Last week, Vladimir Putin’s Russia used a bit of undersea derring-do to remind us that chess is its national sport. Two deep-ocean submersibles were dispatched to the Arctic floor ostensibly for the purpose of laying claim to the Lomonosov Ridge — and, more importantly, to the potentially vast oil, gas and mineral resources that may lie within a zone 200 miles wide on either side of that underwater mountain range. This move may have been a grandmaster’s feint, however, masking another purpose: blackmailing the United States into ratifying the defective Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).
If the latter were its hidden agenda, the Kremlin could only have been gratified by the response of the U.S. State Department to the Russian gambit. Tom Casey, Foggy Bottom’s deputy spokesman, declared the United States was hindered in challenging Russia’s outlandish dibs on, as a practical matter, most of the floor of the Arctic Ocean: “The Russian government is pursuing a claim under their right to do so as members [sic] of the Law of the Sea Convention. This is something that unfortunately, the United States is not in a position to do because we have yet to ratify that convention and it’s one of the reasons why we are interested and supportive of having that treaty be ratified by the U.S. Senate.”
The State Department can be relied upon to favor U.S. participation in international treaties. But why would the Russians be so keen to have the United States ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty? The short answer is that LOST is disadvantageous to the United States. It was designed by the former Soviet Union and its so-called “nonaligned” allies in the Third World as an exercise in supranational and socialist arrangements. In particular, these are designed to assure access to the wealth of “international commons” (in this case, the deep oceans’ seabeds) not just to developed nations but to undeveloped — even land-locked — ones as well.
Interestingly, the last time the Russians attempted to make unwarranted claims to the Arctic floor was back in 2001. On that occasion, the Bush administration successfully demonstrated what is true in the case of the Lomonosov Ridge, as well: There is no scientific basis for Moscow’s assertions that these seabeds are connected to Russia’s continental shelf and, therefore, part of its territory.
The Bush team also demonstrated that the United States could accomplish such a result without being a party to LOST — and, therefore, subject to its binding dispute resolution mechanisms that are stacked against this country. As a nonmember, the U.S. retained the full panoply of tools to parry the first Russian ploy: bilateral diplomacy, relations with the four other littoral states who share our interest in blocking such Kremlin overreach, economic and financial pressure and, if all else failed, naval power.
Things would be quite different if the Senate is buffaloed in coming weeks into ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty, thanks to the combined efforts of the Russians, the State Department and various special interests (including, regrettably, the U.S. Navy — whose lawyers dubiously are counting on international law to offset the undue contraction of the Navy’s fleets when it comes to assuring free passage through territorial waters).
Under such circumstances, the United States would be obliged to accept the diktat of one of the multilateral agencies spawned by LOST, a 21-nation Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Most of the commission’s members are not particularly friendly to the United States. This time around, they could overlook the lack of scientific merit to the latest Russian claim and allocate most, if not all, of the Arctic’s sea beds to a newly and aggressively resurgent Kremlin. As a state party to the Treaty, America would have to go along.
Now, the treaty’s proponents assure us that such an outcome would not occur as long as “we have a place at the table” where such negotiations occur. They also assert that, as a member, America could itself lay claim to some 600 square miles of additional Arctic seabeds.
We have had enough bad experience with multilateral organizations to know that — as with our experience with Russia’s seabed-grab gambit of 2001 — the only real check on such institutions is our ability to refuse to accept the dictates of majorities typically made up of countries that are hostile to us. Especially when it comes to matters of great importance to our national security and economic interests, which is certainly true of questions involving the use of the oceans and the 70 percent of the Earth’s surface beneath them, we simply cannot afford to subordinate our sovereignty to the whims of supranational entities.
President Ronald Reagan appreciated this reality and refused to sign the Law of the Sea Treaty. Proponents assert that changes he thought necessary have been made. Yet, one of those who represented the Reagan administration during LOST negotiations, Doug Bandow, underscored in an article in the American Spectator last week why Mr. Reagan would surely still feel the same way: “Despite improvements, (that is, making an awful treaty slightly less bad), the essentials of the LOST system remain unchanged.”
What Mr. Putin’s Russia says it has found in the way of a new national claim to Arctic resources will only translate into U.S. ratification of LOST if senators ignore the continuing saliency of President Reagan’s objections and subordinate our sovereignty to this still-seriously-defective “system.”
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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