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New research about pirates!

3 March 2010

Papers about piracy presented at the February 2010 convention of the International Studies Association convention:   “Theory vs. Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners”.  You might find some of these of interest.  Piracy shows western geopolitical thinking in unusual clarity.  Can we respond to a small threat without losing our minds?  Not every geopolitical moment is Munich, September 1938.  Can American public policy learn from America’s scholars, or must it continue the current trend of seeking solutions based on greed, hubris, and fear?

  1. Weak States, Failed States and Piracy“, Brian Warby
  2. The Political Economy of International Security: Somali Piracy and the Militarization of International Maritime Trade“, Garnet Kindervater and Isaac Kamola
  3. War and Theft on the High Seas: Pirates as Tricksters in International Politics“, Lilach Gilady and Joseph Mackay
  4. Piracy as State-Building: Towards a Theory of Protective Control“, Laura Seay and Amanda Skuldt
  5. The Nomos of the High Seas: What Carl Schmitt’s Theories of International Law and the State Tell Us about Somali Pirates”“, Timothy Delaune

Even the abstracts are interesting, suggesting that sometimes piracy is a stage in the formation of States — and our efforts to suppress piracy act to maintain failed states.  At the end are links to other posts on the FM website about pirates.  Esp note the comments on them.  They display the ignorance, callousness, and eagerness to use force that characterizes American foreign policy during the last few decades.


(1)  “Weak States, Failed States and Piracy”, Brian Warby — Conclusion:

Piracy is largely an understudied issue. Policy making and international agreements and organizations base their decisions on shaky ground. The lack of empirical evidence up to this point has been a major deterrent for systematically studying the conditions conducive to piracy, but efforts over the last several years have produced data sets that make statistical analysis possible. The ability to empirically test ideas about piracy should spur theory building and analysis. It is now possible to develop a theory about piracy, test it, and have some idea of how well it fits reality.

This paper has described how failed states might lead to piracy. One possible mechanism is that institutionally failed or weak states are not able to fight piracy, allowing to flourish given the right conditions. The data generally support this theorized relationship, but with a twist; the weakest governments are not likely to see the most piracy because they are probably also the poorest.

The other possible mechanism by which failed states might cause piracy is through economic means. Economically failed states are unable to take care of citizens, run social programs or fund law enforcement and civil service programs. In a poor economy individuals have more incentive to engage in illicit activities and the state has few resources to prevent them. The data supports this hypothesis. Higher levels of GNI {gross national income} per capita consistently and significantly correlates with lower levels of piracy.

Perhaps the most important conclusion from this research is that it is not necessarily failed states that cause piracy. The worst governed regions are not likely to have the highest levels of piracy, although they are likely to have some. The most risky regions are those which are badly governed, but not the worst governed. Policy makers should be cautious in their efforts to combat piracy and their assumptions about the conditions under which it is most likely to proliferate. Although there are many other issues for policy makers to consider, strengthening the weakest regions may actually exacerbate piracy rather than help it.

(2)  The Political Economy of International Security: Somali Piracy and the Militarization of International Maritime Trade“, Garnet Kindervater and Isaac Kamola — Excerpt:

When the US frames the problem of piracy in the Gulf of Aden as a threat to “vibrant international commerce” by illegitimate actors, it sounds an alarm about the traditional categories occupied by scholars of international security. The declarations that pirates in the Gulf of Aden are hostes humani generis who pose a treat to the nation states and require the deployment of considerable military assets should provide a moment for analytical pause. In particular, we should take the time to consider whose interests are served by the deployment of these warships, especially given that the claim piracy poses a threat to national security is dubious at best.

It could be argued that the state is providing the same function that it has always served within capitalist economies, to police threats in the name of those who most benefit from capitalist production and circulation. However, it appears that the situation is more complicate than that. On the one hand, the current losses due to piracy–$1-$16 billion a year (Chalk 2009)–are not only miniscule in terms of the overall size of the world economy but might actually be considerably less than the cost of sending warships to police the region. For example, it is estimated that a single warship costs an average of $94,200 per day to operate at sea (McConnell 2009). A dozen warships patrolling the Gulf of Aden for a month would cost more than $66 million and, despite this considerable outlay, have proven largely incapable of reducing the overall number of pirate attacks.

It is widely recognized that as badaadinta badah achieve even greater capacity extending their operations well into the Indian Ocean the only viable solution is a political one that addresses the statelessness and economic depravation on land (McConnell 2009).

(3)  “War and Theft on the High Seas: Pirates as Tricksters in International Politics”, Lilach Gilady and Joseph Mackay — Abstract:

The trickster is a mischievous, shape-shifting character, an archetypical trouble-maker and change agent in various world mythologies. It has been appropriated by literary theorists and anthropologists to describe figures given to transformation and disruption. Tricksters reside in marginal regions between places, social categories and cultures, leveraging their location to effect change. Since at least Classical Greece, pirates have been such actors. Piracy has long been illegal and illegitimate. Pirates have, however, often established themselves as lawful, accepted political or military actors, even as they plied their trade. They thereby benefited from both legitimacy and illegitimacy, often causing great upheaval.

Using the device of the trickster, this paper evaluates the transformational power produced through this liminal status in international politics. First, we set out the role of the trickster. Second, we establish the role of pirates in IR. From there, we use three historical cases to illustrate how this liminal trickster status permits pirates to manipulate their environments to their own advantage. We argue that by manipulating the margins of social categories, tricksters generate change at the core.

