Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta at the Law of the Sea Symposium

As delivered, Washington, D.C., Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta at the Law of the Sea Symposium


Thank you very much John, I really appreciate your kind introduction. Thank you for your commitment to public service and your great contribution to this country. All of us who have had the chance to serve with you have tremendous respect for your many years of service to our nation, both in uniform, as a leader in the Department of Defense, and of course in the United States Senate.

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here today with Chairman Marty Dempsey, my pal, over there, in running the Department of Defense. You don’t have to worry, that place is so damn big, there are so many people that they don’t even know we’re here right now. Eisenhower said that it was such a huge, complex building that you could walk in a Major and come out a General. David Brinkley had another good one, he said, that a lady went up to a guard in the Pentagon and said to the Guard, “Sir, can you help me, I’m about to deliver a baby.” And the guard said, “Ma’am, you should not come into this building in that condition.” And she said, “When I came into this building I wasn’t in that condition.” It’s a big place.

And it’s a great privilege to have a chance to be here with all of you to discuss an issue that is of immense importance to this nation’s prosperity, as well as our national security.

I want to commend Senator Warner, the Pew Charitable Trusts, Chuck Hagel, and the Atlantic Council for their leadership in support of this country’s long overdue accession to the Law of the Sea Convention. Let me also acknowledge Senator Trent Lott, who I also had the pleasure of serving with in the House, and let me tell you, seeing him here in this room makes me feel a hell of a lot better about the possibility of ratification.

This afternoon, I’d also like to pay tribute to another statesman who has long supported the ratification of the Convention, Senator Dick Lugar. He is a friend, and a tremendous friend to national security, and a friend to our nation’s ocean. This country has benefitted immensely from his many years of leadership in the Senate on foreign policy, and national security issues. He is in every sense of the word, a statesman. And these days as my former colleagues here all know, the most important thing is those who are willing to reach across and try to see if they can find solutions to the problems that confront this country. He often reached across the aisle to try to find consensus on the most challenging issues of our times and that’s what leadership is all about.

Our country desperately needs that kind of bipartisan spirit and leadership that Dick Lugar embodies. I guess it would be a great tribute to Dick Lugar’s distinguished career and what a great legacy it would be for him, if we were able to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Seas on his watch.

As many of you know, I’ve long been passionate about oceans policy, and the need to be able to work with and develop and protect our maritime resources for this country, ourselves, for our children and for future generations. My love for the oceans goes back to my own childhood along the California coast. My grandfather was actually in the Italian Merchant Marine, and sailed the oceans in great sailing ships of the day around the world, and fished off California and Alaska.

I was born and raised in Monterey, California, a fishing community made famous by John Steinbeck’s books, particularly Cannery Row. The Central California coastline, I can say very objectively, is one of the most beautiful in the world, and it is. One of my proudest accomplishments as a member of Congress was establishing the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

President John Kennedy once said that our oceans are the “salt in our blood.” And I think that’s true. They are critical to the life of our nation. Critical to our health, our economy, critical to our recreation, our weather, our trade, and our security.

Recently, before I took the jobs in this administration, I had the honor to chair an Oceans Commission, and later co-chaired a Joint Oceans Commission Initiative with Admiral Jim Watkins – both commissions confirmed the importance of our oceans – but more importantly both strongly supported accession and ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention.

The time has come for the United States to have a seat at the table, to fully assert its role as a global leader, and accede to this important treaty. It is the bedrock legal instrument underpinning public order across the maritime domain. We are the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council that is not a party to it. China, France, Russia, other countries, Germany, India, 161 countries have approved this treaty. We are the only industrialized country in the world that has not approved it.

This puts us at a distinct disadvantage, particularly when it comes to disputes over maritime rights and responsibilities when we have to engage with the 161 countries, including several rising powers, which are party to that treaty.

In years past, several Senate committees have examined the Convention and its various elements in hearings, and earlier Committee votes were approved by large bipartisan majorities.

Accession also has broad support among major U.S. industries. This is an important point. This is something that is not just supported by the diplomatic community or the environmental community. This is also supported by the business community. Companies that are dealing with offshore energy, shipbuilding, commercial shipping, communications companies, on and on and on. Industries that have to deal with our offshore resources. They need this treaty in order to be able to do their business and to effectively accomplish their goals. The same is true for national security.

You have already heard the importance that Chairman Marty Dempsey attaches to U.S. ratification of the treaty. His views are echoed by the senior leadership through the department of Defense: the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard Commandant.

Let me take a few minutes and outline why I too believe that this Treaty is absolutely critical to U.S. national security, why it is time to move forward on this important issue, and why the longer we delay, the more we undermine our own national security interests.

The United States is at a strategic turning point after a decade of war. I’ve made that point time and time again. We’re facing, obviously, the requirement that we reduce the Defense budget by $487 billion dollars over the next ten years, pursuant to the directions of the Congress and the Budget Control Act. This is one of the few times in our history as we begin to come down from a war and from a period of threats to our national security, the problem is that even as these wars recede, we face a range of security challenges that are continuing to threaten our national security.

We confront transnational threats like violent extremism, terrorism, the kind of things we’ve heard about just over these last few days, those threats continue; the destabilizing behavior of nations like Iran and North Korea, military modernization across the Asia-Pacific and turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa and elsewhere. At the same time, we are dealing with the changing nature of warfare, the proliferation of lethal weapons and lethal materials, and the growing threat of cyber intrusion and cyber attacks.

