05/31/2012 01:46 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Lost at Sea

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had it right when she recently testified that "ideology" and "mythology," not facts, were behind conservative Republican senators' opposition to the UN Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST).

The treaty, which went into effect in 1994, has 162 signatories plus the European Union. Meanwhile, we are the only industrialized nation that has not joined, placing us at a distinct economic disadvantage to such maritime rivals as China and Russia. Our intransigence stems from the GOP senators' delusional fear of loss of sovereignty. But all their obstructionism has done is deprive us of the treaty's formal assurances of freedom of navigation and lawful exploitation of the natural resources in international waters.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., points out that we are adhering to LOST in de facto fashion, but lacking membership "we don't shape the rules." Hence, he continued, Senate ratification would expand, not diminish our sovereignty. Our absence, he declared, gives other nations a jumpstart in laying legal claim to oil and gas resources in the thawing Arctic Ocean and the invaluable rare earth deposits encapsulated in the deep sea bed.

At the same Senate hearing in which Secretary Clinton focused on the treaty opponents' motivations, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey testified that membership in LOST would unequivocally strengthen our national security. The Treaty, they said, will enhance our military maneuverability on the high seas.

These arguments on behalf of LOST have been made innumerable times during the past few decades, all to no avail. Thanks to the procedural roadblocks erected by a small number of conservative Republican senators over the years, LOST has failed to reach the Senate floor where the two-thirds necessary vote for ratification would likely occur.

Except for Senate dissenters and their loyal ultraconservative following, LOST has had broad backing over the years. Supporters have included previous Democratic and Republican administrations, the military, business leaders (including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), labor unions, and environmental organizations.

Undaunted by this formidable phalanx, the Treaty foes insist that LOST is mainly a United Nations backdoor attempt to redistribute our wealth to less fortunate countries. In the opponents' view, the Treaty would force any industry mining the ocean floor to pay prohibitively high royalties to an international seabed authority that would then distribute the funds to third world states.

So what? The royalties would be relatively trivial compared to the potential revenue derived from the resources extracted from international waters. Republican recalcitrance prompted Senator Kerry to wryly observe that the dissenting senators want to protect our business community from a treaty it favors.

It is also ironic that the Republican senators are stonewalling a treaty that provides legal certainty to the certification process involving claims related to international waters. Assuring certainty and consistency has been a major Republican regulatory goal these past four years, so why falter now?

As for the loss of sovereignty, Secretary Clinton pointed out that once we ratified the treaty, our representative officially would sit on the Seabed Authority board where unanimous consent is required for the allocation of funds. She added that LOST does not mandate us to sign any environmental treaties, and we can remove ourselves from the pact any time we so choose.

Last but not least is the ethical consideration. International waters in principle belong to all nations, so each country should be entitled to some degree of compensation for the harvesting of the commons. From a moral standpoint, who needs their fair share of the oceanic riches more than small, impoverished, landlocked states? Maybe this explains the distaste for the Treaty harbored by some Republican senators, who favor a rough and tumble free market economy with the winner-take-all.