There are many reasons why the United States became the most powerful country in the world: a massive continent with abundant resources, a vibrant spirit of free-market innovation and few powerful neighbors. But there is one blessing that is seldom recognized: our unrestricted access to both oceans. It is generally understood, with exceptions, that coastal countries tend to be wealthier than those that are landlocked. And they are certainly able to project power abroad more effectively. The fact that the U.S. has lengthy and developed coastlines with two of the world’s largest oceans is strongly correlated to our wealth and power today.
The U.S. likes to enforce the rules for the oceans. We believe in maritime principles like the freedom of navigation and the right of innocent passage. These values are already enshrined in the international legal agreement known as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. UNCLOS is regarded as the authoritative document governing the world’s oceans, its resources and its good stewardship. Although the U.S. participated in the design of UNCLOS, this country has neglected to formally accede to it. We like the rules. We enforce the rules. But we don’t formally recognize the rules.
How did we get here? The core of UNCLOS was adopted in the United Nations by 1982. President Ronald Reagan praised the convention’s “many positive and very significant accomplishments”, but objected to some of its provisions on deep seabed mining. Negotiation restarted in 1994 and addressed all of the concerns that Reagan identified a decade earlier. The convention entered into force with 60 nations in agreement. But the U.S. Senate failed to ratify our ascension to UNCLOS and hasn’t since then. Today, UNCLOS has been ratified by 146 member nations and the U.S. isn’t one of them.
All of this is born out of our political ambivalence towards international institutions. Senators and pundits inaccurately describe UNCLOS as a wholesale giveaway of our national sovereignty. This ranges from modest misconceptions like the claim that we would be subjecting ourselves to UN regulatory bodies, to the conspiratorial alarmism of the New World Order. The sovereignty objection is worth responding to. It should be understood that UNCLOS bolsters national sovereignty rather than diminish it. All parties to UNCLOS are entitled to a zone of 200 nautical miles off their coastlines. This is called the Exclusive Economic Zone. Nations have exclusive jurisdiction to all marine resources in the EEZ. Additionally, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the judicial arm of UNCLOS, enables member nations to settle maritime disputes with other nations. The U.S. and Canada have an ongoing dispute over territory in the Beaufort Sea northeast of Alaska, but attempts to settle it bilaterally have failed and we cannot argue a settlement in the tribunal like Canada can. The U.S. has no ability to nominate American judges to the tribunal for as long as we neglect ratification.
Another common objection to ratifying UNCLOS is that it wouldn’t be necessary. These critics observe that the U.S. already respects many of the rules in the convention, and we possess the strength to pursue our interests without international law on our side. Those two observations are factually correct, but the conclusion that UNCLOS is unnecessary is flawed. This is because the U.S. often chooses to settle disputes through diplomacy rather than brute strength, even though we have the capability. Yet, the fact that we aren’t party to UNCLOS deprives our diplomats of a legal basis to support their arguments. So it is all just blowing hot air until the Pentagon flexes. That is not the best use of our superpower status.
Ratifying UNCLOS would enable the U.S. to produce legally-supported claims on the Arctic. This is extremely pertinent to Alaska, which is why Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan ought to be the legislative drivers of ratification. As sea ice recedes, other Arctic nations like Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark are staking claims on extended continental shelves across the northern pole. This is a function in UNCLOS that the U.S. has no legal basis to take advantage of. The Arctic will be swallowed up by our competitors in this century, and Alaska will miss out on the economic and strategic benefits of polar policy.
Murkowski has already attempted to revive discussion about UNCLOS in the capital. Sullivan is the obstacle right now. If UNCLOS is to ever get ratified in the Senate, then it needs and deserves a unified message from the Alaskan delegation. Sullivan is passionate about some parts of Arctic policy. He wants U.S. leadership in the region, with more icebreakers and a firm counterbalance against Russia. But he doesn’t appear to fully appreciate the existing international agreement that would make U.S. leadership more effective. His reluctance to help ratify UNCLOS may yet be malleable. He just needs another push from his constituents.