One of the great achievements of globalization is the Law of the Sea Convention, also known as the “Constitution of the Oceans.” This international treaty governs all aspects of ocean space. For example, it establishes rules to determine maritime boundaries creates environmental regulations, coordinates scientific research and sets out processes to settle international disputes involving marine issues. Although the Law of the Sea Convention entered into force in 1994 with 162 governments signing on, the United States stubbornly refuses to be governed by this critical treaty.
The Law of the Sea Convention is critical to global peace because it establishes a legal framework to guide the management of the oceans, the settlement of disputes, and the administration of the international seabed. The oceans of the world are coming under increased threat from climate change, acidification, overfishing and, most worrisome, competing claims over offshore islands that have the potential to explode into armed conflict. There is no better example than the Spratly Islands, a group of more than 750 low-lying reefs, atolls, and islands in the South China Sea, which are being claimed by Vietnam, the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. Disputes over these islands, particularly over the oil or mineral resources found nearby, can hopefully be resolved through the processes provided in the Law of the Sea Convention. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.
The US has a deplorable history of thumbing its nose at international agreements. And rather than driving globalization, it has undermined the principle that international rule of law should trump the exercise of military, economic and political power, which has led to world wars and numerous regional conflicts. In the name of protecting its precious sovereignty, the US poses the greatest threat to world peace through its intransigence.
In June 2012, the Senate once again considered whether the US should become a party to the treaty. To influence their deliberations, an open letter was published in the Wall Street Journal on May 31, in which Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, James Baker III, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice wrote an article urging the Senate to do the right thing. They argued:
Joining the convention would put our vital rights on firmer legal basis, gaining legal certainty and legitimacy as we operate in the world’s largest international zone. The continuing delay of US accession to the convention compromises our nation’s authority to exercise our sovereign interest, jeopardizes our national and economic security, and limits our leadership role in international ocean policy .… We’ve been on the sidelines long enough. Now is the time to get on the field and lead.
Since the treaty requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, it can easily be blocked by a determined minority of senators—and this is exactly what happened. With at least 34 senators opposing the Law of the Sea Treaty, it was destined to fail. Arguments against the treaty are parochial and short-sighted. Opponents argue that the treaty seeks to transfer wealth from US companies exploiting energy resources to poorer landlocked countries, setting a dangerous precedent for wealth distribution. This claim is simply false. Even if it were true, why then would the US Chamber of Commerce support the treaty?
My personal favourite quote in support of the treaty is: “I want my administration on record in support of the convention as the predicate for asserting sovereign rights that will be of benefit to Alaska and the nation.” The source is Sarah Palin. But perhaps I can translate this into even more straightforward Palin-speak: “Sign, baby, sign.”