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Kings of the Wild Frontier: International Society and the Territorialization of Empty Space



The international system of states displays an inherent drive to territorialize and control ‘empty’ or ‘ungoverned’ spaces. There are historical examples (the Scramble for Africa, the American Frontier), contemporary ones (the territorialization of the high seas and of cyberspace) and probable future cases (outer space, Antarctica). States are the ‘kings of the wild frontier’ who lay claim to frontier spaces, establish control and defend it against rivals. Territorialization is not a continuous process but occurs in episodes. In this paper I compare two cases, the expansion of the territorial sea and the creation of Marine Protected Areas on the high seas, to advance a twofold argument about the nature of these episodes. First, a territorializing episode occurs a) when states construct a space as empty, b) when there are compelling economic incentives, and c) when the available technology makes cost-efficient control over the space possible. States take an active role in shaping these conditions, i.e. by deploying securitizing discourses or by commissioning the development of new technologies of control. Second, I argue that there are three systemic root causes of this drive to territorialize empty space: a global system of capitalism demanding the valorisation of unused resources, an international society for which spaces that are outside any kind of state authority are anathema, and modernity which demands that human rights are guaranteed wherever humans exist.
Kings of the Wild Frontier: International Society and the
Territorialization of Empty Space*
Daniel Lambach (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt/Main)
***Work in Progress comments welcome***
The international system of states displays an inherent drive to territorialize and control ‘empty’ or
‘ungoverned’ spaces. There are historical examples (the Scramble for Africa, the American Frontier),
contemporary ones (the territorialization of the high seas and of cyberspace) and probable future cases
(outer space, Antarctica). States are the ‘kings of the wild frontier’ who lay claim to frontier spaces,
establish control and defend it against rivals. But territorialization is not a continuous process it
occurs in episodes. In this paper I compare two cases, the imperialist partition of Africa and the
expansion of the territorial sea, to illustrate a theoretical argument about the nature of these episodes.
First, I argue that the root causes of this drive to territorialize are located in a global system of
capitalism demanding the valorisation of unused resources and an international society for which
spaces that are outside any kind of state authority are anathema. Second, a territorializing episode
occurs a) when the projected costs and payoffs of control impel states to action, and b) when great
powers do not prevent territorialization. Both of these conditions are dependent on background
conditions like the structures of global capitalism, international society, and available technologies of
* Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the Fünfte Offene Sektionstagung Internationale
Beziehungen der DVPW, Bremen, 4-6 October 2017 and the Joint Research Colloquium of the Institute of
Development and Peace and the Centre for Global Cooperation Research at the University of Duisburg-Essen,
9 July 2018. I am grateful to the participants of these events and Dorte Hühnert, Kai Koddenbrock, Adam
Sandor, Arne Sönnichsen and Kressen Thyen for their helpful comments.
Empty spaces what are we living for?
Abandoned places I guess we know the score
On and on!
Does anybody know what we are looking for?
--- Queen, The Show Must Go On
Empty spaces exert an irresistable mystique. They are a blank canvas upon which people project their
desires, hopes and fears. Such mental decoration seems to be part of the human condition: ‘Temporal
or spatial absences seem to beg for termination, filling or completion’ (Hearst 1991: 432). As the
human psyche works, so does international politics. Empty spaces have disappeared from the world
map, divided and swallowed up by states, the ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ (Ant/Pirroni 1980). James
Scott calls this ‘an era in which virtually the entire globe is “administered space” and the periphery is
not much more than a folkloric remnant’ (Scott 2009: 324). Of course, Scott wrote about the history
of state formation in Southeast Asia, on people and how states try to subjugate them. But I think his
point that the past centuries have seen the emergence of a great and global ‘enclosure movement’
(Scott 2009: 5) is entirely correct and can also be applied to spaces beyond the state, whether inhabited
or not.
Consider the following examples: the ‘Scramble for Africa’ (the expansion of imperial domination over
the interior of the African continent), the development of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and twelve-
mile territorial seas in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), claims over the
suboceanic continental shelf e.g. in the Arctic, the westward expansion of the United States into the
‘American Frontier’ or the contemporaneous Russian colonization of Central Asia during the 19th
century. In all of these historical cases what had been blank spaces on world maps were turned into
political spaces under the control of states. I should note that such spaces were anything but empty
in the literal sense the terrestrial spaces were often full of people living their lives in a manner of
their own choosing. But they were constructed as ‘empty’ so as to facilitate their parcelization,
enclosure and domination by outsiders. We can observe similar processes in the present, e.g. on the
high seas and in cyberspace.
But where does this systemic drive for the territorialization of empty spaces come from? Earlier
international systems did not clearly exhibit such a drive, at least not with the same degree of
intransigence (Taylor 1995: 8). There are many pre-modern examples of ‘empty spaces’ that were not
integrated into regional systems. ‘Frontier’ spaces were sometimes left unterritorialized to serve as
buffers between rivalling powers. Hegemons like the Roman Empire and various Chinese empires
checked their own expansion, preferring to deal with the ‘barbarians’ beyond on a transactional basis.
Furthermore, how can we make sense of still existing cases of non-territorialization, such as Antarctica
and outer space?
This paper offers a theory why some empty spaces get territorialized, i.e. transformed into enclosed
and controlled space, while others do not, and also seeks to explain the timing of territorialization
episodes. It locates the roots of the territorialization drive in two intertwined sources. The first is
capitalism with its inexorable compulsion to valorize unused resources, a point that Marxism,
neoclassicism and institutional economics all agree on. The second is the ‘sovereign territorial ideal’
(Murphy 1996: 82) dominating contemporary international society that pushes states towards
territorialization. This imaginary rests upon norms identifying territoriality with sovereignty and a
dynamic of mutual recognition, creating a normative demand that empty spaces should be
territorialized. These twin causes create both economic and status motives for states which cannot be
easily disentangled or reduced to one another. But there are also countervailing forces, specifically the
interests of great powers who tend to gain the most from unregulated access to empty space.
Territorialization occurs in episodes, not in a continuous process (the ‘punctuated equilibrium’ of
Gouldian evolutionary theory). In this paper, I show that a territorializing episode occurs when two
necessary conditions are jointly present: impelling economic prospects of territorialization and great
powers supporting or tolerating territorialization. Both of these factors are dependent on deeper
structures of the international economy and the international system. Crucially, both are affected by
available technologies of control that determine whether territorialization is economically and
politically cost-effective. This is not to argue for a technological determinism wherein technological
development drives international politics. Rather, the relationship between technology and politics
goes both ways: Sometimes, technological development opens up political possibilities but, just as
often, politics drives technological development to pursue political projects. And while I mainly speak
of states as the main actors in territorialization, this should not obscure the role of private actors, who
act as inventors, financiers and/or agents, or the role of chartered companies as examples of public-
private partnerships in such territorialization episodes. Consider the case of Africa: European powers
had small (quasi-)colonial territories along the coastline since the early 16th century but only
partitioned the interior of the African continent in the late 19th century. It was only with technological
improvements in medicine (quinine), transport (steamboats, railways), communication (telegraph)
and arms (repeating rifles), and with a change in the role of Africa in the emerging global economy,
away from a provider of slaves towards a provider of bulk raw materials (e.g. palm oil, rubber, cotton,
cocoa), that this became a realistic and attractive proposition for European governments.
This approach also sheds light upon spaces that have not (yet) been territorialized, such as Antarctica,
large sections of the high seas, the deep seabed, outer space and parts of the internet like the Dark
Web. There, control is still prohibitively expensive relative to the projected economic and political
payoffs. Also, great powers tend to oppose territorialization because an unregulated commons affords
them the greatest freedom to act without impediment. In these situations, states will usually prefer
some kind of international agreement, like with the Antarctic Treaty or the Outer Space Treaty.
However, these agreements may be revised or broken if underlying conditions change, as the
expansion of territorial claims upon the high seas between the 1940s and the 1980s illustrates.
At this point, one might interject that the empty spaces I mention are only peripherally important to
global politics. With the ‘completion’ of terrestrial territorial control in the late 19th century, only
sparsely inhabited spaces remain outside the purview of direct state control. However, there are two
reasons to theorize territorialization in contemporary international society.
The first is that this
argument does not just apply to geographic/physical space but also to social/relational spaces. As I
discuss elsewhere (Lambach 2019), cyberspace is also seeing multiple, intersecting processes of
territorialization. Social/relational spaces like markets and transnational communities and non-
physical spaces like the radiowave frequency spectrum are also subject to territorializing pressures.
The second is that the argument has forward-looking implications: it offers a prediction of how
international politics will behave as technology progresses and as capitalism and great power politics
change. It should also be noted that, as I discuss below, territory should not be equated with sovereign
statehood but is understood as all delimited and controlled space. Accordingly, territorialization means
allocating regulatory competence along spatial criteria.
