It's been in place for nearly 30 years; nearly 160 countries (plus the European Union) have signed it. But the United States has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. As a result, the United States, the world’s leading maritime power, is at a military and economic disadvantage.
The convention codifies widely accepted principles on territorial waters (which it defines as those extending 12 miles out to sea), shipping lanes and ocean resources. It also grants each signatory exclusive fishing and mining rights within 200 miles of its coast (called the exclusive economic zone). Although the United States originally voted to create the convention and negotiated many provisions to its advantage, Congress has never ratified it.
With nearly 12,500 miles of coastline, 360 major commercial ports and the world’s largest exclusive economic zone, the United States has a lot to gain from signing the convention. It is the only legal framework that exists for managing international waters; joining it would allow us to secure international recognition of a claim to the continental shelf as far as 600 miles beyond our exclusive economic zone in order to explore and conserve the resource-rich Arctic as the polar ice cap recedes. It would also provide American companies with a fair and stable legal framework to invest in mining projects in the deep seabed.
Ratification makes sense militarily as well. According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the convention “codifies navigation and overflight rights and high seas freedoms that are essential for the global mobility of our armed forces.” In other words, it enhances national security by giving our Navy additional flexibility to operate on the high seas and in foreign exclusive economic zones and territorial seas. This is particularly important in the Asia Pacific region and the South China Sea, where tensions among China, Japan and Southeast Asian nations have increased because of conflicting interpretations of what constitutes territorial and international waters.
Perhaps most important of all, ratification would prove to be a diplomatic triumph. American power is defined not simply by economic and military might, but by ideals, leadership, strategic vision and international credibility.
Of course, there are those who would prefer that we have nothing to do with the United Nations, who believe that international treaties hurt our national interests and restrain our foreign policy objectives.
All three of us have struggled while working with and through international organizations — they are unwieldy and not always responsive to American interests. But as we see in Libya today, the United Nations and other international alliances are indispensable in providing legitimacy and reinvigorating American partnerships in times of crisis. And they will ensure needed balance as rising powers inevitably challenge America’s economic and military strength.
Last July, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gained much respect by reassuring the Southeast Asian nations that the United States strongly supported multilateral efforts to address those territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and denounced China’s heavy-handed, unilateral tactics. But strong American positions like that are ultimately undermined by our failure to ratify the convention; it shows we are not really committed to a clear legal regime for the seas.
For all of these reasons, ratification is more important today than ever before. At a time when America’s military and economic strengths are tested, we must lead on the seas as well as on land.
By Thad W. Allen, a senior fellow at Rand, the commandant of the Coast Guard from 2006 to 2010; Richard L. Armitage, the president of a consulting firm, the deputy secretary of state from 2001 to 2005 and John J. Hamre, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, deputy secretary of defense from 1997 to 2000.