Center for Strategic Communication

On the eve of the third Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Law of the Sea treaty, I find public dialogue on the convention (still) divided between two camps: one of expansive, enthusiastic support and another of small, stubborn opposition.

While the issues falling within the purview of the treaty have, indeed, evolved drastically— take the geopolitically tense situations in the South China Sea and the Strait of Hormuz, or the rapidly expanding overture of the Arctic— the fundamental questions underlying the enduring polarization of the debate on this treaty have not changed much since President Clinton first submitted LOTS to the Senate for ratification in 1994.

Concern over whether LOTS threatens or expands “US sovereignty” is one such question that particularly captures the limited and anachronistic quality of the opposition’s reasoning. The crux of the debate centers on an essential disagreement over “sovereignty”— what it means, what it constitutes, what it entails.

The fact that this treaty would allow the US to be able to gain exclusive economic rights over an oceanic zone double the size of California does little to appease those who ascribe to a closed view of what sovereignty is— one in which unilateral action is lauded and recommended above all else. Viable, stable, secure options to engage with other nations in such a manner no longer exist. The global power dynamic is shifting and the longer we cripple ourselves with deliberation over such outdated and nostalgic notions, the more implicit we become in preparing our own— watery— grave.

As Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor warned in the CSIS Commission on Smart Power report:

 “The decision not to sign on to legal frameworks the rest of the world supports is central to the decline in American influence around the world.”

Exploring this dichotomy is a new point of entry into the dialogue surrounding LOTS. Understanding what kind of sovereignty is actually at stake has the potential to open up the conversation. The US has long been militarily self-sufficient. Playing by our own rules has historically been enough in terms of national military security strategy, but this has not always worked for broader American interests, both at home and abroad.

As this current push for ratification suggests, we are on the threshold of a new moment in international affairs— one in which global preeminence, national security, and economic growth is to be had by working within a preexisting legal framework. Can this opportunity for national self-reflection really afford to be LOST?