(4)  Piracy as State-Building: Towards a Theory of Protective Control“, Laura Seay and Amanda Skuldt — Abstract:

This paper is part of a larger project in which we seek to describe the internal organizational structures of land-based pirates operating off the Somali coast on the Horn of Africa and to determine whether there is a significant relationship between levels of local governance and the presence of pirate activity. Land-based piracy has increased sharply in the Horn of Africa over the course of the last decade, prompting the formation of an internationally-patrolled safe shipping lane and other forms of intervention by private security companies and foreign naval forces. While piracy is conventionally thought of as a consequence of state failure, in Somalia, we hypothesize that the areas that generate heavy pirate activity in the so-called stateless regions of Somalia are often those with relatively high levels of effective local governance.

Using data collected by the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Center, we construct a data set of pirate attacks, naval dispatches, ransoms, locations of attacks, and casualties from 2005-2008. The data set will eventually encompass all pirate attacks from 1992 to 2009. In a forthcoming stage of the project, we will analyze this descriptive data on pirate activity with regards to levels of local governance. In order to measure levels of local governance in a region in which it is nearly impossible to conduct field research, we are developing a measurement instrument to assign polity scores for Somaliland, Puntland, al-Shabaab-governed regions of Somalia, and non-al-Shabaab regions.

We expect to show that pirate attacks in the Horn of Africa occur more frequently in areas with higher levels of onshore local governance in areas of extreme state weakness or failure. We hypothesize that Somali pirates are members of highly structured organizations and that, while personal enrichment is one benefit for pirates, they are also using resources to provide a measure of political order, security, and other public goods to residents of their communities. We further argue that public goods provision by pirates is a form of sovereignty establishment in uncontrolled territories.

(5)  “The Nomos of the High Seas: What Carl Schmitt’s Theories of International Law and the State Tell Us about Somali Pirates”“, Timothy Delaune — Abstract:

This paper’s aim is not to provide a solution to Somali piracy, but rather to show how Carl Schmitt’s political theory can illuminate considerations and tensions central to Somali piracy figured as an international problem, that in the dominant discourse at best remain unseen and at worst are actively concealed. It amounts to an effort to show that piracy itself may not be remediable without action that serves to further empower the powerful while leaving Somalis on the ground beholden to an endless series of foreign masters. By way of brief conclusion, it notes two further ironies that flow from the attempt to end Somali piracy, while strengthening the Somali state.

The first such irony emerges in light of Schmitt’s theory upon examination of the move pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution #1851 to solve piracy by rebuilding Somalia. This resolution, which authorizes states and international organizations to enter Somali territory to quell piracy, was justified in large part by reference to the perceived need to resolve root problems of poverty, corruption, and lawlessness on land. The upshot of this is that the international community seeks to prop up the TFG in order to solve the perceived problem of piracy, without reference to the TFG’s accountability or support on the ground.

At the same time, it pledges to work with the selfsame government authority whose corruption contributes directly to the acts of piracy the international community seeks to end. Rather than focus on the shortcomings of the present nomos, the international community under US leadership directs its efforts to a particular manifestation of the tensions inherent therein. And yet, perhaps happily for Somalis, this intervention on land may be the most effective way (if undertaken with care for Somalis themselves rather than their would-be governors) to quell underlying the underlying problems of poverty, corruption, and lawlessness that contribute to piracy.

Relatedly, this approach overlooks the strong possibility that piracy itself contributes to state-building. Noor Fayrus’s account of his and his countrymen’s participation in piracy emphasizes repeatedly the identity constructive and restorative effects of Somali piracy, in particular the tendency for cooperation among Somalis of differing tribes — which have traditionally fought against one another — in piratical activity, and the attendant strengthening of interclan loyalties and pirates’ self-identification as Somalis first. As one of Fayrus’s pirate leaders recounts, “[T]hanks to our working together as Somalis[, w]hat started as a movement of local fishermen . . . , a recompense exacted against the original foreign fish pirates and polluters, has now become Somalia’s greatest asset.”

On this view, some piracy, and attendant threats to yachters and shipping interests, might be worth enduring in favor of long-term stability in Somalia. After all, if the problems of illegal fishing and dumping result from the failure of a Somali state, perhaps the appropriate solution, within the present nomos, is to let the Somalis build a successful one, even if through conflict with other states’ interests.

For more information from the FM site

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.   Such as…

Posts on the FM site about pirates:

  1. All about Pirates!, 12 December 2008
  2. More about pirates: why we no longer “hang them high”, 5 January 2009
  3. A Piracy SitRep, 12 May 2009
  4. How will the Long War affect America? Will it make us stronger or weaker? Crazy? Unleash our dark side?, 4 August 2009
  5. Bloodlust – a natural by-product of a long war?, 11 August 2009
  6. What is this “justice” that war-loving Americans speak of?, 31 December 2009
  7. More about those pirate demons in Somalia, 2 January 2009
  8. The real pirates sailing the seas, in whom we have no interest and from which we will suffer massive damage, 4 January 2010


Please email me if you have a correction to this post.  Or email me if you wish to make a comment and either have expertise in this field or are mentioned in this post. Send messages to fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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