In the fabulous piracy-oriented South Park of two weeks ago, a French yacht surrenders to Fatbeard the Pirate without a shot being fired. When someone brings the issue up at the UN, a bureaucrat explains “Being French, they surrendered immediately.” This brought some thoughts of mine on piracy and reputation into focus. The French have responded to piracy more aggressively than anyone, taking the early initiative on pursuing pirates onto land, and on launching rescue operations. In spite of this, at least in the world of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the French continue to have a reputation for irresolution. Indeed, they amount to the stand-in for an irresolute Western response to Somali piracy.
Along similar lines, Galrahn last week published a long post on potential piracy solutions, arguing at the end that the US might suffer a reputational effect if it didn’t take the lead in anti-piracy operations. This was a relatively small part of a very good post, but again it got me thinking; would the US suffer damage to its reputation from failing to vigorously pursue anti-piracy efforts, and if so what would that damage consist of? Dan Drezner and I discussed this a bit in our bloggingheads of a couple weeks ago, more or less settling around the idea that it would be hard for US competitors to draw any conclusions about US resolve in the absence of any ideas of their own on opposing piracy. Galrahn suggests, however, that the US reputation in maritime matters may be structured a bit differently than the Russian or Chinese; the US has implictly taken on the responsibility for maintaining maritime security in a way that the Russians and Chinese have not, and thus could be more likely to take a hit from the failure to address piracy vigorously.
Long time readers of this blog will know that I’m deeply skeptical of the independent effect of resolve and reputation on international relations. Given my graduate training, this is unsurprising; reputations for resolve don’t form in the manner expected by policymakers and traditional scholars of IR, and as such efforts to reinforce a reputation for resolve rarely yield much of a return. Actors tend to interpret behavior in light of the previous expectations, meaning that aberrant behavior is excused as situational. If the French are acting resolutely in response to piracy now, then it’s probably just to cover up their inherent weakness. Similarly, if the Russians (who are understood to be resolute, if nothing else) have a tepid response to piracy, then it must be because they don’t care. That both of these things may be true isn’t the point; reputation doesn’t change either way. I’m not convinced that reputation can’t change, just that it doesn’t update in response to rational assessment of evidence. For many Americans, including Parker and Stone, the French surrender to Germany in 1940 remains the critical symbolic marker for French reputation. Had the French backed the US in 2003 in Iraq this might have changed, although I doubt it.
So that said, back to the original question: How many pirates do the French have to kill in order to earn a reputation for toughness? I think it’s fair to say that certain behaviors in regard to piracy can earn the description “weak,” such as the recent Dutch release of captured pirates. Is there anything, though, that could have a lasting effect on reputation such that even Stone and Parker began to view the French as resolute, dangerous, or even aggressive? What if French destroyers started gunning down every fisherman they could find off the Somali coast? What if the French attacked pirate havens on land, and deployed troops to Somalia long term? You could argue, I suppose, that focusing on South Park isn’t helpful, that Parker and Stone are relatively low information actors, and that policymakers have a more accurate assessment of reputation. I’m utterly unconvinced of this; the South Park episode in question demonstrated a substantial knowledge about the issue of Somali piracy, and I’m guessing that Stone and Parker depicted the French as weak because it played into stereotype, rather than out of ignorance. Moreover, I think it was fairly clear in the run up to the Iraq War that officials within the administration and in Congress had substantially the same, unsophisticated understanding of French reputation.
The question works the other way, too; how many pirates would the Russians have to release in order to earn a reputation for weakness? A couple weeks ago, I spoke with a conservative friend about piracy, and found that he was under the impression that the Russians had been dealing brutally with pirates off Somalia. It’s true enough that the Russians have been participating in anti-piracy operations, but as far as I know they haven’t acted with any brutality, and their general performance has been altogether less assertive than that of the French. Nevertheless, the Russians get credit (and my friend spoke admiringly of the Russian brutality; shades of a Tom Clancy novel) for aggressive action that they don’t take, while in the popular imagination the French either remain cheese-eating surrender monkeys, or they become fodder for political attack (“See!? Even the feckless French can fight pirates!”)
So, again; how many pirates would the French have to kill to become tough? And how many would the Russians have to coddle to become borscht eating surrender bears?