The Senate is currently debating ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, a little known treaty governing international waterways. Some Republicans have opposed the Treaty, claiming it is unnecessary (since it mainly codifies the rights we currently enjoy), and a threat to our national security (because it will tie the Navy's hands and cede our sovereignty to foreign tribunals).
These national security concerns are legitimate, but mostly unfounded. Joining the Law of the Sea Convention is a rare opportunity to sign onto an international agreement that has numerous benefits and very few liabilities. And that's why numerous Democrats and Republicans continue to support it.
President George W. Bush was a strong advocate for signing the treaty. Many of his top diplomatic and military officials, including Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England, stated that joining the Convention would have little practical effect on the rights we currently enjoy. For example, our ships already have the right of free transit, our government has control over our coastal economic zones, and we have the right to enact environmental protections over our maritime zones.
The Convention is a low-risk opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to global leadership, international law, and multilateralism without altering many of our current practices. Joining the Convention will give us credibility when we call on other nations to follow international legal standards. And it will blunt the negative reaction we receive for taking actions opposed by the international community.
For example, joining the Convention could lessen the negative impact of our repudiation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The United States was correct in refusing to submit to the ICC's jurisdiction. But our opposition to the Court has perpetuated our image as a country that rejects international standards while calling for other countries to adhere to them.
By signing agreements such as the Sea Convention, we can argue that our policy on the ICC is the exception rather than the rule. And joining the Convention will build up goodwill for times when we may need to buck the international community in the future (in Syria and Iran, for example).
Joining the Convention will also provide some new benefits to the United States.
First, it will give us a legal forum to turn to if other countries violate our existing rights on the high seas.
Second, it will give us a seat at the bargaining table to shape future ocean and coastal region policy. China is already a party to the Convention, and it will have an oversized impact on shaping future policy if the United States doesn’t serve as a counterbalance.
Finally, the Convention provides us with a legal forum to thwart China’s policy of territorial expansion in Asia.
Critics of the Convention, including numerous Republican Senators and legal scholars such as Jack Goldsmith, fear that submitting our actions to the review of an international tribunal will weaken our national security, our military, and our sovereignty.
These arguments are not convincing.
First, military actions are explicitly exempted from the Convention.
Second, even if the tribunals tried to intervene in military actions, they could only do so after the fact. The tribunals, for example, cannot stop the U.S. from seizing a ship with suspected nuclear supplies; they can only criticize our actions afterwards.
Finally, if other countries unfairly use these tribunals to attack American hegemony and try to restrict our military rights (as in the nuclear scenario above), we can always withdraw from the Convention. This is an important point that the treaty's supporters have failed to note.
If the worst fears of the Convention's critics come to bear, the president has the power to withdraw from the treaty. And if the treaty was being abused to thwart America's interests, that's what any responsible president, Republican or Democrat, would do.
Republicans have also raised significant concerns about the treaty's economic consequences, notably its tax and redistribution scheme and the mandatory sharing of technology. These are valid concerns, and supporters of the treaty must do a better job to either assuage these fears, renegotiate portions of the treaty, or agree to submit formal reservations that would prevent these consequences.
But on national security matters, fear of the future is not a reason to reject all of the immediate benefits we would receive from joining the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Republicans should give it a chance and ratify the treaty.
David Meyers is a New York-based political commentator, lecturer, and consultant. From 2006-09, he worked in the West Wing of the White House, and was later a speechwriter in the United States Senate. For more, visit his website: DavidRossMeyers.com.