A Vacuum of Will

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. 

35 thoughts on “A Vacuum of Will”

  1. Might one part of a solution be modern Q-Ships? A couple of pirate groups shot up by faux merchant boats armed to the teeth aught to give future raiders pause.

    (Indeed, there’s a glut of ships on the market, so they aught to be cheap. They could be manned with contractors supervised by a handful of USN officers.)

  2. It would help if we made it clear that any arrest of a US citizen for “war crimes” by a foreign jurisdiction would be an act of war.How would Brussels or Madrid feel about going without electricity for a few days? Yes , I am thinking of Garzon.

  3. 10 years ago, enforceing UN sanctions on Iraq in the Persian Gulf, I learned that there was no plan “B” if the smuggling vessel didn’t stop. I told my fellow Naval Officers that I may just quit and run oil out of Iraq. I mean, if you know that the only response is “Stop! or I shall say Stop again!” It is free money. I was joking then, but this pirate problem is reality and I bet my joke and the new wave of piracy share the same origins.

  4. How long will it be until some loony Americans travel to Somalia to act as “human shields” for the poor oppressed pirates? If I were setting policy I would call such people “targets”.

  5. I’m afraid our President is still trying to figure out how to blame this one on his predecessor. Having spent the first 47 years of his life defining himself as “not the other guy,” Barack is outright confused. There’s no more blame to pass, no more voting present and no more accusing the institution of inaction/overaction/no compassion/excess concern. He’s it.

    Executive leadership isn’t an on-the-job training function. That said, this nation deserves the hell it has voted for. Human parasites don’t self regulate and need to be culled periodically.

  6. Dear Shannon Love: I’m curious. You write:

    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 link you give makes it seem certain that you really do mean this, but I want to be sure: Do you think liberal orders metamorph into authoritarian ones when the liberal order descends into paralysis and ineffectuality, in the manner of, say, Weimar Germany from 1929-33?

    If so, what’s to be done by the liberal order to prevent authoritarianism from gaining root? Authoritarian action by the liberal order?

    Hope to hear from you.

    Sincerely yours,
    Gregory Koster

  7. If there is, as so many have claimed, “no controlling legal authority” in this issue, then we should stomp them out. Because who can do anything about it? Remember, we’ve been assured there is “no controlling legal authority.” If anyone steps up to complain about what we have done, we can point out that they have now assumed the role of “controlling legal authority,” and what are they planning to do about this problem?

  8. Ginny,

    While I don’t trust Wikipedia for pretty much anything, USS BAINBRIDGE DDG-96 IS named for the naval hero. Here is the Ship’s newsletter while she was fitting out:


    A prediction for this fiasco:

    The additional pirates coming to the scene with hostages on board will be allowed to pick up their four compatriots and Captain Phillips. They will proceed unmolested by the US Navy, per the order of the White House, to return to Somalia where ransom negotiations will continue with Phillips being hidden. The only other course I see is a variant whereby, as has been hinted at by negotiators, the pirates and Captain Phillips will be carried by the German Frigate that has just arrived to Somalia. The German Navy,acting as a “neutral” third party, [with Phillips still a prisoner] will deliver them and things will proceed as described before. This will not end well in either case. And it is something that we will have to get used to happening over and over again. Fecklessness is not a viable tool in a conflict.

    If the second alternative comes to pass, I don’t think Americans will forget Germany’s role in it. Or forgive.

    Subotai Bahadur

  9. Surely we have some 16″ guns still operative on a New Jersey-class battleship. Pay the ransom for Captain Phillips, pluck him from Mogadishu, orient the turrets and begin the lesson.

  10. “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. ”

    But this basic premise is flawed. There has been chronic, significant piracy on the high seas as long as I’ve been in the shipping business, which is going on 35 years or so. At various times, news of this breaks free of the shipping journals and makes it into MSM and mainstream consciousness. The only actual new news has been the size of some of the vessels now being attacked and the recent flurry of activity, capped (gasp!) by an attack on that rare creature, a US flag vessel with a US crew. Boom—all of sudden it becomes hot news for Americans. And all we’re missing now is TR and a telegram (e-mail?): I want Pedicaris alive or Raisuli dead! For info on how that plays out, I suggest that fine Sean Connery epic, The Wind and the Lion. Jeffersonian here is practically a character from that film.

  11. I think the distinction between the naval officers and the general political culture is a false one. Admirals have internalized the value system. Google “fight the root causes of piracy” and count the admirals who mouthed that as non-American shipping went down in 2008.

  12. Why could we not send an attack sub or two on a mission to follow one of these “mother ships” out to sea, and the instant it displayed hostile intent, send it to the bottom with all hands? And then do it again, and again, and again, until every Somali ship larger than a PT boat is gone and thousands of pirates are chum for the sharks. Really, how long would it take until they got the message? Two or three months at most, I would think.

