Distributed September 17, 2001
Copyright ©2001 by Brent Stuart Goodwin
Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 855 Words


Brent Stuart Goodwin

On war in the 21st century

Piracy on the high seas, as terrorism today, plagued the international system with raids, hostages and slavery and in general dealt in the currency of fear. In the early 19th century as now, the United States faced important choices of war and peace in securing freedom from fear.


“We must let nations see we have an energy which at present they disbelieve.”

– Thomas Jefferson

The horrific events of September 11th have left many looking for answers to what is being referred to as the “next Pearl Harbor.” It has also been referred to as “what war looks like in the 21st century.” While equal to Pearl Harbor in audacity and surprise and exceeding it in the number of casualties, the historical event most appropriate for understanding what lies ahead is the U.S. experience with the Barbary pirates in the 19th century.

Piracy on the high seas, as terrorism today, plagued the international system with raids, hostages and slavery and in general dealt in the currency of fear. In the case of the Barbary pirates, what would today be called rogue states – those states acting outside the generally accepted standards of statecraft – provided material aid and comfort to pirates or “corsairs,” who would terrorize commerce and travel on the high seas.

For a great many years, European nations acquiesced to this extortion by paying tribute to the host nations of these pirates in exchange for “rights” of free passage. Typically, in order to receive more tribute, the Barbary states would break treaties and unleash a new wave of piracy until the desired tribute was received. As late as the 19th century, the Danish and French consuls, respectively, were thrown in prison and forced to labor as slaves because their nations were late with tribute. In the early years of the American republic, the nascent United States paid tribute also. A debate soon emerged in the Republic which mirrors the debate raging in some circles the past few days.

At the time, John Adams advocated continuing to pay tribute to the states harboring the pirates and holding out on the use of force against them until such time as a multilateral coalition of seafaring states emerged. As one historian has noted however, “Adams’ hopes of perpetual peace” were not justified by the track record of the Barbary pirates or the states supporting them. Similarly, advocating a greater understanding of the conditions that produced bin Laden or insistence upon a multilateral response to terrorism is only possible by ignoring the track record of Osama bin Laden and his organization and the track record of multilateral efforts against terrorism.

In defense of John Adams, it can at least be argued that the primary consideration that drove him was the paltry coffers of the United States at the time and his belief that tribute would be less expensive than a navy. Adams, to his credit, later changed his position. For those advocating a greater understanding of bin Laden and his ilk, there remains the burden of proof that more Western forbearance will produce results different from what has occurred thus far. Forbearance following the first attempt to blow up the World Trade Center allowed for attempts to bomb American airliners in East Asia, Seattle’s Space Needle, downtown Los Angeles, and the events of 11 September 2001.

At what cost coexistence with bin Laden?

Thomas Jefferson opposed Adams’ position due to Jefferson’s “unwillingness to acquiesce to the humiliation of paying tribute” and his astute assessment that “continuance of ... peace will depend upon their idea of our power to enforce it.” His position was not one of war at any cost, but rather that freedom from fear is worth fighting for and that there are situations where the absence of war simply is not peace. Jefferson also understood that the longer the United States delayed taking action the greater the cost would be once it was decided that taking action was inevitable. Upon assuming the presidency, Jefferson sent Marines “to the shores of Tripoli” to deal with the primary state sponsor of the pirates. Once those home ports were unavailable to their operations, the pirates were no longer a major strategic threat. Except for interruptions by the War of 1812 and the defeat of Napoleon in Europe in 1815, the great powers made short work of piracy on the high seas, lock, stock and barrel.

The foregoing is not to imply that history provides a clear blueprint for future courses of action. It suggests rather that the lens of history provides a framework for understanding current events that can be used to develop a prudent course of action. Moreover it provides insurance against the type of armchair statesmanship which argues that because the United States has been involved in wrongs real or imagined, it has no moral authority to act in international affairs, a canard that is reflexively dusted off and presented at the prospect of any American activity. By this calculus for action, certainly no state, non-governmental organization or other actor would ever be able to act upon or speak about any occurrence in international affairs. This is naiveté at best – and at worst an attempt to sandbag the United States. It is in any case true that in the centuries-old legal and moral tradition regarding the circumstances under which states may resort to war (jus ad bello), self-defense is its own reason and morally defensible in its own right.


Brent Stuart Goodwin is a doctoral candidate in the department of political science at Brown University and has served in the U.S. State Department’s office of International Security and Peacekeeping. His teaching and research interests include national security policy and military strategy.

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