My beach reading earlier this week included “The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger,” by former Newsweek writer Marc Levinson. The book provides an insightful history of the cargo container over the past 50 years, and the business and political forces that shaped its development.
The book arrives at a timely moment, in the wake of the Dubai Ports World imbroglio. The book makes only passing mention of port and cargo security, but the story that it tells of the development of the global container system provides object lessons in efforts to secure that same system today.
For example, Levinson devotes a chapter to the process by which the standards for the cargo container were developed and emerged. In the first years of the cargo container, there were no standards – each company developed its own container to fit its business requirements, based upon the types of cargo it was carrying and the size of its ships. A few years later, people began to address the need for standardization of the cargo container, without which the full economic benefits of this technology would not be realized. A number of parallel efforts emerged – some led directly by the US government (MARAD), others led by technical standards-setting groups such as the ISO and the American Standards Association, and still others led by business interests such as the National Defense Transportation Association. The entire process of coalescing around the standards that we have today (the ubiquitous 20- and 40-foot containers) took about a decade, as various issues – size, strength, materials, fittings, etc. – were negotiated and resolved in a messy but ultimately successful process.
Fast forward to 2006, and the same dynamics are at play in the arena of port and cargo security standards. Five years after 9/11, the process of developing cargo security standards has been fitful and incomplete. There are a number of parallel standards-setting activities at the national and international levels, on issues such as cargo seals, information-sharing protocols, regulatory compliance, etc., but many of these have moved slowly due to international differences, unresolved competitive issues, institutional torpor, or technical challenges. The result has been modest investment by both the public and private sectors in container security – a natural reaction by countries and companies when standards are in limbo. The standards-setting process is moving in the right direction; for example, the ISO has developed its “specification for security management systems for the supply chain” (ISO/PAS 28000:2005) as a first, comprehensive attempt to develop top-level system-wide security standards. And the World Customs Organization has put forward its framework of standards to secure and facilitate global trade. But until these issues are resolved, it will be difficult to optimize security within the global port and cargo system.
The book also provides other valuable lessons for people working on port and cargo security issues today. Levinson’s history of business-labor relations at American ports during the dawn of the container age is relevant for understanding business-labor relations at ports today. His explanation of the role of the Vietnam War in the development of the cargo container provides a lesson in how an unexpected government-led impetus can trigger technology adoption. And his descriptions of the global supply chain today provide a solid baseline for developing realistic, feasible strategies for the system’s security.
Overall, an excellent book, and one that is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in port and cargo security. For more on the book, see this Newsweek story and reviews in the Times of London, Seattle P-I, and the New York Times.