The “simile du jour” in today’s discussions of President-elect Obama’s actions is that he is organizing is cabinet as described by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s fantastic work, Team of Rivals. Choosing the strongest primary opponents for his team proved a wise tactic for Abraham Lincoln, and presumably it will do so for Obama. Lincoln faced the task of restoring the country to wholeness; Obama must restore it to greatness. Once his team of power players is in place, the President-elect would do well to emulate Thomas Jefferson when choosing at least one of the components of his grand strategy.
As British rule over American colonies came to an end, pirate ships and crews from the North African states of Tripoli, Tunis, Morocco, and Algiers (the Barbary Coast) ravaged Mediterranean commerce. American efforts toward independence from Britain ended British protection of American merchant ships and sailors from the Barbary pirates. France guarded American ships in the Mediterranean during the war, according to the terms of their 1778 Treaty of Alliance. However, the end of the war in 1783 meant the United States had to protect its own commercial interests in the Mediterranean.
Paying ransoms and bribes to Barbary rulers sounded like a cheaper solution than raising an international navy to defeat them. Deep in debt from its war for independence, Congress appropriated funds for tribute payments and directed the American ministers in Europe (Thomas Jefferson and John Adams) to begin negotiations. Jefferson opposed this plan, arguing that paying ransom and bribery demands only leads to further demands. Instead he tried to put together a coalition of affected powers that would, in his words, “compel the piratical States to perpetual peace.” Jefferson got quite a few European nations interested in his proposal, but he was unable to persuade Britain and France to sign on, so nothing came of it. The United States began sending ships laden with tribute to the Barbary rulers, and it received little beyond insult and further demands. Ransom and tribute payments to the Barbary states rose to 20% of United States government annual revenues in 1800.
When Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, the Pasha of Tripoli, weakest of the Barbary powers, congratulated him by demanding an immediate tribute payment of $225,000 and a further annual payment of $25,000. Jefferson refused, and the Barbary states declared war. Although the American naval fleet then consisted of just a few frigates, Jefferson ordered American vessels to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping. The United States Navy and the Barbary pirates each won bold victories and suffered humiliations during the two wars that ensued. In 1815 American naval forces finally defeated Algiers and signed treaties with the Barbary states that ended all ransom and tribute payments by the United States. Freed of their own internal warfare, European nations accomplished the same within fifteen years, effectively ending the problem of Mediterranean piracy.
Today piracy remains a serious international problem. Pirate vessels operate with impunity off the coasts of Bangladesh, Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, and elsewhere. The November 15 hijacking of the MV Sirius Star while carrying oil from Saudi Arabia to the United States gained international headlines for its audacity and the enormous value of its prize. However, this problem of today can be an opportunity for tomorrow.
Providing an international environment in which global trade can flourish is the responsibility of all nations, but particularly so for the great trading states. As the world’s preeminent trading state, the United States can make significant gains in its power and prestige by spearheading an international effort against piracy. President Obama can do what Ambassador Jefferson could not -- create an international coalition of affected and interested nations to address the global piracy problem.
The world is ready for such a step. In 1982, Articles 101-107 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defined international piracy and set forth the rights and obligations of nations. In 1992, the International Maritime Organization created the Piracy Reporting Centre in Malaysia for monitoring and alert purposes. Today the subject of international piracy has traction from columns of The New York Times to the corridors of the Pentagon. The time is ripe for the United States to call for creation of an enforcement mechanism of international maritime law that can bring together sufficient force to drive piracy into extinction. Such an effort would do much to restore confidence and a sense of legitimacy to American international leadership.