Who reigns over the blue planet?

Maritime spaces concentrate the major economic, ecological and political issues of our time. To prevent them from becoming the site of all violations of law (from pollution to overfishing), a government of the seas is necessary.

The sea is at the heart of today’s major issues. economic, because it is the support of 90% of exchanges in the world, and the source of super profits of a glove like CMACGM.ecological, since the oceans are one of the main carbon sinks, threatened by the progressive acidification of the waters. Gopolitical, with many latent conflicts, particularly in the China Sea.

However, when faced with the sea, the analysis easily goes astray. On the blue plant, man is an earthling. Without us even thinking about it, our reflexes, our intuitions, our automatisms of thought and even our conceptual schemes are almost inevitably impregnated with our earthly attachments. But the sea is irreducibly other. It is difficult to grasp by purely earthly categories. Without an effort to decenter to read the major issues from the sea point of view and its specificities, we miss the essential.

The great merit of Maxence Brischoux's work is to expose this point of view with clarity and depth. At the same time, it provides a very powerful key to understanding the challenges of the contemporary world.

Two distinct worlds

Land and sea: the opposition is crucial. We first think of the eponymous book by Carl Schmitt, or his Names of the Earth. The idea of ​​two irreducible worlds is older. It appears in Adam Smith, who senses that capitalism could not flourish without it, but also in Hegel, who devotes some superb sentences to it in Reason in Historyor at the officer Alfred Mahan, author in 1890 of a book with an evocative title, The Influence of Sea Power upon History.

What is the nature of the sea?? Schematically, where the earth is a succession of particular, differentiated places, of distinct territories and delimited by natural, symbolic or political borders, the sea is a space of undifferentiation, whose symbolism carries unlimitedness. When sailing on the high seas, man can virtually go anywhere, sailing towards the ports he pleases while bypassing all the territories he does not like. The freedom he experiences has nothing in common with what he could experience on earth, and it is only limited because he must, sooner or later, collide with one earth or another.

This difference in nature between two environments has profound political, economic and geopolitical consequences, which we can only briefly summarize. Politically, the concepts that are most familiar to us, those of state or sovereignty, only have meaning on land, within the limits of borders. The high seas, the opposite, are freethat is to say that no state can declare itself sovereign and claim the application of its law there.

The empire of the sea

The seas are distinguished and characterized, writes Maxence Brischoux, as the geographical space naturally resistant to the deployment of institutions and figures taken by power on land. The stakes are therefore immense: so that the sea is not only the place of all traffic, of all violations of the law (from pollution to overfishing), which must regulate it?

economically, the history of the seas and that of capitalism are inescapably linked. Almost all the great financial innovations, from joint stock companies to insurance, were born in ports, for the specific needs of distant trade. Resisting the impregnation of politics, the sea is a naturally economic space, where individuals from all backgrounds can come together to change and assert their own interests outside of any state constraints. Speaking of Great discoveries, Adam Smith saw this clearly. Contemporary times prove him right: 90% of goods circulating in the world travel by sea, as does 98% of Internet traffic, via submarine cables.

Geopolitically, finally, the sea raises its own difficulties. An army does not control a maritime space in the same way it controls a territory. Establishing superiority over the seas means firstly controlling flows between ports, therefore commercial routes and communications infrastructure.

This results in a paradoxical consequence: the great military powers display imperial tendencies on the seas. Controlling the seas as opposed to the land does not mean posting garrisons in a localized manner along a coast. This means controlling almost all communications over a very vast space. It is control rather than conquerrightly says Maxence Brischoux.

Territorialization of the seas

If the land/sea opposition is crucial, the purpose of the work is also to show that a certain hybridization is in progress. What does this say? The main dimension is the territorialization of the seas: the attempt to impose concepts from the terrestrial world to regulate or ensure a political-legal order prevails on the seas. This process has several facets.

The first takes place against a backdrop of rivalry between the United States and China. To a large extent, the Chinese view the world order based on freedom of the seas as an American construct, in which they did not participate. Beijing, the China Sea is not seen as an area free for global traffic, but as an internal sea on which China would have legitimate claims. If the United States regularly crosses ships there, within the framework of operations named FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations), it is to try to preserve a freedom of the seas which is temporarily favorable to them. For how long? Because, as Maxence Brischoux shows, control of the seas is shifting ever more towards Asia.

The second aspect of the territorialization of the seas arises from their exploitation. Historically, this was limited to fishing. This is no longer the case today. Increasingly, states are competing for supposed resources. free at sea. In international law, the framework within which this exploitation of the seas takes place remains the Montego Bay Convention of 1982, which extends the territorial claims of States over the seas (by defining territorial waters), and establishes a gradient of rights according to the distances from the coasts.

However, as the seas become exploitable (hydrocarbons, seabed, etc.), conflicts arise from the very definition of these borders at sea. Currently, many areas of tension in the world are precisely there. Let us think, for our near abroad, the Eastern Mediterranean, where Turkey and Greece dispute these maritime borders.

What governance for the seas?

Understanding these processes is essential. However, a question remains open. Maxence Brischoux is right to point out the biases earthlings through which we approach the regulation of the seas. These are necessarily imperfect. proximity to the coasts, considering the sea as an extension of the land creates conflicts; far from the coasts, state demands make little sense. If we want to regulate the seas, if only for ecological reasons, other ways must be sought: a government of the seas imposes itself.

As it stands, its contours remain poorly defined. It must be said that the program is vast! Global governance comes up against the contrary claims of states, and the involvement of NGO raises concerns about their legitimacy. What emerges implicitly is the need for a profound change in mentalities, which leads us to consider the sea as the natural complement to our terrestrial existence.

Rare peoples on the planet, relegated by some anthropologists, give us clues to think about our co-belonging to the marine world. The project deserves to be extended, as it touches on fundamental questions.