  13. So the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on the best trained Navy Seals in the world is wasted because a panty-waste president believes that this is a legal issue ? The millions of tons of taxpayer supported humanitarian aid to African countries is sitting there rotting because this disgrace of a president is too busy apologizing to Europeans for the thousands of U.S. soldiers who died helping liberate Europe in the last century ? The disruption of commercial shipping in a vitally important part of the world isn’t proper enough cause to use military force ? A rowboat full of “pirates” is being allowed to beat the U.S. military ? We have the capability to stop this…and Mogadishu would make really good target practice for our Navy arsenal.

  14. While you do have the history of the last decades of piracy down pat, you are forgetting the previous 15 centuries of it. In that time, we see a better model of what is happening today, with a twist. For centuries, piracy, and the near-piracy of “Marque and Reprisal” were standard tools in the kit of Kingdoms in Europe and elsewhere. Indeed, in the Mediterranean the Barbary pirates lasted so long specifically because christian nations used them to preferentially harm each other’s trade when they felt the competition from the other was too keen, which was all too often.

    Once it became obvious, after 1815, that competition with Britain’s Naval and commercial power was a non-starter, then everyone who wanted *any* piece of the pie, was willing to see the kibosh put on any pirate haven or ship. The French added the filip that they could keep their Bonapartist Army occupied elsewhere, by taking the Barbary Coast’s ports, and making them the seed for colonies on the North African littoral.

    Nowadays, we have a restraint on dealing with pirates that is not national, but transnational, and it is deeply committed to destroying a class of people. The ships are owned and operated by merchants and capitalists, who many have been taught are the first enemy of all right-thinking people. It should be no surprise to see legal and political obstruction of old anti-piracy measures rise to prominence. After all, those measures would take money from dealing with the crisis du jour, and would help the world-wide network of trade, rather than force it to be “more fair” to all those folks who our degreed elites just know are smarting under the pain of world-wide industry’s employment opportunities.

    I wonder if anyone else is noticing this.


    Tom Billings

  15. I have to agree about the seals – this sounds like a perfect mission. underwater to the boat at night, over the side and the pirates dead in under two minutes, take the captain back sink boat.

    But having someone with the stones to say do it :(

  16. “Clearly, we find ourselves paralyzed due to the collapse of our trust in international maritime law.”

    This is precisely wrong. We are paralyzed because we believe there is such a thing as international law. The British cleared pirates from the seas because it was in their interest to do so. They had precious help from anyone else and they were obstructed by quite a few. The difference between us them then and us now is we have a less clear view of where our interests lie.

  17. Excellent essay, Shannon.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to use this thread to air a personal complaint: The word “piracy” is being used too narrowly in most reportage I’m seeing on this nagging topic.

    If one stretches the word a bit to include “gray” financial operations, employing statistical fraud to steal elections, the ‘stacking’ of local governing boards, and public workers’ striking to extort evermore of the tax-payers’ money (I could go on…Medicare/Medicaid fraud deserves high ranking in the list of acts of piracy, too), you’ll realize that America has failed to react forcefully to attack after attack of degrees of piracy on her own shores.

    To sum up, the day Barney Frank serves the “Martha Stewart Sentence” is the day I’ll trust America is getting back on the right anti=Piracy track. His continued impunity is a clarion call to Pirates all over the world to leave their caves and ply their trade.

    Nevertheless, I applaud the coverage that Piracy on the seas – and our CinC’s response to it – is getting right now…a better thought-model for contemplating America’s response to piracy of all types could never be devised.

  18. HMI is correct.

    Piracy has been continuous over the last few decades, especially in the Indonesian Archipelago between Singapore and Australia. Incidents number in the tens, sometimes hundreds, every year.

    The only reason this incident has made the news is that the victims of the piracy are Americans. Indonesian pirates concentrate on the small, usually family-owned, ships that carry small-time trade in those waters. Kill the adult men, rape the adult women, carry the children off as slaves, take the ship off to another port and sell it and its cargo: the traditional behavior of pirates.

    The fecklessness and pusillanimity of the response keeps the “business” going. Something should have been done long ago, and the fact that nothing has been done is part of the reason the Somalis decided they could get away with it.


  19. Well,civilization is built on the blood and tears of barbarians- that is the will to inflict suffering on those who need it. The dogmatic and total opposition of the Euro governing class to capital punishment is as good a tell as any of their uselessness. Note the different attitude in East Asia.

  20. You mistake the issue for one of law. Such antipiracy campaigns as have been successfully conducted in the past were never based on courts or law – they were always military campaigns, fought largely (with perhaps a few symbolic exceptions) outside any courtroom. They were also, we should note, usually (especially the successful ones) unilateral, non-coalition efforts.

