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NavHist - The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans


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Reviewed by Ingo Heidbrink

David Bosco’s new book The Poseidon Project provides not only a historical account of the development of the international Law of the Sea from Early Modern times to the present day, but also an easily accessible guide to key legal concepts in this complex area of international law.

Comprising eight chapters and a conclusion, the book follows a chronological approach. The first two chapters cover modern history before the outbreak of World War I. The third chapter deals with both World Wars and the interwar period while the fourth chapter deals with the period from 1945 to1970. Chapters five through seven focuses on the period of UNCLOS III (1970-2010) and chapter eight addresses the years since 2010. The main focus of the book is on the period since the 1970s when the origins of today’s Law of the Sea emerged, with coverage of prior historical periods used to contextualize the more recent history.

It is surprising that events such as the 1930 League of Nations Codification Conference and the Anglo-Icelandic Cod-wars are covered only briefly while the 1882 North Sea Fisheries Convention seems not to be mentioned at all, despite regularly being credited as the first treaty to codify the 3 nautical mile limit in an international agreement. Another treaty that seems to be missing is the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. This seems especially problematic as this treaty established the basis for an alternative to the concept of Freedom of the Seas based upon stewardship/sovereignty for one nation combined with open access use for other signatory nations, which has ultimately resulted in co-governance approaches like the Antarctic Treaty. Nevertheless, The Poseidon Project provides a concise narrative of the developments within the tradition of Freedom of the Seas.

One of the main points of critique that may be directed toward Bosco’s approach is that it does not fully take into account that the Freedom of the Seas and legal concepts derived from Grotius’ Early Modern theorem have always reflected the perspectives of the nations with the most advanced maritime technology in their respective periods, and the concept of Freedom of the Seas has often been used as a tool to bring this technological superiority to full fruition. While it can be argued that the tradition of Freedom of the Seas has had a positive overall effect, it can also be argued that this tradition constituted a gentlemen’s agreement among the most advanced maritime nations to prohibit lesser developed nations gaining a fair share of the oceans, enabling quasi-colonial mechanisms to become entrenched in the maritime domain. Unfortunately, Bosco’s new book does not address this counterargument or any other critical take on the Freedom of the Seas approach. A comparison with the Antarctic Treaty System as a system that is based on international co-governance would have helped not only to identify the Freedom of the Seas as a concept favoring technologically advanced nations, but also to show that there are other solutions possible to govern huge parts of the globe outside traditional national sovereignty.

The extensive notes and bibliography provided by Bosco live up to the research standards one should expect from an academic publication, but a detailed look reveals that the bibliography consists entirely of English language sources. While this might be understood as a concession to the language abilities of the intended readership, it narrows the breadth of perspectives provided in the bibliography substantially.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the author’s final conclusion that the Freedom of the Seas is not just a valid concept but also preferrable to alternative concepts like the Heritage of Mankind, The Poseidon Project can be commended to any historian with an interest in maritime affairs or international political history. While there are already hundreds of books on the subject of the Law of the Sea, most of these books are highly specialized studies reflecting specific debates at the time of their publication. Bosco differentiates his work by providing a broader historical overview that illuminates long-term developments and the historical origins of modern-day conflicts.


Ingo Heidbrink is a Professor of History at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans (David Bosco, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2022).

The post Blog first appeared on Naval Historical Foundation.

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