The Law of the Sea Treaty

Matt Yglesias is so, so right about Friday Night Lights, my new favorite TV series (you needn’t like football, high school, or Texas; I love only the third).  So I am surprised he is not more skeptical about the Law of the Sea Treaty.

For background, here is Wikipedia, here is a Heritage critique, and here is a Cato critique.  Here is an argument for the treaty.  Here is another summary of arguments, and more details here.  Note that many nations already have signed and ratified but the U.S. has not ratified.

In essence, the convention "guarantees" freedom of navigation (fine, noting that ocean navigation is currently free, but thanks mostly to the U.S. military, not the UN), defines territorial waters, and sets future guidelines for managing the sea’s mineral resources (not so fine).  The Convention "establishes an International Seabed Authority (ISA) to authorize seabed exploration and mining and collect and distribute the seabed mining royalty." 

Economic mining of the deep ocean is decades away.  But the ISA has veto rights over developing ocean resources and this hardly seems conducive to increasing the value of those resources.  Nor does the "some regulatory framework is better than none, if only to alleviate uncertainty" argument apply.  No entrepreneurs are sitting around waiting for the U.S. to ratify the convention so they can proceed with their deep sea mining platforms.  there is a potential commons problem but right now it is best to simply wait; no current "solution" will end up sticking or much reflect the actual problems that will arise.

When deep sea mining emerges as economically relevant, the Convention will have created a now-tiny but eventually clueless, bureaucratically crippled, and possibly even corrupt multilateral institution with veto rights over economic development.  Once the landscape of the issue becomes clear, we’ll have to rewrite plans and agreements anyway.  Why support this extra level of veto rights, namely the ISA?  ISA has dispute resolution powers and of course it is geared to levy taxes and redistribute the proceeds as it sees fit. 

I don’t hold the extreme view that the UN always fails.  It is possibly good when there is a general consensus for action (UNESCO World Heritage sites), or when a well-targeted military action has a defined purpose.  The UN is very bad at developing and enforcing open-ended commitments, and very bad at constructing well-run institutions. 

Ratifying the Convention might make us look more cooperative, but that is too vague a reason to justify it.  The Convention also would make it legally easier for the U.S. Navy to pass through foreign waters, although in a pinch this probably would not matter much. 

The real issue these days is stopping the Russians from claiming most of the Arctic, at least the sea lanes, and this is why the Bush administration now supports the treaty.  We’ll then have international support, or at least the pretext of such support, for telling the Russians they can’t colonize the Arctic.  That’s it, that’s the whole real reason for supporting the treaty and jumping into bed with the UN.  But hey, I can sympathize with stopping the Russians.

That reason may well outweigh the above-described costs of the treaty, which in any case lie in the future.  So maybe I end up agreeing with Matt.  But overall the Convention is not well thought out, and any support should be offered with the distinctly pinched nose occasioned by the most cynical (albeit sometimes justified) expressions of realpolitik.


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