The End of the Grotian Era? Maintaining Order and Good Governance at Sea

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70% of the Earth's surface is not subject to sovereign administration and remains an anarchic space. New technologies pose serious challenges to the notion of High Seas Freedom. Is regulation inevitable and, if so, who will impose it and how?

This is the 2013 Peter Nailor Memorial Lecture on Defence.



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28 November 2013


The End of the Grotian Era?
Maintaining Order and Good Governance at Sea


Professor Steve Haines


When I was asked if I would deliver this, the sixth Peter Nailor Memorial Lecture, I gave an immediate and instinctive response – an emphatic YES!  Peter was an extremely wise friend and a most entertaining speaker.  I first met him when I attended the Royal Naval College in Greenwich as a young Lieutenant in the spring of 1979.  He was Professor of History and International Affairs and I was considering my future.  I had developed a keen interest in the law that governs the conduct of naval operations and, as a non-graduate officer (as most of us were in those far off days) I had begun to realise that I would benefit from a sustained period of study in the subject.  A university degree would be a good idea.  Two years later I temporarily left my regular naval career behind to read for my first degree.  Peter was a source of wise advice and guidance as I made the transition from the naval to the academic, including providing me with a reference.   Five years later, he was equally supportive as I made the reverse transition from academe back to the Royal Navy, with my first appointment back in uniform being coincidentally in Greenwich.  I shall always be enormously grateful to him for his sound advice.  For that reason, it would have been quite impossible for me to do anything other than accept the invitation from Tim to be here this evening.

Once I had agreed to do the lecture, of course, I began to realise what I had taken on.  For one thing, Peter Nailor was a wonderful speaker.  I well recall a typical Nailor lecture at Greenwich.  He spent about forty minutes talking about four or five subjects that appeared to have nothing – or at least very little – to do with each other......and then spent five minutes weaving them all together to conclude a fascinating lecture full of wisdom and insight.  I am unlikely to match his stylish and urbane delivery.  If he is watching from on high, I hope he will forgive me any inadequacies. 

I had not realised until a few days ago that Peter Nailor attended Mercers’ School and was also a Liveryman of the Mercers’ Company.  What an appropriate venue, therefore, for an event honouring his memory and I should like to thank the Mercers for making this hall available for this event and for hosting the reception that will follow.  It is a genuine honour to be delivering this lecture and it is a privilege to be doing so in such distinguished surroundings.  Thank you so much to all concerned.

So, let me now get straight onto my theme for this evening: the maintenance of good order and governance at sea.  Let me start with a couple of stories I plucked off the web just a couple of days ago. 

Four or five weeks ago, a Sierra Leone flagged vessel was intercepted 19 miles off the Indian coast by the Indian authorities.  The MV Seaman Guard Ohio is a vessel owned and operated by the US-based company AdvanFort, which specialises in providing maritime security against pirates for ships transiting the Indian Ocean.  For that reason the vessel was carrying 35 weapons and about 6,000 rounds of ammunition.  The Indian authorities detained the vessel for ‘illegally entering India’s territory’ and the crew face criminal prosecution for being in possession of weapons without authorisation.  In theory, Sierra Leone exercises exclusive flag state jurisdiction over its own flagged vessels on the High Seas.  Can it do that effectively and, if not, who should do so and in what circumstances?  Was India in breach of that principle in this case?  What are the precise circumstances and location of the interception and boarding?

Again, recently, there has been some controversy about Iranian owned ships being operated under the flag of Zanzibar, which raised some questions concerning the implementation of UN mandated economic sanctions imposed on Iran.....was this a sanctions busting operation?  And another Zanzibar registered vessel, the MV Gold Star, owned by a company believed to be based in the Marshall Islands, was detained by Italian authorities off the coast of Sicily.  It was carrying a cargo of 30 tonnes of hashish.  While on the High Seas, that vessel was under the exclusive flag state jurisdiction of Zanzibar.  Were the Italian authorities in a legal position to detain the vessel?  Where was it, precisely, when it was detained?  Was it actually breaching any law by having a cargo of Hashish embarked on the High Seas?  These are good questions, all well worth asking......and the answers will not always be obvious.

