December 16, 2009

A New Approach to Ocean Policy

If you put your ear up to the Oval Office and listen very carefully, you can hear the gentle sound of ocean waves lapping. That’s because the presidentially-mandated Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force (hereafter “the task force”) has just released its full report to supplement the interim report (pdf) already released in September. We have covered issues relating to the task force periodically on this blog, but I wanted to create a one-stop reference on the task force for you, dear readers.

President Obama authorized the task force on June 12 (pdf). It is an interagency effort, guided by the Council on Environmental Quality and consisting of representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, and other agencies. The task force was charged with “developing a recommendation for a national policy that ensures protection, maintenance, and restoration of oceans, our coasts and the Great Lakes. It will also recommend a framework for improved stewardship, and effective coastal and marine spatial planning.” (Note: though I hail from the greatest city in the country, I’m not going to focus on the Great Lakes here). To this end, task force members traveled the country and held a series of public meetings (pdf all) to gather information on ocean issues. These matters may appear to be solely the purview of environmental policy makers, but the world’s oceans raise major security issues for U.S. national security policy makers as well.

The interim report notes that the oceans “play a critical role in our Nation's transportation, economy, and trade, as well as in the global mobility and readiness of our Armed Forces and the maintenance of international peace and security.” It goes on to state that:

Our national security interests are tightly linked to navigational rights and freedoms, as well as to operational flexibility. Our national security and economic interests are also linked to our ability to secure U.S. sovereign rights over resources in extensive marine areas off our coasts, to promote and protect U.S. interests in the marine environment, and to ensure that our maritime interests are respected and considered internationally.

One would be hard-pressed to find a nation that would argue otherwise. But the United States Senate has historically defined U.S. maritime limitations differently from a number of nations. Many United Nations member states have held themselves to an agreement about how to use and share the world’s oceans: the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But despite the best intentions of U.S. treaty negotiators, the Senate voted against ratification of the UNCLOS after it was submitted in 1982. Political support for ratification has ebbed and flowed since then, with detractors mainly arguing that the UNCLOS will contract U.S. sovereignty, damage the economy, and threaten national security. The Bush administration ultimately favored ratification, and so does the current administration, but the Senate has never voted in favor despite periodic attempts to move the treaty out of committee.

Perhaps most important, there have been indications for years that the uniformed services support ratification. Gen Richard Myers (USAF, ret), former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued for ratification before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2004, saying (pdf):

Sustaining our overseas presence, responding to complex emergencies, prosecuting the global war on terrorism, and conducting operations far from our shores are only possible if our ships and aircraft are able to make unencumbered use of the sea and air lines of communication. Our naval and air forces must be able to take advantage of the customary, established navigational rights that the Law of the Sea Convention codifies. We strongly support US accession to the Convention.

In addition, the Navy’s Judge Advocate General corps hosts a document on its website called “Eight National Security Myths: United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” (pdf) which dispels the notion (among others) that the UNCLOS will subject the U.S. military to international tribunals.

We’ll be watching to find out the actual policies that follow on the new report’s recommendations. It will be especially interesting to see if the administration can summon the political capital necessary to ratify the UNCLOS after such a contentious year in Congress. Whatever happens, I don’t think those gentle waves will stop lapping at the Oval Office door anytime soon.