And while the theoretical approach in itself is novel, there is a literature to draw on. On the economic
side, there are writings on the global commons, going back as far as the classics of Elinor Ostrom and
Garrett Hardin. From a more political angle, the various literatures on historical and postcolonial state
formation like the works of James Scott provide important insights on the perspective of the state.
Recently, there have also been works in international theory, drawing on sociology and critical
geography, that ask how global politics can be reimagined through the lens of space and territory (e.g.
Gazit 2018, Kadercan 2015, Banai/Moore 2014). I build upon these works to develop a theory why and
under which circumstances a space that has been constructed as ‘empty’ will be territorialized. I
illustrate my argument with two case studies of territorialization: the Scramble for Africa during the
This is not to mention those remote, liminal spaces within states which are being, or are yet to be
territorialized (Vandergeest/Peluso 1995, Rasmussen/Lund 2018).
imperial period, and the expansion of territorial waters to today’s twelve-mile standard with the
specific example of the Anglo-Icelandic ‘Cod War’.
Review of the Literature
In recent years, the notion of territory, long a mainstay in political geography but mostly marginalized
in International Relations (IR), has seen a micro-renaissance in IR (Gazit 2018, Kadercan 2015) and
Political Theory (Moore 2017). This nascent literature is mostly concerned with how to conceptualize
territory and break IR and political science out of its self-imposed ‘territorial trap’ (Agnew 1994), which
limits the notion of territory to the spatial extent of the sovereign state. Therefore, these discussions
are of limited value to this paper. Thankfully, there are other bodies of literature to draw on.
First, the political-economic literature on the (global) commons is helpful, even though ‘the commons’
is a more specific concept than what I mean by ‘empty space’. Drawing on classic works of Elinor
Ostrom and Garrett Hardin, these approaches ask how the commons can be managed (Ostrom) to
stave off the supposed Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin). Marxist discussions of Landnahme (‘land-
grabbing’) and enclosure also provide important input (e.g. Sevilla-Buitrago 2015, Dörre 2012). The
debate is well-summarized in a piece by John Vogler, where he argues that discussions about the
sustainable use of global commons are subject to ‘continuing pressure, driven more by the territorial
ambitions of states than conservation motives, to change the property status of the commons, bringing
them within some form of sovereign control’ (Vogler 2012: 62). Vogler identifies technology (as a
determinant of accessibility) and economic prospects as key drivers of enclosure, although he cautions
that economic predictions are often inflated, so that ‘attempts to extend sovereign territory and
diminish the global commons may sometimes have more to do with national identity, prestige and
statehood than any real or immediate economic returns’ (Vogler 2012: 70). This parallels recent
discussions in resource geography which often operate with metaphors like ‘scramble’, ‘rush’, ‘race’
or ‘grab’. Bridge points out that these narratives highlight different dynamics of appropriation: where
‘scrambles’ involve competition among states, the ‘grab’ emphasizes the capitalist appropriation of
stace (Bridge 2013: 124-125). Although these processes may occur separately from each other (e.g. in
corporate ‘grabsof arable lands in developing countries), they should not be understood as opposites;
in fact, the territorialization of empty space typically involves both inter-state scrambles and private
grabs, often in close coordination.
Second, the literature on state formation discusses a similar process of territorialization, albeit at the
level of society rather than at international level. Scott’s theory of state formation (Scott 1998, Scott
2009) is particularly influential here, as are earlier works on state-society relations (Migdal 1988,
Herbst 2000). Scott describes processes of ‘internal colonialism’ (Scott 2009: 12) where peripheral
peoples within state boundaries are gradually brought under the state’s control and their activities
integrated into logics of capitalism, transforming the periphery into fully governed, fiscally fertile
zones(Scott 2009: 10). These techniques mirror those of imperial powers in their respective colonies,
although the colonial state had a narrower ambit than post-colonial developmental states. Within this
tradition, Rasmussen and Lund (2018) provide a detailed theory of what they call ‘frontier dynamics’
as the simultaneous destruction of existing authorities and the emergence of new institutional
arrangements. Where Scott focuses on state control of population, Rasmussen and Lund focus on state
control of resources in the national periphery, defining ‘territorialization as a strategy of using bounded
spaces for particular outcomes, a resource control strategy that involves the classification of particular
areas in order to regulate people and resources’ (Rasmussen/Lund 2018: 388). They highlight the
constructed, dynamic nature of frontiers and how resources in frontier spaces are commodified.
Third, the constructed nature of space is explored by works from IR and critical geography. In his
seminal work on the social construction of the ocean, Steinberg (2001) demonstrates how the high
seas have been variously cast as an untameable ‘non-territory’, a force-field through which states
project their seapower, a common resource to be jointly stewarded, or a network which connects
archipelagic land-spaces. These representations matter because each implies a different form of
governance. If the ocean is a mere transport medium, then the fewer rules the better. If it is a resource-
space, then a system of governance, whether by some cooperative mode or by assigning individual
property rights, is in order (Steinberg 2001: 207). These approaches have inspired some authors to
explore the constructed nature of ‘emptiness’. While it is an urban legend that medieval cartographers
marked unknown spaces on their maps with the phrase ‘hic sunt dracones’ (‘Here There Be Dragons’)
there is only one recorded instance of this phrase they did use ‘hic sunt leones’ (‘Here There Be
Lions’) much more frequently, going back as far as Roman times. Often, empty spaces were adorned
with phantastic and terrifying beasts. Such phrases and pictures, including ‘terra pericolosa’ (Italian for
‘dangerous land’) constructed the unknown as a source of exotic dangers (Agnew 2009: 107, Dicke
2002: 16). As these examples show, emptiness is not a neutral description. A space designated as
‘empty’ inevitably raises issues of control over its land, people and resources. The construction of
‘empty space’ invites these issues directly. As Ciobanu (2006) has shown, the European gaze
represented on early modern maps often depicted the inhabitants of ‘barbarous’ countries as
monstrous cannibals. This elicited revulsion but also incited calls for the conquest, subjugation and
enforced ‘civilization’ of these peoples. Similarly, Gazit points out that in Simmel’s relational theory of
space, ‘empty spaces’ contain ‘a spectrum of lively socio-political constructs’ (Gazit 2018: 243). Hence,
‘it becomes legitimate to conquer and colonize landscapes as ungoverned and free, as herrenloses
Land, tierra de nadie or terre vacante et sans maître; as terra nullius(Rasmussen/Lund 2018: 392).
Theoretical Approach
We can draw several conclusions from the above review. First, there is a drive deeply embedded in
capitalism towards the enclosure and propertization of the commons. Seen from the perspective of
international politics, this drive implicates both states and private interests. Second, states engage in
territorialization for a variety of reasons, weighing economic prospects against status and security
concerns. Third, empty spaces are not a naturally occurring phenomenon but are socially constructed
to legitimize strategies of control and enclosure. Crucially, emptiness does not imply being actually
empty of people and political structures. It merely means that any people or polities are not recognized
as such, by designating people as ‘uncivilized’ and their political institutions as ‘primitive’. My approach
draws on these insights and other literatures to develop a theoretical framework of the
territorialization of empty space.
Space and Territory
There are different ways of conceptualizing ‘space’. The first is to view it as a container in Cartesian
space, i.e. a place that other things exist or happen in. This is the approach that is closest to our intuitive
geographical understanding of space as a place that is defined by its physical dimensions, e.g. a
country, a city or a neighborhood. The second views space in relational terms, as the result of
interactions among phenomena or people. This is what we understand as a ‘social space’. These spaces
are not tied to, but can coincide with physical spaces in fact, they can even connect multiple localities
into a conjoined, ‘translocal’ social space. In both approaches, spaces require limits (borders or
frontiers) which distinguish them from other spaces. There is a third approach that lies somewhat
orthogonal to the first two. It is less interested in identifying existing spaces but problematizing the
process by which spaces are made. This constructivist approach rejects naturalist assumptions about
space, whether physical or social, and focuses on the process of space-making. It is in this tradition of
critical geopolitics where my approach is situated (Agnew/Corbridge 1995, Paasi 2003).
Territory is marked and bounded space, although it is never truly fixed. This notion represents the
intersection of space and power: territories are spaces that are claimed, defended and contested (Cox
2002: 1). Territories have three characteristics (Blacksell 2006: 18-20): The first is a ‘classification by
area’ (Sack 1986: 21). Second, territorial claims have to be communicated, e.g. by reification of a space
and the symbolic marking of borders both in space but also on maps and suchlike (Monmonier 2010:
31-39). Third, territoriality always implies an attempt at enforcing claims of control. Territory is often
reduced to sovereign state territory but a critical understanding is open to multiple forms of
territoriality, i.e. ‘the attempt by an individual or group to affect, influence, or control people,
phenomena, and relationships, by delimiting and asserting control over a geographic area’ (Sack 1986:
5). For instance, the notion of ‘regulatory spaces’ (Varone et al. 2013) can also be read as multiple
overlapping and potentially competing territorialities established in transnational economic and
financial spaces.
