Don’t Sink American Interests

Why the United States Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Convention

We’ve been complying with the treaty since the 1980s without getting any of the benefits, writes Spencer Boyer.

The U.S. Senate is once again debating whether the United States should become a party to the international treaty known as the Law of the Sea Convention, which has shamefully languished in Congress for over a decade. The treaty will face a number of imminent hurdles, including a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the coming days.

Ratifying the treaty is critical for our national security, economic, and environmental interests, and an essential step in repairing America’s tarnished image and international legitimacy. It is high time to end the debate and ratify the treaty.

The Background

After nearly a decade of negotiation, the United Nations adopted the Law of the Sea Convention in 1982 to replace several outdated international agreements from the 1950s that were less than favorable to America’s national security and economic interests. The treaty, which officially came into force in 1994, has now been signed by 155 countries and the European Commission.

The treaty’s main purposes are to define clear maritime zones, maintain freedom of navigation, protect the natural environment, and give legal certainty to firms and businesses that depend on oceans and seas for resources.

While the United States played a critical role in negotiating the treaty, President Reagan objected to Section XI, which relates to deep-sea mining, because he believed it would negatively affect American business. He directed U.S. agencies to comply with all other provisions.

Negotiations on Section XI were re-opened under the first President Bush, and an agreement was reached in summer 1994, which addressed all U.S. concerns. President Clinton signed the treaty and submitted it to the Senate for ratification late that year, where it has been stuck ever since.

The closest the Senate has come to moving the treaty forward was a 19-0 vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2004 in favor of the agreement. Unfortunately, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) refused to bring the treaty to the Senate floor for a vote.

Why the Treaty Matters to the United States

The Law of the Sea Convention is one of those rare instruments that gathers an extraordinarily diverse group of individuals and groups as supporters. When President Bush, the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security, the Navy, the Coast Guard, the oil and gas industry, business and trade associations, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, environmentalists, and the majority of U.S. Senators all support a treaty, there must be something to it. Why this convergence of unnatural allies?

  • The treaty would further our national security interests and assist in our fight against global terrorist networks by enhancing the global mobility of our military. Our armed forces want the legal foundation the treaty provides for overflight and navigation rights, and for their efforts to stop illegal shipments of weapons material. In addition, the treaty requires signatory countries to work together to suppress illegal narcotics trafficking.
  • The treaty provides a vigorous framework for protecting the marine environment, including fish stocks, and addresses marine pollution originating from land and sea. All parties to the treaty must cooperate in marine conservation efforts through monitoring, technical assistance, and other measures. Furthermore, the treaty promotes and protects scientific research.
  • Economically, the treaty would benefit the United States more than any other country. The treaty gives coastal states sovereign rights over resources in an economic zone extending 200 miles from shore. Given the vast living and non-living resources along the U.S. coastline, it’s no surprise that both public and private concerns want to guarantee that the United States has sole access to that area. In addition, the treaty would give the United States rights to our continental shelf, which extends beyond the 200-mile economic zone, and would give American businesses legal certainty to compete with foreign companies for marine resources.

Who is Opposing the Treaty and Why?

Unfortunately, there is a vocal opposition to the treaty who claim that it would be a giant give-away of U.S. sovereign rights. However, just the opposite is true. As Lawrence Eagleburger, former Secretary of State under George H.W. Bush, and John Norton Moore, former Ambassador for the Law of the Sea Convention under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, recently wrote, “The reality [of joining the treaty] would be enhanced protection of our ships on the seas and the greatest expansion of resource jurisdiction in U.S. history, greater in area than that of the Louisiana Purchase and the acquisition of Alaska combined.”

Opponents wrongfully raise the specter of Ronald Reagan, saying that he was opposed to the treaty, and so too are they. They conveniently ignore that Reagan supported all aspects of the treaty except one section, which was successful renegotiated 13 years ago.

The irony is that the United States has been complying with the treaty since the Reagan administration. By recognizing the treaty but refusing to ratify it, we have been respecting the rights of others while failing to take advantage of the benefits we would enjoy as a member state of the convention.

The reality is that the opponents of this treaty would likely not support any international agreement—no matter how good it is for the United States—because they believe an international rule of law is inherently bad for America. Their fears are not based on fact; they are based on isolationist ideology.

Moving Forward

Passing the Law of the Sea Convention will be difficult despite the obvious importance to our national interests and the broad base of support the treaty enjoys. The opponents are determined to sink the treaty, yet again.

Fortunately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-DE), and other key senators are proponents of the treaty, and the full Senate count looks strong enough to provide its consent to the treaty. But with other policy priorities competing for floor time, those in favor of the treaty will need to use their political clout to bring the treaty to the Senate floor for a vote.

It is critical that the isolationists not be allowed to win this fight. The time to act is now. This has gone on for too long already.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.