The Upside of Piracy
When the young Julius Caesar was kidnapped by pirates, they took him off to their Mediterranean island base, where he lived among his captors while waiting to be ransomed. According to the historian Plutarch, Caesar entered into the pirate life, taking part in their athletic competitions and beating them at their own games. They had become buds by the time his ransom arrived, and he sailed off in a gust of comaraderie. Once freed, Caesar organized a military force, sailed back, captured his erstwhile hosts and crucified them.
For the last 2,000 years, nations plagued by piracy have emulated Caesar. Presumably, the United States has the power to put an end to the Somali corsairs. Whether we have the will power is something we will find out in the coming months. If squashing these sea-going bandits becomes enmeshed in one of our debates over nation-building, the Somalia criminals can take a deep breath and relax.
A crimp can be put in piratical activity off the coast of East Africa without nation-building, but it demands behaving the way the Russians did as they snuffed the rebellion against their rule in Chechnya. We could mount a punitive expedition--which in modern terms is indiscriminate bombing of the seacoast from which the pirates issue. Follow that route and you can count on many civilian casualties.
Or the coast could be indefinitely blockaded. No shipping, no fishing boats, no craft of any sort in or out of Somalian ports unless they have been inspected for weapons. Uninspected boats could be sunk by our drones.
Presently there are elements of the Chinese, Indian, American, Italian, British, Dutch, Russian, French and maybe some other nations' navies in the antipiracy business, each with its own set of sailing orders. It would be a breakthrough if this collection of nations could agree on a common action and carry it out. Were they to do so, the pirates would have rendered a service without realizing it. They would be the occasion for showing these nations that they can work together to face a common enemy.
The odds are only so-so that any of the above will happen. For years now, robbery on the high seas has been growing more frequent and more bold. It stands to reason the pirates are using some of their loot to buy more powerful weapons, larger boats and better electronics with which to commit bigger and more profitable crimes. The worst may be yet to come.
There is a plus side to that for us as well as the pirates. The more ships they capture, the more ransom, the people kidnapped, injured and killed, the greater the fear in the world of shipping and the higher the insurance rates. One of these days, rates will jump over the moon when a pirate attack results in a horrific incident such as a ship sinking or an oil tanker spilling crude into the ocean. The possibilities for bad things stretch over the horizon.
As the danger mounts, the insurance costs rise and sailors grow more reluctant sign on to ships plying these seas, the higher will go the costs. The slow-moving, defenseless oil tankers with their cargoes rivaling in value those of the sixteenth-century Spanish treasure galleons that pirates of the past feasted on will seek another, safer, route to Europe. Instead of passing through the Suez Canal, they will take the longer, costlier path around the southern tip of Africa.
The end result will be that the world price of crude oil will rise just as though the oil-producing nations had cut production. Oil, as they always instruct us, is a fungible commodity--if the price goes up in Europe or Tokyo, it goes up everywhere, including at the pump in Iowa or California.
In a trice, the pirates of Somalia will have accomplished something Congress ought to have done but has not had the guts to do since Jimmy Carter's time. They will have slapped on an additional gas and oil tax, the single most effective way of motivating people and businesses to conserve energy. The drop in oil imports will do wonders for our adverse balance of trade.
So if you spy a ship flying the skull and crossbones, you may not want to cheer--but dont weep. If the pirates are captured and prosecuted, we may not see energy conservation until the last polar bear has perished on the last iceberg and the last drop of Saudi oil has been used up making artificial snow on a ski slope in Arizona.