Big News: Bush Will Push the Law of the Sea


It looks like George W. Bush is going to finish what his father started.
In 1982, negotiations concluded on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS for short). President Reagan instructed the U.S. to accept and comply with the treaty, except for provisions in Part XI, which deals with deep seabed mining. A little over fifteen years ago, under President George H.W. Bush, U.S. negotiators successfully amended Part XI, satisfying all of President Reagan’s concerns with UNCLOS.
Last week, President George W. Bush outraged the most extreme conservative leaders, telling them that he will publicly call on the Senate to ratify UNCLOS. The administration has supported the treaty for years, but President Bush has never personally weighed in.
The Senate has had the votes to approve UNCLOS for over a decade, but it’s never gotten through. Jesse Helms, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was responsible for holding it up for the better part of that period. Senator Dick Lugar took over as Chairman and got the Committee to approve the treaty unanimously (19-0) in 2004, only to be thwarted by Sens. Bill Frist and Jim Inhofe, who refused to allow a floor vote.
A Bush statement would be a big victory for a number of government agencies and military branches that have been long underwhelmed by the political capital the White House has been willing to spend on UNCLOS. In particular, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Legal Advisor John Bellinger come out the big winners in the administration. Senator Lugar, who made UNCLOS a personal cause, will be elated. Senator Inhofe and conservative leaders Frank Gaffney and Phyllis Shlafly, who have fought this tooth and nail for years, emerge as the big losers.
I recently heard a story about a meeting between Bellinger and a group of high-level European diplomats that got me really fired up about UNCLOS. Bellinger promised the Europeans that the Bush Administration wanted to cooperate more closely and take a more multilateral approach in its foreign policy. The Europeans responded that so long as the U.S. refuses to join the Law of the Sea – the most common-sense international agreement on the map – they will view these promises with a great deal of skepticism (for me, it’d take more than just UNCLOS to convince me of this supposed change of heart).
Full disclosure: I’ve been working quietly over the past four months to pull together a coalition and get the Senate moving on UNCLOS. The diversity of the treaty’s supporters is nothing short of incredible.
Amazingly, to get UNCLOS passed, peace organizations are sitting side by side with veterans and national security specialists. Environmental groups and representatives of the oil and gas industry are working hand in hand. The coalition behind the Law of the Sea takes “strange bedfellows” to a new level.
In addition to the Navy, environmental groups, and a major, Congressionally-mandated oceans commission, every major ocean industry – from oil and gas to fishing to marine manufacturing to shipping – strongly supports U.S. participation in UNCLOS.
For an explanation of why this is important for the U.S., plus some more information, see here.
If President Bush comes out with a statement as he says he will – and I’m hearing it could be as early as tomorrow (Tuesday) – Senator Biden will hold hearings and move UNCLOS swiftly towards a floor vote.
That will be a huge embarrassment to the 15 or so senators who plan to vote against the treaty, as well as the likes of Gaffney and Schlafly. Their fundamental and irrational fear or international institutions will show how out of touch they are with an American public that is angry with the recent unilateralism and clamoring for greater international cooperation.
Or, to put it more bluntly, there are a few senators up for re-election who have still not decided how to vote. Voting against the treaty would make these senators part of an extreme out-of-touch minority whose distrust of multilateralism outweighs U.S. economic and national security interests, not to mention global environmental protection. UNCLOS may not be a high-profile political issue, but opposing it will have electoral consequences.
— Scott Paul


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