Wetlands have declined in area and quality at an accelerating pace in the last 50 years. Yet, the last 50 years is when international attention has been focussed on wetlands through the Ramsar Convention. An analysis of how the convention has evolved over the past 50 years suggests it has been drifting away from its original mandate in a maladaptive manner, and this drift is a problem for achieving its original objectives. A review of the strategic plans of the convention revealed two key conditions for institutional drifting and the associated lack of success. The first condition lies in its unique situation as a non-UN convention, which reduces the convention’s visibility and interactivity with other biodiversity-related conventions, agencies, or programmes. The second condition is an increasing number of conventions dealing with biodiversity issues, all forcing the Ramsar Convention to seek different roles in an increasingly competitive institutional landscape. A more effective future for the convention arguably lies in reasserting its original mandate, but with cognisance of the changed environmental pressures of the twenty-first century. While this would narrow its increasingly broad focus, such a reorientation will allow wetlands and waterfowl to start a track to recovery, backed by active and focused Contracting Parties in a renewed international convention on wetland conservation, management, and sustainable use.