George F. Will
George F. Will
Opinion Writer

The LOST sinkhole

There they go again. Like those who say climate change is an emergency too obvious and urgent to allow for debate, some proponents of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a.k.a. the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), say arguments against it are nonexistent. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says any such arguments “no longer exist and truly cannot even be taken with a straight face.” Favoring condescension over persuasion, she ridicules people who she says think that, because the treaty was negotiated under U.N. auspices, “the black helicopters are on their way.”

Clinton’s insufferable tone is not a reason for the necessary 34 senators to reject ratification. It is, however, a reason for enjoying their doing so.

George Will

Will writes a twice-a-week column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs.

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LOST, approval of which is supposedly somehow suddenly imperative, emerged from the mists of U.N. deliberations that began in the 1950s. The result, three generations later, is pernicious when it is not superfluous.

For centuries there has been a law of the sea. There might be marginal benefits from LOST’s clarifications and procedures for resolving disputes arising from that law — although China and the nations involved in contentious disputes about the South China Sea have all ratified LOST, not that it seems to matter. But those hypothetical benefits are less important than LOST’s actual derogation of U.S. sovereignty by empowering a U.N. bureaucracy — the International Seabed Authority (ISA), based in Jamaica — to give or withhold permission for mining, and to transfer perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars of U.S. wealth to whatever nation it deems deserving — “on the basis of equitable sharing criteria, taking into account the interests and needs of developing states, particularly the least developed and the land-locked among them.”

Royalties paid by nations with the talent and will for extracting wealth from the seabed will go to nations that have neither, on the principle that what is extracted from 56 percent of the earth’s surface is, the United Nations insists, “the common heritage of mankind.” And never mind U.S. law, which says that wealth gained from the continental shelf — from which the ISA would seek royalty payments — is supposed to be held by the U.S. government for the benefit of the American people.

LOST was approved by a U.N. conference in 1982, during the Reagan administration, which refused to sign it. In 1994, after some provisions pertaining to seabed mining were changed, President Bill Clinton sent it to the Senate, which has never brought it to a vote. LOST’s supporters say President Reagan’s objections have been met. Well.

Kenneth Adelman, a Reagan adviser, attended a National Security Council meeting at which Secretary of State Alexander Haig said LOST was undesirable but inevitable because it was the result of a process involving most nations. Reagan said: “Uh, Al, isn’t this what the whole thing’s all about?” Adelman says when those in the meeting seemed puzzled, Reagan said: Wasn’t refusing to go along with something “really stupid,” just because 150 nations had done so, what winning the 1980 election was about? Reagan was primarily, but not exclusively, concerned about seabed mining provisions that were slightly improved in 1994. His June 29, 1982, diary entry says: “Decided in NSC meeting — will not sign ‘Law of the Sea’ treaty even without seabed mining provisions.”

Five former Republican secretaries of state (Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice) support LOST, saying in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, “we would strengthen our capacity to influence deliberations and negotiations involving other nations’ attempts to extend their continental boundaries.” But would such influence be wielded vigorously by some administrations? And would this influence be superior to existing U.S. influence, particularly that of the U.S. Navy?

Donald Rumsfeld, who is five times more persuasive than these former secretaries of state, opposes LOST because it “remains a sweeping power grab that could prove to be the largest mechanism for the worldwide redistribution of wealth in human history.” It “would regulate American citizens and businesses without being accountable politically to the American people.” Which makes it shameful that the Chamber of Commerce is campaigning for LOST through an organization with the Orwellian name the American Sovereignty Campaign.

If the Navy supports LOST because the civilian leadership does, fine. But if the Navy thinks it cannot operate well without LOST, we need better admirals, not better treaties. Here is an alternative proposal for enhancing the lawfulness of the seas: Keep the money LOST would transfer to ISA, and use it to enlarge the Navy.

georgewill@washpost.com

 
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