America should sign the language we authored
The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea — the instrument that created the overarching governance framework for nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface and what lies above and beneath it — has been signed and ratified by 161 countries, but not by the United States. The convention and the 1994 agreement on its implementation have been in force for 18 years, yet the United States, a nation with over 12,000 miles of coastline and the dominant world maritime power by any measure, joins an embarrassing short list of holdouts that includes North Korea, Syria and Iran.
This is true despite the fact that a bipartisan coalition of American business, environmental and military leaders agree that it is in our national interests to formally become a state party to this lynchpin of ocean governance. Per our constitution, the Senate must give its “advice and consent” to treaties submitted by the president for its review. Of these currently in the queue, for national-security reasons, the Law of the Sea is one of the most urgent.
This is why the secretaries of Defense and State, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps all recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. should join. In fact, since 1994 – when President Clinton first submitted the treaty to the Senate for its consideration following the international community changing the document’s language to directly address President Ronald Reagan’s initial reservations – every president, every Marine Corps and Coast Guard commandant, and nearly all chiefs of naval operations have unequivocally supported it. Put simply, there is broad consensus from our nation’s military and political leadership that the United States should sign on.
This consensus exists because of the tangible benefits that come with formal membership. From an economic perspective, the rewards are many but one example is that the United States could potentially claim exclusive jurisdiction over as much as 1 million square kilometers of ocean off of our extended continental shelf, an area half the size of the entire Louisiana Purchase. By remaining outside of the convention, we not only cannot press our claim, but we do not have a seat at the table to review the claims of others in an ongoing legal process. In environmental terms, it will give us the international authority to protect critical fisheries and sensitive habitats as new shipping lanes materialize in the Arctic.
Importantly, there are also urgent national-security imperatives.