These two sets of incidents involving shipping using the High Seas are, quite frankly, not untypical.  If one monitors the shipping press these sorts of tales are frequent and various.  It took me just a couple of minutes using Google to find them to insert into this research effort required, I can assure you!  There are many situations to do with what goes on at sea today that throw up complex and at times unfathomable questions.  Arguably the maintenance of good governance at sea is problematic.  Why is  that the case and what might be done about it?

I think that in order to answer that question I need to take us out of the weeds.  Rather than concentrate on the detail of particular law enforcement operations, I thought it would be useful to discuss the background to the governance of the oceans, placing the situation today in both an historical and a legal context.  So, to use military phraseology.....I shall be concentrating on the strategic rather than the tactical.  Or perhaps the theoretical not the practical....but I do think the theoretical is particularly important if we are looking to the future.  Hopefully it will be a wee bit enlightening!



Before I get onto the historical and legal themes, though, let me say one or two things about geography.  The map of the world you should all have a copy of is the only visual aid I shall be using this evening.  It shows a useful projection that covers the entire globe, with the total landmass as well as the extent of the oceans.  It also has a line drawn in a position 200 nautical miles from the coast of each coastal state, including islands.  The area within that line represents the permitted 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone that all states may claim under the Law of the Sea.  The total surface area of the globe is about 510 million km2.  Just over 70% of that is covered by salt water – about 367 million km2.  Well over half of that is beyond the exclusive economic jurisdiction of coastal states: 220 million km2 in fact.  Strictly speaking, I should add that the High Seas (which is the focus of my lecture this evening) arguably extends not merely from the 200 mile EEZ limit but from the 12 nautical mile Territorial Sea limit.  For our purposes this evening, I suggest we say that roughly 300 million km2 of the earth’s surface can be regarded as High Seas.  That is a lot of water and I just ask you to remember this as I go on to say various other things this evening.   We tend to think of the world divided between sovereign states.  Well, most of it is not so is an anarchic space which has no sovereign authority presiding over it.




I am going to pose a question in this lecture; a rather grand sounding one.  It seemed to me as I thought about the state of the oceans today that we may be in the middle of change that has profound significance – the sort of change that historians will be able to look back on in a hundred years or so and point to as fundamental.   My question is: “Are we witnessing the end of the Grotian Era?”  An explanation of the question itself might be a good idea before I go on to attempt an answer to it.

In the first half of the 17th century, although they almost certainly didn’t realise it at the time, Europeans were living through a relatively brief period of massive geo-political and legal significance.  We trace the modern international political system from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, with historians and international relations specialists frequently referring to what we have today as the Westphalian State System.  This is principally about the nature of territorial sovereignty on land, on the central importance of states to the international system, and about the conduct of relations between them.  It had little to do with notions of sovereignty over the oceans.  So while we may well have a Westphalian state system, it only directly influences the political geography of rather less than half of the Earth’s surface.  

Three years before the Peace of Westphalia, a Dutch lawyer, Hugo de Groot died at the age of 62.  His latinised name, and the one by which he is usually known, was Grotius.  His significance in the development of thinking about the international system is considerable.  Slightly misleadingly, he is frequently referred to as the ‘father of international law’.  He certainly wrote one of the earliest international legal texts: his De Jure Belli ac Pacis (The Law of War and Peace) published in 1625, which would go on to influence relations between states within the Westphalian system.  In the context of my lecture this evening, however, it is a much shorter piece entitled Mare Liberum (The Freedom of the Seas) that has most significance.  Published in 1609, this was a part of a case that Grotius made in defence of Dutch maritime commercial interests.  The Dutch favoured free trade and the free use of the oceans to give meaning to it.  Others opposed this idea, in particular the English who wished to control trade, especially that entering English ports which, through the Navigation Acts, had to be carried under English flag.  The resultant dispute led to the First Anglo-Dutch War.  Ironically, however, as British imperial ambitions developed through naval supremacy, Britain found it more convenient to favour the freedom of the high seas for which Grotius had been arguing.  There evolved a general acceptance that the High Seas were free for all to use, that no state could exercise general jurisdiction over the oceans or claim them for itself, and that this high seas freedom was to be guaranteed by the major naval power – for much of the next three centuries, the British Empire.  Coastal states could only exercise their jurisdiction over a very narrow – 3 nautical mile – band of sea around their coast.  The freedom of the High Seas and the notion of a 3 mile Territorial Sea prevailed until after the Second World War.