Territorialization, therefore, is the process by which (uncontrolled) space is transformed into
(controlled) territory, whether as part of sovereign state territory or some other form of enclosure and
parcelization. As the process of establishing territoriality, territorialization contains all aspects thereof,
i.e. a classification by area, communication of boundaries, and a claim of control. At a more detailed
level, territorialization consists of two conjoined processes, the deterritorialization of existing
spatialities and their reterritorialization is some other form, as old territorial orders are dissolved and
replaced by new arrangements (Lambach 2019). This brings out the contested nature of
territorialization that comes to the fore when different territorial projects collide. To be sure, political
actors rarely contest the necessity or legitimacy of territorialization in the abstract, but they do contest
the ‘who gets what’ during specific episodes of territorialization. This includes both state-vs-nonstate
clashes (e.g. the imperial conquest of native polities, or state control vs. self-governance of the internet
community) and conflicts between states (e.g. division of the high seas). Such contestation is enacted
through territorial practices (see below). Territorialization is rarely reversed or even briefly halted
(such as in the Antarctic). Once territories are created they tend to stick around, and when they
dissolve, they are integrated into some reterritorialized order.
I use empty space’ to refer to a space that is constructed around the idea of emptiness. This does not
imply being empty of features such as terrain or people. What actors wish to convey when they treat
a space as empty is that it is free from control by any government they recognize as their equal. In the
past, this meant that states or other polities that did not pass the ‘standard of civilization’ (Gong 1984)
were deemed inadequate of recognition, making their lands eligible for the designation of emptiness
(Fisch 1988). Semantically, the inscription of emptiness uses signifiers like ‘lawless’, ‘beyond the law’,
‘beyond national jurisdiction’ or more prosaic formulations like ‘Wild West’ or ‘frontier’ (also Scott
2009: 3).
Discourses of emptiness are an important instrument in legitimizing territorial claims.
I use ‘empty spaceto distinguish these discourses from the more specific and politically charged notion of
‘ungovernedspaces or territories. Discourses of ‘ungoverned spacesare widespread in Western security
and development policy communities (Clunan/Trinkunas 2010), usually referring to spaces within fragile or
failed states where the state is unable to exercise authority. These discourses are often criticized for their
securitizing character, legitimizing interventions in these spaces (Schetter 2013). Furthermore, the idea of
‘ungovernednessis no less misleading – these spaces have variegated governance arrangements whose
common features is that they are organized and run by non-state actors and authorites (Risse 2011). To avoid
these associations I prefer to speak of ‘emptyrather than ‘ungovernedspaces.
Taken together, this leads us to a new appreciation of territory. Brighenti sums it up well: (T)erritory
is better conceived as an act or practice rather than object or physical space (Brighenti 2010: 53, also
Elden 2013). He argues that we should analyze how actors and technologies produce territory. This
allows for a more fluid understanding of territories that is sensitive to the mutual constitution of agent
and structure. Thinking about territorial practices allows us to ask how practices constitute spaces and
how these spaces impact future practices.
In my understanding of practice I follow the definition
offered by Adler and Pouliot: ‘practices are socially meaningful patterns of action, which, in being
performed more or less competently, simultaneously embody, act out, and possibly reify background
knowledge and discourse in and on the material world’ (Adler/Pouliot 2011: 4). They identify five
elements of practice: (1) practices are performative, (2) practices follow regular patterns without
determining behavior, (3) practices are interpreted and understood in terms of social relations, (4)
practices depend on background knowledge that gives them a particular purpose, and (5) practices link
discourses with the material world because the discourses give meaning to the act (Adler/Pouliot 2011:
6-7). I define territorial practices as those practices whose performance embody political claims with
reference to a space. Territorial practices can a priori be performed by any actor although in this paper
I will limit the following discussion to territorializing practices by states. Based on suggestions from
Blacksell (2006: 21-27) and Vollaard (2009) I suggest the following taxonomy of state territorial
1. Reification of a territory, e.g. on maps, as a statistical category, in art.
2. Communication of territorial control through symbols and boundary-markers.
3. Enforcement of claims through regular displays of power, e.g. patrols, policing, taxation, law-
making, or surveillance.
4. Integration of the territory, i.e. connecting center and periphery.
Causes of Territorialization
States lay claim to empty spaces, establish control and defend their claims against rivals, using the
range of territorial practices laid out in the previous section. But what drives states (and private actors,
with whom they cooperate during territorialization episodes) to act in this way? My account of
territorialization rests on two theoretical foundations: a political economy approach drawing on
theories of capitalism in the tradition of Marx and Luxemburg and the post-Marxist geographies of
Mitchell (1991) argues that practices of boundary-drawing are vital to the production of the state as an effect.
Sevilla-Buitrago (2015) discusses the economic strategy of enclosure as a territorial practice.
Rasmussen and Lund (2018: 393-396) offer a similar taxonomy of the dimensions of territorialization even as
they use a different apprach, distinguishing between (1) establishing political authority, citizenship and
property rights, (3) communicating territory via boundaries and maps; and (4) enforcement.
Harvey and Lefebvre, and an English School approach that views international society as ordered by
great power politics and shared norms. While these theories address different questions, they share
an appreciation of history and offer systemic explanations of macro-level processes.
The causes of
territorialization are systemic in that they cannot be reduced to individual action even as they are
constituted by it. This follows Cox’s notion of a ‘historical structure’ which ‘does not determine actions
in any direct, mechanical way but imposes pressures and constraints. Individuals and groups may move
with the pressures or resist and oppose them, but they cannot ignore them’ (Cox 1981: 135). As a basic
ontology, I view the contemporary international system as the momentary product of historical forces.
Historical development is never even or unidirectional and inequality is pervasive and entrenched. And
yet, there is a scope for contingency and change.
Marxist economic geography has long highlighted how spaces are formed by the exigencies of a
transforming capitalism (Brenner 1999). In his seminal works, Henri Lefebvre (1991, 2009) has
developed the idea that capitalism has ‘passed from the production of things in space to the
production of space itself’ (Lefebvre 2009: 186). Capitalism rests on a ‘pulverization of space by private
property’ into ‘interchangeable fragments’ (Lefebvre 2009: 189), commoditizing previously
unoccupied spaces (Lefebvre 2009: 212, similarly Polanyi 1944). David Harvey expands upon Lefebvre’s
idea by arguing that capitalism alleviates periodic crises of accumulation through ‘geographical
extension’ (Harvey 2001: 255) into new regions. But while Marx was relatively sketchy on geographical
details, Rosa Luxemburg was more explicit. Luxemburg’s notion of Landnahme (‘land grabs’), which
has recently been rediscovered by critics of capitalism like Dörre (2009), has been particularly
influential. Luxemburg posits that the continuous accumulation of capital can only be sustained by
regularly opening up new markets which will inevitably cease once there are no more precapitalist
societies in which to expand (Harvey 2001: 251). By linking capitalist development and geopolitics, this
provides an explanation of colonialism and imperialism (Bieler et al. 2016).
We can learn from the above discussion that capitalism views empty space as a site of unused
resources: ‘Global capitalism commodifies nature, life, and labor by incorporating resources, peoples,
activities, and lands that were previously controlled by non-capitalist modes of arranging the social
order and the environment’ (Rasmussen/Lund 2018: 393).
Tellingly, the German cadastral system
See Jung (2001) and Cox (1981) for similar structuralist arguments integrating political and economic
explanations. These perspectives are antidotes against the prevalent division of analytical labour between
International Relations and International Political Economy scholarship (Koddenbrock 2017, Mastanduno
Harvey is less convinced of the inevitability of capitalism’s eventual collapse than Marx or Luxemburg. He
acknowledges that technological innovations like the railroad, the automobile or telecommunications have
allowed capitalism to reinvent its own territorial division of labor and increase the speed at which capital is
able to travel (Harvey 2001: 325).
The related literatures on enclosure as a technique of commodifying the commons (Sevilla-Buitrago 2015)
defines areas that feature no buildings and little to no plant growth, e.g. dunes or scree, as ‘Unland’ –
impliying that land only becomes proper ‘land’ through the possibility of exploitation. This is also how
‘frontier’ explanations tend to work, by speaking of ‘the absorption of peripheral regions by an
expanding capitalism’ (Cleary 1993: 331, Rasmussen/Lund 2018, Geiger 2008). Steinberg extends a
similar logic to the oceans which ‘become increasingly crucial to hyper-mobile capital but also
increasingly lucrative as locations for placing spatially fixed investments and/or engaging in
unsustainable rates of resource extraction(Steinberg 2001: 209).
