Should the U.S. Ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea? A Debate and Discussion

Should the U.S. Ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea? A Debate and Discussion

From the first class I ever took on international law, I’ve heard (mostly negative) references to the U.S. refusal to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  I’ve heard again and again throughout my studies about how the U.S. was shirking its global responsibilities as well as how the U.S. was hurting its own national interests by failing to join UNCLOS.  Indeed, the US reluctance to ratify UNCLOS has become a reliable talking point to raise when international law scholars are decrying the evils of American exceptionalism.  Even within the U.S. debate, the critics of US ratification have been derided as extreme and not entirely rational (as Secretary Clinton’s reference to UNCLOS opponents as the “black helicopter” crowd” reminds us).

As readers of this blog are aware, I have more than a casual interest in UNCLOS, not just for its substantive impact on international relations, but also because it has become a symbol in the United States of the promise and perils of joining a global governance regime. (see my posts here and here for a taste.) The current US debate over UNCLOS, which takes place in competing op-eds, is far from satisfactory. Proponents are derided as one-worlders seeking to destroy American sovereignty.  Critics are derided as right-wing nutcases.

In my view, UNCLOS is a tough call. Like many treaties, there are good parts and bad parts (from the point of view of the United States).  But whether the good outweighs the bad is something I am not really sure of.

I am far from an UNCLOS expert, however, so I have asked several experts on UNCLOS to debate US ratification on Opinio Juris over the next two days.    We’ll begin today with three posts from thoughtful proponents of US ratification:  Craig Allen, James Kraska, and John Noyes.  Professors Allen and Kraska will focus on the navigational rights question, and Professor Noyes will discuss the effect of UNCLOS’ rules for the exploitation of natural resources.  On Friday, we will give two sharp and effective critics of US ratification — Jeremy Rabkin and Steven Groves —  their chance to respond.  After that, I will open it up to allow both sides to post response to each other.

My goal here is to help readers understand what issues are behind the US debate over UNCLOS ratification, and to improve upon what has so far been a very disappointing public debate on this topic.

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