This week, Massachusetts Democrat Sen. John Kerry and his liberal allies will square off against former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Kerry is trying to fulfill the Washington Establishment's decades-old dream of handing the UN more power and US taxpayer money--before the Senate likely becomes less liberal after the November elections.
At issue is the Law of the Sea Treaty, which has been around since the 1970s. The treaty would give the UN its first capacity to levy taxes directly on Americans, and shift money from the US Treasury to an unaccountable UN bureaucracy in Jamaica. President Reagan first rejected it in 1982 because it is pointless in many respects and dangerous in others. More recent attempts to get the treaty through the Senate have failed. But Kerry has revived it again--and this time with plenty of Republican help.
The treaty is supposed to be a mechanism to resolve commercial and political disputes beyond countries’ shores. It defines “territorial waters,” “exclusive economic zones” and the like. That is reasonable enough, but no UN action would be complete without aggrandizing more power and funding to the UN. On this, the treaty does not disappoint.
The US currently enjoys sovereignty over its entire continental shelf. This allows Americans to utilize the zone economically, including oil and gas production. Royalties of 12.5% to 18.75% on what some believe to be worth billions or trillions currently accrue to the Treasury. But article 82 of the treaty alters this. It would divert royalties to a UN body in Kingston, Jamaica. The explicitly stated purpose: redistribution of wealth “on the basis of equitable sharing criteria, taking into account the interests and needs of developing States, particularly the least developed.”
The treaty also theoretically substitutes the UN for the traditional guarantor of freedom of navigation throughout the world: the US Navy. The UN dispute-resolution tribunal to which the United States would be bound would inevitably become a venue for frivolous actions against Washington. Poor island nations could blame the US for climate change and sue before an anti-American jury. No appeal to tribunal decisions is permitted.
Does it make sense to give more money and power the UN? This is, after all, the organization that oversaw the largest instance of corruption in human history in the Iraq-focused "Oil-for-Food" program. It is the primary tool our adversaries turn to first to stymie the USA and our allies. It not only failed to prevent but in fact oversaw genocide in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. This season, it is seemingly unable to help anyone in Syria except the nation’s cruel tyrant.
But shouldn't serious maritime disputes around the world impel us to join the treaty? Isn’t China threatening all of its maritime neighbors, including most of our Pacific allies? What about Russia in the Arctic?
Actually, all of those nations have already ratified the treaty, which has been in force since 1994. But China pays attention to the UN only when it is convenient for Beijing. The US and Russia worked out their maritime border peacefully in 1990, somehow without the need of transferring billions to UN bureaucrats in Jamaica for redistribution. And when the Philippines got in a staring contest at sea with China over Scarborough Shoal this spring, Manila didn’t even bother with the UN. Just last week, the president of the Philippines made a high-profile visit to Washington.
So which senators would support a treaty that takes money from the Treasury, sustains a demonstrably feckless UN bureaucracy and supplants a status quo that favors the US and replaces it with one we have managed to do without just fine for the thirty years the treaty has been around? Nearly all of the Democrats in the Senate support the treaty, that's who.
This is somewhat understandable. The left wing of the Democratic Party—the only one left in President Obama’s Washington—is hardwired to revile American nationalism. What most Americans see as healthy patriotism and common sense is to these folks as dated insularity and macho chest-thumping. Liberals find American nationalism parochial and unenlightened, and feel instinctively that the world is best served by transferring power to international bodies.
Republicans ought to be offering a clear alternative to this philosophy and its latest legislative product. But fewer than half of Republican senators are on the record opposing the treaty. This potentially leaves enough room for its ratification by two-thirds of the Senate later this year.
GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney has not taken a position recently. John McCain supports the treaty. Long-time UN-booster Richard Lugar, recently defeated in a Republican primary after thirty-six years in the Senate, wants to see the treaty approved as his going-away present. Former Senate GOP majority leader Trent Lott has switched from saying in 2007 the treaty would “cede our national sovereignty” to now lobbying on its behalf.
Every living Republican secretary of state signed an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal recently supporting the treaty. Their arguments ranged from the merely irrelevant (“Our coastline, one of the longest in the world, will increase”) to the deceitful (non-accession “compromises our nation’s authority to exercise our sovereign interest”).
Lott’s motivation is easy enough to discern -- it appears that he was bought off by interests that are channeling big bucks to his lobbying firm. For the rest, the fact is more than a few Republican senators crave the love of the establishment as much as their Democratic colleagues. Many would not mind being called “thoughtful” and “moderate” by the New York Times and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Furthermore, many in the GOP has seen foreign policy as a liability since the disastrous 2006 elections, which focused on Iraq. The few who do still weigh in visibly, like John McCain and other advocates of ceaseless war, tend to create more isolationist Ron Paul supporters than voters who understand and embrace a modern, conservative national defense like the one advocated by the late Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms.
American voters have made clear enough in successive elections their displeasure with the Washington establishment. Whether or not the Law of Sea Treaty is ratified will be a key measure if Washington and the GOP have gotten the message.
Christian Whiton is a former U.S. State Department senior advisor and is a principal at DC International Advisory. [www.dciadvisory.com]
Christian Whiton was a senior advisor in the Donald Trump and George W. Bush administrations. He is a senior fellow for strategy and public diplomacy at the Center for the National Interest and the author of “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”