Somali Pirates and the Future of International Relations?

Law and Order

Is the future of international relations being written in the waters off the coast of Somalia? Thanks to Somalia’s status as a failed state, its long, lawless coastline has provided the pirates with a sanctuary from which they can launch attacks across a broad swath of the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.  Since as much as 20% of the world’s commercial shipping passes through these waters en route to the Suez Canal, this has become a major problem for global commerce.  The issue of Somali piracy really came to the attention of the American public last April when a group of pirates briefly seized the American-crewed cargo ship Maersk Alabama and held its captain hostage in one of the ship’s lifeboats.  The standard tactic of the pirates is to capture a vessel at sea, sail it back to one of several ports along the Somali coast and hold it until a ransom is paid for both ship and crew (the pirates seldom steal the ship’s cargo, in part because the dilapidated condition of the Somali ports makes it nearly impossible to off-load bulk items).  Currently the pirates are holding a Chinese cargo ship, a Thai fishing trawler and a British couple and their yacht; the Spanish government recently paid $3 million for the release of one of their fishing vessels and more than 30 sailors. Squaring off against the pirates has been an ad-hoc flotilla of roughly two-dozen warships from a collection of the world’s navies (the exact number shifts as ships end their tours of duty and are replaced by others).  Critics have said that the international response has been woefully inadequate and has done nothing to stop the piracy problem – two-dozen warships are not nearly an adequate number to effectively patrol the two million plus square miles of ocean in which the pirates operate.  A change in pirate tactics though, attacking ships hundreds of miles out to sea rather than in the near-coastal waters of the Indian Ocean off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden does indicate that the flotilla is having some impact on piracy operations, making it harder for them to find targets. Small as it may be though, there are two remarkable things about the flotilla that give it the potential to have a major impact on international relations.  First is the truly unprecedented international scope of the anti-piracy mission: over the past two years the flotilla has not only included ships from the collection of North American and Western European countries you tend to see in global military interventions of late, but also vessels from countries like Russia, India, South Korea and even Iran; China sent their navy to the coast of Africa for the first time in 600 years, the government of Japan amended their constitution so that they could participate.  (Perhaps the best symbolic example of the spirit of global cooperation from the waters off Somalia came this past May when a North Korean cargo ship was rescued from a pirate attack by the South Korean destroyer Munmu the Great.) Second is that the anti-piracy mission has been organized and executed without the United States taking a leadership role.  The navies of the world were already patrolling the waters off of Somalia when at the end of 2008 the US Navy decided to get involved, creating Combined Task Force 151 to take on the pirates.  As Wired.com noted this past January, the US Navy was quick to claim credit for a drop in pirate attacks, even though the USN, unlike the navies of other countries, to that point had not actually engaged the pirates (the drop in attacks was most likely due to poor weather).  Even the USN’s subsequent headline-grabbing action against the pirates, freeing the Maersk Alabama’s Captain Richard Phillips, was less than it seemed – while Navy snipers shot the pirates holding Phillips in a lifeboat freeing him, the Maersk Alabama’s crew had already liberated the ship themselves, kicking the pirates off without any outside help (which is how Phillips wound up in the lifeboat with the pirates in the first place). Perhaps it’s precisely because the United States hasn’t taken a leadership role in organizing and operating the Somali patrols that they have been such a remarkably broad-based international effort.  Unlike the other military interventions that have been milestone events in post-Cold War US foreign policy - Gulf War I, the bombing campaign against Serbia, Afghanistan, Gulf War II – members of the international community have felt free to participate in the anti-piracy flotilla without fear that they were supporting “American neo-colonialism” or interference within their “sphere of influence”, typical critiques of America’s other recent interventions. The Somali flotilla sends mixed messages to Washington.  The good news is that they are proof that a broad cross-section of international powers can actually set aside their political differences to work collaboratively towards a common goal (and that’s good when it comes to dealing with a truly global problem like climate change).  The bad news is that the Somali flotilla also shows the world that it is quite possible to assemble an at least somewhat effective multi-national effort without the participation of the world’s self-styled global community organizer, the United States.   And as we continue to shift from the bi-polar world of the Cold War era that asked everyone to join either the US or Soviet camps, to the more dynamic multi-polar world we find ourselves in today, that’s likely a lesson that Washington would rather the world not learn.

Korea, Pirates, Post-Soviet, Somalia, US Foreign Policy