Senate Should Move Quickly to Join Convention on Law of the Sea, Urges New CFR Report

Senate Should Move Quickly to Join Convention on Law of the Sea, Urges New CFR Report

May 4, 2009 2:23 pm (EST)

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An upswing in piracy attacks off the coast of Somalia, the rise of new naval powers such as China and India, and a rapidly melting polar ice cap that is opening the Arctic to international shipping and resource extraction are but a "few of the pressing issues that give mounting urgency for the United States to join the convention," says CFR Fellow for Ocean Governance Scott G. Borgerson in a new Council Special Report.

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The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea created the overarching governance framework for nearly three-quarters of the earth’s surface and what lies above and beneath it and has been signed and ratified by 156 countries and the European Community, but not the United States.  The treaty has languished in the Senate without legislative action due to a filibuster threat from a small but vocal opposition who believe that the world’s most powerful navy does not need to sign on to this international agreement.  It is time to have a full Senate hearing on the treaty, maintains Borgerson, because officially joining the convention will not only measurably benefit U.S. national security, but is also in the country’s economic and environmental interests as well.

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The report, The National Interest and the Law of the Sea, asserts that joining the convention will allow the United States to extend U.S. sovereignty over as much as one million square kilometers of additional ocean, an area half the size of the Louisiana Purchase. Borgerson argues joining the treaty also advances other critical U.S. interests such as leading anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, opening up deep seabed mining to American companies, championing environmental initiatives,  and securing U.S. navigation rights for U.S. naval and commercial ships in strategic waterways. Additionally, it extends the Proliferation Security Initiative, the basis to interdict weapons of mass destruction, to key Pacific allies.

The report examines the accession debate through a combination of historical, legal, and strategic analysis. It contends that arguments favoring acceding to the treaty far outweigh those opposed. "To fail to join the convention this year would be to lose a unique opportunity [as] the United States is experiencing a conjunction of circumstances that includes the ’fresh start’ effect of a new administration, the ascendance of two national security strategies founded on conflict prevention and partnership building, and a community of nations eager for renewed American multilateralism."

Borgerson argues that by joining the convention now, the United States will seize an opportunity to restore the mantle of international leadership as well as:

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  • Enhance U.S. global credibility: By matching action to rhetoric regarding the rule of law, joining the convention sends a powerful assurance of "officially becoming party to a legal regime over the vast expanse of the world’s oceans."

  • Provide legal protection for U.S. sovereignty: Joining the convention will supply an "array of diplomatic tolls to address ’creeping sovereignty’ and the excessive, resource-motivated claims of some coastal nations. Arbitration will allow the peaceful resolution of disputes with convention party states whether they are friends...or potential competitors, such as China."

  • Protect economic, environmental, and marine research interests at sea: The United States can exercise leadership in "combating maritime environmental challenges of increasing urgency, such as ocean acidification, collapsing fishing stocks, and pollution."

  • Provides the freedom of maneuver and action for U.S maritime forces: "Joining the convention supports the strategic and operational mobility of American air, surface, and submarine forces. It provides legal guarantees for those forces to transit the high seas, exclusive economic zones, international straits, and archipelagic sea routes during times of crisis. It supports the freedom of those forces to legally conduct military survey, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering under the terms and conditions the United States prefers."

Breaking the fifteen-year stalemate in the Senate on voting to join the treaty is imperative, concludes Borgerson. Officially becoming a state party to the Law of the Sea Convention will support continued U.S. leadership "by sending a tangible signal that the United States remains committed to its historic roles as an architect and defender of world order. From this perceptive, acceding to the convention is a low-hanging fruit to advance a much broader U.S. foreign policy agenda. It has the broadest bipartisan domestic support; supplies the most direct national security, economic, and environmental benefits for the United States; and has genuine global reach."

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For full text of the report, visit


Scott G. Borgerson is the visiting fellow for ocean governance at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Before joining CFR, Borgerson was the director of the Institute for Leadership and an assistant professor at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. During a decade on active duty, he also contributed to Coast Guard strategic planning efforts and served several tours at sea on narcotics interdiction and search and rescue missions, holding positions as navigator aboard the cutter Dallas and commanding officer of the patrol boat Point Sal. Borgerson holds a U.S. Merchant Marine officer master’s license, is a board member of the Institute for Global Maritime Studies, and is a principal of Rhumb Line LLC, an independent, maritime consulting firm. He earned a BS with high honors from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy as well as an MALD and a PhD in international relations, both from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives,  journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.




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