This economic approach is powerful and it takes us a long way, but is not quite sufficient. For one, it is
determinist. For another, territorialization episodes do not necessarily occur during crises of
accumulation but also at other times. It underestimates the role of politics and of technology (more
on that later). As for politics, I see two countervailing forces affecting the process of territorialization,
one propelling it, the other opposing. Both of these forces can be gleaned from the English School
argument about the ‘expansion of international society’ (Bull/Watson 1984).
The notion of an international society refers to a system of states that are bound together through a
normative structure of basic rules governing their conduct. One of these rules is the mutual recognition
of sovereignty (for an overview of recent debates about recognition see Bartelson 2013). In
philosophical terms, recognition only matters when it is freely conferred by someone of equal status.
That is why states form a ‘recognition regime’ (Griffiths 2017) that organizes relations of mutual
recognition to safeguard states’ ontological security. Interstate relations are maintained through
diplomatic practices that stabilize states as sovereign agents in global politics and other mechanisms
of institutional isomorphism (Meyer et al. 1997). Recognition is a filtering technique. It distinguishes
the acceptable and the civilized from the unacceptable and barbaric. Hence, recognition regimes are
exclusive as much as inclusive. This recognition regime is so strong that great powers engage in implicit
coordination when it comes to the recognition of de facto states, even when they have divergent
national interests (Coggins 2014). Recognition by non-state polities is meaningless for states. So, on
that level, states have no incentive to tolerate the existence of non-state polities. Worse, admitting
non-state polities into the international system risks unravelling the ‘organized hypocrisy(Krasner
1999) of sovereignty. This is why states refrain from extending diplomatic relations to non-state actors,
at least officially, and why non-state polities so often seek recognition as sovereign states. This
intolerance vis-à-vis non-state entities is a crucial element underpinning exclusionary practices in
international society in that it allows members of the international society to withhold recognition
and on land-grabbing (Peluso/Lund 2011, Corson/MacDonald 2012) make the same point.
While this standard view of the globalization of the system of states has been criticized for its euro-centrism
(Ejdus 2014) and its inattentiveness towards regional variation (Phillips 2016), it is still influential in IR.
from non-members and thereby justify imperialism and conquest (Gong 1984). The upshot is that
international society views non-state spaces as anathema. Taylor speaks of interterritoriality to
indicate the presumption that every section of occupied land across the world is the sovereign territory
of some state. […] In the modern world-system there can be no empty political spaces:
interterritoriality abhors a political vacuum’ (Taylor 1995: 3-4).
Although the normative structure of international society predisposes states towards territorialization,
there are instances where great powers oppose it. They may (momentarily) prevent territorialization
or slow it down, as in the case of Antarctica or Outer Space, or they may be unsuccessful, as in the case
of UNCLOS. Great powers are leaders among states and legitimize their exalted status ‘by accepting
special responsibilities as well as claiming special rights(Cui/Buzan 2016: 182). Such states may
oppose territorialization for two reasons.
First, they tend to be status quo-oriented, preferring to
maintain the international system as it is. Second, great powers profit most from unregulated
situations. There is a substantial literature in strategic studies discussing how ‘command of the
commons’ underpins the hegemony of the United States (Posen 2003, Weitz 2009). This became visible
during the negotiations leading to UNCLOS where superpowers prioritized access for their warships
and submarines to EEZs and through international straits (Vogler 2012: 65, see also Freeman 2016).
It is the combination of the capitalist drive to valorize unused spaces with the normative pressure not
to tolerate non-state spaces, tempered by great power politics that explain the process of
territorialization. This process takes a particular form. In contrast to earlier imperial times of the 15th-
16th centuries, territory is no longer acquired by force and flag-planting has lost much of its symbolic
power. Instead, territorialization is accomplished through the symbols and practices of international
law as the language through which modern notions of rationality and equality are expressed in global
politics (Jung 2001, Koskenniemi 2007). Any form of enclosure must be legalized through contracts,
parliamentary acts, court decisions and laws (Fitzmaurice 2014). The Berlin Conference (1884-1885)
was the harbinger of this way of dividing colonial spaces not in a free-for-all, but through negotiation
and treaty, both among imperial powers but also between colonial agents and local chiefs (Maier 2016:
This is more complex than this paper can address. In brief, great powers are not opposed to territorialization
per se, especially when they are the ones doing the territorializing. In the Scramble for Africa, territorialization
itself was a strategy of conflict management among great powers. In contrast, in the Antarctic, where the
superpowers were only indirectly involved, a similar great power conflict led to non-territorialization.
The Historicity of Territorialization
This last point underscores a crucial limit of my theory it is restricted to the present international
As previously mentioned, states in other eras were more willing to tolerate empty spaces. A
confluence of processes has changed that, with the current set of causes being in effect since about
the mid-19th century. In his magisterial history of ideas, Elden (2013) has demonstrated that the
meaning of ‘territory’ has been historically contingent, with our current interpretation of exclusive
territoriality bound to the sovereign state only coalescing in the early modern era. And since then, we
can observe practical changes that only led to the emergence of a national figuration of territory,
authority and rights in the 19th century (Sassen 2006). This political assemblage, as Sassen calls it, has
had a twofold effect. The first is the empirical hegemony of the state power container within its
territorial boundaries, which overpowered alternative centers of power and assimilated self-governed
peoples into its state-nation. Up until the 19th century, ‘the difficulties of transportation, the state of
military technology, and, above all, demographic realities placed sharp limits on the reach of even the
most ambitious states(Scott 2009: 4). But with the spread of new technologies of rule, the friction of
terrain diminished, expanding the reach of the state within its borders. The second is the intellectual
hegemony of the nation-state form as the standard and nearly exclusive unit of sovereignty(Scott
2009: 11). Modern states had started displacing other forms of polities earlier, but in the 19th century,
they started to fully come into their own, delimiting hard borders in place of fuzzy frontier spaces. As
Buzan and Little put it, ‘(t)he modern state tightened up the inside/outside construction of world
politics(Buzan/Little 2000: 245) in this era. Its ascendancy has also been accompanied by the first
globalization (in the true sense of the term) of the international system (Bull/Watson 1984).
But this was not merely a political process. As indicated, technological development also played a huge
part. New communications, transport and military technologies expanded the scope of state control
(Buzan/Little 2000: 276), as did scientific techniques of land surveying and the management of the
body politic (Carroll 2006, Mukerji 2010, Baber 1996). Maier’s (2016) history of territory shows how
modernist visions, struggles for political status and recognition, geopolitical imaginaries, technological
development and dreams of economic progress congealed in the mid- to late 19th century (not always
smoothly) to provide the impetus for state-building, both internally and externalized via empires.
Technological and political change was accompanied by changes in capitalism, where the Industrial
Revolution and the rise of the market society led to the ‘great transformation’ of economy and society
(Polanyi 1944). This had been fed by the enclosure of formerly public land into systems of private
landownership, which was distinctive by its reliance on new legal frameworks and new practical
techniques. This shift towards the commodification of land was underpinned byand in turn fed
On the historicity of the current international system see Ferguson and Mansbach (1996).
the consolidation of modern states as territorial agencies fostering a new rationale of abstraction and
calculation’, opening a ‘path towards spatial homogenization(Sevilla-Buitrago 2015: 1006).
Territorializing Episodes
Territorialization is not a continuous or smooth process. It proceeds in fits and starts and is only rarely
and briefly reversed. There is no automatic mechanism that leads states to territorialize empty spaces
as soon as they become aware of them. Instead, territorialization occurs in episodes that kick off when
the conditions are right. These episodes often produce substantial territorial advances in empty spaces
before reverting to a more placid situation.
I propose that a territorializing episode occurs when two
necessary conditions are jointly present. The first that there are impelling economic prospects of
territorialization, the second is that great powers are unable or unwilling to prevent territorialization.
If either of these conditions is absent, territorialization does not occur unless the underlying conditions
change. These conditions are themselves determined by deeper-lying political and economic
structures (see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: Conditions of (non-)territorialization
This framework is similar to Rasmussen and Lund’s (2018) theory of ‘frontier dynamics’. There are three main
differences: First, Rasmussen and Lund focus on peripheral spaces within states while my focus is on spaces
external to the state. Second, my approach also applies to uninhabited space of a non-terrestrial (high seas,
outer space) or virtual nature (cyberspace). Third, my approach to territorialization does not focus as much
on the problem of resource control.
Before a territorializing episode may occur, a space must be constructed as empty. This is, in a sense,
a precondition to the factors that make up Fig. 1. Construction implies three elements: Identification
means viewing a particular site or set of relationships as a space and describing its spatial limits.
Reification is to treat a space as having an ontological existence, as something ‘that is there’, e.g. by
giving it a name. While identification and reification construct the space, inscription gives it meaning.