The idea and the reality of high seas freedom was sustained over three centuries with relative ease for very good reasons.  We can regard the oceans as having essentially two economic functions.  First it is a medium for transportation.  Second it is a source of both living and non-living resources – fish and minerals.  Each of these has relevance to the freedom of the high seas. 

From the 17th century onwards, the major maritime powers have been prepared to insist on free passage for their vessels and have been generally capable of enforcing that freedom.  They have had the power to insist on it and, when it was threatened, they have had the wherewithal to respond to that threat. 

Secondly, the resources of the oceans were either generally so abundant that they lacked scarcity (in the case of fish) or were largely unknown and unrecoverable (in the case of the mineral deposits on or under the seabed).  For something to have economic value it must be known to exist and be desired.  It must also be scarce.  If something is readily available in such quantities that there is more than enough for all (as was long the case with fish), it will have no economic value.  In the days when fish were so plentiful that they had no value prior to being caught, there was no sense of ‘ownership’, there was no reason to regard fish stocks as ‘property’ and there was, as a consequence, no need for the regulation of fishing.  It was only in the waters in sight of land that the regulation of fisheries became the norm. 

The High Seas became free for all to use and for all to exploit.  The three principle regulations that governed activity on the oceans were themselves evolved to give substance to High Seas Freedom.  The first was the outlawing of piracy, a measure aimed at providing security to ships exercising that freedom.  The second, with similar intent, was the requirement for states at war (who were free to use the High Seas as a place to do battle with their naval forces) to respect the rights of neutral states to continue to use the ocean even while they were themselves engaged in mortal combat upon it.  The third major norm was to do with exclusive flag state jurisdiction.

Through this, vessels on the high seas remained the exclusive responsibility of their state of registration.  Warships – the agents of the sovereign – could demand the right to visit vessels registered in their own states but had no general right to visit those registered in others.  This principle survives to this day.  There are certain exceptional circumstances in which warships can insist on stopping, visiting and searching foreign flagged vessels (including, for example, if they suspect them of piracy or they are exercising belligerent rights of visit and search to ensure vessels’ neutrality)....but they are very much exceptional.

In general, this situation lasted until the latter half of the 20th century.  The oceans were regulated to a bare minimum, maximum freedom was the order of the day.  Freedom to sail, freedom to use the seas for trade, freedom to fish, freedom for navies to fight each other, with piracy being the only activity condemned to the point at which pirates could be prosecuted by anyone.  Piracy was the first crime for which universal jurisdiction applied – in that sense, the one and only crime under international law.  That was the prevailing approach to the oceans up to the middle of the last century….until the Second World War.  It is that past reality that has been the principle influence on the development of the legal framework for ocean governance.  That said, this legal framework has been under some considerable pressure since the 1940s. 



Since the Second World War there has been a very significant transformation of the maritime environment, in economic, political and technological terms.  The political and technological have had a profound impact on the economic but in a serious sense the legal has yet to catch up.  There are also two other trends that need to be considered, each having a substantial influence on ocean use: globalisation and population increase.

Let me briefly describe what has happened in a political sense, then mention the technological before going on to discuss the economic, after which I shall return to the legal. 

First the politics.  The most significant political influence on ocean governance has been the fourfold increase in the number of states making up the international system since 1945.  Then, there were less than fifty members of the new United Nations meeting for the first time in the wake of the Second World War.  Today, there are almost 200 member states of that organisation.  In the intervening years, the greatest increase has been the direct result of the decolonisation process.  The number of states trebled as a result and the so-called Third World states came to dominate the UN General Assembly and other UN bodies.  Since the 1980s, the increase has been largely the result of the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.  Where once the ‘great powers’ could ordinarily dominate debate at the UN, now they cannot invariably do so.  The major maritime powers had to compromise with the states of the developing world to arrive at the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

