The agreement would give the United States a seat at the negotiating table with the 157 global signatories, and many lawmakers say the international rules are crucial to representing U.S. interests in a melting and increasingly navigable High North.
“I believe we are at a critical time in the Arctic,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowsi (R-Alaska) in an April 28 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies . “It has been identified that there are two paths that we can go down in regards to international relations– one is a path of competition and conflict, and the other is one of cooperation and diplomacy. I believe the decision on which path we ultimately take will require dynamic leadership.”
As major Arctic nations and stakeholders begin laying claim to the opening sea lanes and newly accessible resources in the region, the Law of the Sea Treaty offers a way to maintain international order in the budding frontier.
The Law of the Sea, established in 1982, “lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. It enshrines the notion that all problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be addressed as a whole,” according to the U.N.
The Obama administration is an outspoken supporter of the treaty, as have been the previous two presidents. In fact, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended the U.S. ratify the treaty with a 17-4 vote in 2007.
But opponents, beginning with President Ronald Reagan, have blocked its passage, saying it gives the U.N. too much control of the world’s oceans—up to 70 percent— and that it threatens U.S. sovereignty on oceans and coastlines.
Today, despite claims by supporters like Murkowski that its passage is urgently needed, the treaty is still waiting for Senate floor time.
The Senate calendar is only one piece of the troubled puzzle. Murkowski said she believes that once the treaty actually receives the floor time, it will take up at least one full week. With only 45 Senate legislative days left this year, and other congressional priorities, there isn’t time for the treaty this year.
“The United States must ratify the treaty but we remain at a stalemate: the White House looks to the Senate to lead and the Senate waits for stronger support from the Administration,” said Murkowski.
The treaty has taken a back seat to immigration and climate change bills and other debates in the House and Senate. To further complicate the political struggle, lawmakers have received hundreds of faxes from grassroots opponents threatening a campaign against anyone who works toward supporting it, said Arne Fuglvog, a legislative assistant to Murkowski.
The Council on Foreign Relations, in a 2009 report, said Washington would be the biggest loser if it fails to ratify the treaty.
“By being the last significant maritime nation in the world to formally join the treaty, the United States is forgoing an opportunity to extend its national jurisdiction over a vast amount of ocean area on its Arctic, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts–equal to almost half the size of the Louisiana Purchase–while simultaneously abdicating an opportunity to have a say in deliberations over other nation’s claims elsewhere.”
U.S. leaders, including Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg of the continental shelf and related data collection has been cooperative, and that conflict does not seem imminent.
“The Arctic is kind of a test case of the ability of international community to beat the transnational challenges of the 21st century,” Steinberg said at the CSIS event.
However, climate change is heightening the urgency to adopt international protocols on the Arctic seas, Steinberg said.
“If we do not act in common,” he said. “Opportunity will become increasingly scarce for all of us.”