The highest drama in New York last Saturday night took place in a badly lit room of the United Nations building. Bleary delegates from 193 countries had been cooped up there for two days without a break, and off and on for two weeks before that. Then Rena Lee, the Singaporean envoy who presided over the conference, took the mic. "The ship has reached the shore," she said. And her eyes teared up as the whole room erupted in cheers and howls.
That metaphorical ship reaching the shore represents the international community pledging for the first time to protect much of the world's "high seas." Those are the waters beyond the jurisdiction of any particular country, amounting to about 60% of the oceans.
So far, the high seas have in effect been lawless, aside from some largely futile international attempts to control problems such as overfishing. In reality, governments and companies have been able to do pretty much anything there — contaminate and defile, kill creatures and disrupt ecosystems.
In this way, human treatment of the high seas has led to yet another case of what economists call the "tragedy of the commons." It's what happens when we collectively ruin something precious because we individually profit from exploiting it and can't exclude others from doing the same. The three saddest examples today are our atmosphere, which we're polluting with greenhouse gasses; the outer space around Earth, which we're junking up with our debris from satellites and rockets; and indeed the oceans.
In ways we can barely fathom, the seas are crucial for our planet and our lives, as my colleague Lara Williams explains. They provide every second breath we take, by producing about half the oxygen in our atmosphere. They soak up and hold every third carbon dioxide molecule we emit. And they supply, in their complex ecosystems and food chains, much of what we eat. If we don't value this treasure more, it's only because it's so hard to visit and see.
For these reasons alone, the draft agreement by the UN is a milestone. If ratified, it would plug a gaping hole in the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has so far had more to say about territorial waters, those close to coastlines. The treaty would establish, among other things, "marine protected areas" in parts of the ocean that teem with biodiversity. Without this first step, we'd never be able to honor our — the UN's — pledge to protect a third of the sea by 2030.
About two decades in the making, with many rounds of failure and acrimony, the document also shows that cooperation among nations is possible, and therefore that multilateralism can work and is worth investing in. As usual in such talks, the so-called Global South and North — and nations large and small, rich and poor, sea-facing and landlocked — were often pitted against one another. And yet, in this case, the 193 found a compromise that all involved deem fair enough.
Not everyone will be happy about it, and some governments may yet balk. But that's always the case, and can't be an excuse to give up on multilateralism, or indeed on international law as such.
In that sense, the fresh breeze coming from the high seas, via that stuffy UN conference room, should inspire us to press on in solving other problems. Lee's ship reaches the shore as one member of the UN Security Council — Russia — wages a genocidal war of aggression that breaches all international and humanitarian norms, and two others — the US and China — face off in what increasingly looks like a new Cold War. It often seems like we're more keen to dominate, hurt or kill one another than to preserve our common heritage.
As the German sociologist Max Weber said a century ago in a famous lecture in Munich, "politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards." It requires passion, realism, stamina and much else. If practiced properly, however, it amounts to a kind of heroism. Rena Lee and the delegates in the building with her embody that spirit. Let others take note and find inspiration.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.