June 13, 2011 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Lost Would be a Loser for the U.S.

In 1823, President James Monroe had a simple message to the great states of Europe: Hands off.

The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers," he wrote in his annual message to Congress.

European reaction to the "Monroe Doctrine" proved all too predictable. The Marquis de Lafayette, pretty much America's lone cheerleader in the Old World, called the declaration "the best little piece of paper that God had ever permitted any man to give the World."

It was a minority view. Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich, Europe's most hard-boiled diplomat, pronounced it "an indecent declaration." Russia's Tsarist government informed its representative in Washington that "the document in question ... merits only the most profound contempt."

Though the great powers grumbled, the doctrine stood its ground -- but not because they respected the "little piece of paper." No, they feared the British navy. Britain had no interest in letting other European powers establish bases in the New World.

Such a toehold might help them challenge British mastery of the seas. No other power could risk launching a new colonial venture in the Americas, lest it draw the ire and fire of the world's most powerful fleet.

The Monroe Doctrine worked because of the force behind the paper -- even though the force was not Monroe's. No foreign policy doctrine is worth the paper it is written on unless it is backed with sufficient power to uphold it.

It is not clear that this White House understands this truism. Indeed, the president often appears to believe that a treaty (i.e., an agreement on paper) can substitute for the capacity to protect and defend a nation's interest.

Hence we get the New START nuclear agreement. This treaty bound the U.S. to draw down its nuclear arsenal to the level of Russia, while ceding Moscow an overwhelming advantage in tactical nuclear weapons. Still, the president concluded because we had a signed piece of paper -- we are safer. Neither the New START math nor Mr. Obama's strategy add up.

Now, the president is at again. The White House is signaling that it wants the Senate to take up the Law of the Sea Treaty, a pact with a most apt acronym: "LOST."

LOST was hammered out in 1982. That fact alone ought to raise eyebrows. If joining the treaty were really in the interest of the United States, one would have thought the Senate would have ratified it long ago.

There are two parts to the treaty. The "navigation" provisions basically list the rules of the road of using the sea. There is nothing wrong with them. They codify the custom of freedom of the seas.

And since the U.S. Navy is committed to defending the principal of freedom of the seas -- the system works fine. Maintaining a powerful navy -- not this piece of paper -- ensures the U.S. can enjoy freedom of the seas. Approving these provisions, then, gets us nothing.

Signing on to LOST, however, could cost us a lot, due to its "non-navigation" provisions. Among them is a provision that would require the U.S. to pay royalties to an unaccountable international bureaucracy for the right to exploit oil and gas resources on the U.S. continental shelf. We already have the right to those resources. Why pay an international bureaucracy for what's already ours?

Perhaps, the most serious concern is that the president will just use LOST as another excuse to gut the armed forces. After all, why maintain a powerful navy when we have a treaty to ensure freedom of the seas? If START can replace America's nuclear deterrent, why couldn't LOST substitute for carriers and submarines?

Here's hoping the Senate is smarter than that and won't lose its way on LOST, a little piece of paper that gets us nothing.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation.

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First appeared in The Examiner