mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
LOST in the Senate

With the addition of three Republican senators, including VP hopefuls Rob Portman and Kelly Ayotte, opponents of the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST) now have enough support to block its ratification. Foes of the treaty fear it will force America to cede sovereignty to the UN and would prefer to negotiate maritime disputes through bilateral and other channels.

The treaty has been kicking around the Senate for twenty years, but support has recently grown as China asserts rather tenuous claims to disputed islands in surrounding waters. Beijing is a signatory to the treaty, along with 161 other countries. U.S. officials (including all living Republican former secretaries of state) worry that refusing to follow suit diminishes America’s leverage in dealing with China over these territorial clashes. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have also called on the Senate to ratify the treaty in order to protect American claims to valuable natural resources.

As a result of Republican opposition, John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will push back a committee vote on the treaty until after the election. The two-thirds Senate majority the Constitution requires for treaty ratification frequently causes car crashes like this one, and Kerry’s decision to stall before sending it to a vote is the only chance that treaty proponents have — and it’s a slim one. But simply waiting for the election may not be enough. The administration needs to address conservatives’ concerns, possibly through a trusted intermediary.

The real takeaway from this is that future US negotiators need to take conservative objections into account before taking a treaty to the Senate. Most historians think the dumbest thing Woodrow Wilson ever did was not to include Senate Republicans in the negotiating process at Versailles. Often, the issues that most annoy US conservatives can be addressed while the international negotiations are in progress. It never hurts to try.

Alternatively, if our treaty negotiators understood Jacksonian and Jeffersonian thinking better, they would know when an international treaty process was heading in a direction that would result in a treaty that the US would never ratify. At that point, they would need to shift into a damage control mode to reduce the cost of US isolation on the issue.

LOST has real advantages for the US and with a few tweaks the ratification process would have been a much easier process. But we are going to have problems like this until the State Department and White House officials internalize the worldview of those who view treaties with instinctive caution.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Luke Lea

    Does the U.S. allow foreign observers to monitor the fairness of our elections? As a courtesy or by right? It should be by right. That is the kind of sovereignty we need to sacrifice if we expect others to do the same.

    Sovereignty. A barbarous concept in a civilized world.

  • Corlyss

    “The treaty has been kicking around the Senate for twenty years, but support has recently grown as China asserts rather tenuous claims to disputed islands in surrounding waters.”

    The UN has about as many warships as it has troops.

  • Jason Bedrick

    Luke Lea asserts that sovereignty is a “barbarous concept” in a civilized world, but offers nothing to support that conclusion. It is not at all clear why US citizens should prefer to surrender self-government in favor of rule from unelected foreign powers — for indeed, that is was Luke proposes beneath all the bluster. Personally, I side with our forebears, who fought more than one war to preserve our self-government.

  • Randy

    “The real takeaway from this is that future US negotiators need to take conservative objections into account before taking a treaty to the Senate.”

    This would require elites to admit that conservatives have a point. Since such a notion would impinge against The Vision of the Anointed, and that doesn’t sit well.

  • Walter Sobchak

    I think we can make a trade. The US ratifies LOST, if the UN packs up and moves all of its people and all of its business to Kinshasa Democratic Republic of Congo.

  • Kris

    From a previous post:

    The arguments in favor of ratification are getting stronger, however. One in particular is becoming more powerful: The treaty is an important legal bulwark in the struggle over the South China Sea. China has ratified the treaty, and under its provisions many of China’s extreme territorial claims do not stand up. These violations give the U.S. and its allies more leverage in potential territorial clashes with China, but it will be hard for the U.S. to muster an international consensus in favor of enforcing a treaty that we haven’t ratified.

    The bad guys (to be simplistic) who have signed on to LOST feel free to violate it, therefore the US should accept LOST’s limitations in order to gain PR points?

    I have no strong feelings regarding LOST itself (apart from loving its name), but I’m wondering whether you actually mean to praise it or bury it. (If the latter, the “trusted intermediary” is a beautiful bank shot vis-a-vis the Left.)

  • Kris

    Oops. In @5 the second indentation is my own comment.

  • Luke Lea

    @ Jason Bedrick — I spoke too hastily. What I was trying to say was that in the establishment and enforcement of civilized norms — liberal norms of self-government — practitioners should not be adverse to having other practitioners verify their adherence to these norms by independent investigation. I was looking ahead to a day when countries might want to join the community of civilized nations but not live up to the rules. The whole discussion is presaged on the idea that costly penalities would be imposed on those who are not members — restrictions on trade, travel, access to the banking system, etc..

    I suppose others might argue that sovereignty is a civilized concept in a barbarous world.

  • QET

    @Luke Lea–the entire concept of the UN is based on sovereignty; each member nation is an equal sovereign. The last thing the US ought to be doing is ceding any authority over any US action to any UN agency. Sovereignty is sort of like pregnancy: you can’t be a little bit sovereign. The UN has proved to be not only incompetent in most respects but actively hostile to the US. Read Kenneth Anderson’s recent book “Living with the UN” to understand why ceding authority to a UN agency is a terrible idea. We need to find a different means for dealing with China’s behavior if that is what is driving the LOST issue.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service