Somali pirates have seized a US-flagged ship carrying relief aid and 20 Americans, the New York Times reports. It is the first time in a long time – I haven’t looked hard and could be wrong, but I couldn’t find any indication of a US-flagged ship being seized by pirates going back at least a decade. We’ve talked before on this blog about international responses to piracy. I’ve suggested that in some ways it is a made-for-TV issue for the Obama administration – a chance to show multilateral leadership in a firm, security-related way. American ship? American crew being held hostage? Ship carrying relief supplies? There’s already a Security Council resolution and, for once, general agreement among the great powers that everyone favors secure seas through the region – China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, etc. Of course, it is never that simple once the pirates actually have hostages.
The UN Security Council has passed unanimously a US drafted resolution authorizing attacks upon pirates, whether by land or sea. It is one of those rare security issues in which the great powers, and many small ones, have been willing to come together, at least in granting authority. So far, piracy has been treated as a nonpolitical issue, including in large part by the pirates themselves. But could that change? And what does it mean to move from diplomatic authorization to actual operations? Is anyone really prepared to intervene on land, even if that were the most efficient place to block pirate excursions? Will the Obama administration see this as a good first opportunity to organize the multilateral use of force in the post-Bush era, in the rare situation in which multilateral action has a rare chance of succeeding because the great powers agree that each has something tangible at stake? Read on to find out that I’ve offered … no answers, only questions!