Skip to content



Prof. Univ. PhD. Ioan CRĂCIUN[1]

Article published in MSF Study: Romania’s maritime resilience in the era of hybrid threats and the importance of a Maritime Security Strategy

The conceptual approach to maritime security has become an extremely important issue on the agenda of security studies in recent decades and has been the focus of both researchers and maritime practitioners worldwide. In a broader sense, maritime security can be interpreted as referring to the state in which maritime transport, activities in ports and the use of maritime communication routes are conducted free from any hazards. On the basis of this interpretation, it is easy to see that the problems to which maritime security refers are by no means new; on the contrary, they are as old as man’s interaction with the sea. Over time, however, these issues have been increasingly placed in relation to the historical context in which mankind has evolved and have thus acquired geopolitical interpretations and become essential indicators for international security.

Today’s interpretation of maritime security has its roots in the 15th century, when European overseas expansion began. Since then, the free use of the world’s seas and oceans has raised a number of practical issues relating to sovereignty and jurisdiction over maritime areas close to the coastline as well as those farther away, and to the security and protection of shipping and other activities in the vicinity of the coastline. Moreover, given that most of these problems are located outside the national territory, often at a great distance from it, the idea of promoting a concept defining the maritime security regime of these areas and the key elements of such regimes has emerged. Thus, for more than five centuries a comprehensive understanding of global maritime security and ocean governance has become a key issue of study and research for maritime practitioners. However, the issue of conceptualising and understanding contemporary maritime security seems more topical than ever.

In this context, this chapter briefly addresses the historical evolution of the conceptualisation of maritime security, highlighting the main elements of change that have marked the understanding of this concept over time. At the same time, it assesses how maritime security is reflected in the literature and evaluates some directions of its development as a field of study and research.

The world’s first document to lay the foundations of international maritime thinking is apparently the papal bull Romanus Pontifex, issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455[2] , which describes the world’s first global maritime security regime. This was followed by the Treaty of Tordesillas[3] of 1494 (which called for the division of all non-European seas and lands at that time between Spain and Portugal) and Hugo Grotius’ famous treaty Mare Liberum[4] of 1609, which can be considered the cornerstones of maritime law, sovereignty and maritime security.

As mentioned, the papal bull Romanus Pontifex issued in 1455 established the world’s first maritime security regime based on the mare clausum principle[5] . In this context, the Portuguese king was granted sovereignty and exclusive rights over newly discovered territories and seas, and their use by other Europeans could not be made without a special request and payment of tribute.

On the other hand, the papal bull reiterated the prohibition of the sale of arms, iron or timber to non-believers (a term attributed mainly to Muslims) and specifically stated that anyone who dared to teach them the art of navigation, thereby making them stronger enemies of the king, should be subject to the severest penalties. In addition, no Catholic was allowed to sail the southern seas, nor to trade in African ports or fish at sea without paying tribute and a special licence issued by the Portuguese king[6] .

These provisions of the papal bull Romanus Pontifex, together with the provisions of other documents that appeared later, show us that the need to establish order on the high seas by imposing a maritime security regime dedicated to this purpose was a priority from the earliest days of European overseas expansion. From those times, therefore, it was desired that the seas and oceans of the world should not be marked by anarchy and general insecurity, but, as far as possible, should be ordered and subject to international laws and treaties between sovereign nations.

Subsequent writings and treaties relating to the maritime domain have increasingly addressed the need to ensure law and order at sea by establishing maritime security regimes. These documents, while not always making a clear distinction between what is moral and what is legal in activities at sea, have provided the basis for regulating various sovereignty or legal issues, such as the right to exploit natural resources, to navigate or to trade in distant waters.

Against the backdrop of Dutch expansion overseas at the end of the 16th century, and one might even say in contradiction to this historical reality, Hugo Grotius launches his own argument for freedom of navigation at sea, mare liberum, in 1609. Invoking natural laws and the physico-geographical characteristics of the sea, he rejects as unfounded all legal and sovereignty claims asserted by states over the sea. Instead, Grotius upholds the right of all (even non-Christians) to sail, trade and fish in the waters of the world’s seas and oceans[7] . Despite much controversy over this interpretation, and even the subsequent nuances Grotius himself brought to the concept of mare liberum, his argument was widely accepted well into the modern era, becoming a cornerstone of international maritime law.

