Turning the Tide against Piracy: A Smart Power Approach at Work

November 21, 2012 By Zach Silberman

Piracy against merchant ships operating off the African coast is a serious national security issue.  The price of Somali piracy has been substantial, particularly in 2011 when Somali piracy cost the global economy nearly $7 billion. However, in 2012, attacks committed by Somali pirates have fallen to a three-year low. This improvement is, in part, attributed to America’s collaboration with world governments and the private sector through a comprehensive smart power approach.

When we think about modern piracy, we picture the harrowing rescue by U.S. Special Forces of American merchant captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009.  But piracy has also threatened the work of development officials.  Earlier this year, American and Danish aid workers were kidnapped by Somali pirates.  Through the sheer ingenuity and leadership of our special forces, these two aid workers were rescued. However, the number of attacks by Somali pirates on global maritime commerce off the Somali coast has fallen considerably.  The International Maritime Bureau reported in October that in the first nine months of 2012, there were only 70 attacks by Somali pirates compared with 199 for the same period in 2011.  While this collaboration was achieved through multilateral relations, smart power played a significant role in minimizing this security threat to global commerce by utilizing civilian-military cooperation and collaboration with the private sector.

Last month, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro provided an update to the Atlantic Council of the United States on the State Department’s approach to combating Somali piracy, which coincided with the release of an Atlantic Council report on managing the global response to piracy. During his remarks, Shapiro noted that the progress made by the United States to combat piracy off the Somali coast was due to a “smart power approach,” which used “cooperation and coordination across the U.S. government to address piracy.” According to Shapiro, “through the collective effort of the United States, the UK, NATO, the EU, the broader international community, and the private sector, we are now seeing signs that we may have turned the tide on Somali piracy.”

This smart power approach has involved diplomatic engagement with partners to find the best methods to combat piracy; cooperating with the militaries of allies to expand security at home; and working with private sector partners like the maritime industry to encourage them to take steps to protect against attacks.  “All countries connected to the global economy have an interest in addressing piracy…Our response to piracy is an example of how we are seeking to lead in new ways, by reaching out to new actors and build new kinds of partnerships and coalitions,” according to Shapiro.  Combating piracy is a national security priority that allows for a comprehensive strategy that involves key players across the spectrum of global community.  Engaging on these issues serves national security interests, but also seeks to enhance our priorities for ensuring economic prosperity for American and world companies.

As Shapiro noted, “The comprehensive, multilateral approach that we have pursued has helped turn the tide on piracy and has provided an example of how the U.S. government and the international community can respond to transnational threats and challenges in the future.”  In addition, the Department of Defense noted in 2011 that the impact of America’s collaboration on combating Somali piracy can “complement our development and counterterrorism goals in the region. Although none are quick fixes, over the long term, increasing local and law enforcement capacity and fostering sustainable economic development are all part of reducing the threat of violent extremism, as well as reducing the threat of piracy,” according to William F. Wechsler, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counternarcotics and Global Threats and the current Deputy Assistant Secretary for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism. Utilizing all our tools of smart power to combat transnational threats continues to be an effective method for ensuring our national security interests are protected.