Here’s an interesting article by the BBC News website’s world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds about the possibility of taking a leaf out of Lord Palmerston’s book (Foreign Secretary 1841, Prime Minister 1855-1858 and 1859-1865) in order to solve the problem of pirates off the coast of Somalia.

“Taking a wasps’ nest… is more effective than catching the wasps one by one,” he remarked.

Palmerston, the great advocate of gunboat diplomacy, was speaking in support of a British naval officer, Joseph Denman. Denman had attacked and destroyed slave quarters on the West African coast and had been sued by the Spanish owners for damages. It was British policy to try to destroy the slave trade, but this sometimes ran into legal complications.

The British attorney general, in a gem of delicate legal advice, declared the following year that he “cannot take it upon himself to advise… that the instructions to Her Majesty’s naval officers are such as can with perfect legality be carried into execution…

With Somali piracy still threatening shipping, it sounds as if modern navies need a few Captain Joseph Denmans.

Taking 19th century advice on international affairs does seem pretty interesting, but also eccentric, considering Palmerston was responsible for the Don Pacifico Affair style of foreign policy, where he was prepared to blockade Athens in support of one British subject. Palmerston did seem to advocate actions that would boost British pride and patriotism and his popularity, but then again it’s always good to be a little more direct and if this works, then it works!

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