Maritime piracy is by definition a crime of the sea, but one that has deep roots onshore. Pirates need safe havens that provide them with vessels and supplies—and, crucially, the means of getting their stolen goods to market.

Understanding this, governments have traditionally combatted piracy not only with warships, but also with boots on the ground. From ancient Rome to Qing dynasty China to seventeenth-century England, sovereign states have undermined pirates by uprooting coastal villages, burning boats, and executing collaborators. And that has been the case for the United States, too. In 1805, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson deployed a small force of Marines and mercenaries to Derne, a port city on the coast of modern-day Libya, as part of a larger campaign to halt Barbary piracy against American merchant ships—an event immortalized in the official Marines hymn. (The Marines “fight our country’s battles,” the song goes, “from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”)

So when pirates began wreaking havoc along a major international shipping route off the coast of Somalia in 2007 and 2008, at least some were expecting governments to take a similar approach. By 2009, following two years of increasing attacks on commercial boats, some experts were beating war drums. Tom Wilkerson, the head of the U.S. Naval Institute and a former two-star Marine general, advised a return to the “Jefferson model” of antipiracy. “Take on the pirates where they are,” he wrote, “rather than guessing where they will be.” And John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for an invasion of Somalia that would “end the problem once and for all.” 

But in a departure from precedent, governments took a different path. Few states were willing to take the risk of sending their troops into harms way, but many of them felt the pressure to act. In 2008, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1851, which called for an international cooperation mechanism that would “act as a common point of contact between and among states, regional and international organizations on all aspects of combating piracy and armed robbery at sea off Somalia’s coast.” That directive gave birth to the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia, a multilateral body meant to coordinate action on maritime piracy among a wide range of stakeholders. 

The group’s goal was to avoid leaning too much on any single approach to piracy, and instead work along parallel tracks, making simultaneous use of naval operations, prosecutions, capacity building, and industry self-protection (using both technology and armed guards). The strategy largely worked. Over the past five years, piracy around the Horn of Africa has reached record lows. According to the International Maritime Bureau, the last successful capture of a merchant vessel by Somali pirates was in 2012.

A large part of this success is due to the Contact Group’s efforts, which allowed various stakeholders to engage in parallel work. Under its auspices, the maritime industry developed vessel self-protection procedures, which dramatically reduced the effectiveness of attacks. UN bodies worked with regional states to help them clarify laws and prosecute pirates. And international naval forces, including those of NATO and the European Union, helped track and guide shipping vessels in the Indian Ocean. Collectively, these efforts undermined piracy on multiple fronts—and in a manner far more sustainable than military force.

To a certain extent, this new approach reflects modern realities. For one thing, pirates in centuries past typically acted with state sponsorship. Today, most pirates profit independently, so they aren’t enemy combatants so much as common criminals. For another, the political limits on military interventions are especially severe: After costly interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans and Europeans are extremely hesitant to deploy ground troops, no matter how narrowly defined the mission. And there are also new economic conditions: Shipping vessels, due to complex ownership and registration structures, are no longer strictly associated with single states, making it less clear who should defend them.

Some limited military action has proven helpful, driving incremental changes on a number of fronts. The European Union launched helicopter attacks on pirate supply caches in 2012, and the United States and France have deployed special forces units to save hostages. According to the UN, the United Arab Emirates has hired international private security forces to train a Somali unit, called the Puntland Maritime Police Force, which now patrols the country’s coast and stages assaults against some piratesFurther inland, the African Union has committed international peacekeeping forces to support the Somali government and disrupt pirate safe havens in southern and central Somalia.

To be sure, the international response to piracy hasn’t come cheap: Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project of the foundation I work for, estimates that international governments and the shipping industry spent roughly three billion dollars on counter-piracy efforts near Somalia in 2013 alone. But that’s likely a fraction of what it would have cost to invade Somalia or maintain a military presence there. And a large number of stakeholders have been able to share the burden.

The innovative response to Somali piracy carries yet another upside: It offers a useful model for dealing with other collective challenges. Applying a similar, multi-sector approach to counterterrorism, for example, could leverage the strengths of varied stakeholders—NGOs, militaries, civilian aid agencies—under the umbrella of a larger international group. Global crises demand responses commensurate with the enormous threats they pose, but also ones that are multilateral and multifaceted. If the events of recent decades have taught the world anything, it’s that such approaches aren’t a matter of choice; they are a necessity.

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