‘Emptiness’ is inscribed into the space by portraying it as disorderly, lawless, ungoverned,
‘uninhabited’, ‘uncivilized’ etc., making it into a blank slate upon which observers can project their own
interpretations (Rasmussen/Lund 2018: 392). Such constructions of emptiness usually exist long before
any attempt at territorialization is feasible, as has been demonstrated e.g. for the high seas (Steinberg
2001, Ryan 2015) or the deep sea-bed (Rozwadowski 2001).
The availability of technologies to control and extract value from empty spaces is a crucial background
condition of territorialization (Vogler 2012: 61-62). Technology is more than just artifacts and also
includes infrastructures and background knowledge that are necessary to make use of particular
It can also refer to ‘technologies of rule’, i.e. techniques that institutions and actors deploy to
exert control. As examples of the latter, Scott (1998) refers to cartography, demographics, land
registers, and natural resource governance as technologies that states have developed to more
efficiently penetrate and govern societies and spaces (see also Harvey 1990: 228-229, Maier 2016: 11).
These technologies create ‘affordances’ that enable states to act in and upon the space. Giddens
(1985) has highlighted the central role of surveillance in establishing state control. Surveillance is both
symbolically important and makes other kinds of governance possible, from everyday management to
force projection. It is important to note that technology does not ‘fall from the heavens’. It emerges
and is shaped by social forces, but neither is it a mere extension of political and economic structures.
Instead, technology facilitates social action even as its development is influenced by the same social
actors. As a corollary, when actors wish to territorialize empty space, they will support the
development of the necessary technologies if these are not already available.
The first necessary condition of territorialization are impelling economic prospects. These are
determined by a calculation of the likely payoffs and costs. Without such prospects, states may have
the capability to territorialize a space but would lack the motivation to do so. As the example of mineral
resources underneath the seabed illustrates, these incentives are dependent on markets as prices
rise and fall, interests will wax and wane (Economist 2009). I speak of states here because they remain
important actors in neoliberal capitalism, as the literatures on ‘economic nationalism’ (Pickel 2003,
Helleiner 2002, Harmes 2012) and ‘resource nationalism’ (Childs 2016, Pryke 2017) demonstrate.
The importance of technology for the continued expansion of capitalism is highlighted by Lefebvre (2009:
189) and Harvey (1990: 233).
States frequently cooperate with private interests during territorializing episodes, since they often lack
the requisite capital and technical expertise to mount these projects by themselves (Flint 1988).
Examples abound, from the Dutch East India Company to public-private joint ventures that prospect
for mineral resources on the deep seabed. In such a division of labor states follow the trails blazed by
private entrepreneurs, provide opportunities to hedge individual risks by guaranteeing exploitation
rights, award contracts or delegate quasi-official authority to private enterprises. Maier frames the
mutual benefits of such cooperation thusly: ‘establishing and developing territory allows private
benefits even as it generates public goods. It thus provides the spatial foundation for differentially
benefiting subjects within but sufficiently for the general resident (at least those not forcibly subjected
to servitude or colonial conquest) to nurture consent, loyalty, and legitimacy. The history of
territorialization incorporates a continuing dialectic of public possibilities and private appropriation
(Maier 2016: 8). In sum, the opening-up of new resource beyond the sovereign container incentivizes
economically nationalist states to seek access and make these resources available for capitalist
exploitation through techniques of enclosure.
However, such economic concerns cannot always be disentangled from other motives, especially
security or status concerns. In fact, during many episodes we can see how these concerns intermingle.
The Scramble for Africa was not just a competition about resource access but also about being
recognized as a great power, for whom colonies were an absolute must-have in the age of imperialism.
In discussions about the creation of EEZs, developing countries often associated control over ‘their’
natural resources not just with economic benefits but also in terms of sovereignty and autonomy.
Claims for the continental shelf underneath the Arctic are often couched in terms of security, even
though these spaces ostensibly only affect commercial exploitation rights. In her history of seabed
cartography, Rozwadowski (2001) argues that the birth of marine science in the mid-19th century
derived from a confluence of scientific, commercial, political and cultural interests in the oceans.
Vogler points out that economic benefits from commoditizing the commons are frequently overstated,
arguing ‘that attempts to extend sovereign territory and diminish the global commons may sometimes
have more to do with national identity, prestige and statehood than any real or immediate economic
returns(Vogler 2012: 70). Nonetheless, the economics still matter states will rarely territorialize a
space under the expectation that they will lose money.
The second necessary condition is that great powers are unwilling or unable to prevent
territorialization. This requires that all great powers cooperate in opposing a territorialization attempt.
Examples include Antarctica, where Soviet and US pressure was instrumental in putting the race for
ever more expansive territorial claims in abeyance through the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), or outer
space, where the same powers agreed not to allow territorial claims to be made on the moon and
other celestial bodies. Given the vagueness of the term ‘great power’, this has to factor in geographic
proximity. For instance, China is able to act as a great power in the South China Sea, but not in the
Arctic. Great powers have substantial powers of area command or at least area denial, i.e. the
capability to deny the use of a space to others (Posen 2003: 8). Theories of ‘seapower’, ‘spacepower’
etc. provide blueprints how power should be used in an area to maximize the comparative advantage
in power projection (Bowen 2019). In terms of the territorial practices outlined above, great powers
can use these and other capabilities to oppose territorialization. At the level of reification, states can
offer competing representations of a space. In terms of communication, great powers can ignore
boundaries, e.g. through Freedom of Navigation Exercises (FONOPs) in disputed waters. The
enforcement of claims can be prevented by threatening retaliation. And finally, the integration of a
territory can be opposed by preventing access and disrupting links between center and periphery as,
e.g., during the Berlin blockade of 1948.
I wish to stress that states exercise substantial agency in shaping these conditions. States use military
means for economic ends and take an active role in stimulating technological development, e.g.
through research funding or by actively commissioning innovations. A current example of this is state
demand for surveillance technology to more efficiently track internet users’ behavior, which is met by
a range of commercial operators continuing to refine their products in response. Furthermore, what
constitutes an impelling incentive is not just down to pure economics but a subjective assessment
which may also change over time. States may also put their own ‘spin’ on a situation to over- or
underplay an incentive to obfuscate other motives for territorialization.
Research Design
I conduct two comparative case studies, one of the Scramble for Africa and one of the extension of the
territorial sea from three to twelve miles in UNCLOS. These serve as plausibility probes to validate the
assumptions of the framework. The Scramble for Africa may be considered the paradigmatic case of
this phenomenon. It is well-researched, frequently discussed in terms of territorial division, and the
moniker ‘scramble’ has since been adopted for other, similar processes. In contrast, the extension of
the territorial sea rarely gets much attention beyond a narrow group of legal historians. The two cases
can be considered ‘Most Different, Similar Outcome’ (De Meur/Berg-Schlosser 1994) in that the
outcome the territorialization of empty space was the same in spite of the many differences
between the cases. These differences lay, e.g. in the temporal dimension (late 19th century versus mid-
to late-20th century) and the attendant shifts in global balance of power. Also, where the Scramble for
Africa was about one (huge) specific space, the territorial sea consists of spaces scattered across the
globe. Moreover, Africa was inhabited by an indigenous population with its own political structures
whereas the sea only supports transitory human life. Finally, the cases juxtapose terrestrial and
maritime territories, underscoring that the materiality of these spaces matters for how control can be
exercised, even though it leads to the same overall outcome.
The cases were selected to be representative of a larger population of cases. This population consists
of empty spaces, defined as spaces that are constructed as being beyond de jure national control.
Territorialization is complete when such a space has been divided, demarcated, and placed under the
formal control of one or more states.
Table 1 contains prominent examples of territorialized and non-
territorialized empty spaces, without claiming to be exhaustive. For instance, there are more examples
of functional territories, such as the 1,000-mile limits for data requests under the Long Range
Identification of Ships’ Data Distribution Plan or the nationally administered
Navigational/Meteorologial Areas (NAVAREA/METAREA) that are part of the Global Maritime Distress
Safety System. Not all of the territories, e.g. EEZs and Air Defense Identification Zones, grant ‘sovereign
rights’, meaning that states only have specific powers and responsibilities there. Also, not all of these
spaces can be physically located (such as the radiowave frequency spectrum and the Dark Web).
Table 1: Cases of Territorialization and Non-Territorialization
Scramble for Africa
High seas
I make a similar argument for cyberspace which represents a hybrid of ‘virtualand physical spaces in a
recently published paper (Lambach 2019).