Freedom of navigation and free trade at sea brought great benefits to private shipping companies, especially the Dutch East India Company, which made enormous profits in the 17th and 18th centuries. On the other hand, however, each shipowner was in principle responsible for his own security measures for the shipments he carried out, the state having no responsibility for this beyond its territorial waters, defined by the maximum range of a shore gun. As a result, merchant ships, especially those belonging to the big European companies, became sufficiently armed to face attacks by European or Asian pirates or enemies. This led to the so-called privatisation of maritime security.

However, towards the end of the 18th century, the power and profits of trading companies began to gradually decline, largely due to the rising costs of ensuring the security of shipping. The decline of shipping companies, coupled with the rise of imperialist states in early 19th century Europe, resulted in the gradual assumption of responsibility for global maritime security by the state, which was now much more capable than in the 16th century of taking on this task[8] .

 Thus, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain became the dominant global maritime power and, from this position, assumed increasing responsibilities for maritime security. Subsequently, during the 19th century, states such as France, the Netherlands and the United States substantially increased their ability to project power overseas and, together with the British, helped to impose a global maritime security regime, securing both dominance over the world’s seas and oceans and control of maritime communication routes.

Thus, in the first half of the 19th century, Britain imposed a state-controlled maritime security regime in the Atlantic Ocean, aimed at enforcing the 1807 British ban on the slave trade. The British assumed the role of guardians of the Atlantic and justified their actions by defining slave traders as pirates, whose activity was considered a crime against humanity[9] . Subsequently, the British, supported by other powers, extended their domination to other maritime areas, particularly in Asia, including the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea, the Sulu Sea and the Gulf of Tonkin[10] . In most cases, maritime domination resulted in Britain’s colonial territorial expansion.

The sharp expansion of colonialism in the 19th century prompted colonial powers to intensify the widespread use of maritime communications around the world and thus make maritime security a top priority, vital to their economic and political interests. Moreover, the sustained pace of the West’s technological and military development paved the way for the establishment of a more or less global maritime security regime backed by powerful naval forces.

On the other hand, the development of steam and its use in navigation, combined with the construction of steel-hulled ships, the use of shipboard protection systems, and improvements in artillery and small arms, provided colonial powers with the necessary mechanisms to impose the desired maritime security regimes and ensured dominance over most of the world’s maritime areas. This explains why there were few threats to maritime security in the early 20th century that could have jeopardised the economic and political interests of the colonial powers. As a result, the security regime based on the interests of large shipping companies, typical of the 17th century, was replaced by another security regime based on maritime capabilities aimed at the control and domination of maritime spaces built by states. Under these conditions, the need for arming merchant ships diminished, and from the second half of the 19th century onwards they almost entirely abandoned the armament installed on board.

This maritime security regime led to the belief that security was the general condition for navigation at sea, and the achievement of this condition was dependent on the coercive capabilities of maritime security forces maintained by powerful states. Therefore, the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the Cold War, which historically demarcates the operation of this type of maritime security regime, is recognized, as it was termed by the illustrious naval strategist and maritime security analyst Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890, the age of maritime power[11] . Essentially, Mahan argued that a globally powerful state needs a strong fleet capable of projecting military power into the distant seas. In this way, the state will be able to successfully advance its economic and commercial interests and achieve its geopolitical goals.

Although the two world wars of the early 20th century seem to contradict Mahan, the principle of freedom of navigation on the world’s seas and oceans was reaffirmed after the end of these conflicts as the cornerstone of the international order that followed. On the basis of this principle, the victors in the two world conflagrations of the early 20th century, the United States, Britain and France on the one hand, and the Soviet Union on the other, established their own systems of naval presence capable of projecting power worldwide.

This state of affairs was to last until the 1980s and early 1990s, when a number of factors led to a change in the conditions for achieving maritime security, resulting in a decrease in the responsibility of states in this area. First, and perhaps most important, was the international détente since the end of the Cold War. This has led to a reduction in the naval capabilities of the major powers, which has been reflected in their diminishing global presence in the world. Secondly, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), adopted in 1982, there has been an expansion of states’ territorial waters. Thus, many countries which, even if they did not fall into the category of major powers (Indonesia, the Philippines, Somalia, etc.), thinking of the economic advantages they could derive from exploiting territorial waters, declared vast exclusive economic zones in which they concentrated their efforts to ensure maritime security. In these circumstances, the interest in achieving maritime security has shifted from the global to the regional level but, even so, the resources needed to maintain effective maritime security regimes have often proved insufficient or have been consumed by overstretched maritime security forces. Thirdly, the erosion of the predominant role of states as actors in the international system and their decline in favour of private actors has encouraged them to assume increased roles, including in ensuring maritime security. Moreover, the danger posed by pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and along the Somali coast since 2000 has brought back to the attention of shipowners the measures to arm merchant ships[12] and prompted the world’s most powerful navies to join forces to combat this phenomenon.

