The Obama administration on Wednesday used an obscure high-seas treaty to take aim at global rivals Iran, for its threat to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, and Russia, for its rush to claim natural resources exposed by the Arctic ice melt, while also dangling an olive branch before a domestic rival in hopes of winning the treaty's passage in the U.S. Senate.
The White House deployed top Pentagon leaders to make the point that approving the treaty, the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Seas, would give Washington a new tool to combat Iran, China, and Russia. And in a deft political move, the defense brass also noted that U.S. firms stand to rake in greater profits if the Senate acts.
First adopted in 1982, the treaty sets a broad range of rules intended to guide how nations act on the open seas and establishes economic zones exclusive to certain nations. The European Union and 161 nations have signed onto the pact. The United States is the lone industrial nation and the lone member of the United Nations Security Council that has yet to ratify it.
"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," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a forum in Washington. "It is the bedrock legal instrument underpinning public order across the maritime domain."
The Senate would have to ratify the treaty before the U.S. would officially join that list. U.S. lawmakers and past presidents have resisted approving it, raising concerns that it would hurt America's national security by limiting its military options and also cause economic harm.
"We would become the leader in the convention as soon as we enter it," Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said.
Panetta and Dempsey assured a crowded hotel ballroom that joining the oceans group would not prevent Washington from using its military in any way, nor would it hinder U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts.
Taking a seat at the table would allow the U.S. to influence rules the global body makes, and bend them toward Washington's goals, he said.
After a decade of war in the Middle East, the U.S. faces "a range of security challenges that are growing in complexity," Panetta said. Those include terrorism, the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, Middle East and North African instability, and China military buildup.
"These real and growing challenges are beyond the ability of any single nation to resolve alone," the defense secretary said. "That is ... 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."
Panetta opaquely sent a message that joining the convention would allow the U.S. a new tactic in countering the anti-Washington whims and actions by Iran, China, and Russia.
Approving the treaty would hinder Iran's ability to close the Strait of Hormuz, a key oil transit route, which Tehran has recently threatened to do.
"We are determined to preserve freedom of transit there in the face of Iranian threats to impose a blockade," Panetta said. "U.S. accession ... would help strengthen worldwide transit passage rights under international law and isolate Iran."
The Obama administration is in the midst of shifting the focus of U.S. foreign and national security policies toward the Asia-Pacific region. Yet, Washington's shunning of the ocean's pact hurts its credibility with Asian friends, foes, and business partners, he said.
"How can we argue that other nations must abide by international rules when we haven't officially accepted those rules," Panetta said.
On the Arctic region, where Russia has been claiming more and more land in the global race for natural resource revenue, Panetta sent a message to Moscow.
"We already see countries posturing for new shipping routes and natural resources as Arctic ice cover recedes," Panetta said. "We are the only Arctic nation that is not party to the Convention," meaning Russia now has a leg up on America in shaping international rules about that region--and its ever-more accessible natural resources.
"The United States stands with Turkey as the only NATO members that have not ratified Law of the Sea, a U.S.-initiated treaty that protects American interests off U.S. shores and around the world," says former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel, now chairman of the Atlantic Council. "Senate ratification this year would allow America to take its rightful place and enjoy the benefits and protections of this important treaty."
But opponents, like Peter Brookes of the Heritage Foundation, have long claimed that joining the group would give other nations too much say over activities off U.S. coastlines. For instance, the U.S. government can now collect royalty revenues from oil and gas projects along the extended U.S. continental shelf--but joining the treaty would send as much as 7 percent of those collections to the U.N., Brookes wrote in a July 2011 op-ed.
Meantime, Panetta devoted a good bit of his pitch to noting U.S. industry would benefit from joining the global pact.
U.S. firms "need this treaty to do business," Panetta insisted.
The defense secretary argued that joining the oceans-based club is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as energy, shipbuilding, communications, fishing, and shipping sectors.
Panetta's olive branch to industry comes after the White House has repeatedly clashed with big business on a range of issues. Even the government-reliant defense business sector remains leery of the Obama administration.
The global pact "would provide clear legal rights and protections to American businesses to transit, lay undersea cables, and take advantage of the vast natural resources in and under the oceans off the U.S. coasts and around the world," Bruce Josten, Chamber executive vice president for government affairs, said in a statement.
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.