    So the resurgence of piracy is not a symptom of the collapse of international law, for that which has never stood up to piracy cannot collapse before its resurgence; it is a symptom of the collapse of military will, especially unilateral military will, among those who otherwise have the means.

  21. Attack the insurance companies who urge capitulation where they live: in the wallet. Force them to pay all and sundry costs for these hijackings, and make them liable for lawsuit by the crews who are victimized. Piracy would be dead within a year.

  22. “How long will it be until some loony Americans travel to Somalia to act as “human shields” for the poor oppressed pirates? “

    American citizens have joined the local Somali Islamist militia as terrorists but none as of yet have showed up to shield the pirates.

    When I talk with international law profs, I ususally make the suggestion that terrorists or pirates should be tried before a proper court-martial for war crimes ( fighting out of uniform, deliberately targeting civilians) and if convicted, be hanged. While I get many heated objections to the hanging or unilateral military justice instead of, say, the ICC, I have yet to find anyone who actually knows the laws of war tell me that this is not a perfectly legal option backed by long precedent.

  23. RebeccaH has it right. Ship owners pay off the pirates because the ransoms are covered by insurance. Since the taxpayers own AIG now and Obama can fire CEO’s a whim, as he demonstrated with GM, he can stop the piracy by forbidding any more payments to reimburse shipping companies for ransoms.

  24. Update – Capt Phillips rescued, alive and well. 3 of 4 pirates dead, the 4th in captivity. Thank you, Navy SEALs (not to mention the Captain’s fighting spirit!). Seemingly, no lack of stones there, despite gloomy predictions of some….

    That being said, as satisfying as the application of military force may be, it’s more complicated than that. Like it or not, over the last century, most of the civilized world has seen an increase in the standards and expectations against the indiscriminate use of force by the state (military, police, etc). We can’t just go blow up anybody we think looks like a terrorist, pirate, or criminal. Frustrating? Yes. Does that make it longer and harder to “fix” those who would flaunt civilization? You betcha. BUT, we have collectively decided that it is better to let some guilty go free than to kill the innocents. Because next time, it might be you.

    And there is the physical and fiscal reality of it all. Somalia’s coast is roughly 1500 miles long. The attacks have occurred hundreds of miles out to sea. That’s a lot of territory. The US Navy only has 283 ships (total). They’d like a lot more, but ships cost money. A lot of money. So, how much of our constrained defense money do we devote to erradicating a problem that affected roughly one seventh of one percent (0.14%) of the shipping in that area last year and only cost the industry $100 million or so? (that used to be real money!) Did I mention that there were relatively few deaths among the captured crews. I digress….

    In the end, the US Navy and coalition partners will address the piracy problem within fiscal constraints, using a just application of force where necessary, putting the true scope of problem in the right perspective when balanced with other problems we face, all the while trying to avoid unintended consequnces of our actions. (Whew! that’s a lot for one sentence!)

  25. A correction to my last post – a better estimate of the impact on shipping in the area is six tenths of one percent (0.6%). Higher than originally stated, but still a small fraction.

  26. I second what Ram says. There is a reason why the French, Chinese, U.S. and various Arab governments have not dealt with this problem by military force; it’s probably good to understand why that is before jumping to any sort of judgment. This isn’t a problem with international maritime law, which is very clear on this issue and has successfully dealt with piracy before.

    An excellent (and excellently written – William Langewiesche, no less) article on an earlier hijacking explains what’s going on:


    Read all the way through the end – it’s worth it. For those who want his conclusions here is what he has to say – essentially, it’s cheaper (so far) to pay, than to register an entire fleet under a “real” flag. Yes, you get protection from a real Navy with a real flag, but it’s not worth it – the tax savings from registering with an offshore tax-haven are worth more.

    “Merely hours after Marchesseau had effected his own release, and French warships had clearly demonstrated the navy’s impotence, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner (a founder of Doctors Without Borders), called for United Nations action, and for an allied naval escalation off the coast of Somalia. It was an early step in what has turned into an ongoing process of doing more of precisely what has proved not to work.

    Today, almost one year later, Somali pirates continue to ignore the increasingly urgent displays of national power. One of the ironies of the concern being shown is that the shippers being provided with naval protection are the very same people who for years have made a mockery of the nation-state idea. They know that whatever pirate tolls they pay will always pale in comparison with the taxes that would be imposed if global law and order ever actually prevailed. But there is little danger of that. In its place a convoy system has been instituted for crossing the Gulf of Aden. CMA CGM has ordered its cargo ships to use it when practical. The company runs about 65 transits a month. Because of an increase in crew pay, insurance, and other piracy-related costs, the company has imposed a $23 surcharge on every standard-size container that it takes through—amounting to a quarter-million dollars for each trip by the largest ships. Given the margins built in, and despite the need for the occasional payout, this means that CMA CGM, its insurers, and its crews are profiting from Somali piracy. Other shipping companies are, too. By nature they are adaptable. If the navies would just sail away, they would devise their own methods to get through, maybe at still-higher cost, and probably at calculated risk, but almost certainly without violence. “

  27. Ram wrote:
    …We can’t just go blow up anybody we think looks like a terrorist, pirate, or criminal. Frustrating? Yes. Does that make it longer and harder to “fix” those who would flaunt civilization? You betcha. BUT, we have collectively decided that it is better to let some guilty go free than to kill the innocents. Because next time, it might be you.