Second, the technology.  I could spend all night on this.....but let me be necessarily brief.  The technology has had most relevance in terms of ocean resources, both living and non-living.  First, fishing effort has increased dramatically since the Second World War, prior to which few fish stocks were under serious threat.  As an example of the situation today, a modern purse seine vessel fishing for pelagic species like herring and mackerel has a net about the size of the upturned dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.  In one single catch, targeted using high definition sonar, it can secure an entire shoal of fish and then, literally, suck that shoal into its fish hold.  In one catch a single purse-seiner operating in the North West European region can take as many fish as the entire British herring drifter fleet was capable of catching in a day.  Trawlers benefit today from both powerful engines to tow their nets and powered hauling of very large nets where once they had to rely on the physical strength of their crews to haul their catch inboard. In 1950 the total world fish catch was about 20 million tonnes.  Today it is five times that amount at least.  If you want to know why the fish stocks around our coasts are under constant threat, the answer is technology.   The ability to recover fish in much larger quantities has resulted in over-fishing, which has rendered fish scarce.  As a consequence, it now needs regulation......and better regulation than it has had so far.

The recovery of mineral deposits in the sea, principally from the continental shelf but also from the deep sea-bed, is essentially a post-Second World War phenomenon.  Offshore drilling for oil and gas commenced in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1940s, prompting the Truman Declaration on the continental shelf that led, eventually, to the current regime of the continental shelf enshrined in the 1982 UN Convention.  One only has to look at the North Sea and the range of activities that have been established there since the 1960s to get some idea of the significant increase in activity prompted by continental shelf mineral exploitation.  This has required regulation and the capacity to recover is increasing every year.  Continental shelf claims can extend to over 350 miles from the coast in certain circumstances.  And the deep sea-bed on which the famous manganese nodules sit waiting to be farmed, while not yet being exploited is looking increasingly likely to be so.  That will cause activity in the middle of the oceans to develop around those areas with deep and potentially rich mineral deposits.

Now let me mention globalisation.  The shirt I am wearing this evening I bought from the same Jermyn Street shop where I have bought my shirts since the early 1970s.  When I started buying shirts there over forty years ago, they were probably made here in the UK.  Today, I can guarantee that the shirt on my back has spent a good few days, if not weeks, of its life in a container on passage across the Indian Ocean to Europe.  It was made in China.  When I first went to sea as a naval cadet in 1972, global sea-borne trade was in the region of 2,566 million tons.  The latest figures put it at about 8,500 million tons.  It hasn’t yet quadrupled but it is getting there.  There are 55,000 cargo carrying ships in the world fleet today, about a tenth of those are container vessels – a type of ship that simply did not exist in 1945.  The largest container ships operating today are a new class that the Maersk shipping company is currently taking delivery of.  They have a carrying capacity of 18,000 containers.  Imagine an articulated lorry carrying a container being driven along a British road.  Then imagine, if you can, what 18,000 of those actually looks like!  I can tell you that there are designs being drawn up now for container ships capable of carrying 25,000 containers.  There are about 13 million containers in the world today – a great many of those are at sea on the High Seas as I speak.

I mentioned population.  Well, today it is over 7 billion.  In the 1940s it was about 2.5 billion.  This growth has had a substantial impact on phenomena like globalisation and the demand for resources.  I will not say any more about that now....just merely note it.

All of these things, political, technological and economic, the phenomenon of globalisation and population growth have all had a profound combined impact on the nature and extent of ocean use.  Maritime security is a vital need today and the good governance of the remaining anarchic space is essential as we move into the future.



So what do we have in the way of governance structures for the oceans today?  Essentially, it is a framework that is contained in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.   There were three UN Conferences on the Law of the Sea: in 1958, 1960 and the third between 1974-1982.  The latter dominated the lives of a substantial number of diplomats, lawyers and academics for well over a decade.  What was produced has been reasonably stable, in the sense that there is little demand for significant change in the regime that was established at that time.  The entire UNCLOS process resulted in a substantial increase in coastal state jurisdiction from a simple 3 mile territorial sea in 1945 to a complex collection of zones of jurisdiction today, including a 12 mile territorial sea, a 200 mile exclusive economic zone and the potential for some states to claim continental shelf jurisdiction out to over 350 miles.  That process has had a significant impact on the traditional notion of High Seas Freedom, but it has not cancelled it out altogether – far from it in fact.  The legal regime for the High Seas is  similar to what existed before and it is a part of the global ocean regime because the major maritime powers insisted that it should be and that their navigational freedoms should be maintained, even where coastal state jurisdiction was being extended.  The resulting regime was a compromise between the freedom of the seas and an ocean enclosure movement, arrived at because the majority of states insisted on the right to extend their influence over adjacent seas.

