From earliest times to 1790 piracy was a constant and intense scourge, but by 1850 it was a minor sideshow, and so it remains, despite the round of activity off Somalia and the constant irritants in the Straits of Malacca. Why did the anti-piracy efforts of four centuries prior to 1790 fail, and why did the Long War of six decades against piracy then largely succeed? Does it yield lessons for us today, not only for how to deal with piracy, but perhaps also with other types of lawlessness, like terrorism. Probably.

A year ago, in a longer piece on lessons for counter-terrorism gleaned from the suppression of piracy, I wrote that piracy and terrorism have certain common features. Piracy was directed at civilians or non-combatants, with the intent to do harm. It was long sanctioned by certain governments and used as a form of irregular warfare (and its practitioners then called privateers). Consequently, many nation states acted as safe havens for pirates. A handful of such states became, at various points, pretty much pirate states, in that piracy was the defining activity of the state. Many of its practitioners engaged in both government sanctioned and unsanctioned forms in the course of their careers. Even the unsanctioned forms had their political uses for some states, and hence some of those nominally opposed were two-faced about it.

Pirates operated very much like modern terrorists, in that their weapons were mostly the low-end, somewhat improvised versions of the current weapons systems of the states and peoples upon whom they preyed. They were not creators of new technology, but merely daring, unorthodox, and (by the standards of the day) unprincipled employers of the readily available low-end technology of their day. They acquired their capabilities by purchase, or often by theft from their opponents. They rarely sought to acquire the heavier ships of their day, as those were too slow for their tactics, which usually involved speed, surprise and a disinclination to stand and fight against conventional naval or land forces unless it could not be avoided. Today’s terrorist organizations and cells arm themselves and function similarly.

But eventually, a confluence of four factors made piracy an entirely unacceptable activity and provoked a final, intense campaign to expunge it.

§ By the end of the eighteenth century, privateers operating under letters of marque or letters of reprisal had ceased to be a useful device for increasing the military capability of developed states. After 1790, few such letters were issued, and the Declaration of Paris, in 1856, made them widely illegal.

§ Piracy interfered with international trade, which had become vastly more central to the economic health of the developed world than previously.

§ More people from a wider range of classes were travelling by sea, so the perception of the risk of harm by pirates was more widespread and hence there was more pressure to remove the risk.

§ There were important human rights issues. Piracy was intimately connected to the slave trade. Often, or even usually, victims of piracy became slaves. Ultimately, laws declared the movement of slaves by sea to be a form of piracy. So the growing anti-slavery ideology also became an anti-piracy ideology, and added a huge moral fervour to the campaign to expunge piracy.

Within three generations, piracy went from being a semi-accepted form of irregular warfare and an activity viewed as unsavoury but likely always to exist at the edges of society, to being gone. Of course not completely gone, but so entirely marginalized that it’s always a shock when it occurs. Other than in the Straits of Malacca and the coasts of failed states like, it’s almost unheard of. There is no longer an established international pirate culture, a sort of diffuse criminal enterprise and network of misfits and thugs, some with political objectives but others just outlaws. It’s gone. So far gone that in North America flying the Jolly Roger is merely a tasteless joke, and dressing up in mock pirate gear a suitable activity for children on Halloween.

How was the anti-piracy “long war” of sixty years won? And what lessons can be learned from it and applied both to the design of a campaign against terrorism that has at least some chance of success, and to suppressing the recent modest flurry of piracy?

There were sporadic attempts to beat down piracy long before the sixty years that I have characterized as the “Long War Against Piracy.” There are good reasons why these earlier efforts did not have long lasting effects, even though they sometimes contained elements that were quite effective when used in a coordinated fashion after 1790.

The Long War on Piracy worked where earlier efforts had failed because:
§ developed states stopped using piracy as a convenience themselves;
§ it was a multilateral effort grounded in a shared popular conviction that piracy had to end;
§ its linkage to slavery (which had become an early analogue of “crimes against humanity”) gave rise to a moral outrage about it;
§ force projection alone was not effective, but force projection accompanied by intensive diplomacy, co-option and even bribery did work;
§ laws were important, provided that governments chose to enforce them. Failed and fragile states can’t.

These lessons may be applicable to counter-terrorism, even in the face of substantial ideological drivers for some terrorism, and I’ve written about the modern application of these lessons elsewhere. It should not surprise us that American moves away from multilateralism have been problematic. Multilateralism is awkward. It involves constant negotiation and compromise. It is slow. But it is critical to closing off safe havens.

And the very effective bribing or co-opting of Libya to go out of the terror business has historical parallels. While implied force was certainly a factor, it was not in the end the critical factor.

A campaign against terrorism or piracy is not a military exercise. It is a political, diplomatic, economic and social exercise in which military force must always be available and occasionally used.

But, with the spotlight now on the pirates of Somalia, I’m often asked if I haven’t written off piracy somewhat prematurely. I don’t think so. But there are ironies. What is so remarkable about the pirates of Somalia is that they are really true classical pirates. They’re in it for the money. They take good care of the crews and cargo they capture because crew and cargo are assets. They use failed states as havens and try to make them into pirate states by spreading around their pirated largesse. They will negotiate with anyone if cash is in the wind. It’s almost hard to believe they aren’t all 200 years old, given how traditional their act is. But their act is fragile indeed. In today’s setting they need a particular hothouse to thrive. And the reason is technology.

It was not technology that killed classical piracy. It would have eventually, with the coming of iron ships, rapid communications and remote surveillance. (Cobden declared piracy dead in 1849, eleven years before Warrior was launched. Large-scale piracy grew up during the age of fighting sail and died before its technological context did.)

To be successful for a time, the pirates of Somalia have needed: a) a completely failed coastal state next to a major shipping lane; b) a slow response of commerce to the risk, in terms of route planning and other precautions; and c) a reluctance, until recently, to deploy against them a full range of modern surveillance and interdiction assets, and to counter them on both land and water.

Thanks in part to the spotlight cast upon them by an enthralled media (and it’s such a great story, who wouldn’t be captivated), the enabling conditions are already starting to shift. The pirates don’t have friends amongst stronger states, regional or otherwise. Naval assets (including Canadian) and significant surveillance/reconnaissance assets are now being used.

For a while, the cost of the pirates’ depredations was less than the cost of countering them aggressively. This has changed. They are, in a way, about to become victims of both their own success and their own novelty. But the same old rules apply: multilateral and multifaceted. Make them look bad. Threaten and sometimes use force. Talk lots, and bribe or co-opt the sane to go out of business. Defeat the few who remain.

Dr. John Scott Cowan is a former principal of RMC, a former vice-principal of Queen’s, and currently the president of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.