The Contours of Piracy Studies in International Relations: Some observations from the ISA Annual Conference, Montreal, 2011.

By Jan Stockbruegger

Piracy is a growing field of academic inquiry and is analyzed from various perspectives and disciplinary backgrounds in International Relations, including global governance research, international law, security and strategic studies, area studies and behavioral sciences. As pointed out in our last blog, around ca. 30 papers on piracy were presented at this year’s annual convention of the International Studies Association (ISA). Below we offer some observations from this meeting.

Counter-Piracy and Global Governance

Piracy as a problem of global governance and international cooperation has been one of the main issues. Since 2008 a group of over 30 states engage in several naval missions in the Gulf of Aden and 60 states currently participate in the UN’s Coordination Group. The group of states cooperating and coordinating their efforts in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean notably includes former enemies and present adversaries, such as China, Russia, India, Iran and the NATO states. Piracy has also come on the agenda of many international organizations, including several UN agencies, the World Bank, and regional organizations such as NATO, the African Union or the European Union.

Presentations interrogated the practices and structures of these counter-piracy policies in the context of the global governance discourse, including the question of whether the piracy threat leads to a common (global) identity among actors and whether cooperation follows classical inter-governmental alliance pattern or of a more integrated security community. For instance, Kevin Robert McGahan and Terence Lee (Explaining Institutional Variation among Anti-Piracy Regimes: A Global Governance Approach) saw the emergence of a more integrated global governance approach that fosters strong cooperation among states, although powerful states remain crucial for overcoming collective-action problems. In this context, Dougloas Guifoyle (The Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia: New Governance or Old?) highlighted the role of the Contact Group in guiding the discussion on the prosecution of pirates. Franz van der Putten (China’s Naval Response to Somali Piracy) investigated China’s role in counter-piracy initiatives in the Gulf of Aden and its increased importance in global maritime security governance, which he related to China’s concept of “Harmonious Oceans.”

Andrew C. Winner’s presentation on “Coalitions and Counterpiracy Operations: Something Old, Something New?” however argued that military cooperation among states is often weak and reflects state’s competing geopolitical interests, particularly in the Indian Ocean. For him, then counter-piracy operations are not about piracy at all, but about different geo-political ambitions. Caroline Lizz, in her paper on “Changing Maritime Security Governance”, took another perspective and scrutinized which actors are involved in counter-piracy efforts and maritime governance in general, drawing attention not only to states and international and regional organizations, but also to Private Security Companies and other non-state actors. In our own contribution (Bueger and Stockbruegger: Governing Piracy: Macrosecuritization, Governance and Maritime Space), we argued for the need of a pluralistic perspective that recognizes that several overlapping motivations, securitizations and governance developments are observable. Indeed a fuzzy and liquid global governance assemblage is under construction, and if piracy activity will not decrease significantly soon, there are prospects that piracy will have long term (macro-securitizing) institutional consequences for world order.

Garnett Kindervater and Isaac A. Kamolaas well as Lilach Gilady and Joseph MacKay took a different perspective on piracy. InSailing the Capitalist Seas: Piracy and Accumulation in the Gulf of Aden” Kindervater and Kamola related piracy to the transformation of the Gulf of Aden into a capitalist space and see counter-piracy efforts as a conflict between two different systems of capitalist accumulation, that of the international community and that of the pirates. Lilach Gilady and Joseph MacKay in “Grappling with Trickster: The Governance of Piracy in International Politics” used the figure of the Trickster to develop a typology of counter-piracy efforts in historical perspective and to demonstrate the pitfalls of contemporary piracy governance.

The Legal Challenge

Also the legal dimension of coping with piracy remains a pivotal and indeed often dominant issue.

A main deal of the debate has focused on the legal tools necessary for prosecuting pirates. While international law is certainly sufficiently developed to cope with piracy, the issue is how national legislations can in practice be better adjusted for the prosecution of pirates, and how countermeasures and prosecution can be harmonized. Moreover, legal theorists were looking into how modern, universal international law is developing and how this relates to changing interests, discourses and politics.

