Gunboat diplomacy is rarely the answer, even to piracy. I am not so naive as to say that asking the pirates nicely to stop would be sufficient, nor do I believe that piracy in the immediate generation is a problem that has peaceful solutions; the ultimate solution is peaceful, the final solution is to raise the economic and social conditions within the countries where piracy is common to sufficient levels wherein piracy is a dangerous and less-than-profitable alternative.
The threat of force is necessary to instill that there is a lethal drawback to piracy, however if conditions in regions of the world that foster piracy and religious fanaticism are not altered, force will be be insufficient. Force in the past was only effective wherein there was an organized aspect to the piracy which stood to suffer significant losses if the threat of force was ignored.
Stephen Decatur Jr was one of the grand heroes of early American naval history, and rightly so. He was a leading figure in the War of 1812 and later in the Second Barbary War, but is best known for the First Barbary War, in which he was comparatively low rank. Most notable amongst his exploits, Decatur captained the USS Intrepid into the harbor of Tripoli, seized control of the USS Philadelphia, which had previously run aground, captured and subsequently re-floated by the Tripolitans. For fear of a US frigate in the hands of the enemy, Decatur volunteered to fire it, and successfully did so. Admiral Nelson lauded this act as “the most bold and daring act of the age.”
Less well known, but Decatur also led American crews on Neapolitan gunboats into the harbor of Tripoli, while the USS Constitution and other large ships slowly worked their way into the harbor to bombard the citadel. Decatur captured two gunboats and led both out of the harbor during this action, the second with a reduced crew after finding out that a gunboat had pretended to surrender and subsequently killed the captain–Decatur’s brother.
During the Second Barbary War, Decatur simply sailed to the Mediterranean with a powerful squadron to enforce upon the Barbary Powers that the United States would not pay any tribute. William Bainbridge followed up with visits from his own squadron. These visits were not negotiation; Decatur and Bainbridge arrived with overwhelming force and gave the choice between ending piracy and utter destruction. European powers later followed up with their own actions and the grip of North African, State-sponsored piracy largely came to a halt. The reason this worked was two-fold.
First, there was an organized, stationary head to the operation who was the political leader for the region. This provided a target without whom the piracy would collapse into individual operations which would be less deadly, but tougher to root out. Second, with these men who wanted nothing more than to stay in power, fleets capable of destroying them utterly arrived and gave them the choice of death or peace. Self-preservationist as most leaders tend to be, each Barbary power chose peace and piracy ended.
In certain situations Gunboat diplomacy works. Rooting out individual pirate groups is not one of these situations; what is considered here is not diplomacy. The nearest comparison is that this is a police action, whereas diplomacy is between states. Further, any unilateral action taken by the United States or another Western power to smother the piracy would be declared an intrusion into middle east affairs, especially in Yemen and Somalia. In short, the countries that wittingly or unwittingly harbor pirates must be convinced, trained and supported in destroying piracy, especially in situations where it is another facet of organized crime. This is both economic and military, and where asked for military aid, it should be provided, but not before. The common denominator is that military power and threat to livelihood is necessary to end piracy, but without fundamental changes to head off the supply of rank-and-file pirates, nothing will change. There needs to be suitable alternative and suitable disincentive if the problem is to be addressed.