Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2009

The National Interest and the Law of the Sea

Scott G. Borgerson

May 2009

Council on Foreign Relations


The oceans have long been a critical arena for international relations. Before there was air travel and instantaneous communication, people, goods, and ideas traveled the world by ship. For centuries a strong maritime presence—both military and commercial—has been essential for states with great power aspirations. Today, even with advances in technology, seaborne commerce remains the linchpin of the global economy. As the International Maritime Organization reports, “more than 90 percent of global trade is carried by sea.” And beyond trade, a host of other issues, ranging from climate change and energy to defense and piracy, ensure that the oceans will hold considerable strategic interest well into the future.