Millions around the world watched Barack Obama become the 44th president of the United States and wondered whether America would change course or continue to go it alone.
As Obama finds his sea legs with Congress and grapples with tough choices on issues ranging from economic recovery and energy independence to global warming, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and nuclear proliferation, he also is well positioned to help deliver an obscure yet decisive foreign policy victory and fulfill a campaign promise by advocating for U.S. ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
What is the Law of the Sea treaty, and why is it important?
UNCLOS codifies widely accepted principles of freedom of navigation and overflight and establishes a set of rules for use of the world's oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface.
While U.S. accession to the treaty might not seem imperative, the convention is a powerful vehicle through which signatories can leverage support for national priorities within the international community. Its provisions address national security and economic interests, provide guidelines for commercial activity, and set standards to protect and preserve the marine environment.
The United States has 12,500 miles of coastline — including Florida's 1,350 miles — and 360 major commercial shipping ports. It conducts more than 90 percent of its international trade by sea and ranks among the world's largest importers and exporters of goods and services.
Simply put, it has more to gain by ratifying the convention than by avoiding it, especially against the backdrop of global recession.
In the absence of such a legal framework, history is replete with examples of rogue nations unduly restricting maritime access and encroaching upon others' interests, potentially compromising routine military operations, disrupting commerce and flouting accountability for environmental degradation.
The United States played a pivotal role during the treaty negotiations in the early '80s, but President Reagan ultimately refused to sign the convention over concerns about a provision involving deep seabed mining. That provision was modified to eliminate such concerns when the convention was implemented in 1994.
So far, 156 countries and the European Community have ratified the treaty. Some critics assert that U.S. ratification is unnecessary because the United States adheres to its provisions under the rubric of customary international law. But this approach is fraught with peril.
Customary international law is constantly evolving and does not offer the stability and predictability afforded by the convention.
Many diplomats and national security experts maintain that U.S. accession to the treaty will strengthen U.S. and transnational initiatives to deter nuclear proliferation. Moreover, the United States would have standing to participate in deliberations that will shape future development of the law of the sea.
Another provision of the treaty pertains to the arctic, a region rife with natural resources that is undergoing environmental change.
UNCLOS affords the five arctic states — Norway, Denmark, Russia, Canada and the United States — the right to claim arctic seabed, including mineral and oil extraction rights that can extend well beyond traditional sovereign boundaries. The United States would have a permanent seat on the Council of the International Seabed Authority, which regulates deep-sea mining.
Without UNCLOS, the United States may falter in the scramble for the arctic. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry has indicated that he will push for ratification because the a rctic is "a strategic priority for our nation." Support for U.S. ratification is bipartisan. Proponents include former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton; former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice, Gen. Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and many others.
Leon Panetta, who chaired the Oceans Commission and is now director of the CIA, observed, "All major U.S. ocean industries, including offshore energy, maritime transportation and commerce, fishing and shipbuilding support U.S. accession to the convention."
But a relatively small number of senators have held the treaty hostage. Buoyed largely by inaccurate, outdated and ideologically based arguments, opponents have resorted to procedural maneuvers to block consideration by the full Senate, most recently in October 2007 after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the convention, 17-4. But the political landscape is shifting.
U.S. accession to the treaty will advance U.S. national interests; send a clear message to friends and foes alike that America is intent upon renewing its relationships within the international community, and signal strong support for multilateral cooperation, the rule of law and due process.
Now is the time for the United States to join the overwhelming majority of nations that have ratified UNCLOS and distance itself from other notable outliers like Iran, North Korea and Syria.
Melissa Bert is a National Security Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and a captain in the U.S. Coast Guard. Mark Schlakman is a senior program director at Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. He served as senior adviser to the White House Special Envoy for the Americas during the Clinton administration and previously served as special counsel to Gov. Lawton Chiles.