The Rise of UN Derangement Syndrome

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Why does a small but dedicated group oppose ratifying the benign Law of the Sea Treaty, which both the U.S. Navy and Sarah Palin support?

UN june13 p.jpg

The UN European headquarters in Geneva (Reuters)

The debate over whether or not Congress should finally ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty has triggered a full-blown outbreak of UN Derangement Syndrome, the primary symptom of which is an overblown fear of international organizations.

The United Nations' Law of the Sea Treaty provides international rules for protecting the freedom of the seas, establishing national maritime zones, and accessing deep-sea resources. For the 160 countries that ratified the treaty, including such close U.S. allies as Britain, Germany, Canada, India, Australia, South Korea, and Japan, it's a largely uncontroversial pact that creates order and predictability over maritime issues.

In the United States, however, a small but motivated lobby of unilateralists, exhibiting the symptoms of UN Derangement Syndrome, oppose ratification. The Law of the Sea Treaty is a kind of Rorschach test, in which, if the right sort of person looks closely enough, one can discern all the evils of the United Nations and international law. A bunch of dictators will ride roughshod over American interests. The United States will be constrained by weaker powers, like Gulliver pinned down by the Lilliputians. And Obama's real identity as a one-world government socialist will be exposed.

Cliff Kincaid, the president of the group America's Survival, argued, "Our national survival is at stake. Our sovereignty is at risk and in danger. We need your immediate help to avert a catastrophe." This is what Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style in American politics":  the fearful suspicions and conspiratorial fantasies found throughout American history, from Salem witches to Communists. Kincaid warned, "If we don't defeat this treaty, the battle against the New World Order will be lost."

Worryingly, UN Derangement Syndrome has infected some wider elements of American conservatism. Dick Morris argued that a plot to create "one world government" is "happening." Donald Rumsfeld wrote in his memoirs that the Law of the Sea: "would put all natural resources found in the seabeds of international waters ... into the hands of what was ominously called the International Seabed Authority." If the Senate ratifies the treaty, Stephen Groves wrote, the U.S. Treasury will be "raided for billions of dollars," which will then be "redistributed to the rest of the world by an international bureaucracy."

Twenty-seven Republican senators signed a letter opposing ratification of the treaty -- just seven votes short of enough to block passage. They say that the treaty would undermine U.S. "maritime security," redistribute wealth "from developed to undeveloped nations," create "environmental regulation over virtually all sources of pollution," and surrender American sovereignty to a "supranational government."

It's a terrifying vision -- but, fortunately, it's largely the product of overheated imagination. Consider the broad coalition that backs the Law of the Sea, and you might be reassured that it's not as scary as its critics portray it to be. Supporters include our national allies and the Democratic Party. The U.S. Navy strongly supports the treaty, which it says will enshrine rights of navigation and protect national security. Every major U.S. industry that works in the ocean is in favor, including shipping, fishing, telecommunications, and energy companies, because legal certainty will make it much easier for them to invest millions of dollars in offshore enterprises. And much of the Republican Party backs the treaty, including George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, Richard Lugar, Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, James Baker, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice.

Those beset by UN Derangement Syndrome are particularly fearful of the "ominous" International Seabed Authority, which manages claims to deep-sea resources in areas beyond national jurisdictions. So let's take a closer look at this supposedly nefarious organization.

Historically, those who've tried to take over the world -- Napoleon or Hitler, say -- usually started out in the Eurasian heartland. The ISA, however, has the trickier task of achieving global domination from its headquarters in Kingston, Jamaica. Money is also going to be a problem. The ISA has an annual budget of $6 million -- about a fifth of what the Yankees pay Alex Rodriguez each year. Its staff of 35 people would struggle to field a softball team, much less form a world government. The ISA oversees a handful of businesses that explore for polymetallic nodules, and promotes research on marine science. These seemingly innocent activities could be covering up a vast socialist conspiracy -- but if the staff members are hiding anything, they're probably playing hooky at the Jamaican beach.

As marine technology improves, the ISA may eventually manage more deep-sea operations. But this should only boost the argument for American membership. At the moment, we have observer status at the ISA, alongside other holdouts like North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. Shouldn't we want to be able to talk as well as listen? And if the United States joins the ISA, it will have a permanent seat on the organization's governing council, with veto power over any expenditure.

It's time to put aside UN Derangement Syndrome and ratify the Law of the Sea. If the United States wants to rule the waves, it shouldn't waive the rules.

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Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, TIME.com, and on NPR.
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