Douglas A. Bulloch inAlexander’s Riddle: The Problem of Pirates in a World without Empires”, takes a historical perspective and pointed out that pirates fundamentally challenge conventional authorities and the notion of law and order. Bibi T. van Ginkel summarized the “Legal Challenges in Combating Somali Piracy” and Michael E. Smith (Extraordinary Rendition, European Style? Judicial Reform in Less Developed Countries (LDCs) and the EU’s Counter‐Piracy Naval Operation), highlighted the importance of military-civilian cooperation in the EU’s counter piracy efforts and the influence of soft issues such as legal reform and practice in developing countries.


Security Threats and Studies

Another set of issues that were discussed relate to the operational problems in the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden, particularly concerning military coordination, surveillance and deterrence. The question hereby were how piracy networks can be tackled successfully and how such operations have to be coordinated between the various military and judicial actors involved.  This also included insights into how piracy networks operate, especially with regard to state failure in Somalia, how they are organized and structured, what strategies, tactics and techniques they deploy and their onshore support networks and markets they rely on.

In her presentation for instance Patricia Schneider (Maritime Terrorism: Laughable or Dangerous) assessed the threat of maritime terrorism on a global scale and came to the conclusion that, although still a rare phenomenon, maritime terrorism should be taken seriously. Justin Hastings, in a paper on “Targeting and Networks in Maritime Pirate Syndicates” analyzed piracy in a principal-agent model to assess the weak links within piracy networks as well as in relation to their onshore support structures. He pointed out that these provide weak points that can be exploited to cut off pirates from essential support structures and to instigate defections and destabilize piracy groups.  A different perspective was offered by Todd Ward in a paper on “Piracy in Somalia: Assessment and Intervention with Behavioral Science”. He analyzed the issue from a cultural-psychological viewpoint and suggested consultation with maritime academies and behavior analyses based on immersion into Somali culture.


Piracy and Failed States

Finally, many discussions and presentations dealt with the question of piracy as a problem of failed states and the relation between civil war and transnational threat. State failure, civil war and chaos have long been associated with non-traditional security threats, including transitional organized crime, terrorism and, most recently, piracy. Piracy, it was often been pointed out, is an off shore phenomena of an onshore problem. However, research suggests that piracy is not primarily a problem of failure, war and the complete absence of order, since these conditions increase the risks and the operational costs of pirates and other non-traditional security threats. As pointed out by many presenters, pirates rely on markets to sell their booty or on supply networks to support them during ransom negotiations. They thus prefer weak and fragile states where a minimum of reliable order is guaranteed. Even in Somalia pirates do not primarily operate in war torn regions but instead choose more stable areas.

Bridget L. Coggins, in a paper on “State Failure and External Threat: Evidences from New Data on Maritime Piracy” suggested that perhaps piracy reflects a certain degree and a particular kind of order and that it might even contribute to strengthening it. Additionally, the paper by Ursula Daxecker andBrandon Prinstitled “Insurgents at Sea: Linking Maritime Piracy, Internal Armed Conflict, and State Failure” showed that also economic motivations, favorable geography, and international trade patterns (among others) affect piracy. They therefore proposed to change the institutional environments creating conditions conducive for piracy. Based on a detailed analysis of the local conditions and structures of piracy groups, Stig Jarle Hansen in a presentation on “How to Handle Piracy in Aden: Pitfalls and Falltraps”, highlighted that none of these factors is sufficient to explain piracy. Instead, he underlined the importance of the agency of pirates and the changing political environment in Somalia. International actors should integrate and cooperate with local institutions and actors to counter piracy onshore.


In summary, the challenging presentations at Isa and the lively discussions among participants in the panels prove that piracy is a major problem, theoretical and practical, for the discipline of International Relations. With their theories and tools IR researchers give us telling insights to understand the emergence of piracy, to interpret the current response to piracy, and to point out ways of how activities might be improved in a sustainable and more effective manner.

The majority of papers are accessible through the conference paper archive.