    -It’s not a question of blowing up anybody who looks like a pirate. There is no doubt that these people are pirates. Everyone sees what is going on. It’s not like the police found a body and we aren’t sure who the murderer is.

    -Since we know they’re guilty there’s no reason to let them go free. You are confusing piracy, which is essentially warfare, with domestic criminal justice. In the long run, letting terrorists or pirates go gets many more innocent people killed than if you show no mercy to the pirates.

  28. SeanF wrote:
    …There is a reason why the French, Chinese, U.S. and various Arab governments have not dealt with this problem by military force; it’s probably good to understand why that is before jumping to any sort of judgment. This isn’t a problem with international maritime law, which is very clear on this issue and has successfully dealt with piracy before.

    -Actually, the French have used force, and how do you know that the Chinese don’t? All we know is that the Brits and some of the Euros hesitate to use force.

    -Many of the countries that haven’t used force against pirates are assuming that the USA or other powerful countries will.

    -I agree that it’s not an issue of law, except to the extent that shipping companies and insurers fear expensive lawsuits if they arm their crews or use force. In that regard it is an issue of law. WRT international laws against piracy it is mostly an issue of the will to use force against pirates.

    -I agree that it’s expensive for navies to fight pirates. However, it’s also expensive for shippers and insurers to buy off pirates. The difference is that in the latter case the real costs aren’t immediately apparent, and only become clear in the long run as paying off pirates leads to more piracy. The most cost-efficient and quickest solution is probably to encourage ship owners to arm their crews, but this won’t happen in the current litigation environment. Perhaps the international-law solution is treaties creating an exemption from lawsuits for shipping companies whose crews act in good faith to fight off pirates — i.e., something like an international version of local US laws that forbid burglars to sue homeowners who have injured them.

  29. Jonathan –

    You make some good points. I have no qualms about the judicious (sp?) use of force to counter KNOWN pirates when the military or police forces are acting within the established rules for the use of force. But it is the legitimate establishment of those rules that make it morally OK for the SEALs to kill the three pirates on Sunday and NOT morally OK for the pirates to kill a captured crew member. The hard part comes in meeting the (appropriately) high standards of identifying which of the contacts that you can see is a pirate and which is not.

    I also agree that piracy is a form of warfare. However, it is more like an insurgency than it is like battle with a uniformed peer competitor. Militaries since at least the 19th century have learned, forgotten, and repeatedly relearned some things about fighting insurgents. (1) It’s hard to know who to shoot. (2) If you shoot the wrong people, you are more likely than not going to ultimately hurt your national political objectives. And (3), the answer almost always lies in a combination of the judicious use of force coupled with addressing the underlying problem(s). I’m not trying to get all kum-ba-yah, but rampant piracy doesn’t happen from countries with an effectve government that can control their territory. I’m actually amazed that it took nearly twenty years before Somalia’s lawlessness spread to the surrounding ocean.

    You also said “Since we know they’re guilty there’s no reason to let them go free.” Many good men and women expended (and continue to expend) a tremendous amount of effort in GTMO trying to deal with terrorists whom we “knew” were guilty. Thus far we have achieved, I think, one conviction, and he got off with essentially not much more than “time served.” It is a hard problem.

    I agree that the merchant ships ought to be armed to fight back. We just need to recognize that arming merchant ships, using navies, and killing pirates is going to change the current situation from a “business arrangement”, where assets change hands but almost no blood is shed, into truly a form of warfare where lives will be lost.

  30. -Many lives have already been lost. Pirates kill people all the time. The world would be a better place if piracy became more dangerous to its practioners.

    -ID’ing pirates might be difficult for the Navy when it comes to the rescue. However, I don’t think it’s difficult for ship crews to figure out who the armed guys climbing onboard are. Your concern here seems excessively theoretical to me.

    -The problem at Gitmo lies in proving guilt to a high legal standard that is very difficult to meet when prosecuting war prisoners. That problem is an artifact of our insistence on treating those prisoners like domestic criminals. Some of the people who we let go from Gitmo because we didn’t have enough evidence against them went back to the war and killed more Americans. I think we should avoid replicating this situation with pirates.

Comments are closed.