A number of qualifications are in order: ‘Spaceincludes geographical and social space whose construction
involves an inscription of emptiness. The criterion of de jure control distinguishes empty spaces from ‘areas
of limited statehood(Risse 2011), ‘ungoverned spaces(Clunan/Trinkunas 2010) and ‘frontier spaces
(Rasmussen/Lund 2018) which are characterized by a de facto absence of national control within a state
Control should not be conflated with sovereignty. Though control is associated with states, this can also
involve an international body in some substantive fashion. For instance, the International
Telecommunications Union exercises substantial authority over the division of the radiowave frequency
spectrum and satellite slots in geosynchronous orbit (Collis 2017). This has to be distinguished from other
kinds of space-making in international governance. For instance, the deep seabed cannot be considered a
case of territorialization because the space has been placed under the authority of the International Seabed
Authority (ISA) with only very limited delegation of spaces to states in the form of multinational, public-
private exploration contracts. There are also functional territories that are administered by international
organisations or some other form of multistakeholder governance, such as those territories administered by
Regional Fisheries Management Organisations or under the UNEP Regional Seas Programme. Marine
Protected Areas, which have been enacted in territorial waters, international waters and across maritime
boundaries, showcase the variety of governance modes of such functional territories.
Theoretically, the notion of territorialization could be extended to also cover processes as e.g. Lövbrand and
Stripple (2006) do with reference to the carbon cycle, and social spaces like markets or translocal
communities. The IPE literature on ‘regulatory spacesalready points in that direction (Varone et al. 2013).
Territorial sea
Deep seabed
Contiguous zones
Exclusive Economic Zones
Moon (and other celestial bodies)
Search and Rescue Zones
Low-Earth Orbit
Arctic continental shelf
Dark Web
American frontier
Russian expansion into Central Asia
Airspace and the atmosphere
Radiowave frequency spectrum
Geosynchronous Orbit
Air Defense Identification Zones
Flight Information Region
Case Studies
The case studies proceed in a similar order: They first introduce the space as being constructed around
the notion of emptiness and then briefly describe the territorializing episode. I then discuss the role of
technology in the episode and inhowfar it was caused by impelling economic prospects and not
prevented by great powers.
Terrestrial Territorialization: The Scramble for Africa
The ‘Scramble for Africa’ refers to the partition of the African continent among European imperial
powers between about 1881 (the French proclamation of a protectorate over Tunis) or 1882 (the
British occupation of Egypt after the ‘Urabi Revolt), and 1913, when virtually the entire continent,
except Ethiopia, Liberia and South Africa, had come under control of Great Britain, France, Germany,
Portugal, Italy, Spain, or, in case of the Congo Free State, the Belgian King Leopold II personally. Thirty
new colonies and protectorates had been created, covering more than 10 million square miles of new
territory and ruling over 110 million new subjects (Pakenham 1991: xv). Most of the colonial powers
had controlled minor territories along the African coast, some as early as the 16th century, but none
had ever accumulated territory in the interior. So while it should not be a surprise that Africa should
eventually fall under imperial domination, the timing and speed of partition is noteworthy.
The African interior had always been constructed through racially charged notions of emptiness. In his
Philosophy of History, Georg Wilhelm Hegel described the entire continent as the Gold-land
compressed within itself - the land of childhood, which lying beyond the day of self-conscious history,
is enveloped in the dark mantle of Night(cited in Harlow 2003: 13). The widespread appelation of the
‘Dark Continent’ combined notions of obscurity with savagery (Chamberlain 2010: 17). And much of
19th century thinking built upon the premise that Africa needed to be ‘discovered’, reducing Africans
to mere background details of the staggering landscape (Reid 2009: 132). These racist visions
translated into legal arguments of Africa ‘as vacant: legally res nullius, a no-man's land(Pakenham
1991: xv, see also Fisch 1988). Colonizers distinguished their occupation of African lands from conquest
by arguing ‘that they were taking things that belonged to nobody(Fitzmaurice 2014: 8).
In the imperial mind, Africa seemed a continent ripe for the taking. But the Scramble was less a process
of cunning imperialists carving up a continent, but more of colonial powers stumbling unprepared into
a spiral of territorial annexation. Reid appropriately describes it as a largely uncoordinated, often
headlong rush from the coast into the hinterland and beyond, a multitude of military advances and
engagements interspersed by diplomatic interactions, which resulted - ultimately - in the demarcation
of some of the most bizarre territorial entities in modern global history(Reid 2009: 145). The origins
of the Scramble cannot be attributed to one country alone but have to be located in the interaction
among colonial powers. As late as 1882, few European powers professed an interest in establishing
permanent territorial control in Africa, but with an escalating Anglo-French rivalry in West Africa,
spurred by the rising power of Germany, an ‘annexationist vortex(Sanderson 1975: 27) emerged that
drew European countries into its gyre.
The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 played an important role in regulating the Scramble (Förster et al.
1988). With its focus on the Congo question, it was not that the entire continent was divided by lines
drawn on a map, although important boundary decisions were made, if ‘arbitrarily and speedily’
(Hargreaves 1960: 98). The conference was also important in that it established the ground rules by
which the partition of Africa would be conducted, especially through the principle of ‘effective
occupation’ (Fisch 1988). This served to manage and contain conflict among European powers, and as
a result, the partition remained remarkably free of conflict between colonial powers. Well-known
incidents like the ‘Race to Fashoda’, where British and French expeditions sought to buttress claims
over the Upper Nile river basin, were a rarity and could be defused diplomatically.
In most accounts of the Scramble, the role of technology looms large. A big reason why Europeans had
been content to confine their activities to the coasts for centuries had been that they were unable to
project power into the hinterlands. The unforgiving geography (forests, mountains, deserts) made
large expeditions difficult, and tropical diseases like malaria and yellow fever decimated Europeans
with no immunity to their effects. Historians point to four key technological advances, all of which
occurred in the mid- to late 19th century, as facilitating European colonialism in Africa: river steamboats
to navigate African rivers which were the gateway to the interior, anti-malarial prophylaxis to maintain
a long-term presence of European settler, administrators and soldiers, the repeating rifle and machine
guns which cemented the military advantage over Africans, and the telegraph and faster ocean-going
ships to reduce the communications lag between colonies and the metropole (Headrick 1981, Goh
2013). These technologies drastically reduced the costs of establishing permanent political control.
They were developed by industrialists and scientists, sometimes working directly on commission of the
state, sometimes selling them to the government or government-affiliated private agents.
With technology making imperialism theoretically feasible, the economics of it have been a subject of
lengthy debate, going as far back as Hobson’s and later Lenin’s theory of imperialism whereby
capitalism expands through the creation of new markets in the colonies (Goh 2013: 14-15). This thesis
has been hotly contested and the historical evidence for it is scant. But it is undeniable that economics
did play a role in motivating European powers to conquer Africa, not because they wanted to secure
captive consumer markets but because they wanted to secure access to raw materials and labor. With
the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 19th century and the maturing of European
industrial capitalism by the mid-19th century, the position of Africa in the emerging global structure of
capitalism changed from a supplier of slaves to a supplier of other resources that European industries
demanded like palm oil, rubber, groundnuts, cotton, cocoa or gold (Maier 2016: 217, Bull 1984: 107-
108). In many cases, prospects mattered more than immediate gains, with Europeans making wildly
optimistic projections and ‘convinced of the existence of vast untapped wealth and copious raw
materials in the African interior(Reid 2009: 136).
The interaction between states and private actors is noteworthy here. European traders had operated
in Africa long before the Scramble, organizing the exchange of goods with African counterparts. Most
of them were quite content with the system of ‘informal empire’ up until the 1870s as long as their
security was guaranteed, whether by African rule or imperial protection. In fact, merchants were
sometimes unhappy with the scope of colonial intrusion as it limited their commercial freedom
(Hargreaves 1960: 101). These limitations were becoming more pronounced during the general shift
towards national protectionism among European states following the start of the Great Depression in
1873. In line with their economic policies back home, states started to restrict the freedom of foreign
European traders in their African enclaves, producing an all-round pressure for every state to grab
their markets and their sources of raw materials while they could (Chamberlain 2010: 93).
Furthermore, these economic concerns were intimately tied into security and status concerns.
Economic incentives were weighed against alliance considerations in Europe. To many supporters of
imperialism, making territorial claims in Africa was an imperative necessity for a Great Power that
wished to remain great(Sanderson 1975: 41). Any state that did not partake in the Scramble risked
losing ground to its rivals in the grand competition of powers. The result was a process by which
territory was not (only) acquired because it promised great riches but (also) to preclude acquisition by
other powers (Maier 2016: 221-222).
This brings the question of great power politics to the fore. Up until the 1870s, Great Britain was able
to block territorializing attempts due to its naval superiority. With its ability to maintain ‘informal
empire’, using the Cape Colony and client states in Zanzibar and Egypt as proxies, Great Britain resisted
the establishment of protectorates and colonies (except in White settler colonies, see Robinson et al.
