U.S. ratification of UNCLOS will not be detrimental
All of the objections to UNCLOS have been answered through the past two decades of debate and study or the significant modifications to the treaty the U.S. demanded and won in 1994. In addition, the worst fears of opponents have not come to pass as the U.S. has already accepted UNCLOS as both customary law and as a guideline for domestic policy and has affirmed its committment to UNCLOS through multiple subsequent multilateral agreements.
The drama so far is thick with irony. These criticisms from the political right have not grasped the real threat to U.S. oceans interests, which is the relentless campaign by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace, in conjunction with certain coastal states, including some of our closest allies such as Canada and Australia, to unilaterally impose maritime rules to restrict international shipping on the oceans and aircraft overflight of the seas for purported environmental reasons. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, describes the partnership between NGOs and some like-minded governments as “norming,” in which “civil society” combines its efforts with the most politically liberal governments to develop international law in opposition to U.S. interests. Many of the most progressive maritime rules emerging from this process are inconsistent with the navigational freedoms protected in the convention, and the U.S. relies on those freedoms to ensure submarines can transit through the world’s chokepoints and launch military operations from ships serving as “sea bases” in the littoral regions of the world. Similarly, less well-intentioned nations such as North Korea, China and Iran have sought to impose control over the ocean out to 200 miles by establishing security zones. Both types of coastal state regulations place at risk American economic prosperity and national security by attempting to close off to U.S. ships and aircraft vast swaths of ocean, allowing the whim of coastal states to deny the use of the global commons.
Opponents are similarly reluctant to mention the unanimous support of affected U.S. industries. To oppose the treaty on economic grounds requires opponents to say that the oil, natural gas, shipping, fishing, boat manufacturing, exporting, and telecommunications industries do not understand their own bottom lines. It requires opponents to say that this diverse set of industries is spending money and time lobbying on behalf of an outcome that will be disadvantageous to their own interests.
The vast majority of conservative Republicans would support, in prospect, a generic measure that expands the ability of American oil and natural gas companies to drill for resources in new areas, solidifies the Navy's rights to traverse the oceans, enshrines U.S. economic sovereignty over our Exclusive Economic Zone extending 200 miles off our shore, helps our ocean industries create jobs, and reduces the prospects that Russia will be successful in claiming excessive portions of the Arctic. All of these conservative-backed outcomes would result from U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention. Yet the treaty is being blocked because of ephemeral conservative concerns that boil down to a discomfort with multi-lateralism.