Skip to content

Something’s Fishy about Sales Pitch for Law of the Sea Treaty

Note: For a more thorough analysis of the Law of the Sea Treaty, read the Victory Institute’s Fact Sheet available here.

Every few years, Congress takes up the issue of the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), officially referred to in the international community as the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea. The convention is essentially a constitution for the world’s oceans, but the economic protections and navigation rights come at a price.

LOST advocates would have us believe that when the treaty first reared its head 30 years ago, President Ronald Reagan refused to sign due to technicalities, which were addressed in 1994.

However, Reagan’s former attorney general, Ed Meese recently wrote that while a portion of Reagan’s concerns were addressed, subverting our national sovereignty to an unaccountable international governing body was not.

Reagan did have issues with portions of the treaty, but more importantly, the president opposed LOST because it was a direct threat to our national sovereignty. In fact, Reagan opposed the treaty so strongly that he fired the State Department staff that negotiated it.

Meese gives a full account of Reagan’s history with LOST and is a must-read.

But how much weight should we put behind what other people say about a former president who is conveniently no longer alive to defend himself – especially those who had nothing to do with him?

This week, the Atlantic resorted to peer pressure to support LOST with this headline: “(Almost) Everyone Agrees: The U.S. Should Ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty.” Author Stewart M. Patrick, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Governance program, states that the Reagan administration signed the treaty (which they didn’t) and says that the “unanimous view” of every Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense of both political parties is that signing the treaty is “profoundly in the U.S. national interest.”

Patrick goes on to say that “All of the uniformed services – and especially the U.S. Navy – are solidly behind [LOST]” and that the treaty contains “everything the military wants, and nothing that it fears.”

If “almost everyone agrees” as Mr. Patrick suggests and is “profoundly” in our best interests, then why on earth are we still debating the issue? One thing to consider is that many military officers have agendas of their own. And bucking their commander-in-chief is a certain way to end up out of the job. Unfortunately, the military is set up in such a manner that their voice is largely unheard.

In a recent hearing, however, Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if failing to ratify the treaty would “in any way compromise the ability of the United States to project force around the world [and] to support and sustain our allies.”

Dempsey’s response was that “Our ability … will not deteriorate.”

Supporters proudly proclaim that both President George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush support LOST as do the five living secretaries of state who served for Republican presidents. Three Republican senators have already stated their intention to sign: Richard Lugar, Lisa Murkowski, and Olympia Snowe.

As the popular saying goes, “I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.” Simply parading names of prominent Republicans isn’t enough to convince me to support something without showing me the evidence. After all, Republicans can subvert our sovereignty just as easily as Democrats.

While serving as Senate Majority Leader in 2007, Trent Lott – another Republican – staunchly opposed LOST, stating that it would create a “U.N. on steroids” that “would undermine U.S. military operations … and impair navigational rights.”

Now Lott lobbies for the treaty.

LOST hasn’t changed a bit since Lott served as senator; the sovereignty and security concerns he once had are still part of the treaty. It behooved Senator Lott to oppose the treaty when he was accountable to the voters. But today, Lobbyist Lott urges Congress to ratify LOST. Who cares about sovereignty so long as you’re getting paid, right?

The Obama administration would have us believe that if the U.S. Senate ratifies LOST, a multitude of world issues would be solved: from Iran threatening to close the Straights of Hormuz to Chinese claiming the South China Sea and Russia claiming the Arctic Circle.

Problem is, both China and Russia have already signed the treaty. How can we reasonably expect that the U.N. can check this aggressive behavior simply by Washington ratifying LOST?

“[LOST] is an unnecessarily complicated and entangling concoction,” writes Cato Institute’s Doug Bandow, “that accomplishes little that the longstanding body of customary international law on the high-seas or the dynamics of markets do not account for.”

Since the convention is, in large part, redundant with our current laws and is doing little to stop aggression – at the cost of our sovereignty – why the rush to sign?

Perhaps those pushing LOST are so persistent because they know that about 25 percent of the international bureaucracy’s income will come from U.S. taxpayers. One-quarter of the financial backing and we basically have the same say as Luxembourg.

International treaties that subvert our sovereignty and redistribute our wealth may benefit the powerful elite like lobbyists, senators, and former secretaries of state, but clearly, Americans should be careful whose advice we take.

There is certainly a place for a Law of the Sea. Reagan himself said that “No one has ruled out the idea of a [Law of the Sea] treaty – one which makes sense – but after long years of fruitless negotiating, it became apparent that the underdeveloped nations who now control the General Assembly were looking for a free ride at our expense, again.”

The treaty no doubt began with noble intentions, but by the time it made it through the halls of the U.N. – the world’s most glaring example of corruption – it was morphed into a document that could be abused by corrupt international bureaucrats, lining their pockets on American taxpayer dollars and enabling voting blocks who benefit from limiting U.S. interests.

There are worthwhile elements to the treaty. Therefore, considering the still-existing threats to our sovereignty and the corruption of the U.N, perhaps we should push for a more accountable path forward before rushing to sign on.

This treaty may be in the best interests of those who seek to profit from global governance, or at least those who can tolerate it, but its current form of implementation is most certainly not in the best interests of the American people. LOST grants us virtually nothing that isn’t already protected by our Naval forces and we are already abiding by most of the convention’s provisions, which again, are largely redundant with existing laws.

We must seek out the full story about LOST – and not just highlight the bits that benefit the Trent Lotts and the CFRs of the world. Once we have a full understanding of the treaty, then we can make a socially responsible decision based on principles instead of filtered information that furthers an agenda.