The Law of the Sea: Climate Change in the Arctic and Washington Weekly
The author notes that the strategic issues raised by Arctic warming and other resource issues are causing "entrenched interests aligned against the treaty" to rethink their position.
The debate over U.S. UNCLOS ratification is a familiar one. It focuses on whether it is better for the United States to be inside a flawed, sometimes troublesome international system where Washington can exert power to minimize the damage the organization can do, or to remain outside such an organization, unfettered by the agreements others are making. Since the Reagan administration, the United States has generally followed the latter approach, one favored by politically conservative factions.
The emerging Arctic-related issues challenge this prevailing approach, however. Being outside UNCLOS has reduced U.S. ability to influence debates that are increasingly relevant to the country's primary interests. In response, a powerful coalition of industries, environmentalists and hawkish foreign policy groups and the Bush administration have aligned in support of the treaty -- though not yet in a coordinated manner. Traditionally conservative political groups are coming to view the price of nonparticipation as growing in relation to the sacrifices of signing on. As a result, entrenched interests aligned against the treaty are shrinking, and the question increasingly appears to be one of when UNCLOS will be ratified, not whether.
From the U.S. perspective, the crucial issue is not merely the minerals that it can claim, but the potential for a major shift in the relative mineral wealth of Russia vis-a-vis its neighbors. A growing dispute between Russia and Norway is perhaps the most important of these. In 2001, Russia submitted its definition of its continental-shelf borders. Russia's claim is widely considered a significant overreach, since it claimed a shelf extending almost to the North Pole and it made territorial claims that impinged on oil- and natural gas-rich Norwegian claims (claims that have long been widely, if informally, acknowledged as belonging to Norway) in the Barents Sea. Though Norway's claim, released in late 2006, is in some ways more realistic, it appears to have been drafted to meet Russia's aggressive claim in kind.
With Russia increasingly aggressive in its use of oil and natural gas as a lever against Europe, it will fall in part to UNCLOS (and possibly the CLCS) to make decisions that will affect the reserves and production potential of Norway and Russia.
As it stands now, the CLCS is highly unlikely to support one side over the other, and it will throw the decision over the extent of continental shelf ownership to the two countries to negotiate, a resolution that bodes ill for Norway. Treaty advocates say this would not necessarily be the case if the United States were involved in the organization.
National security-focused advocates in the United States say the country's nonparticipation in UNCLOS shuts out Washington from being able to meaningfully influence how UNCLOS resolves the disputed claims. Industry, from oil and natural gas producers to their major customers in the chemical and transportation industries, also wants the United States to have a seat at the table.
Opposition in the United States to ratification of UNCLOS has largely been based on arguments relating to U.S. sovereignty and the power of international organizations. Libertarian and conservative groups have said the treaty would reduce U.S. ability to move its Navy in waters heretofore understood to be open, international waters. Others have pointed to the International Seabed Authority, alleging it is too powerful since under UNCLOS it has made the power to explore deep-sea minerals no longer simply a matter of determining who was there first with a capability to exploit the resources.
Voices against ratifying UNCLOS generally have been politically conservative. With the Arctic issues rising to the surface, core conservative constituencies -- business and foreign policy hawks -- see significant threats emanating from nonparticipation and clear benefits to participation.
As the Arctic issues proliferate, however, conservatives and the foreign policy establishment are beginning to view sitting on the sidelines as increasingly disadvantageous -- as is the military. Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has called U.S. ratification of the treaty "a top national security priority." With the military, conservative foreign policy establishment and business joining together in support of ratification, the remaining conservative voices cautioning against sacrificing sovereignty have become increasingly isolated.