These real and growing challenges and the reality is that they are beyond the ability of any single nation to resolve alone. That is why a key part of our new defense strategy is to try to meet these challenges by modernizing our network of defense and innovative security partnerships—the kind that we have at NATO, the kind that we have elsewhere, different parts of the world—to try to develop those partnerships so that we can support a rules-based international order that promotes stability, that promotes security, and that promotes safety.

And that is also why the United States should be exerting a leadership role in the development and interpretation of the rules that determine legal certainty on the world’s oceans.

Let me gives you some reasons why this treaty is essential to a strong national security.

First, as the world’s pre-eminent maritime power, and we are, and we will remain so, this country with one of the largest coastlines and extended continental shelf in the world, we have more to gain from accession to the Convention than any other country because of the interest we have from our coastlines, from our oceans, and from our continental shelves. By moving off the sidelines, by sitting at the table of nations that have acceded to this treaty, we can defend our interests, we can lead the discussions, we will be able to influence those treaty bodies that develop and interpret the Law of the Sea. If we’re not there, then they’ll do it, and we won’t have a voice.

In that way, we would ensure that our rights are not whittled away by the excessive claims and erroneous interpretations of others. And it would give us the credibility to support and promote the peaceful resolution of disputes within a rules-based order.

Second, by joining the Convention, we would protect our navigational freedoms and global access for our military our commercial ships, our aircraft, and our undersea fiber optic cables. As it currently stands, we are forced to assert our rights to freedom of navigation, asserting hopefully, through customary international law, which can change to our own detriment.

Treaty law remains the firmest legal foundation upon which to base our global presence, on, above, and below the seas. By joining the Convention, we would help lock in rules that are favorable to freedom of navigation and our own global mobility.

Third, accession would help lock-in a truly massive increase in our country’s resource and economic jurisdiction, not only to 200 nautical miles off our coasts, but to a broad continental shelf beyond that zone.

Fourth, accession would ensure our ability to reap the benefits of the opening of the Arctic – a region of increasingly important maritime security and economic interest. We already see countries that are posturing for new shipping routes and natural resources as Arctic ice cover melts and recedes. The Convention is the only means for international recognition and acceptance of our extended continental shelf claims in the Arctic, and we are the only Arctic nation that is not party to the Convention.

Accession would also preserve our navigation and over-flight rights throughout the Arctic, and strengthen our arguments for freedom of navigation through the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route.

Finally, our new defense strategy emphasizes the strategically vital arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. Becoming a party to the Convention would strengthen our position in these key areas.

For example, numerous countries sit astride critical trade and supply routes and propose restrictions on access for military vessels in the Indian Ocean, Persian Gulf, and the South China Sea. The United States has long declared our interests and our respect for international law, for freedom of navigation, for the peaceful resolution of disputes. We have demonstrated our commitment to those interests through our consistent presence and engagement in these critical maritime regions.

By not acceding to the Convention, we give up the strongest legal footing for our actions. We potentially undercut our credibility in a number of Asia-focused multilateral venues – just as we're pushing for a rules-based order in the region and the peaceful resolution of maritime and territorial disputes. We’re doing that in the South China Sea and elsewhere. How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven’t officially accepted those rules ourselves.

Another hot-spot is the Strait of Hormuz. The Strait remains a vital sea lane of communication to us and our partners, and we are determined to preserve freedom of transit there in the face of Iranian threats to impose a blockade. U.S. accession to the Convention would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and isolate Iran as one of the few remaining non-parties to the Convention.

These are the key reasons for ratifying this treaty – reasons that are critical to our sovereignty, and to our national security. That’s why I fail to understand the arguments on the other side of this issue.

For example, the opponents of accession have put forward the myth that the Law of the Sea Convention would force us to surrender U.S. sovereignty. Nothing could be further from the truth. Not since we acquired the lands of the American West and Alaska have we had such an opportunity to expand U.S. sovereignty.

There are some who claim that accession to the Convention will restrict our military’s operations and activities, or limit our ability to collect intelligence in territorial seas. And again, quite simply, they are very wrong. The Convention in no way harms our intelligence collection activities or constrains our military operations, nor will our military activities be subject to review or scrutiny by any international court or tribunal.

On the contrary, U.S. accession to the Convention preserves our freedom of navigation and over-flight rights as bedrock treaty law – the firmest possible legal foundation for these activities.

America has always been and will always be, a maritime nation, since President Teddy Roosevelt dispatched the Great White Fleet in 1907 on its circumnavigation of the globe, we have been a global maritime power.

Our new defense strategy recognizes our return to our maritime roots, and the importance to our military of freedom of navigation and global mobility. We are making investments and force structure decisions to preserve that mobility.

Freedom of navigation is essential for any global power. But it applies to all maritime states – everywhere. And the Law of the Sea Convention helps ensure that this freedom is preserved and secured through reasoned, deliberate, international rules which are fully in accord with the freedom of navigation asserted by the United States around the world for decades.

It provides the stable, recognized legal regime we absolutely need to conduct our global operations today, tomorrow, and into the future.

Very frankly, this is not even a close call – the Law of the Sea Convention is supported by major U.S. industries, the Chamber of Commerce, our oil, energy, shipbuilding, shipping, and communications companies, fishing, and environmental organizations – along with past and present Republican and Democratic administrations and the entire national security leadership of the United States. We cannot afford to fail.

By finally acceding to the Convention, we will help make our nation more secure and more prosperous for generations to come. America is the strongest power in the world. We are strong because we play by the rules. Let us approve those rules, not ignore them, let us approve these rules and let us all commit today that for the sake of America, that for the sake of our national security, for the sake of our prosperity, and for the legacy of Dick Lugar, let’s approve these rules by ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention.

Thank you very much. 

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