Archive for the ‘Piracy’ Category

Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

December 11, 2009

Yesterday, President Obama visited Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.  Many people reasonably believe that the president does not deserve the award after serving less than a year in office and not having achieved many tangible goals when it comes to foreign policy.  But regardless of whether or not he earned the prestigious prize, his acceptance speech was excellent.  It was very Niebuhrian, and it revealed that the president holds a view of the world and human nature that can be described as “Christian realism,” although he did not identify it in sectarian terms  He believes that man is flawed and frequenty behaves in unethical ways, but he also maintains that the human condition can be improved through acts of goodwill motivated by moral principles.  Having just escalated the war in Afghanistan, he argued that war is sometimes justified and necessary, but he balanced his adherence to just war theory by stressing the need to achieve a just peace that serves humanitarian aims.

In addition to promoting humanitarian realism, he advocated what international relations scholars refer to as “institutionalism” and “constructivism.”  Institutionalists believe that peace and progress can best be achieved by nations acting in concert through international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization, and constructivists believe that changes in norms such as notions of sovereignty and human rights can improve global society.  In his speech, President Obama said that international alliances like NATO are needed to keep the peace, and he argued that the US and other countries should embrace humanitarian concepts out of enlightened self interest.

For information about Rienhold Niebuhr, who President Obama has cited as a major influence on his thinking, and Christian realism click on this link.  For another perspective on the international relations theory aspects of the president’s speech, read Daniel Drezner’s recent blog post on

Combating Somali Pirates

November 30, 2009

Yesterday, an oil tanker headed to the US from Saudi Arabia was hijacked by Somali pirates.  The attack was another addition to the long list of such incidents in the past decade (10 ships have been hijacked in just the last two month). 

The pirates have increased their capability and range over time.  They now mount attacks from mother ships stationed in the middle of the ocean, from which they launch smaller vessels against their targets.  The tanker captured Sunday was seized 600 miles off the coast of Somalia where the pirate bases are located.

Piracy has flourished in the Indian Ocean between the Gulf of Aden and the Seychelles islands despite increased naval patrols.  This trend may be the result of a flawed strategy pursued by concerned powers.  Navy vessels from the US and other countries cruise off Somalia’s coast and other parts of the ocean looking for pirates, but the area that the US Fifth Fleet and foreign navies have to patrol is 2.5 million square miles, which makes their task daunting to say the least.

A better method of combating the pirates would be to set up a convoy system like the Allies did in World War Two to reduce the effectiveness of German submarines.  A convoy strategy would force hijackers to take on warships rather than evade them as they have been doing.  The odds that pirates could successfully capture oil tankers or other vessels that were guarded by destroyers are very low, so using convoys would almost certainly limit the ability of the hijackers to kidnap people and disrupt trade.

The Piracy Problem

April 20, 2009

Last week, an American cargo ship captain who was being held hostage by pirates was rescued by US naval forces in the Indian Ocean near the Horn of Africa.  During the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, three Somali pirates were shot and killed by Navy Seals snipers operating from the destroyer Bainbridge.  President Obama had authorized the use of force if it appeared to military commanders on the scene that the captain’s life was in imminent danger


Capt. Phillips had been a captive since Apr. 8 when his ship, the Maersk Alabama, was boarded by pirates.  He persuaded his captors to let the other members of his crew go after volunteering himself as a hostage.  The captain was then forced at gunpoint into a lifeboat which the pirates used to flee the location.  American forces soon began tracking the pirate craft and attempted to negotiate the release of Capt. Phillips.  The pirates demanded $2 million and repeatedly threatened to kill their abductee before they were neutralized on Apr. 12 after a five-day standoff.


This episode highlights the serious problem posed by piracy on the high seas.  Somali pirates are currently holding 12 ships and at least 200 crew members, according to the International Maritime Bureau.  Other pirates threatened to highjack more ships and kill Americans in retaliation for their comrades’ deaths. 


The Indian Ocean is the main area where piracy occurs.  The waters near Somalia are a major hazard for commercial ships as are the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia.  Somalia, which has the longest coastline in Africa, is considered by many to be a failed state and the pirates stationed there have a safe haven due to the weakness of the Somali government.  The country is plagued by an insurgency led by Islamic extremists who hold views similar to those of Al Qaeda.  National security analysts Robert Kaplan and Andrew Exum from the Center for New American Security have pointed out the possibility that terrorists could join forces with the pirates to make money and further their political aims, a development which would certainly undermine American interests.


The Obama administration has stated its resolve to halt piracy, although it is unclear exactly how it will pursue this goal.  International cooperation among naval forces similar to that of Combined Task Forces 150 and 151 will likely be strengthened.  Airstrikes against pirate bases and the use of special operations forces are also viable policy options.  It appears unlikely that the US will attempt to bring stability to Somalia and eliminate the pirates’ safe haven by sending in a large number of ground forces given the ongoing troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.