Sovereignty, Soft Power, and the U.S.’s Refusal to Ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) is up for debate before the U.S. Senate once again, which means the perennial debate over whether the U.S. should finally ratify the treaty is currently making its rounds through the media. Last week, five former Secretaries of State — Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice, George Shultz, James Baker, and Colin Powell — joined in on the effort, publishing an OpEd in the Wall Street Journal on Time to Join The Law of the Sea Treaty: The U.S. has more to gain by participating in convention deliberations than by staying out. The former Secretaries of State lay out their case for why ratifying UNCLOS in our national security, economic, and sovereign interests.

Unfortunately, judging from the tenor of other recent articles and political statements regarding UNCLOS, this latest round of debate before the Senate will not be any more productive at achieving that end than prior rounds have been.

The political wrangling over whether or not to ratify the UNCLOS has long been stalled out in the U.S., having been transformed into an argument between competing ideals rather than a policy debate. Opposition to UNCLOS is often not really about UNCLOS; the question has instead become a symbolic fight between two opposed camps, the sovereignists and the internationalists, regarding the U.S.’s proper role in the international community. Are we going to protect the democratic interests of the American people from foreign interference with our national interests by non-democratic international organizations? Or are we going to be a good little team player, and join UNCLOS to demonstrate just how committed the U.S. is to cooperation and kumbaya?

As a result, the arguments against ratifying UNCLOS tend to mention “sovereignty” a lot, without ever going into too many specifics, or else recite a list of generic problems inherent in just about any international agreement, without ever specifying why UNCLOS is more objectionable than any other treaty. In recent months, however, the argument de jure of the sovereignists has been that the U.S. cannot join UNCLOS because of China.

Because of what about China, exactly? Well, that part is not entirely clear. Although the specifics of the China argument are often murky, its general formulation usually goes something like this:

Herein lies a major danger in U.S. ratification of UNCLOS. In adopting, promoting, and acting on new interpretations of international law, China is attempting to upset the status quo and establish new norms of maritime behavior. By signing up to UNCLOS, the United States might unintentionally signal approval of these errant interpretations.

What this argument lacks in logic, it makes up for with self-promoting claims of American virtue, and how the United States — unlike, say, China or Iran — has no need to enter foreign treaties, since we already abide by international law. The sub-argument for this claim against UNCLOS is the “but we’re already obeying UNCLOS so why should we sign it” argument:

Besides, we are adhering to UNCLOS. It’s the Chinese that are trying to redefine UNCLOS according to their own purposes, without re-negotiating the contract, and in so doing undermining customary law.

Of course, this claim is completely contradicted by the arguments of yet other UNCLOS detractors. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, suggested in his own Wall Street Journal OpEd that the U.S. shouldn’t sign on to UNCLOS because it gives us the power to redefine the law of the sea for our own purposes. By not being part of UNCLOS, he argues, we can act at will, while China will be stuck trying to find loopholes in the treaty:

With China emerging as a major power, ratifying the treaty now would encourage Sino-American strife, constrain U.S. naval activities, and do nothing to resolve China’s expansive maritime territorial claims. … If the Senate ratifies the treaty, we would become subject to its dispute-resolution mechanisms and ambiguities. Right now, since we are the world’s major naval power, our conduct dominates state practice and hence customary international law—to our decided advantage.

So, to summarize these claims: (1) Joining UNCLOS would be bad because, through China joining UNCLOS, China has been able to redefine the law of the sea by arguing for new interpretations of it; and (2) Joining UNCLOS would be bad because, through the U.S. not joining UNCLOS, the U.S. has been able to redefine the law of the sea through its own practices.

On the other hand, the arguments in favor of UNCLOS are largely premised upon a laundry list of supposed soft power benefits that are to be gained through ratifying the treaty. The OpEd from the former Secretaries of State are a good example of how nebulous and unsatisfying these alleged benefits can sound, in contrast to the claims of the sovereignists:

As the world’s pre-eminent maritime power with one of the longest coastlines, the U.S. has more than any other country to gain—and to lose—based on how the convention’s terms are interpreted and applied. By becoming party to the treaty, we would strengthen our capacity to influence deliberations and negotiations involving other nations’ attempts to extend their continental boundaries.

Which is probably why the pro-UNCLOS factions have, for nearly two decades now, failed to get UNCLOS ratified. No matter how you try and spin it, “increasing our capacity to influence deliberations” sounds like a rather flimsy prize, especially when it comes at the cost of American sovereignty.

But this lack of substantive debate likely persists due to the fact that the practical effects for the United States for ratifying UNCLOS, whether negative or positive, have been relatively minor. To date, the U.S. has done a decent job of splitting the baby when it comes to UNCLOS, consistently abiding by most of UNCLOS’s provisions while simultaneously claiming to only be following customary law. As a result, the question of whether or not the U.S. should formally ratify the convention has been largely academic.

Because the U.S. has been a superpower throughout all relevant points of UNCLOS’ existence, whether the U.S. joins or doesn’t join UNCLOS has made so little difference that the U.S. could afford to ignore the debate altogether, or at least make it into a question of lofty principles rather than concrete policy. Which is why the U.S. has succeeded in being the only major power that has avoided ratifying UNCLOS — the stakes just haven’t been that high.

