This fall, legislators have one solid shot at simultaneously pleasing George W. Bush, angering Michelle Malkin and Pat Buchanan, appeasing both oil company executives and environmentalists, and proving to the rest of the world that the United States is ready to re-engage in global diplomacy. How? Through a little-known treaty called the Law of the Sea. With the specter of a post-Kyoto climate treaty looming in the distance, an easy victory on an international agreement regulating the high seas is the quickest way to give Democrats and the United States some wind in the proverbial sails for ratifying other global pacts, while pointing out the opposition from the right wing for what it really is: knee-jerk nationalism.
The story behind the Law of the Sea begins in the 1960s. Until then, the 70 percent of the earth's surface covered by oceans had been generally considered neutral territory, but there was growing international pressure to create a system for negotiating drilling, mining, and fishing rights.
This led to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, and between 1973 and 1982, representatives from 160 nations met regularly to hash out concerns about military navigation rights, territorial boundaries, environmental protections, and use of the ocean's resources. The convention also established procedures for settling disputes that might arise between nations, and created the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which along with the International Seabed Authority, works to maintain order and settle disputes on and under the sea. In 1982, these regulations were formalized as the Law of the Sea Convention, and passed on to individual nations for ratification.
Though the United States played a prominent role in these negotiations, when the time came for Ronald Reagan to sign the Law of the Sea, he agreed to all portions except Part XI of the convention, which contained provisions on seabed mining he felt would hamper American enterprise. In a statement on the treaty that year, Regan affirmed his commitment to reaching an international accord, as long as his objections to the seabed mining were addressed. The first President Bush agreed to reopen negotiations on Part XI in the early 1990s, and an agreement was reached in 1994 that addressed Reagan's concerns. Clinton signed the new version of the treaty that year.
The treaty went to the Senate for ratification where it languished until 2004, when Dick Lugar became chair of the Foreign Relations Committee and got it out of committee and to a vote in the full Senate. But it faced opposition from isolationists like Rep. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who rallied under the tenant "What would Reagan do?"
But framing it as "Reagan wouldn't do it, why should we?" doesn't hold water. While Reagan expressed concerns about signing off on an agreement that amounted to "handing sovereign control of two-thirds of the earth's surface over to the Third World" or creating a form of "global collectivism," he didn't share the same rabidly nationalist fear of the treaty that the far right has been trying to drum up ever since.
After the Democrats took over Congress in 2006, new Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joe Biden reinitiated the conversation, prompting two hearings on the subject this session. But Biden himself was off on the campaign trail, and at both hearings, only the Democrat standing in as the chair of the committee showed up. But while the Democrats have been lackluster on the subject, a wellspring of support has come from parties as divergent as the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, Navy and Coast Guard officers, port authority chiefs, and oil executives. In a letter to Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell last month, 101 industry and nonprofit leaders espoused their support for the treaty.
Even George W. Bush -- not much a fan of world pacts -- sees signing on as imperative to United States security, declaring in a public statement last May that passing the Law of the Sea would protect our national security and business interests, as well as our sovereign rights over marine areas. And, in a switch from his usual foreign-policy stance, he seems to see the value of a world pact in and of itself: "It will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted," he said.
None of this has stopped the right wing from spouting off about the treaty. Pat Buchanan says Bush's acquiescence reveals that the "rot of globalism runs deep" in Washington, and chastises the Navy for supporting it as well. Frank Gaffney, president of the neocon think tank Center for Security Policy, says signing the treaty amounts to putting the United Nations "on steroids." Michelle Malkin defers to Reagan's oft-exploited ghost, and even the evangelical group Concerned Women for America trotted out some complaints about the "anti-American" nature of the treaty.
But while critics paint their opposition as merit-based, their objections are really just another instance of the cottage industry that's popped up on the far right for opposing anything that comes out of the United Nations as a challenge to U.S. sovereignty -- without any relation to specific accords. Reagan opposed only a portion of the treaty, but today's movement opposes the very idea that the United States shouldn't have free rein when it comes to the ocean's resources, or that there's a need for consensus on preserving and protecting the commons. In the movement’s ideal America, all our energies are expended building up a military to strong-arm our right to the seas, all other nations be damned
This is why the Law of the Sea Convention is the perfect issue for progressives to rally around. It reveals the outrage from the outer edges of the right for what it really is: anti-cooperative isolationism that is both unfounded in fact and counter to American interests. It's a treaty that has solid progressive credentials and a wide body of support, transcending political party and interest area. It's a pretty easy sell for most legislators.
"You have an agreement that's endorsed by a Republican president, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Coast Guard, an overwhelming number of senators from both political parties, business groups, trade associations, and you already have 155 countries that are party to the treaty. It seems like if you can't get that through, I don't know what kind of treaty you can get through the Senate," said Spencer Boyer, director of international law and diplomacy for the Center for American Progress.
Passing the Law of the Sea would create the momentum for other key world pacts, the most immediate concern being the imminent post-Kyoto climate change treaty. The rest of the world is skeptical about our sincerity going into climate negotiations thanks to the last eight years of sandbagging and undermining by the White House, which was evident in the preliminary climate talks at the United Nations last month. "It begins to get us back on track to international legitimacy," Boyer said. "It would begin to show that we're willing to rejoin the international community, and that it's worth it to talk to the United States about international agreements that are really in the international interest and the United States' interest as well."
Getting back on track toward multilaterialism and an embrace of international law creates at least the possibility of participating in what will surely be more controversial multilateral agreements, like a climate change pact, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or the International Criminal Court. As Scott Paul, deputy director of government relations for the group Citizens for Global Solutions, posted on The Washington Note, "our absence from the Law of the Sea is the outer wall of Fortress America." Break down that wall, and we have hopes of breaking down other much more important walls.
"The message that ratification could send is that we can, and we will, debate forms of international engagement treaties and international organizations on their merits," said Paul in a recent call-in with reporters.
If Democrats can't get the Law of the Sea passed under a Republican president who supports it, there's not a lot of hope for future international agreements. There aren't any further plans for motion this session. Whip counts show somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 votes in favor of signing the treaty, but without leadership backing, the Law of the Sea will never make it to a vote. Meanwhile, Inhofe and friends have been hard at work invigorating outrage about the treaty. Glenn Beck, the popular conservative radio host devoted a special segment of his CNN show to why the right must defeat this "socialist, globalist, elitist" accord, bringing on Inhofe to tell viewers why the treaty is the "greatest raid on sovereignty" in his lifetime. But the response in many progressive sectors has been virtually non-existent.
Advocates like Paul, in coordination with the hundreds of other groups and leaders who support it, have been trying to rally progressives around the issues as well, and to push Democrats to make it a priority.
"Our failure so far to get this done is an indictment of our foreign policy," Paul said. "If we can't get this treaty done, the message it sends is that no treaty, no international agreement, and no multilateral foreign policy has a chance in the Senate."