The Law of the Sea: Rethinking U.S. Interests

According to conventional wisdom, a failure to achieve a comprehensive agreement at the Law of the Sea Conference would have potentially disastrous consequences. A reappraisal of U.S. interests in these negotiations, however, indicates that this assumption is, at least in part, fallacious. The United States can best serve its proper interests and the world's by reorienting its Law of the Sea strategy and advancing a set of policies and initiatives that do not depend upon Conference approval for their beneficial effect.

The closing events of the last session of the Conference provided a strong stimulus to a fundamental rethinking of U.S. interests and strategy with regard to the Law of the Sea. On July 20, 1977, the president of the Conference released a negotiating document that many hoped would mark the final stage in the seemingly unending quest for a comprehensive treaty. On the same day as the "Informal Composite Negotiating Text" (ICNT) was released, the United States - without whose participation there cannot be a workable treaty - termed the deep seabed provisions of the text "fundamentally unacceptable." The chairman of the U. S. Delegation stated publicly that in light of the text's "unfortunate, last-minute deviation from what had seemed to be an emerging direction of promise in the deep seabed negotiations. . .our government must review not only the balance among our substantive interests, but also whether an agreement acceptable to all governments can best be achieved through the kind of negotiations which have thus far taken place."

Among those familiar with diplomatese, this was interpreted as very strong language - threatening what many internationalists view as unthinkable, the withdrawal of the United States from a major U.N.-sponsored negotiating effort, and a possible "rupture" in the "North-South dialogue." Indeed, such a withdrawal is taken to be unthinkable by the Conference leadership, who plan confidently for a degree of procedural reform, resulting in the participation of the United States at the resumption of the formal conference in March 1978, and

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