At first blush, in hijacking the U.S.-flagged container ship Maersk Alabama and taking its American captain hostage (leading, of course, to a dramatic Navy SEAL rescue staged from an American destroyer), Somali pirates seemed finally to have overreached. Over the past couple of years, the sneering audacity of Somali pirates has become a constant in international affairs. More than 150 ships were attacked off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden in 2008. But have Somali pirates spelled their doom by finally awakening a sleeping, or at least distracted, giant in the United States? Perhaps not. Even with this new level of outlaw insolence, it isn’t clear that greater attention and more resources from the U.S. Navy--by far the world’s most powerful--and its estimable maritime partners will stop the Somali pirates.

Like anti-drug forces in Latin America, anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean confront the so-called balloon effect, which refers to how when you squeeze a balloon in one place, you’ll merely send the air to another. When security forces eradicate coca crops or crack down on cocaine processing in one area, drug cartels simply relocate operations.

Similarly, while navies have deployed more ships to the Somalis’ area of operation in the past several months, the pirates have still been successful in evading them. Even with European, Iranian, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese forces--East African nations have no appreciable blue-water maritime capability--engaged, the anti-piracy coalition has the unenviable task of patrolling a million square miles of water in the Indian Ocean. Quite understandably, the U.S. Navy and its partners concentrated their assets on the Gulf of Aden, which provides the strategically and commercially vital link to the Arabian Peninsula. But the pirates were still able to target the Maersk Alabama when it was 300 nautical miles away from the nearest anti-piracy ship.

The ramped-up multinational anti-piracy posture may have marginally reduced piracy over the past few months, but it is clearly not a sufficient answer. It isn’t even clear that a surge in patrols and the more aggressive rules of engagement applied by American and French forces in recent days have fortified deterrence; Somali pirates have vowed to avenge the three pirates killed by the SEALs, and pirate attacks in general have continued apace. Furthermore, major-power navies and special-operations forces have more central strategic challenges, like deterrence, counterterrorism, and counter-proliferation, to worry about. And in any case, if things get too heated at sea, wary Somali pirates need only retreat to their homeports in anarchical Somalia, where there are no bona fide law enforcement authorities to fear.

In this daunting light, the natural temptation is to privatize the solution: Let the merchant lines themselves hire armed security guards and pass the costs through to their customers. But doing that would impose prohibitive risks. Gunfire on board most targeted merchant vessels, for example, would risk igniting fuel, and the resulting damage could end up costing lives as well as property more valuable than the ransom that the pirates would exact. Armed escorts in separate craft would be extremely expensive.

Another popular option is to have the ship owners retain for-hire hostage negotiation and rescue teams to secure the safe release of vessel and crew. In practice, this usually means paying them off. Take what happened late last September, when Somali pirates commandeered a Ukrainian merchant ship carrying weapons and ammunition. At the end of a four-month long standoff, the pirates netted around $3.2 million. A similar hijacking of a Saudi tanker yielded another group of pirates $3 million. This dispensation basically amounts to acquiescence to criminals--not a terribly satisfying outcome.

During the “golden age” of piracy in the early 1700s, when Blackbeard and some 2,000 other maritime bandits roamed the seas, it was only after the British Crown sent the Royal Navy to take control of the pirates’ key land bases in The Bahamas and Madagascar that the pirates become weak enough to defeat. An analogous present-day solution would be military intervention in Somalia, where the main culprits are based. But Somalia’s monumental security and state-building requirements would entail an open-ended deployment of tens of thousands of ground troops for peace-enforcement and civilian staff to build up civil infrastructure. Given the pressing demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, and existing regional needs in Sudan, southern Somalia, and elsewhere, an effort on this scale is just unrealistic. But the lesson remains clear: To significantly diminish piracy, the rule of law needs to be established in Somalia itself.

Without a viable military option, the international community needs to resort to diplomacy. Given the 14 futile attempts since 1991 to implement transitional Somali governments--all of them formed in exile and internationally endorsed--that may seem a dubious notion. Somalia’s horizontal clan system of social organization does not easily lend itself to national political integration. But a new approach, cued by the piracy problem, could prove more promising than past endeavors.

The pirates’ homeports--the main ones are Eyl and Bossasso--are in the area of Somalia on the tip of the Horn of Africa known as Puntland. Like other parts of Somalia, Puntland is a self-declared quasi-state run by armed clan-based militias. But the UN and others will not accord Puntland legitimacy as a political entity, preferring to discourage fragmentation by insisting on a unitary Somali state imposed from the top down. As a result, the ruling clans have little incentive to enforce international norms--including the one barring piracy--and all too many incentives to reap profits from the illicit maritime activities of their armed members.

The United States should seize upon the Maersk Alabama incident to spearhead a new international diplomatic initiative that abandons the UN presumption against Somalia sub-sovereign entities. While questionable American counterterrorism policies have damaged U.S. credibility among Somalis, the intense strategic interest among major economic powers in eliminating piracy should ensure energetic and widespread engagement that would check perceptions of American heavy-handedness and alleviate Somali doubts. Washington also has compelling reasons besides piracy to bring order to Somalia, as recent evidence suggests that the resurgence of militant Islamism there has made it an increasingly attractive training and recruitment ground for al-Qaeda.

The idea would be to allow and perhaps even encourage Somali parties--including, albeit controversially, some Islamist ones--to explore the possibility of consolidating coexisting sub-sovereign states, like Puntland as well as the already well-functioning Somaliland, from the bottom up with an eye towards subsequently federating them under a national government. International brokers could encourage agreement by offering to officially recognize sub-sovereign Somali states and by extending them foreign assistance. Such recognition and aid, in turn, would be contingent on effective governance--in particular, law enforcement sufficient to keep would-be pirates off the high seas. Navy SEALs can’t kill them all, and even if they could, they have better things to do.

Jonathan Stevenson is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College. He covered Somalia as a journalist in the 1990s.

By Jonathan Stevenson