctioned and ostracized for responding to overt large-scale attacks on its civilian population, what kind of support can a naval officer fighting pirates expect? If responding to attacks on civilians gets one branded a war criminal what will happen to those who respond to attacks on economic interests? What kind of justice can they expect in a world in which in any court in any country has the presumed legal right to pass judgment on the actions of any individual anywhere in the world?
In a vacuum of will, the brutal and the criminal prosper. Lawlessness spreads until it becomes the accepted norm. People no longer put any trust in laws and lawful institutions. Lawless and despotic authoritarianism seems the only alternative to a chaotic and violent anarchy. This is the future we face.
Forty years ago it would seem pathetically funny that a group of people in a fishing boat armed with nothing more than assault rifles and RPGs could capture ships out from under the nose of the U.S. Navy, but today we regard it as a “very serious and complicated problem.” It isn’t. Modern piracy is a trivial problem with simple, proven and well understood solutions. The fact that we cannot deal with it tells us how sick we’ve become.