Out to Sea

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Out to Sea

Feb 22, 2005 3 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, PhD

Founder and Former President

Heritage Trustee since 1973 | Heritage President from 1977 to 2013

Thanks to American intervention, the fate of Iraq and Afghanistan now can be determined by their own citizens, rather than by brutal tyrants. Ironically, though, while the Bush administration is spreading democratic rule overseas, it may be taking a critical step to undermine American sovereignty.

During her confirmation hearings last month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked whether the administration would favor signing on to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. "The convention, as it now stands, serves our national security interests, serves our economic interests, and we very much want to see it go into force," Rice replied.

This just goes to prove that, in Washington, a bad idea never goes away -- it just gets tabled until everyone forgets why it was such a bad idea.

The facts are simple, and they are the same today as they were back in 1982 when President Reagan first rejected the Law of the Sea treaty and Donald Rumsfeld (then a special presidential envoy on the treaty) told the world why: It does not serve our national security interests or our economic interests, and we should make sure it isn't ratified.

Admittedly, Secretary Rice isn't the treaty's only supporter. Last year, it passed the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Even some members of the U.S. military are on board. As Michael Mullen, then vice chief of naval operations, told a House committee, "we must be able to take maximum advantage of the established and widely accepted navigational rights the Law of the Sea Convention codifies to get us to the fight rapidly."

But, in fact, the Navy stands to gain little from the treaty. As Admiral Mullen also testified, the U.S. already is complying with large parts of the agreement. "If the U.S. becomes a party to the Law of the Sea Convention, we would continue to operate as we have since 1983," he said. "The Convention's rules in this regard do not change the rules the Navy has operated under for over 40 years under the predecessor 1958 treaties to which the United States is a party, governing the territorial sea and high seas."

In other words: Treaty or no treaty, we'll keep doing what we're doing.

But while there's not much for us to gain, there's plenty to lose.

In October 2003, Defense Department official Mark Esper told the Senate that other nations could use Law of the Sea treaty to curtail American military operations, even though these maneuvers are supposed to be exempt. China, for example, likely would waste no time attempting to use the treaty to stop U.S. naval war games.

It's not merely the military that's at risk, though. If ratified, the treaty would create virtual governments that would be outside of American control but would exercise power over American interests. For example, Section 4 of the treaty would establish the International Sea-Bed Authority to exercise executive and judicial control over almost all of the world's oceans and seabeds -- nearly 70 percent of the planet. Its new authority would have the power to tax American interests engaged in a variety of maritime endeavors. Only U.S. lawmakers ought to be able to decide how -- and how much -- to tax Americans.

If the treaty went into effect, the result would resemble the United Nations: The U.S. would foot the bill for about 25 percent of the organizations the treaty would establish. But, as at the U.N., blocks of non-democratic nations could limit our actions easily.

Let's be frank: These international bureaucracies don't work. The United Nations is already dealing with a sex scandal in the Congo, genocide in Sudan and the Oil-for-Food fiasco in Iraq. Why would we want to create more unaccountable international bureaucracies and place them in charge of our oceans?

As former Secretary of State George Shultz noted last year, nations create international organizations to serve their common interests, not to govern them. The current system works well and is in our national interest. That's why it's time to sink the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, once and for all.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.