A LAW of the sea treaty, regulating the world's peaceful uses of the oceans, would be a fine thing, and so it is inviting to join in the applause for the nearly complete draft on which agreement was reached in the last negotiating round. There will be strong incentive, in the "final" round next March, to untie the remaining knots, including the question of participation by national liberation movements (the same PLO issue that has fouled other negotiations). Meanwhile, work is to proceed on writing regulations to govern prospective mining of manganese, copper, cobalt and nickel nodules on the deep sea bed. This is the treaty's most politicized (and publicized) substantive issue, though perhaps not the most important one, and one on which Senate ratification could eventually swing.

Thanks in particular to chief American negotiator Elliot Richardson, long strides have been taken toward a mining compromise balancing out 1) the desire of have-nots states to share in the proceeds of the world's last great untapped store of resources, 2) the interest of states that mine these resources on land to protect their stake, and 3) the need for adequate conditions for the rich-country corporations actually capable of doing the sea-bed mining. Some of these corporations, however, still doubt that an international regime can provide the assurances they believe they need in order to make the requisite heavy investments. Ambassador Richardson asks that they (and the Senate) defer a final judgment on the treaty. This is a reasonable request, but it is being made on the expectation that corporate jitters will ease, or count less, as time passes. That the request is being made at all underlines the fragility of the process.

The law of the sea treaty is a package. It cannot be otherwise: you cannot possibly allow 140-plus nations to pick and choose which sections of a multifaceted treaty they will respect. If sea-bed mining is not fitted in, the rest of the package could come loose. This would be a severe loss not merely for the abstract idea of the rule of law but for the specific interests of the United States. The draft treaty, for instance, sets down the rules for passage through straits, a matter essential to a world naval power like the United States. The treaty's provisions for regularizing claims of sovereignty and offshore economic exploitation hold the promise of softening wracking conflicts. Other provisions deal with the nuts and bolts of pollution control, marine research and the like. This only sharpens the need for the law of the sea conferees to work out fair answers to the questions that remain.