Among all global and regional powers, the US is least dependent on international trade. China, Russia, and Iran, are much more dependent, measuring trade in proportion to GDP. Still, the US shoulders the most important role in trying to keep sea lanes open. That a potential second Trump administration would agree to pay for this over the longer term is more than wishful thinking. Arguably there is a limit, therefore, to the freedom of action given to rebel groups such as the Yemeni Houthis. Threats to flow security worldwide have expanded enormously over the last decades. Most states still are dependent on a rules-based international order in this domain in order to survive and develop.

Bruce Jones at the Brookings Institution published on January 11, 2024, a very substantive documentation of the risks to global commerce now linked to attacks against shipping. Right now, most people will probably associate this flow security-problem to the Houthis of Yemen, supported by Iran, as a spillover of the Israel-Hamas war.

When assessing this problem, it may be worthwhile to take a step back and look at the issue of who is dependent on the well-functioning of international trade. The results are partly surprising.  But first it might also be useful to look back at an earlier article by the current author on flow security with a slightly different twist from December 19, 2022, in the context of the war against Ukraine.

The concept of flow security has wider implications for the organization of international relations, than often realized. Although literature about the security of supply, and also about flow security (mainly linked to cyber) exist, it seldom gives an overview of the whole range of challenges facing states and private enterprises in this context. And the responses to these challenges are very much dependent on how the challenges are conceptually organized.

As an example, security of supply (as recently analyzed in a voluminous inquiry solicited by the Swedish government)  is not only an issue of imports, but also exports as well as international assistance, both military and economic. It is an issue of cyber security, as well as the flow of information, the movement of people, etcetera.

That this is a real problem now affecting the prospects for future global trade is vividly illustrated by the Houthi rebel attacks against international shipping, which exacerbates the already existing problems with pirates from the Malacca Straits to the coast of Somalia, and the Gulf of Guinea.

The following is what I wrote in December 2022 as the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine was starting to turn into a war of attrition affecting flow security, including exports of grain, imports of military assistance etcetera:

  • This concept in the international debate is often associated with cyber, and there is abundant literature on how to secure the integrity of the flow of data on the Internet.
  • From a military perspective, flow security traditionally has to do with securing the delivery of military trade and aid in peace and wartime. At the same time, military operations traditionally focus on interdicting corresponding flows to the enemy.
  • From a maritime security perspective, experts typically point to the fact that more than 90% of all goods travel on the high seas and need protection also from terrorists and organized criminals, including pirates.
  • In crises such as a pandemic, the delivery of vaccines and other medical equipment highlights the need for flow security when transports become difficult due to the risk of infections.
  • From a private-sector perspective, the need to secure all the necessary and sufficient conditions for the production of complex products, including strategic metals, chips, et cetera, is increasingly highlighted.
  • That the free movement of people, materials, and information requires an integrated approach to border management has, for several decades, been a significant objective for the work of the EU and, in particular, the vast network of cooperation managed by the European Commission. The requirement is to keep borders as open as possible by letting good flows through while interdicting bad flows through intelligent surveillance methods.
  • At the same time, the long period of relatively safe conditions for flows after the Cold War has encouraged less cautious policies, for instance when it comes to the privatization of critical infrastructure and just-in-timesystems of deliveries of spare parts, etcetera.

All of this started to change already after 9/11 and further after the first Russian aggression against Ukraine following the war against Georgia.

The complexity of flow security was multiplied during the migration crisis of 2015 following the Arab spring. The consequences of these crises are now starting to dawn upon societies, not least when it comes to organized criminality.

At the same time, the roles of the American Congress and the European Parliament as watchdogs in protecting citizens’ personal integrity by regulating horizontal flows of personal data between different government agencies have become much more challenging to implement. Just managing GDPR has become a major consulting business in many countries.

It is now obvious that the EU and NATO need to see to flow security in a more comprehensive way than currently reflected  in overall EU and NATO strategies. However, the problem was already highlighted more than a decade ago by the then Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, Carl Bildt.”

End of quotation.

It cannot be stressed enough, that the issue of flow security at sea has developed into a completely different ballgame compared to just 10 or 20 years ago.  When for instance the issue of piracy was addressed as a difficult enough problem, some 15 years ago, the criminal actors involved operated small vessels with a number of gunmen on board.

Now a range of sophisticated technology is employed, including drones and missiles and also underwater assets, which are likely to be used to destroy pipelines and cables.

The problem has developed from an issue of organized crime for profit to include a political and military confrontation between proxies not seldom working on behalf of major powers, such as Russia, China, and Iran.

If the geographical focus a decade ago was primarily the Red Sea and part of the Indian Ocean with piracy also being frequent in the Malacca Straits, and in the Gulf of Guinea the problem has developed to be a global one.

Recent reports indicate an interest on behalf of major powers in destroying pipelines and cables, not only in the Baltic Sea, but outside Ireland, and elsewhere where vital financial cables are located.

And as regards the level of destruction that could be created, let it suffice to note that the positioning of nuclear mines on the seabed was identified as a potential threat and prohibited already in 1971.

An important finding during the piracy discussions, taking place after the deployment of the Atalanta operation on behalf of the EU from 2008, is that once the instigators of piracy attacks note increased efforts to prevent piracy in a particular region, their attention is temporarily or permanently shifting to another region or avenue of attack only to consider coming back once the protective measures have been reduced. This means in reality that no major nation actually can afford to comprehensively protect its flows worldwide.

The author is former ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of The Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences
This text is previously published by Consilio International