International Piracy


…you can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest, it’s the honest ones you have to watch out for, you never know when they’re going to do something incredibly stupid..

“The question is whether their peace or war will be cheapest?  But it is a question which should be addressed to our Honor as well as our Avarice?  Nor does it respect us as to these pyrates only…If we wish our commerce to be free and uninsulted, we must let these nations see that we have an energy which at present they disbelieve.  The low opinion they entertain of our powers cannot fail to involve us soon in a naval war.”

~ Thomas Jefferson, letter on the Barbary Pirates to John Page, 20 August 1785


The level that international lawlessness has risen to these days is quite alarming.  This wouldn’t be the first historian to see the dark similarities between Russia’s annexation of Crimea and pre-World War II Germany’s seizure of the Sudetenland.  What is America to do?  In the face of such bold acts that violate the norms of international dealings, do we sit silently?  We have once before, of course.  America stayed out of World War II, at its own peril, only to be brought into it unprepared a few years later.  Do we jump headlong into the frying pan instead?  Launch a war to redress our perception of wrongdoings and potential threats?  We have certainly done our share of that too, to little noticeable result in places like Iraq and Vietnam.  Some would argue that the Founders intended for us to stay out of foreign entanglements entirely.  Others would say they intended us to grow and be a beacon on the hill, a source of aid to other nations.  Both views, are of course, flawed.

In general, the Founders believed that America should stay out of foreign affairs, but (and this is the crucial bit) only as long as they truly didn’t involve America’s best interests in some fashion.  They likewise intended America to be a guide and a help to other nations, especially democratic ones, but not at the cost of sacrificing America’s best talent and treasure to do so.  Like most things, this balance of best interest is delicate and complicated.  The crux of the matter lies in being disinterested enough in the immediate outcome so as to accurately perceive where things are heading.  The Middle and Far Easts have been tumultuous regions for a long time.  American intervention was never going to do much to alter the state of these places.  Europe, however, has had longstanding ties to America, and relative stability and similar cultural standards for centuries.  To intervene sooner might have saved America a great deal of time, money, and lives.   But really, if we were to think like the Founders, we would find ourselves reflecting on the situation with Russia as akin to the situation very anti-foreign interventionist Thomas Jefferson found himself facing with the Barbary Pirates (Putin would definitely make a excellent shirtless addition to such a company at any rate).

The Barbary Pirates were actually a group of states that were the premier rogue nations of their day.  They made themselves rich for years by preying on commercial trade in the Mediterranean and demanding tribute from the European powers for safe transit.  After it’s independence, America faced the issue afresh, no longer covered by Great Britain’s tribute payments.  Did the new nation declare war or pay tribute to avoid war?  The dilemma today is the same.  Do we take a stand against international lawlessness now or do we pursue peace at all costs?  Impose economic sanctions and call it a day?  If Russia continues, and forces our hand, will it be any better that we just looked the other way as they seized land of vital strategic importance to their naval forces?  And the real question is the one Jefferson posed: is it war or peace that would come at the greatest cost?  One historian doesn’t have all the answers, but if the past is any guide, kicking the can down the road never leads to real peace (and pirates, even shirtless ones, never just stop and call it a day).


Res Publica


Documentation without Representation:

Jefferson to John Page, 20 August 1785, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian P. Boyd, Mina R. Bryan, and Elizabeth L. Hutter, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1953, p.417-419

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