In the last week, I’ve had over ten meetings with Senate staffers on the Law of the Sea Convention (I hope this explains and excuses my recent absence from this blog). In every meeting — without exception — staffers have agreed that U.S. interests are served by ratification of the Convention. Yet, every single staffer also added that they are being bombarded by calls from right-wing activists who say that ratification would mean a loss of sovereignty for the U.S.
These meetings were instructive for two reasons. First, it shows that some senators are more than willing to put politics over substance, which I think will come as little surprise to most readers. Second, it shows how badly right-wing activists misunderstand both the Law of the Sea Convention and the concept of sovereignty itself.
These activists misconstrue sovereignty as the notion that the U.S. should be able to do what it wants, where it wants, however it wants. And they reject the basic and legally indisputable premise that treaty law is expressly recognized as the law of the land under the U.S. Constitution.
Sovereignty has numerous definitions and applications, the most traditional of which is the ability to govern without external influence or meddling. Yet even that would not be eroded with ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention. In fact, it would be enhanced. The U.S. would gain formal international recognition over its claim of a 12-nautical mile territorial sea that would be subject to U.S. laws, a huge, 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone that would be subject to U.S. economic control, and exclusive economic rights in an extended continental shelf beyond that 200-mile limit. The idea that the U.S. would sacrifice control of waters beyond that point is ludicrous, as neither the U.S. nor any other country has sovereign rights in international waters.
The fact is that sovereignty is a two-way street. Other countries now suspect that America refuses to ratify the Convention because it does not respect their sovereignty. And you can bet that Indonesia, India and Malaysia, critical players in regional maritime security, will make a better effort to accommodate the navigational rights of the U.S. Navy when they are sure that the U.S. respects other countries’ sovereign rights.
At some point I’ll go into greater detail on how absenting ourselves from the treaty actually does threaten sovereignty, but not now. More on that later.
— Scott Paul
Note: For an excellent summary of opposing arguments to U.S. ratification, see the second comment in the thread below.