1961: 8). Such formal territories were deemed costly and unnecessary to maintain uninterrupted
international trade (Goh 2013: 21). But as British paramountcy unravelled, no power was able to
prevent other states from making territorial claims. Sanderson puts it quite bluntly: ‘no partition could
have taken place had Britain been able and willing to defend her unofficial empire against
annexationist interlopers(Sanderson 1975: 12). Britain’s paramountcy was upended by its eroding
naval hegemony and the entry of new powers like an assertive Germany who used British rivalries with
France and Belgium to its advantage (Fitzmaurice 2014: 282). Another reason was that France, long
the only European country to be considered a serious rival to Great Britain in Africa, adopted a less
conciliatory colonial policy especially in West Africa. Given the scale of these power shifts, Great Britain
was unable and, as the occupation of Egypt underscores, no longer unwilling to prevent territorializing
Oceanic Territorialization: The Expansion of Territorial Waters Beyond the Three-Mile
The high seas may seem like the quintessential ‘empty space’, shapeless and ever-changing, with an
alien materiality that is inhospitable to human settlement. This is in line with a modern reading of the
sea as a space, akin to the air, that cannot be tamed and regulated. As Steinberg (2001) elaborates in
his monograph The Social Construction of the Ocean, geopolitics constructed the ocean as an empty
space upon which states then projected their claims of power and supremacy. This has served as the
foundation for a creeping process of territorialization: ‘Since the middle of the 20th century, states
have continually sought to push back frontiers at sea in order to exploit all available resources.
Maritime activities, long confined to coastal waters, have steadily expanded in step with the
globalization of trade’ (Houghton/Rochette 2014: 81, see also Glassner 1990, Ryan 2015).
As a case study, I will focus on one particular episode of territorialization on the high seas, the
expansion of territorial waters from the 1950s to the 1980s, specifically the First Anglo-Icelandic ‘Cod
War’. Territorial waters are defined in the 1982 UNCLOS as the coastal waters of a state stretching 12
nautical miles (22.2 km) from the coast. Territorial waters are treated as an extension of the sovereign
territory of the state, giving it near-absolute control over this space, with the exception of certain
navigational rights (innocent passage or transit passage) for foreign civilian ships. This 1982 definition
represented the culmination of discussions and conflicts spanning decades, if not centuries. Since the
18th century, most states claimed a three-mile territorial sea (Walker 1945, Kent 1954) based on
antecedents going back to antiquity (Fenn 1926). But in the 20th century, this practice, never properly
codified, began to fray in some blunt instances of Landnahme. First, states claimed rights over fish
stocks beyond the limit and resources in the continental shelf extending beyond their territorial
waters. Some also claimed special rights in the 12-mile area just beyond the territorial sea, e.g. for
purposes of law enforcement. In 1945, the United States unilaterally claimed a right to create fish
conservation zones in the high seas, contiguous with its shores(Bar-Noi 2015: 197). Spurred by this
move, Latin American states such as Chile, Ecuador and Peru started to claim 200-mile territorial
waters in 1947 while many other countries extended their claims to the 12-mile line (Stone 1955).
During the period 1950-1982, a wide variety of territorial waters claims, from 2 to 200 miles, could be
found until UNCLOS settled the limits of territorial waters at 12 miles, with a contiguous zone extending
another twelve and the EEZ stretching 200 miles from the coastal baseline.
These extensions of maritime claims were not uncontested. A well-known instance of conflict arising
out of this were the so-called Cod Wars between Iceland and the United Kingdom (this account is
mainly drawn from Jóhannesson 2004).
British fishing vessels had long fished in the North Atlantic.
Icelandic attempts to claim fishing grounds beyond their 3-mile territorial sea had been rebuffed in the
19th and early 20th century but in the 1950s, against the backdrop of changing practices in other
countries, Iceland again made an extended territorial claim, first to 4 miles with a more favorable
baseline calculation (1952) and then to 12 miles (1958). After the first extension had already led to a
tense conflict between Iceland and the United Kingdom, the second set off the First Cod War. British
naval vessels accompanied their fishing fleet into disputed areas and there were several standoffs at
sea, with warning shots fired between Icelandic patrol boats and British trawlers and navy vessels. The
Cod War was settled in 1961, after Iceland threatened to withdraw from NATO, with an agreement
that was very favorable for Iceland. Two further Cod Wars (1972-1973 and 1975-1976) briefly flared
up over Icelandic claims for fishing rights in what was to become its EEZ, again with Iceland emerging
The Cod Wars have provided an interesting object of study for IR scholars of the democratic peace
(Hellmann/Herborth 2008, Steinsson 2017a) and for neorealists wondering why the weaker power was able
to prevail in each instance (Steinsson 2017b), while geographers and legal scholars have focused on issues of
resource management and the development of international law (Mitchell 1976).
Technological development played an important role in the process and goes some way towards
explaing the timing of this territorializing episode. By the 1950s, several technologies had emerged
that substantially lowered the costs of control over the expanded territorial waters. The first was the
development of patrolling capability in the Icelandic Coast Guard (whose Icelandic name,
Landhelgisgæsla Íslands, directly translates to ‘Territorial Waters Guard’). The Coast Guard had only
been founded in 1926, although single vessels had been used for coastal protection since the 1900s.
By the time of the First Cod War, the Coast Guard had grown to six patrol vessels and one flying boat,
still a relatively small number for such a large oceanic area. Furthermore, only the flagship was
powerful enough to arrest and tow an infringing trawler. The head of the coast guard, Pétur
Sigurdsson, quietly admitted that his vessels were utterly incapable of providing credible law
enforcement inside the new line (Jóhannesson 2004: 559). But this demonstrates that control claims
need not be fully enforcable to matter. As this case shows, symbolically expressing control is at least
as important as being able to exert control, as fishing interdiction was not dependent on the ability to
project force: ‘In normal circumstances an Icelandic gunboat which caught a vessel inside the fishing
limit would order it to stop and fire a blank shot across its bows if the demand was ignored. This almost
always worked because the trawler skippers knew that they could not get supplies and service in
Icelandic ports if they tried to escape the authorities(Jóhannesson 2004: 560).
Other technologies also created vital affordances for the Icelandic government. For one, scientific data
on fish stocks was an important instrument in the dispute, with Iceland and the UK producing different
estimates about the overfishing risks (Mitchell 1976: 137). For another, international legal opinion was
a useful technology to legitimize the extension of territorial waters. In the ‘Fisheries Case’ (United
Kingdom v. Norway 1951), the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decision had legitimized a more
favorable method of establishing the coastal baseline (Jóhannesson 2004: 546), which Iceland used to
justify its 1952 expansion to a four-mile area. The deliberations at the 1958 and 1960 UN Conferences
on the Law of the Sea (UNCLS) bolstered Iceland’s position further. As Brown (1973: 69) notes, Iceland
fought a ‘consistent and intensive campaign’ in the two UNCLS conferences for a twelve-mile limit.
After the failure of the conferences to agree on this limit, the Icelandic government argued that given
the present risks of overfishing, it could not wait for the next UNCLS conference and had to act
unilaterally. The favorable direction of international legal opinion meant that it could do this without
endangering Iceland’s reputation in the international community and, crucially, with its major ally, the
United States (Mitchell 1976: 138, Tomasson 1976, Jóhannesson 2004).
The economic incentives for Iceland are easily understood. Fishing has always been a vital sector of
the Icelandic economy and was the country’s most important export industry in the 1950s
(Ingimundarson 2003, Tomasson 1976). Given growing concerns about overfishing, a collapse of fish
stocks would have endangered the national economy (Jóhannesson 2004: 547). But the territorial
claims had additional significance for Iceland beyond purely economic concerns, ‘such as the nation's
cultural and economic survival (Mitchell 1976: 134). Newly independent Iceland’s membership in
NATO was not uncontroversial and a contentious issue in domestic politics. Accordingly, successive
Icelandic governments did not shy away from questioning their Western alliance commitments if the
perceived hostilities by the United Kingdom were to continue.
But neither should the economic
importance of fisheries to the United Kingdom be underestimated. Even though British fishing fleets
had access to a variety of fishing grounds in the North Atlantic (Bar-Noi 2015), Icelandic waters were
an important area for the domestically influential British trawling industry. Time and again, fishing
operators demanded, and were accorded, protection by Royal Navy ships while fishing in disputed
With technology making an expansion of maritime territoral claims feasible and the economic
incentives lining up, a consistent opposition by great powers might still have prevented this
territorializing episode. On an abstract level, all major ‘blue-water navy’ powers (the United States, the
Soviet Union and the United Kingdom) were united behind the principle of mare liberum, the freedom
of the high seas (Freeman 2016: 21-22). However, their position on territorial waters specifically was
not unified as the Anglo-Russian dispute about British fishing rights in the Barents Sea and the drawn-
out negotiations about a treaty (1953-1956) indicate (Bar-Noi 2015). The USSR had already declared a
12-mile zone in 1927, without enforcing it at first, and moved to put it into practice in the early 1950s.