Taking these aspects into account, it was considered at one time that the trend in maritime security was pointing to a return to the era of so-called privatisation. However, in the author’s view, these signs do not clearly indicate that we are once again facing a privatisation of maritime security. If we look at the latest international tensions, the assertive positions of Russia and China on the maritime environment (reconsidering Russia’s exit from the Black Sea and the claims raised in the Arctic region or the disputes in the East and South China Seas) we can easily see that the trend of reprivatisation of maritime security has slowed down and even seems to have reversed in favour of the states.

Given both the long historical development of maritime security concerns and its global political, economic and social importance, one would expect maritime security to be an established academic field of study and research. In reality, however, this is far from the case. As a field of study, maritime security was almost unknown before 1990, although various aspects of maritime security, such as piracy, smuggling at sea or disputes over the establishment of maritime borders, have attracted increased interest, both in theory and practice. The struggle for global dominance during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, based mainly on military supremacy, put security studies in the shadows, with specialists at the time more interested in strategic than security studies. As a result, a number of concepts specific to security studies remained unexplored, including maritime security. Thus, what we today geopolitically call maritime security was studied more from a military point of view and was referred to as maritime power. It was only after 1990, with the revival of security studies, that the concept of maritime security began to be mentioned sporadically in some academic papers[13] .  

Gradually, however, the concept of maritime security is becoming an area of interest for security studies, not least because its meaning needed to be clarified, but also because of the need to explain in a non-traditional way the developments in the maritime domain in the 1990s. Although the problems were not new (piracy and armed robbery against ships, smuggling at sea, trafficking in drugs and other prohibited materials, migration, illegal fishing, etc.), after 1990 they took on a new significance due to the changing geopolitical framework (increased commercial traffic, movement of people, intensified socio-economic activities at sea and in coastal areas, etc.) and therefore the need arose to explain them in a non-traditional way, placed beyond Cold War security tensions. In addition, attempts to expand the general concept of security by including so-called human security have also influenced the way maritime security has been approached. Thus, there has been growing concern about maritime pollution, the protection of subsistence maritime people such as fishermen, or the safety of coastal populations from natural disasters. However, the influence of the broad security approach on maritime security has been low, the issues on which maritime researchers have focused their efforts have remained those of the modern era, i.e. freedom of navigation and protection of maritime communication routes, establishment of national maritime borders, jurisdiction over maritime territories and resources, etc.

Following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, interest in maritime security (and security in general) increased, with the maritime domain identified by both experts and policy-makers as a likely future target for terrorists, also against the backdrop of increased pirate activity in previous years. But even so, maritime security studies, as part of security studies in general, have remained low even after 2001.

  1. Addressing maritime security in contemporary security studies

Paradoxically, although the activities now recognised as maritime security have a long history, the theorisation of this concept is still underdeveloped. Current concerns regarding the theoretical approach to maritime security can be grouped into two distinct sub-areas: maritime-related sectoral policy-making; interdisciplinary academic field of study and research. Clearly maritime security is now an area of great policy interest. The problems in the maritime domain since the 1990s have caused both military analysts and civilian policy-makers around the world to take the problems of this domain increasingly seriously and to seek solutions to them. This has increased the demand for specialised studies and analysis and stimulated the emergence of maritime security as an interdisciplinary research field.  Particularly after 2000, a number of papers have emerged with a wide range of specialist authors from history, international relations, law, political science and security studies to business consultants, journalists, lawyers, military and shipping industry experts. As a result, the growth of research in the field has led to the emergence of specialist periodicals that have consistently supported the efforts of those involved in their production. Piracy, maritime terrorism or illegal migration have been the preferred subjects for these studies but, over time, they have been complemented by other topics relevant to contemporary maritime policies such as illegal fishing or environmental security. All this has led to the shaping of maritime security as a field of study and research. However, there is still a long way to go before this field is institutionalised as an academic discipline of study and research. This would first require the establishment of academic structures, research centres or specialised institutes within universities or stand-alone institutions, combined with the creation of national or international associations. By promoting, organising and running educational programmes, producing and publishing specialist studies and organising scientific events, they should be the driving force behind the development of the maritime security field, contributing both to the creation of knowledge specific to the field and to educating future generations in the spirit of the sea and of ensuring the security of this field.