While there is a sense of stability about this ocean regime at the moment - which is arguably for the good and which should not be upset without very good reason -  I also detect a need to think very seriously about the manner in which we oversee and regulate high seas activities, how we ensure good order and how we act to suppress behaviour that would have severely detrimental effects if allowed to continue.  Suppressing crime at sea is not just about piracy.  It is also about illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing that is destroying fish stocks by exploiting far more than the maximum sustainable yield for important stocks around the world.  It is about suppressing the illicit trade in people, in narcotics, in arms and in a wide range of other goods.  There is, for example, a booming trade in illicit oil out of Nigeria.  It is about preventing ships from being sunk or having their identities changed to engineer maritime fraud or insurance scams.  It is about having legal arrangements in place for dealing with the full range of maritime security demands, to counter threats from both pirates and terrorists.  Imagine the economic consequences of a systematic and widespread attack on the container shipping industry – either at sea or at the point at which containers are brought ashore.  The impact on the global economy could be profound.  While the financial systems with which this City is so involved are a known vulnerability and we are all only too aware of the effects that financial mismanagement can have on the global economy, if world trade is seriously disrupted at sea, the impact could be just as great.  We are in a ‘just enough; just in time’ trading environment.  Severely disrupt trade at sea and this will affect us all.

We retain the notion of High Seas freedom and yet it is starkly obvious to me that such freedom, while entirely appropriate for the world up until relatively recently, may well prove to be a significant problem as we look to the future. 

I must say something about exclusive flag state jurisdiction.  This is a fundamentally important element of the notion of high seas freedom.  And yet, it no longer works as it was originally intended.  For it to do so, required states effectively to regulate their shipping activities.  The top ten merchant fleets in the world today are those of: Panama, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, Hong Kong, The Bahamas, Singapore, Greece, Malta, China and Cyprus.  Only one of those – China- has any prospect of being regarded as a major maritime power.  All of them, however, should be exercising jurisdiction over their merchant fleets, wherever in the world their ships happen to be. 

At the beginning of this lecture I mentioned a Zanzibar registered vessel arrested for carrying narcotics off the coast of Sicily.  Without looking at the criminal code of Zanzibar, I have no idea whether its carrying of those narcotics was illegal or not.  Unless the possession of Hashish is contrary to the Zanzibar criminal code, the crew of the vessel were not committing a crime as long as they remained on the high sea, where they had every right to be and every right in international law not to be interfered with.  You may find that surprising but it is the truth, strictly speaking.  Does it make sense?  Probably not.



So, what about the question with which I started this lecture: Are we about to witness the end of the Grotian Era?  In a sense, we already have; the sort of freedom envisaged in the 17th century is no longer viable.  There are numerous regulations applicable to those who use the seas.  I have lost count of the number of treaties that currently exist that comprise much of the substance of the law of the sea and that fit within the 1982 UNCLOS framework.  There are a lot of regulations in existence that render the oceans somewhat significantly less ‘free’ than previously.  And, of course, the extension and enhancement of coastal state jurisdiction is a feature that has had a significant impact on the extent of the High Seas and also an impact on what ‘freedom’ means in areas of ocean under coastal state influence.

Nevertheless, the bulk of the oceans remain an anarchic space in the sense that there is no government to regulate and enforce order.  Some may argue that the United Nations has this function, but it is not endowed with the same powers that a sovereign entity would be able to deploy effectively to regulate and to enforce compliance.  It certainly has no enforcement capacity to police the oceans.  If it has needed enforcement capacity in the past, it has had to rely on coalitions of member states volunteering to contribute to the process.

