Ocean Alliances and Governance: A Rising Tide for Maritime Diplomacy

The 2022 Meridian Diplomacy Forum explored international relations and the shifting global order in the three areas of limited sovereignty: the Ocean, the Arctic, and Space. The following session centered around maritime diplomacy.

Oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface, house 80% of the planet’s life and carry 90% of globally traded goods. Oceans are also a whale of an ally in combating climate change as they absorb 25% of all carbon dioxide emissions and capture 90% of the additional heat generated from those emissions. While maritime issues have failed to surface on the world stage in recent years, a sea change may be underway. President Emmanuel Macron recently announced a new coalition to deliver a global high seas treaty for marine conservation, and the UN will host its first ocean conference in over five years this summer. This session wades into how nations are employing “blue diplomacy” to tackle issues from pollution and overfishing to piracy and shipping constraints. It also explore the state of U.S. maritime leadership, while detailing the responsibilities of the State Department and other agencies regarding oceanic security, boundaries, and scientific research.

Featured Speaker: J.R Littlejohn,Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs 

Panelist: His Excellency Lazarus Amayo, Ambassador of Kenya to the United States 

Panelist: Larry Mayer Ph.D., Chair, U.S. National Committee for the UN Decade of Ocean Science 

Panelist: Ambassador John Negroponte, Vice Chair, McLarty Associates 

Moderator: Sharon Weinberger, National Security Editor, The Wall Street Journal 

Here are the top takeaways from the session: 

1. OCEANS ARE CRITICAL TO OUR SPECIES’ SURVIVAL AND PROSPERITY 

In addition to the abundant natural resources the oceans provide and its ability to combat climate change, oceans serve in numerous other ways that impact our daily lives. The bulk of global trade is transported across the high seas, and, although we tend to think of electronic data existing in a cloud overhead, information mostly flows through underwater cables. The ocean’s health and its accessibility are being challenged, however, by both the man-made climate crisis and an increasing military presence. One truckload of plastic is dumped into the oceans every single minute, while artificial military outposts threaten to close off trade routes.  

2. OCEANS ARE A SHARED RESOURCE – AND SHARE RESPONSIBILITY.  

 No one nation can help solve all these problems, and governments alone won’t do the trick either. In addition to countries working in concert through international bodies, the private sector and NGOs will be needed to support some of the heavy lifting. Public-private partnerships have been leveraged to combat some of the world’s greatest challenges, including vaccine development, humanitarian aid, and space exploration. These same relationships should be employed to protect and manage the oceans. 

3. 2022 IS THE YEAR FOR DECISIVE ACTION 

Although progress in ocean governance has been made over the years, more needs to be done. This may be the year. U.S. special envoy on climate John Kerry was in Palau in April to address issues that this and other island nations are facing with rising sea levels, and he stressed that the time is right to ensure no one nation or bloc dominates access to the high seas and its potential resources, like wind energy. Back in February, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a new coalition to deliver a global high seas treaty for marine conservation, while the UN will host its first ocean conference in over five years this summer from June 27 to July 1. That will take place in Lisbon and be co-hosted by Portugal and Kenya.  

4. INTERNATIONAL ENGAGEMENT IS KEY TO MAKING PROGRESS

Whether combating plastic pollution or the climate crisis, mitigating and resolving maritime disputes, or strengthening public-private partnerships or multinational action, diplomacy will need to lead the way. People-to-people relationships are just as critical as government-to-government relationships, with networks like the world’s leading scientists continuing to play a key role in protecting and managing the oceans.  

5. NEVER LET A GOOD CRISIS GO TO WASTE 

Both the climate crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine provide opportunities to think and act big. There is ample opportunity to rally the global community to implement actionable steps to help protect and manage our oceans. Diplomats, scientists, corporations, and NGOs all have a leading role to play. While the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has been signed by 167 parties and ratified by 60 states, the U.S. has yet to ratify the Convention. Ambassador John Negroponte underscored that it may be difficult to garner 67 votes in U.S. Senate to pass UNCLOS, but it is customary law in the United States. These challenges are faced regionally as well. ASEAN countries have failed to have a consensus on codifying a law of the sea in the South China Sea. There remains much to be done to pass UNCLOS and regional law of the sea conventions or treaties and multiple stakeholders have a role to play. The future of our oceans is at stake.

Project summary

Ocean Alliances and Governance: A Rising Tide for Maritime Diplomacy | April 2022
Regions: Africa
Impact Areas: Energy and the Environment, Foreign Policy, Public Diplomacy, Science and Technology
Program Areas: Diplomacy