Why We Should Care About the Law of the Sea


I’ve had something of a one-track mind these past few months, as regular readers of this blog might have noticed. The Law of the Sea has been the subject of at least half of my recent posts and an even greater percentage of my advocacy focus.
The case for the Law of the Sea was essentially made by Matt Stoller’s post and Steve’s response last week, though neither mentioned it by name. Steve writes:

“What is needed is more strategic thinking in progressive circles about what battles are worth having in order to achieve more systemic success. I think that consensus is impossible in the left — and thus we need the Matt Stollers of the world to find some like-minded associates and begin hatching the campaigns that matter, and ignoring the ones that don’t.”

I couldn’t agree more and I think the example that Steve offers – the opposition to the Bolton nomination – was a battle well chosen. It was very important on its merits: it successfully weakened and then partially removed an extremely negative element from the administration. But just as important was its execution. Thanks to some smart group decisions on strategy and message, the Bolton campaign is making current battles against pugnacious nationalism more winnable than before.
The effort to ratify the Law of the Sea convention is a campaign that matters for similar reasons. Yes, the Law of the Sea is compelling on its face. The armed forces rightly wants its navigational and overflight rights protected. Environmentalists rightly want the U.S. to join and add to global ocean stewardship efforts. And U.S. companies should have a chance to compete with foreign firms for offshore resources. For some background info on the convention, click here.
All of these are good reasons for the U.S. to accede to the Law of the Sea, but none of them alone or even in combination would necessarily make it important for the progressive agenda.
So why is the Law of the Sea significant? Simple: our absence from the Law of the Sea is the outer wall of Fortress America. Winning the ratification battle would seriously de-fang the same pugnacious nationalists who are on the opposite side of almost every important foreign policy issue facing the U.S.
The opposition to the Law of the Sea is based entirely on a visceral hatred for multilateral cooperation. Its champions detest all forms of international organization and believe the purpose of international law is to constrain U.S. behavior. They believe the U.S. should rely on the threat of force to advance its goals and should not be constrained by any rules, even if they rules that tilt the playing field in our favor.
This opposition is serious, even if its arguments are not. Take a peek at this ridiculous ad that people paid good money to get on MSNBC:

I’m not even going to bother debunking this ad, which, as Senator Lugar recently pointed out, does not contain a single true statement. What should be immediately clear, though, is that the opposition to the Law of the Sea is as determined to fight as it is radical.
I’ll be the first to admit that the Law of the Sea doesn’t stir passions as does the war in Iraq, healthcare, or education. But I’m still disappointed that the left blogosphere and left-center commentators have mostly ignored the Law of the Sea so far this year. Why? Because the debate on the Law of the Sea effectively isolates the most rabid anti-internationalists. It pits the far, far, far-right against everybody else.
The more high-profile this debate becomes, the more credibility people like Frank Gaffney, Jim DeMint, Jim Inhofe, and David Vitter will lose. And on the flip side, those of us who support adhering to international norms and participating in international agreements will look more credible, powerful, and rational.
In short, this is the kind of campaign that progressives should be betting the house on.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will probably vote on the convention in the next couple of weeks. After that, whether or not it comes to the floor will depend on the enthusiasm of progressives.
If the Law of the Sea does come to the Senate floor, something amazing will happen: Republicans will eat their young. We already saw a preview in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Dick Lugar called out a few Republican hypocrites, who say everyone should suspend their own judgments and defer to Petraeus and Crocker even as they rejected the unanimous and consistent recommendation of our national security leadership that the convention is a helpful tool to our military. Ted Stevens and John Warner, perhaps the treaty’s two strongest supporters besides Lugar, will similarly take their fellow Republicans to task for setting U.S. interests back in the service of zany ideological goals. If a final floor vote occurs, the treaty will pass easily and its few opponents will look marginalized and weak.
The message that is likely to emerge from this campaign, should it succeed, is that all forms of international engagement – be they treaties, international organizations, or specific policies – should be debated on their merits. It will also come out that multilateralism usually benefits the United States and helps solve global problems in a commonsense way. And we will serve notice that no proposal is a non-starter simply because it has “UN” in the title.
U.S. negotiators got everything they wanted in the Law of the Sea. PIPA polls regularly show that Americans want their government to endorse policies made collectively by the international community, even if those policies don’t represent our first choice – in short, Americans want their government to be a team player. Joining the Law of the Sea won’t get us there, but it will get us closer. At the least, it would discredit those who want to reject international law even when it gives us everything we want.
We need to be spending more time and attention on this. The conventional wisdom is that multilateral treaties are dead on arrival in the Senate. If we’re interested in promoting the International Criminal Court, a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or the Conventions on women’s rights, children’s rights, landmines, or biological diversity, we’ve got to get the Law of the Sea done.
My colleague Don Kraus sums it up:

“Think about it. If a Senate with a Democratic majority can not muster the 66 votes to pass a treaty supported by a Republican president, what is the possibility of doing so under a potential Democratic president who will face much stiffer Republican opposition?
“If the U.S, cannot join an agreement supported by environmental groups, petroleum trade associations, peace groups, the Coast Guard, Navy, departments of State, Commerce, and the Interior (just to name a few) — what is the chance that we engage on other agreements?
“One senate staffer I talked to recently has been yelling at groups coming to talk with him about climate change. He’s been telling them that he doesn’t want to talk to them unless the first words out of their mouth are “Law of the Sea,” because “if we can’t get this one through, none of the other agreements are going to get through.”

This is precisely the kind of issue that smart progressives who pick their battles carefully should be taking on right now.
— Scott Paul


5 comments on “Why We Should Care About the Law of the Sea

  1. Tramadol says:

    I’m still disappointed that the left blogosphere and left-center commentators have mostly ignored the Law of the Sea so far this year. Why? Because the debate on the Law of the Sea effectively isolates the most rabid anti-internationalists.


  2. tower defense says:

    Raj is with Citizens for Global Solutions and Doug was part of Reagan’s original negotiating team on the Treaty.


  3. Marcia says:

    Who is going to take this on and how?


Add your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *