No one quarrels with President Reagan's desire to have a thorough review of the proposed Law of the Sea treaty before plunging into the current UN negotiations, or to make his own appointments to the United States delegation. Since he would be the US President signing the treaty, after several of his predecessors worked on it, he rightly wants to make sure it meets America's best interests. But the failure of Mr. Reagan's diplomatic team to have done its homework in time for opening of the crucial UN session -- and now the abrupt and clumsy replacement of the entire US delegation right on the eve of the conference -- is a damaging development. Unwittingly, perhaps, and certainly unnecessarily, the administration has given itself a black eye.
What the move seems to convey is that the President feels the US may have sold away its interests to third world on the critical issue of deep-seabed mining. Mr. Reagan therefore needs to reassure the more than 100 nations involved in the negotiations that the US delay does not necessarily signal a slap-in- the-face stance toward the world's poor nations. He ought to make clear that the delay is merely meant to give the administration time to get the negotiations under its belt. A positive declaration of continuing US interest in a just and equitable law to govern exploitation of the ocean's resources might help dispel the shock now reverberating at the UN over what is seen as the President's negative act.
Unfortunately, the new US delegation provides virtually no continuity on the seabed issue. Why, one wonders, does the President not call in former chief US negotiator (and fellow Republican) Elliot Richardson for a grounding in what has gone before. Is Mr. Richardson's liberal brand of Republicanism the stumbling block? That reasoning would be unworthy of the administration. Mr. Richardson, who had already resigned after completing a three-year tenure, has publicly defended the draft Law of the Sea convention as embodying "balanced and . . . acceptable compromises" between the Western industrial countries (and their corporate interests) and the third-world nations. At the least he should be asked to brief the President and the new negotiators on what have been very complex and difficult talks.
The West's relations with the third world are no less important, and in the long run may prove more important, than relations with the Soviet Union. It would be tragic if all the long, earnest, and honest US diplomatic effort poured into the Law of the Sea treaty -- by many presidents -- were lost out of a short- sighted hope for immediate mining gains. The point is that American mining companies that would extract riches from the seabed need to operate with a sense of certainty, and they will not be able to do so under unilateral US legislation. An international agreement is absolutely essential to peace on and in the world's oceans.
The very principle recognizing seabed resources as "the common heritage of mankind" -- an international principle that has been evolving over many years -- now seems to be under a cloud of doubt. President Reagan needs to act quickly to di spel it.