Just when I thought that I understood all of the various ways in which the ocean has been perceived vis-à-vis state territory, I come across this little gem from the olde country: a bill to name the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone after Ronald Reagan (HR-553). The bill, sponsored by California Republican Darrell Issa, passed the House Natural Resources Committee on July 31 and is set to be taken up by the full House of Representatives this session.
As a story in The Hill notes, this is the latest in a series of efforts to name things in the U.S. after Reagan. In almost all cases, these are accompanied by an undercurrent of irony: What does it mean to associate the patron saint of small government with buildings, infrastructures, and – in this case – juridically-defined spaces that exist only because of governmental action and are maintained only through governmental regulation?
Consider, for instance, the renaming of Washington’s National Airport after the man who broke the air traffic controllers’ union. Fifteen years later, many flight crews still announce that they’re flying to “National Airport” so as to avoid uttering the “R” word. And then there was the case of Florida naming its toll road the Ronald Reagan Turnpike. The enabling legislation for this states only why Reagan should be honoured, and, in an amusing bit of legislative poetry, we are told that it is fitting to associate him with a road because “his unending cause for freedom represents the liberty to travel about our state and nation’s highway system.” Although the legislation doesn’t note why Reagan should be associated with this particular road, it is fitting that his name is associated with a toll road and not one paid for by taxes. But, in what may be an effort of taking Reagan’s mantra too far, when the bill was passed there was no parallel effort to allocate government funds for new signage, and so for a while the renaming went unmarked (although that was later rectified).
But why are Issa and his allies turning to the EEZ? It’s certainly not because of their love for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which the EEZ regime is enshrined, a point raised in the House debate by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) (noted in the article in The Hill).
I’m intrigued by the symbolic, if not legal, implications of attaching a head of state’s name (and thereby an added level of signification) to a space that, although controlled by a state, is not sensu stricto national territory and thus, in a sense, should be left immune from both internal state politics and the chauvinist politics of nationalism. There are clear resonances with the UK naming a portion of the contested British Antarctic Territory “Queen Elizabeth’s Land,” a move that was discussed previously on this blog. Officially, at least, the point of such spaces is to serve specific functional purposes (in this case, as a source of living and non-living resources), not to serve other, more overtly “political” territorial functions, including those associated with national identity or the broad trajectory of national policy. Such acts of naming would seem to imply an inappropriate degree of politicisation.
Of course, there is a long history of states using the designation of non-sovereign space as somehow “theirs” to “give a message” about state power. The construction of overseas military bases that serve little direct security purpose but communicate a presence that implies a degree of sovereign power would be one example. Scientific research stations and explorers planting flags at remote locations serve this purpose too. In these cases, states are not precisely saying “this land (or ocean) is ours,” but they are implying some sort of right to continue activities there, perhaps to the exclusion of other countries.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that the naming of the EEZ is a special case due to its location adjacent to US territorial waters. This adjacency creates a heightened degree of confusion, to the point where The Hill gets the facts wrong and states that it begins at 3 nautical miles instead of 12 nautical miles from baseline. And this, in turn, leads one down a particularly slippery slope.
One could easily see this declaration leading to an assumption among Americans that the EEZ is the US’ sovereign territory, to be defended as a crucial part of the national resource patrimony. At the same time, though, the US government would have no formal responsibility of stewardship in the EEZ since, in fact, it is not actual sovereign territory. As such, the US would be compelled to invest heavily in military efforts to defend the EEZ while allowing the benefits of this territory to accrue to the private enterprises licensed to extract resources there. Come to think of it, naming the EEZ after Reagan would be an incredibly fitting gesture!