A treaty to sink, again

Ronald Reagan once suggested that the closest thing on Earth to eternal life is a government program, and he wasn’t far wrong, but such programs are occasionally killed off.

The same can’t be said for treaties. They can be rejected by presidents and ignored by the Senate, but they sit around in the background just waiting to come back. As I write this, the Senate leadership, with President Bush’s support, is preparing to bring back one such treaty that was negotiated almost 30 years ago and declared dead in 1982 by then-President Reagan.

It’s the old Law of the Sea Treaty, which claims the wealth of the sea for “all mankind,” establishes an “International Seabed Authority” to oversee deep-sea mining and other “exploitive” activities affecting the sea and requires those engaging in such activities to get permission from the Authority to do so and to pay taxes or fees to the Authority.

The Authority, which actually already exists, is dominated by third-world governments that spend most of their efforts demanding that wealthy nations give them more because of their disadvantaged status. If the U.S. ratifies the treaty, we will pay upward of 25 percent of the cost to maintain yet another international body in which we will be outvoted on a daily basis.

The treaty was originally negotiated back in the ’70s and reflects the international redistributionist philosophy of those years, when liberals and establishmentarians believed the U.N. could do a better job protecting the environment and caring for the poor than individual states.

U.S. naval leaders have been the major institutional backers of the treaty here because they fear interference with U.S. naval movements in its absence and don’t really care about such things as private enterprise, corrupt international bureaucracies or the erosion of U.S. sovereignty so long as it isn’t the result of an attack on their ships.

Reagan was rightly appalled by the treaty and refused to sign it. Many other nations took their cue from Reagan and backed away. Everyone thought it was dead, especially since over the years many of the “problems” it was designed to solve proved either illusory or were dealt with in other ways.

Then, in 1994, President Clinton came back with a new version of the treaty that he and the elder Bush had worked on and promised the Senate that it dealt with all of Reagan’s objections. It didn’t, and the newly elected Republican Senate wasn’t about to ratify it.

And there matters stood until President George W. Bush sent Condoleezza Rice up to be confirmed back in 2005. When she appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then-Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) was waiting. Lugar had been a treaty supporter from the beginning and extracted a promise of administration support that prompted him to hold a quick hearing to assure everyone that the new version was great, win unanimous committee support from senators who should have known better but had forgotten what the treaty was all about and press for ratification.

I asked two Republican members of the committee at the time if they were convinced Reagan’s objections had really been overcome. Neither of them knew what I was talking about and neither was even sure it had been voted out of committee, though both had voted for it. Lugar thought everything was greased, but as the 2006 elections approached, the Senate calendar began to fall apart and a few conservative members began voicing objections, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) decided there were more important things to bring before his colleagues.

Now the president says he wants the treaty brought back again and the Senate Democratic leadership is amenable to the idea. It’s as bad now as it was in 1982, but it seems the attention span and historical memory of the Senate means the whole thing will have to be refought.

There are those who remember Reagan, however, and his belief in U.S. sovereignty, but some of them are gone. One of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick’s last public appearances was at a 2005 press conference at which she denounced the new version of the bad old treaty.

Still, some survive and they’re polishing off the arguments that killed it when it was young and hoping that they can do it again.

We’d all better hope they’re right.


Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.