High Seas freedom is still taken seriously and so too is the notion of exclusive flag state jurisdiction.  To deal with this problem in two areas in particular – counter-terrorism and the suppression of the illicit drugs trade – international conventions have been put in place that facilitate the interdiction of merchant vessels by warships and coastguard cutters of states other than the flag state.  These conventions are only binding on States Party, however, and the ships of those states not party still cannot be stopped and boarded without flag state consent.  The US initiated something called the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) that allows for the boarding of vessels suspected of carrying materials related to weapons of mass destruction.  This is not legally binding, however, and by no means all states are in agreement.  Even the US and its powerful navy will acknowledge the restrictions placed upon its operations by exclusive flag state jurisdiction.  It was an incident that involved the US Navy being forced to abort an illegal interception of a North Korean vessel carrying missile technology to the Middle East that prompted President Bush to launch the PSI – although that would not have made it possible for the US Navy to continue its operation even if it had been in existence at that time.

I think that my best answer to the question at the moment is that we have left the traditional High Seas Freedom behind, it has been severely diluted since the middle of the 20th century and there seems little prospect for the trend away from it being reversed.  Indeed, that trend seems most likely to continue.  I have never been a believer in predicting the future.  Indeed, intellectually I have a problem with those who think that is what people like me should be about.  The best we can do is to understand the present through a study of the past in order that we are prepared to cope with the future as it unfolds.  So it is with the governance of the oceans.  Clearly, there is change.  It is profound and it is changing the maritime environment in ways that are creating a greater and greater need for regulation.  We can no longer claim that the oceans are a vast unregulated space and should remain so because they do not need to be regulated.  Clearly, as I hope I have demonstrated, regulation is needed through the realities of increased usage, the problems associated with the over-exploitation of valuable resources, and the potential for our security and prosperity to be threatened by those with a criminal turn of mind.

We are, as a result, no longer in the Grotian Era as that was traditionally understood.  While the oceans remain an anarchic space, they are certainly not unregulated. Indeed, as I hope has been apparent from what I have said, regulation is increasing, markedly.  I suppose the key subsidiary question is to do with the ability of the international community to regulate activity on and in the oceans in an effective way - and that includes effective enforcement of those regulation that are required – without an entity of some sort having the power to act as sovereign states do in the regulation of human activity on land.

My best assessment of what might happen in the future is that pressure may grow to break the centuries long tradition of exclusive flag state jurisdiction.  This will require either formal agreement in the form of a treaty or convention, or it will require the emergence of state practice negating the current customary norm that underpins that jurisdiction.  This is not on the cards, however.  The legal norm in favour of exclusive flag state jurisdiction is a particularly strong one and it has significant backing from the major maritime powers.  It would seem unlikely that this will change unless something profound causes the major states to shift their stance.  That might take the form of a serious security threat that can only be countered effectively by an abandonment of the existing jurisdictional arrangements.  We shall have to wait and see.

What of the prospect of some form of ‘government’ for the oceans?  Arguably this is desirable while being, realistically, most unlikely.  It is likely that more regulations will emerge.  I haven’t mentioned at all environmental considerations in this lecture.  There may well be some in the audience who will consider this a major shortcoming of what I have said.  In my defence, I merely say that I left it out for reasons to do with time and not because I regard such matters as unimportant.  I mentioned people smuggling but I haven’t spent any time talking about the very serious problem of migration using the oceans as a way out of one place and a means of getting to another – for whatever reason.  Clearly, the problems associated with refugees and economic migrants taking to boats in an attempt to save themselves from conflict or natural disaster, or to improve their lot in life, are growing.  At the moment, international law is inadequate for dealing effectively with this and there may be pressure for change.

The UN must be a central institution in the development of the governance structure for the oceans.   It is a UN convention that provides the framework for the existing law of the sea.  It is a UN specialised agency (the IMO) which is the principle forum for developing law to do with shipping and maritime affairs in general – and it is a relatively successful body, despite having critics.  There are other bodies that are a part of the UN system – the International Seabed Authority and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg to name but two.  One must not forget the UN Security Council either.  Again, it can be criticised, sometimes quite severely, for its inadequacy in dealing with international security issues through the need to avoid Permanent Five vetoes.  But it is arguably the best show in town for taking action that has the badge of some measure of legitimacy.

