Unbury This Treaty

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

ONE OF the hoariest debates in Washington concerns the Law of the Sea Convention, a pact the United States helped to write 30 years ago and then refused to ratify -- initially because President Ronald Reagan was opposed. Mr. Reagan's objections to the treaty's regulation of seabed mining were addressed when the treaty was renegotiated in 1994, but still the Senate refused to ratify, succumbing to alarmist conservative rhetoric about "global government." For most of his tenure, President Bush has deferred to ideologues in his administration who object to virtually all treaties. But that posturing is threatening to severely damage U.S. economic and security interests. Mr. Bush now favors the treaty, which will be voted on today by the Foreign Relations Committee. We hope the committee and the full Senate will approve it.

By now the array of treaty supporters is vast, ranging from environmentalists to oil, fishing and shipping companies to the U.S. military -- not to mention most previous Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, including Mr. Reagan's stalwart, George P. Shultz. One reason is the U.S. interest in undersea territories in the warming Arctic that could contain billions of barrels of oil, among other resources, as well as newly opening sea lanes. Russia, Denmark and Canada are making bold claims to Arctic territories -- claims that will be adjudicated by an international tribunal. Without joining the treaty, the United States can neither win recognition for its own potential claims to hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory off the coast of Alaska nor directly contest those of others.

Senators who would injure U.S. interests on such a scale to ward off world government are being cheered on by a handful of conservative think tanks and law professors who advance alarming-sounding but improbable claims. Perhaps the most notable of these is that ratification would hamstring the administration's Proliferation Security Initiative, which is aimed at stopping traffic in weapons of mass destruction by, among other means, intercepting ships. Some argue that international courts would be empowered to decide whether the Navy could seize contraband centrifuges. But the treaty contains an exception for military activity, and the United States can opt out of provisions that might give jurisdiction to courts. The members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that ratification would strengthen the PSI.

A decade or two ago, the United States could afford to indulge its more irrational fears about one-worldism. But the price is rising steadily. The Senate needs to promptly ratify the Law of the Sea treaty to protect concrete and purely American economic and security interests.

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