Freedom of the Seas - Defending freedom of the seas into the twenty-first century

The expansion of territorial waters and exclusive economic zones by many nations since World War II encouraged some states to restrict in various ways free passage on the high seas, a phenomenon known as "creeping sovereignty." To resist what American diplomats termed the "excessive maritime claims" of certain states, the United States instituted in 1979 a freedom of navigation policy designed to assert its historic commitment to a broad definition of freedom of the seas. This policy aimed to meet encroachments on the right of passage either by sea or air by a three-pronged strategy of diplomatic protest, operational assertion, and bilateral or multilateral negotiation. The operational assertion part of the policy resulted in several high profile incidents including challenging in 1986 Libya's claim that the Gulf of Sidra was a historic inland sea subject to its complete control and the 1988 bumping of U.S. warships by Soviet naval vessels while exercising the right of "innocent passage" inside the twelve-mile territorial limit in the Black Sea. In 1989 the latter incident resulted in a joint statement signed by Secretary of State James A. Baker and Soviet foreign minister Eduard Schevardnadze affirming the right of American warships to conduct innocent passage through Soviet territorial seas.

For more than two hundred years, from the very beginning of the Republic, the tendency of American policy has been to enlarge rather than to restrict the rights of nations on the seas—that is, except in certain periods when the country was at war and the national interest dictated the extension of American rights at the expense of other nations. The determination and consistency with which the principle of freedom of the seas has been asserted is testimony to its central importance in the history of American foreign policy. It represents the effort to extend American notions of international law and universal human rights to the oceans of the world. It constitutes a massive de facto extension of American sovereignty to the watery borders of all nations. And throughout the nation's history and into the foreseeable future it has been and will be job of the U.S. Navy to enforce the principle of freedom of the seas.

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