We are in the middle of fundamental change at the moment, just as our European ancestors were in the first half of the 17th century.  They weren’t aware that they were witnessing the emergence of either the Westphalian State System or the Grotian Era at sea.  Whenever I say something like that I am always reminded about that wonderful line from Baldrick in the series of Blackadder that dealt with the late Middle Ages.  At one point he burst into Blackadder’s chamber and announced “Sire, Sire, some very bad news.....the Hundred Years War has just started.”  All that I can say with any certainty is that we are in the middle of profound change in ocean affairs – but I simply cannot say what the result will be.        



Finally, I am conscious that this lecture is designated the Peter Nailor Memorial Lecture on Defence - and I therefore have an ideal opportunity to make a comment about the British contribution to the maintenance of good order at sea.   

I will be very brief.  There are about 200 sovereign states in the international system today.  The term ‘great power’ and how that might be defined is a good subject for another lecture, but let us assume that the top 5% of states are prima facie candidates for ‘great power’ status.  It is those states that have a particular responsibility for the maintenance of international security and stability.  If international regulation is required, it seems likely that the world will expect those states to lead in its development and also provide the bulk of the capacity to enforce it.  I should add that while the ‘great powers’ will be expected to take on such a role, many others will not necessarily like them doing so… but the realities of international politics have to be acknowledged.  The maritime powers have a vital role to play. 

Where does the United Kingdom figure in the hierarchy?  We can always play around with statistics – or infamously lie with them.  But on any assessment of the UK’s global position, it is generally in the ‘top ten’ when it comes to the size of the economy, trade figures, Gross Domestic Product etc.  It is certainly still in the top ten as far as overall military capability is concerned.  And its political or diplomatic influence – what some these days prefer to call ‘soft power’ – certainly places it in the top ten.  The UK is a key state in various international organisations and groups, both economic and security focused: the European Union; NATO; the OSCE; the G6; the World Trade Organisation; it is one of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council; it is one of the legitimate nuclear powers.  In terms of shipping, the British flag is admittedly not in the ‘top ten’ in terms of numbers of hulls – it is 13th, but it is 6th in terms of world shipping ownership.  The British flag merchant fleet is healthy once again after a period of serious decline, it is growing and many of those vessels flagged to other, open registry, states are actually owned by UK companies and other entities.  It is no coincidence that the International Maritime Organisation, the UN specialised agency dealing with the regulation of the global shipping industry, is based here in London rather than in Liberia, Panama or the Marshall Islands.

The UK is, on my assessment, a substantial power – or at least there is prima facie evidence to suggest that it is still one of the ‘great powers’.  It is also in my estimation, a ‘maritime great power’. With such status comes responsibility for the maintenance of stability and security within the international system in all its dimensions.  Is the UK adequately meeting its responsibilities at sea?   

Let me just say this.  When I first put on naval uniform, in 1971, annual global trade amounted to about 2,500 million tons.  Today, it is approaching four times that amount, at about 8,500 million tons.  I thought it might be interesting to check out the size of the Royal Navy’s fleet of destroyers and frigates in 1971.  Frigates and destroyers are the workhorses of any serious navy today.  We had almost eighty warships in those categories in 1971.  Today we have just under 20.  So, remarkably, as global ocean trade has increased fourfold in the last four decades, our deployable naval forces, that would be needed to contribute to the security of that trade, have reduced to a quarter of what they were.  Remarkably, we have two trends in evidence over the last four decades that have headed in almost exactly opposite directions. 

This can’t be right, can it?  Well I suppose, given my background, I would point to the dangerous inadequacy of funding for the Royal Navy.  But I do rather believe we are in what might be a markedly maritime century and perhaps we should look a little more closely at what is happening beyond the visual maritime horizon. 



© Professor Steven Haines 2013

This event was on Thu, 28 Nov 2013


Professor Steven Haines

Steven Haines is currently Professor of Public International Law at Greenwich University.

Before joining the School of Law in September 2012, Professor Haines was a...

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