In terms of academic institutions around the world that train maritime specialists, there seems to be little concern for educating graduates in the spirit of maritime security. Nor is the situation much better in military academic institutions. Whatever importance is attached to maritime security as an area of study and research, it is usually embedded within departments or research centres that have wider responsibilities. As a result, no international academic associative structures have emerged to deal with maritime security, despite the fact that networks of researchers, associations of policy makers, security officials, maritime industry representatives, etc. have started to emerge.

In this context, it is worth noting that the situation in our country is somewhat similar to the international situation. There are some concerns about the shaping and development of maritime security, but things are at an early stage. Therefore, the initiative of the Romanian Admirals’ Club Association to establish, as early as 2021, under its patronage, a scientific forum called the Maritime Security Forum, whose main purpose is to promote and develop maritime security as a field of study and research, as well as to provide highly qualified expertise in this field, is to be appreciated. Through its scientific activities, partnerships and expertise, the Maritime Security Forum has established itself as a true hub of expertise and its future projects recommend it as a scientific structure that is building a reputation not only domestically but also internationally.

However, in our country maritime security still lacks institutional and academic coherence and linkage with and between non-academic institutions. The different interests and lack of concern of maritime stakeholders for maritime security make it extremely difficult to try to shape this field from an intellectual point of view. Therefore, the lack of vision, complemented by the lack of funding for research in this field will make the task of those who want to develop maritime security studies in Romania an extremely difficult one.

International maritime security studies are today a growing field of analysis. The need for clear maritime policies by various military and civilian authorities, as well as the interests of commercial players, including those in the shipping industry, have increasingly highlighted the usefulness of maritime security studies. However, in order to provide a better understanding of contemporary global maritime security challenges, experts in this field should develop an independent research agenda that responds to the requirements of all maritime stakeholders. In this way, maritime security studies can produce the knowledge needed to design the right maritime security regime for the 21st century.

We are convinced that the Maritime Security Forum will play a decisive role in promoting this field in our country and that, together with all the institutions that support its activity, it will succeed in creating the necessary synergy to shape maritime security as a real field of study and research in our country.

[1] Author. PhD. Ioan CRĂCIUN, President of the Scientific Committee of the Maritime Security Forum, , .

[2] Davenport, F.G., European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States to 1648, Washington DC:

The Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1917 (this is an English translation of the Latin text. The papal bull was preceded by more than a century of controversy between Castile and Portugal over rights to the Canary Islands, the North African port of Ceuta, and rights to trade on the coast of Guinea.

[3] The treaty was an agreement between Spain and Portugal aimed at settling disputes over lands newly discovered or explored by Christopher Columbus and other explorers in the late 15th century.

[4] Mare Liberum (or Freedom of the Seas) is a treatise written in Latin on international law, authored by the Dutch jurist and philosopher Hugo Grotius and first published in 1609. In this treatise, Grotius formulated a new principle that the sea is international territory and all nations were free to use it for maritime trade.

[5] Mare clausum – Latin legal term meaning enclosed sea; the term is used in international law to refer to a sea, ocean or other navigable body of water under the jurisdiction of a state that is enclosed or not accessible to other states.

[6] Ibid, pp. 22-23.

[7] Grotius, H., The Free Sea [1609, 1916], Edited and with an Introduction by David Armitage, Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2004, pp. 63-75, available on the Internet at:, accessed on 12.03.2023.

[8] Glete, J., Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 1500-1860, Volume 2, Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1993, p. 482.

[9] Lloyd, C., The Navy and the Slave Trade: The Suppression of the African Slave Trade in the Nineteenth Century, London: Frank Cass, 1968, p. 42.

[10] Warren, J., Iranun and Balangingi: Globalization, Maritime Raiding and the Birth of Ethnicity, Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2002, p. 34.

[11] Mahan, A.T., The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783, New York: Hill and Wang, 1957 [1890], pp. 25-28, available on the Internet at:, accessed 15.03.2023.

[12] Liss, C., Regulating private security providers in the maritime sphere: Legal challenges and dilemmas, International Review of the Red Cross, Volume 94 Number 887 Autumn 2012, pp. 941-960, available on the Internet at:, accessed on 16.03.2023.

[13] Buzan, B.; Hansen, L., The Evolution of International Security Studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 200-2012, available online at: on 16.03.2023.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top