The melting of Arctic ice as a result of global warming has set off a race to capitalize on the polar region’s suddenly accessible resources and expanding navigable waterways. Yet even as Canada, Russia and others stake their claims to this potential bounty of economic and trade opportunities, the U.S. is choosing to sit on the sidelines.

Why? Because it won’t sign on to the rules of the game: the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The opponents justify their obduracy by citing a nonexistent threat to national sovereignty. The greater threat to the U.S. lies in its continued failure to ensure it will have a central role on this new frontier.

The area covered by Arctic ice today is about two-thirds its average size between 1979 and 2000. The Arctic is thought to hold 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable reserves of fossil fuels, plus stores of minerals such as lead, nickel and zinc. Less polar ice means that more of these riches are accessible for longer periods of the year.

Plus, it is becoming increasingly feasible to ship goods out of and through the Arctic. The breakup of polar ice creates the prospect of shipping shortcuts across the top of the globe. The Northern Sea Route, parallel to Russia’s coast, would cut sailing time between Europe and Asia by as much as 40 percent, by eliminating the trip through the Suez Canal. This passage could trim as much as 20 percent off the cost of a ship’s voyage.

Oil and Gas

Countries are lining up to get a piece of this potential bonanza. Russia has used a submersible to sink its flag on the seabed of the North Pole. China, though it doesn’t border the Arctic, operates an icebreaker to get in on the action. Canada and a handful of other countries are drafting claims for the right to drill for oil and gas in Arctic waters far off their shores. The global economic downturn has slowed the action somewhat, but it is sure to accelerate again with recovery.

It is the Law of the Sea Convention that will determine who has the right to benefit from the Arctic’s riches. The treaty -- which has the approval of 160 countries, including all those bordering the Arctic Ocean except the U.S. -- establishes that a coastal state exercises sovereignty 12 miles out to sea; controls customs and immigration 24 miles out; owns economic, research and preservation rights 200 miles out in an Exclusive Economic Zone; and has the sole right to natural resources on its continental shelf. A provision exists for resolving overlapping claims.

Defining Ownership

The U.S. continental shelf off Alaska extends more than 600 miles into the Arctic Ocean. American companies have been reluctant to invest in exploiting this underwater terrain, which contains vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. That’s because the U.S., as a nonparticipant in the sea convention, has no standing to defend its ownership of any treasures that are found there.

Submitted to the Senate both by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and recommended for Senate approval twice by the Foreign Relations Committee, the treaty has yet to come to the Senate floor for a vote. It has repeatedly died because of a small but vocal opposition that, arguing it undermines American sovereignty, has made the treaty politically radioactive. President Barack Obama has put little effort into supporting the measure.

Treaty opponents maintain that it would compromise U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts by air and sea because another country could argue it has the right to bar such activities within 200 miles of its coast.

Sovereignty Limits

This is a nonsensical claim because a state could make that argument with or without the convention. In fact, the treaty makes such claims more spurious because it spells out that sovereignty ends 12 miles from shore. This is one reason the U.S. military leadership supports U.S. accession to the convention.

Critics of the treaty say it would subject U.S. military operations to a mandatory procedure for resolving disputes with other signatories, such as China’s efforts to keep the U.S. military out of its Exclusive Economic Zone. Actually, the convention allows states to opt out of that process when it comes to military matters.

The visceral rejection of the UN convention by American opponents such as Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma is rooted in the belief that the U.S., as the world’s only superpower, should pursue its interests without the encumbrance of multilateral institutions. Yet in this case, the U.S. cannot effectively defend its interests by standing alone.

Submitting Claims

In the meantime, the other Arctic coastal states are already preparing their claims for submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, which was created by the treaty. Russia apparently plans to argue its underwater footprint entitles it to exploit half the Arctic Ocean. The U.S. can’t stake its share or even comment on the claims of others unless it gains a seat at the table by joining the convention.

Signing on to the treaty would also position the U.S. to help manage the challenges posed by the Arctic’s exploitation. Even without new claims, existing territorial disputes between Arctic neighbors could eventually flare into trouble with more ships plying the waters, companies extracting resources and militaries inevitably following and flexing their might.

The Arctic Council -- which joins the Arctic Ocean states (the U.S., Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark, of which Greenland is a part) with Finland, Iceland and Sweden, and includes representatives of the region’s indigenous people -- addresses safety and environmental issues. But it doesn’t deal with security matters. On these issues, the U.S. has a vital function, to use its power and diplomatic resources to resolve conflicts quietly and, if possible, before they become hot.

Senate Approval

The legitimacy necessary to play that role can only be obtained through membership in the sea treaty. One could argue that winning Senate approval now, with a presidential campaign season under way, is a lost cause, that hearings would only bait opponents who would calculate that UN bashing would mobilize their voters.

But there’s another way to look at this. The president could use this opportunity to demonstrate his leadership, and congressional Republicans could use it to demonstrate they can be reasonable. Given the number of Senate Democrats plus the Republicans who’ve voiced support for the treaty, it’s likely the convention would win the two-thirds majority necessary for approval. This is a good moment to remind Americans that it is still possible for bipartisan cooperation to overcome small minorities that are vocal, obstructive and wrong.

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