On War #294: A Barometer of Order

William S. Lind
March 3, 2009

On the surface, the antics of Somali pirates and the comic opera response of the maritime powers is worthy of a re-visit by Gilbert and Sullivan. Despite the presence off Somalia of the largest concentration of international warships since World War II, Somali pirates go on their merry ways, taking ships and holding them for ransoms. While they seldom make their captives walk the plank and most prefer the green flag of Islam to the Jolly Roger, they are pirates in the full sense of the word, owing allegiance to no state. Pirates might be justified in claiming they were the original Fourth Generation warriors.

What is comic about the piracy off Somalia is the inability of the maritime powers, most of whom now have warships on station in the region, to do anything about it. Their governments wring their hands and say, “Oh, my, whatever shall we do. Our laws don’t seem to cover piracy, so it seems we must do nothing.” The warships are left to steam in circles, scream and shout. The British Foreign Office produced a formal legal opinion warning Royal Navy ships not to capture pirates, on the grounds that the pirates might claim asylum in Britain! The Foreign Office, it seems, has become an asylum.

On no question is international law more clear or more ancient than on piracy. Law has recognized pirates as “enemies of all mankind” since the Roman Empire. They are outlaws whom anyone may kill on sight. Common law, which used to count for something in Britain, makes hunting down and killing pirates the duty of all maritime powers. The Royal Navy used to be pretty good at it. Has it perhaps run out of rope?

Cleaning up Somali piracy should take tens days, a fortnight at most. It’s not hard. International ships and aircraft hunt down and sink the pirates’ vessels at sea. (As in the 17th and 18th centuries, there are very few pirate “ships;” most pirates operate from open boats, now as then.) Any ship taken by pirates is immediately re-taken by some state’s navy or Marines. Captured pirates are hanged from the nearest yardarm, without trial, as common law allows. Ports out of which pirates frequently sail, such as Eyl, are bombarded, and any likely pirate craft are destroyed. This is a script any admiral from the age of sail would know by heart.

Why hasn’t it happened? Here is where the subject becomes serious. Piracy is a barometer of two related qualities in the world of states: the state’s belief in itself and the state system, and international order. The failure of states to follow ancient law and precedent in dealing with Somali pirates says nothing about the pirates. But it speaks volumes concerning the weakness of the state, in its own eyes. So little do the international elites who now rule all but a handful of states – the administrators of Brave New World – believe in the state that they cannot even hang pirates. They have the souls, not of leaders or governors, but of petty functionaries. When not even states’ elites believe in the state anymore, why should anyone else? Piracy not suppressed represents history lifting its leg on the whole state system.

Similarly, piracy is a barometer of order. It has been so since Roman times. When order weakens, pirates flourish. When order returns, pirates are hunted down and hanged. The piracy barometer tells us order is vanishing fast. That should not surprise us, since order in the post-Westphalian world depends on states.

Piracy is only the barometer; the storm will be something else. That storm is coming, and soon, as Brave New World’s promise of unending material wealth in return for acceptance of an administered life proves a lie. By the time the storm is over, the elites that fear to hang pirates will be hanging from lampposts themselves.

William S. Lind, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.

To interview Mr. Lind, please contact (no e-mail available):

Mr. William S. Lind
Free Congress Foundation
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Alexandria, Virginia 22314

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