But UNCLOS has been in force for eighteen years now. U.S.’s strategy of refusing to commit one way or another will not come without a price for much longer. Starting with 60 member nations when it came into effect in 1994, UNCLOS now has 162 members, including every Western nation other than the United States. During that time period, UNCLOS has been steadily solidifying, from its initial existence as a recital of customary international law, into the widely-adopted international institution it is today.

With 80% of the world’s nations party to it, UNCLOS is now the framework by which States negotiate the division of sovereignty interests over the world’s oceans. The law of the sea is no longer made through pure customary law, as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries; the frame for the debate has changed, and as a result UNCLOS and law of the sea are now effectively synonymous.

This is not to say that the rules under the UNCLOS regime are vastly different from what the rules were under the old pure-CIL regime. The actual substance of the law of the sea has not changed all that much — in most situations, complying with customary international law of the sea means complying with UNCLOS, and vice versa.

But even if the rules themselves haven’t changed, the ways in which those rules could change has been altered. UNCLOS is now the mechanism to which the overwhelming majority of states turn when they feel a need to settle a question regarding the content of the law of the sea. True, the old law of the sea is not likely to experience much upheaval, and UNCLOS is less important there — those customary norms were developed over centuries of seafaring, as states scuffled and squabbled with one another until an adequate balance of their rights was finally struck, and as a result those rules now enjoy a sort of tenure under international law.

But UNCLOS also provides the framework under which new rules are crafted, tinkered with, implemented. When, due to political or environment change, novel situations arise — be it the development of new deep seabed mining techniques, the opening of the Northwest passage, commercial investments in Antarctica, rising international sea levels, or what have you — states will have to find new ways of drawing jurisdictional lines and of coordinating their activities. Right now, the primary institution for establishing those new ways is through UNCLOS. UNCLOS provides both the procedural mechanisms for how and when states actually talk to one another, and the substantive rules that they play by.

When new jurisdictional schemes need to be created, states anchor their claims with references to UNCLOS, and expect states advancing competing interests to do the same. States that try to advance their interests outside of — or worse yet, in contradiction with — this framework are punished for it, occasionally through hard procedural mechanisms, but more often through a softer loss of diplomatic power. True, using the social framework of UNCLOS will not be nearly as effective as using the world’s strongest navy, when it comes to advancing the national interest — but the UNCLOS framework is present in every debate and discussion among UNCLOS members regarding international law of the sea, setting the scene for international relations for years to follow. U.S. naval ships, in contrast, are only invoked on the occasions where the U.S. direct interests are on the line, and are rather imprecise tools when it comes to shaping the precise contours of international law.

John Bolton, in the OpEd quoted above, displayed a somewhat questionable understanding of the concept of “state practice” by making the dubious assertion that the U.S. can unilaterally establish state practice, simply by virtue of its status as a superpower. But even if this claim were true, it fails to recognize a corresponding fact — that the overwhelming majority of state practice and opinio juris both lies behind using UNCLOS’s mechanisms as a means of developing international ocean policy. Superpower or not, the U.S.’s “state practice” of refusing to operate through UNCLOS hardly outweighs the state practice of the 162 nations who do use the institution. The institutional weight of UNCLOS is becoming firmly entrenched, and the longer the U.S. refuses to play ball, the less opportunity the U.S. will have to shape that institution in ways favorable to U.S. interests.

When it comes to the generation and development of customary international law of the high seas, UNCLOS is currently the biggest game in town. In a decade or so, it will be the only one. China, it seems, has realized this already. Maybe the next time ratification of UNCLOS comes up for vote before the Senate, the U.S. will have finally realized it too.

-Susan

5 thoughts on “Sovereignty, Soft Power, and the U.S.’s Refusal to Ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

  1. Walrus Face Bolton has said something I cannot immediately dismiss as his usual total lunacy.

    Apparently the Mayans are right and the world is coming to an end.

    : – )

  2. I was hoping there’d be more pirates involved when I saw “the law of the sea”, but an otherwise great article 🙂

  3. Man-made global wairnmg (now retitled “climate change”) is nothing more than an elaborate scheme to promote world wide wealth redistribution through a carbon tax (cap and trade). Yet Obama, and his ilk on the radical left, will not face the facts that almost every study has shown the information used to support their claims has been proven to be not only manipulated, but out and out fraud. Each and every time the evidence in presented, they change the conversation. Of course, this tactic has been continued to be used by the left to not address the issue at hand but to distort and distract in hopes we will just go away.

    • First, climate change has very little to do with the debate surrounding US ratification of UNCLOS… so, this really isn’t the best forum for your rant. Second, I very much hope you’ve grown up in the two years since that post and shed all of that stupidity and ignorance. Climate change is real, it is happening, and human activity is a contributing factor. Accept it.

  4. Thank you for writing this. The United States’ participation in the international legal order and regard for international legal norms matters now more than ever.

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