In 1823, President James Monroe had a simple message to the great states of Europe: Hands off.
“The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers,” he wrote in his annual message to Congress.
European reaction to the “Monroe Doctrine” proved all too predictable. Lafayette, pretty much America’s lone cheerleader in the Old World, called the declaration “the best little piece of paper that God had ever permitted any man to give the World.”
It was a minority view. Metternich, Europe’s most hard-boiled diplomat, pronounced it “an indecent declaration.” The Tsarist government informed its representative in Washington that “the document in question … merits only the most profound contempt.”
Though the great powers grumbled, the doctrine stood its ground — but not because they respected the “little piece of paper.” No, they feared the British Navy. Britain had no interest in letting other European powers establish bases in the New World.
Such a toehold might help them challenge British mastery of the seas. No other power could risk launching a new colonial venture in the Americas, lest it draw the ire and fire of the world’s most powerful fleet.
The Monroe Doctrine worked because of the force behind the paper — even though the force was not Monroe’s. No foreign policy doctrine is worth the paper it is written on unless it is backed with sufficient power to uphold it.
The White House is now signaling that it wants the Senate to take up the Law of the Sea Treaty, a pact with a most apt acronym: LOST. This treaty was hammered out in 1982, and that fact alone ought to raise eyebrows. If joining the treaty were really in the interest of the United States, one would have thought the Senate would have ratified it long ago.
There are two parts to the treaty. The “navigation” provisions basically list the rules of the road of using the sea. There is nothing wrong with them. They codify the custom of freedom of the seas.
Since the U.S. Navy is committed to defending the principal of freedom of the seas — the system works fine. Maintaining a powerful Navy — not this piece of paper — ensures the U.S. can enjoy freedom of the seas. Approving these provisions, then, gets us nothing.
Signing on to LOST, however, could cost us a lot, due to its “non-navigation” provisions. Among them is a provision that would require the U.S. to pay royalties to an unaccountable international bureaucracy for the right to exploit oil and gas resources on the U.S. continental shelf. We already have the right to those resources. Why pay an international bureaucracy for what’s already ours?
Perhaps the most serious concern is that the president would just use LOST as another excuse to gut the armed forces. After all, why maintain a powerful Navy when we have a treaty to ensure freedom of the seas? If the new START treaty could replace America’s nuclear deterrent, why couldn’t LOST substitute for carriers and submarines?
Here’s hoping the Senate is smarter than that and won’t lose its way on LOST, a little piece of paper that gets us nothing.
James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at The Heritage Foundation.