White Whale

Why the black helicopter crowd goes crazy over the Law of the Sea Treaty.

U.S. Navy
U.S. Navy

The military wants it. Business wants it. But to get it, they have to get past conservatives who simply don’t trust the United Nations — or, more specifically, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The treaty has spooked them ever since 1982, when it opened for signature, even though it has been widely supported by their more moderate Republican brethren. Whatever specific qualms its opponents raise, the treaty’s real problem is that in the last 30 years, compulsive U.N. skepticism has moved from the fringes of the GOP into its mainstream.

The right’s fear that the United States might somehow give up its sovereignty to the one-worlders at Turtle Bay has driven the treaty’s supporters to distraction. At a Senate hearing held Wednesday to explore the possibility of American ratification, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has largely shed her negative 90s-era image, slipped into the lingo of the Janet Reno/Ruby Ridge era. "[I’ve] heard we should not join this convention because, quote, ‘It’s a U.N. treaty,’" said Clinton, "and of course that means the black helicopters are on their way." Opposition to the treaty, she said, is "unfortunate because it’s opposition based in ideology and mythology, not in facts."

Republicans were unconvinced. "Most wars we’ve fought have been fought over ideology and philosophy," said Idaho’s Sen. Jim Risch, who’s been winning elections in his state since 1970. "If we give up one scintilla of sovereignty that this country has fought, has bled for, and have given up our treasure and the best that America has, I can’t vote for it."

The Law of the Sea Treaty, as the convention is commonly known, was written to standardize maritime law (which is why the Navy supports it) and create some authority for the use of resources found in or at the bottom of international waters (which is why the Chamber of Commerce supports it). And even though it was negotiated at the United Nations, the U.N. doesn’t actually have any control over the treaty’s implementation — there’s a distinct organization to handle that.

But the treaty spooked conservatives straightaway. Before it was even finalized, President Reagan worried that "the deep seabed mining part of the convention does not meet United States objectives." Ultimately, he refused to sign the treaty for that very reason, but even that rejection wasn’t enough for the right wing of his party — probably because Reagan said he would nevertheless abide by the rest of the treaty’s terms, which he found sensible. In 1983, around six months after the treaty was completed, Sen. Jesse Helms put a hold on Reagan’s nominee for ambassador to El Salvador. Thomas Pickering, said Helms, had raised disturbing questions just by participating in the Law of the Sea Conference.

From there, the treaty got stuck in U.N.-skeptic limbo. George H.W. Bush began renegotiating its mining provisions so the U.S. could sign on, a process that Bill Clinton’s foreign-policy team continued. "There are still parts that need to be resolved," said incoming U.N. ambassador Madeline Albright at her 1993 Senate confirmation hearing, "but I think we should pursue it." One year later — after fixing the provisions that had irritated Reagan (with a little advice from the business community) — Albright signed it. In 1996, even Helms had started to soften, admitting at one hearing that "ratification of this treaty does not in any way place the United States in any way under the jurisdiction of the Law of the Sea Treaty."

But it was impossible to get the Senate to approve it. The mining issue had been replaced by a fear of communist nukes. In 1998, when the president made a real push, the boldest "hell no" case came from a Reagan DOD vet named Frank Gaffney. The Chinese, he warned the Senate, had the capability to "discover undersea bastions in which to conceal and operate their ballistic missile submarines." Ratify the Law of the Sea and you’d give them "legal cover for further transfers of this sort of equipment." Whatever that meant.

The George W. Bush administration came in fully intending to ratify the treaty. But a new era — we could call it the "Gaffney/Inhofe era" — had begun. Gaffney materialized whenever treaty opponents needed intellectual ballast. His Center for Security Policy was an armory for pro-sovereignty, pro-defense buildup arguments. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe got to the Senate in 2002, the year Helms retired. The torch was passed. In 2004, when the Foreign Relations Committee took up the treaty, Inhofe pushed against it, questioning the "implications of this convention on our national security."

He rang the alarm about article 207 of the treaty, which says that "states shall adopt laws and regulations for pollution from land-based sources." That sounded a lot like the U.N. making environmental law for Americans. And Inhofe wouldn’t stand for it. He pounded that theme relentlessly as Gaffney lined up more support from the conservative movement’s grassroots. The treaty passed out of committee, but thanks to conservative efforts it never came up for a full Senate vote. A year later, with the Senate GOP’s numbers swelled to 55, Gaffney was writing that the treaty was favored by "actual or potential adversaries," and would "prevent us from performing vital intelligence-collection activities."

In Gaffney’s corner: Everything from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum to Jeane Kirkpatrick to the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute to the columns of Pat Buchanan. ("Should the U.N. be lord of the oceans?") In Inhofe’s corner: A new team of conservatives like Jim DeMint, who only needed to hear the letters "U" and "N" to know what they were against. So, in 2007, when the committee took up the treaty again — and passed it again — the full Senate still refused to act. And by 2009, when a self-proclaimed "citizen of the world" became president, it hardly mattered that he had 59 Democrats in the Senate. If Obama was for the treaty, conservatives had to be against it. By Obama’s first summer, Republicans had put together a brand-new "House Sovereignty Caucus." Gaffney spoke at its first meeting.

This week, when Clinton testified, she was looking right at the conservatives’ latest victim. Sen. Richard Lugar, ranking member of the committee, had just been demolished — a 20-point loss — in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Next year, instead of sending a gravelly supporter of the treaty to Washington, Indiana will probably send the reliably right-wing Richard Mourdock.

Greg Fettig, an Indiana conservative activist, helped lead Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate — a group that aided Mourdock’s campaign. "The treaty was one of the real strikes against Lugar," explains Fettig. "I heard him talking about it … and either he’s misrepresenting reality or he’s clueless. He’s talking about the melting polar ice caps, shipping lanes. In reality, what the treaty means is the loss of our sovereignty, our mineral rights in territorial waters."

That belief is just too widespread to snuff out. Clinton tried mockery. At other points in her testimony, she tried another tactic. "While we sit on the sidelines," said Clinton, "Russia and other countries are carving up the Arctic and laying claims to the oil and gas riches in that region." If the "black helicopter" crowd won’t trust the U.N., maybe it can be spooked into beating the Russians.

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