Positions of the great powers were not even internally consistent. For instance, the United States
opposed the twelve-mile limit in the 1960 UNCLS in spite of its own 1945 claims of special rights beyond
its three-mile territorial sea. Also, geostrategic considerations of the Cold War overrode the more
general question whether to support or oppose an extension of territorial waters.
In the case of the First Cod War, the United States and the USSR even supported the extended Icelandic
claims for different reasons the USSR to strengthen its nascent trading relationship with Iceland, the
United States to placate a vital NATO ally (Mitchell 1976: 132). Out of the three major naval powers,
the United Kingdom took the most hardline stance against any expansion of the three-mile limit, ‘a
principle on which we might be prepared to go to war with the strongest power in the world’, as
Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey asserted in 1911 (cited in Jóhannesson 2004: 545). But with the
United Kingdom’s seapower depleted and their ability and willingness to escalate the conflict with
There are other reasons that militate against an earlier expansion of territorial claims. The most obvious is
that Iceland only became independent in 1944. Iceland was also bound by the Anglo-Danish Territorial Waters
Treaty of 1901 which stipulated a three-mile limit and which Iceland abrogated upon completion of the fifty-
year timeframe stipulated in the treaty.
Iceland limited by the countries’ joint membership in NATO (and under substantial pressure from
Washington), it was ultimately not able to counter Iceland’s claims.
The empirical picture from both cases is in line with the core assumptions of the theoretical model.
First, there were clear economic incentives for states to territorialize. In the Scramble for Africa, this
was mainly driven by hopes of an El Dorado in the African interior but also by a defensive economic
nationalism seeking to secure market access for a nation’s traders. In the Cod War, Iceland wanted
control over fish stocks that were seen as vital for the country’s economic security but that were also
seen as in danger of collapse. It should be highlighted how economic concerns were inseparably
intertwined with status and security considerations in both cases. Absent these incentives, it is difficult
to imagine how and why these episodes could have kicked off like they did.
Second, technological change had made control easier and cheaper, putting artifacts like rifles and
coast guard ships at the disposal of state agents and proxies. This also includes techniques like the
botanic cultivation of cinchona, a vital ingredient in anti-malarial drugs, estimation models for fish
stocks, and legal arguments. Without these technological affordances, states would probably not have
the necessary means to demonstrate ‘effective occupation’ of a territory, in spite of the low bar that
was set for this criterion.
Third, great powers were not capable or willing to prevent territorialization. In both cases, Great Britain
attempted it but was ultimately unsuccessful in the face of great power opposition (the US and USSR
in the Cod War, and France and Germany in the Scramble for Africa). That a great power is theoretically
able to prevent territorialization is demonstrated by the Scramble for Africa. There, the technological
affordances and economic incentives had been in place for some time, but the territorializing episode
only really kicked off once British naval hegemony had been broken and Britain itself changed its
political stance with its occupation of Egypt.
Fourth, technological progress mostly did occur in a bidirectional relationship between ‘private’ actors
(scientists, businessmen) and state agents. River steamboats were developed in close cooperation
between engineers from the private sector and states underwriting their expeditions. Cinchona
cultivation required massive support by the state which brought its imperial assets to the table to
speed up the process.
Notably, both episodes remained remarkably free of violence between territorializing agents.
parties in the Cod War continued to engage in practices of recognition and rules-based interaction.
The Icelandic abrogation of the Anglo-Danish treaty that had previously governed fishing rights in its
waters followed the rules laid out in the treaty, there were on-and-off negotiations between 1952 and
1956 following the four-mile extension, with one part of the dispute (the Faxa Bay delimitation)
referred to the ICJ in 1953. The Scramble was a haphazard, but similarly rules-based contest where
territorial boundaries were negotiated, not settled by force. This case also shows how important
recognition is for the survival of states. The Ethiopian Empire was not seen as a fully ‘civilized’ member
of the community of nations and could thus be targeted for conquest by Italy, first (unsuccessfully) in
1895-1896 and again in 1935-1937.
Both cases also show that territorializing episodes can have a spiral or cascade nature. Similar to the
logic of the security dilemma, once a state makes territorial claims, others have to follow suit so as not
to lose out. The Scramble for Africa is a textbook example of this, and the extension of the territorial
sea, from the earliest claims in the 1940s to its eventual settlement in UNCLOS (1982), can be read in
a similar fashion. Evidently, territorialization has a strong ‘first mover’ advantage, in that it is hard to
overturn early claims as long as these are backed by effective occupation. The reluctance to engage in
violent conquest between recognized states, which we can already see in the Scramble for Africa but
which has become an international norm nowadays (Zacher 2001), solidifies these advantages and
creates strong incentives to make claims.
Finally, it is noteworthy that the framework holds up in spite of the different material environments of
the two cases. The spaces were uninhabited (oceans) and inhabited (Africa); they were terrestrial
(Africa) and oceanic (oceans), meaning that spatial features were constant (Africa) or constantly
shifting (oceans). The most obvious implication is that this required different technologies of control
that were optimized for governing populations (Africa) as opposed to transitory activities (oceans). All
of this is in support of the model, but it is not a claim that materiality is unimportant. Far from it the
materiality of a space, e.g. its composition, topography, and geographic location, affects different
components of the model. First, materiality matters for the possibilities of capitalist exploitation, e.g.
whether oil and gas deposits can be accessed on land or are buried underneath the seabed at a depth
of 4,000+ meters. Second, it strongly affects technological affordances. States need completely
different technological means to control a land-bound population (e.g. census and cadastral systems)
versus an oceanic space (e.g. remote sensing tools). Third, materiality affects the scope for area access
This solely refers to violence between those states driving the territorialization episode. It should not be read
as minimizing the violence that imperial conquest and colonialism enacted on indigenous people.
and area denial. For example, in cyberspace, keeping someone ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a territory is a more
difficult task than when securing a land border.
This paper has argued that in contemporary international society, empty spaces are subject to
episodic processes of territorialization. These episodes occur when the balance of economic costs and
payoffs impels states to action, and when great powers are not capable or willing to prevent
territorialization. The two case studies lend support to these assumptions and show avenues for more
detailed theorizing. For example, I have assumed that constructions of emptiness have been constant
since long before the onset of territorialization. But it can be plausibly hypothesized that states might
play up such narratives as the possibility of territorializing a space presents itself so as to legitimize
their politics, creating a more dynamic approach to these discourses.
We should also keep in mind that the great power competition of the late 19th century (Africa) was
different from the international politics of the late 20th century (oceans). The first was mainly
conducted between a handful of European powers, with other states reducing to being observers or
victims of the agreements. The second took place in a much wider forum, involving 100+ states working
from a more rules-based script. I am therefore confident that the model will broadly be applicable to
other cases of territorialization of spaces beyond national boundaries. The territorialization of the high
seas is an ongoing process, with delimitations of maritime boundaries, continental shelf claims and
various functional territories still ongoing. We can also think about the territorialization of processes
and flows like the carbon cycle (Lövbrand/Stripple 2006). As future cases, Antarctica and outer space
come to mind where conditions for territorialization are not yet ripe.
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... I see cyberspace as being subjected to continuous processes of deterritorialization and commonly associated with the Westphalian state were first deployed in the service of imperial conquest and only later applied to politics among states in Europe. I explore this issue in more depth elsewhere (Lambach 2017). reterritorialization with a focus on how actors produce territory. ...
Full-text available
There are widespread worries about the impending fragmentation of the internet. Reviewing the IR literature on cyberspace and internet governance, this paper demonstrates that these debates rest on very traditional understandings of territory and the state, focusing on ways that hard-shelled ‘power containers’ are recreated in cyberspace. Using a practice-oriented conceptual framework drawing on insights from critical geography, the paper highlights how state, corporate, and private actors deterritorialize and reterritorialize cyberspace. Results indicate that there are multiple ways to territorialize cyberspace beyond the reconstruction of the ‘national territory’ and that a multitude of actors engage in territorializing practices. This allows for a more nuanced re-evaluation of the ‘internet fragmentation’ discourse.
Full-text available
There are widespread worries about the impending fragmentation of the internet. Reviewing the IR literature on cyberspace and internet governance, this paper demonstrates that these debates rest on very traditional understandings of territory and the state, focusing on ways that hard-shelled “power containers” are recreated in cyberspace. Using a practice-oriented conceptual framework drawing on insights from critical geography, the paper highlights how state, corporate, and private actors deterritorialize and reterritorialize cyberspace. Results indicate that there are multiple ways to territorialize cyberspace beyond the reconstruction of the “national territory” and that a multitude of actors engage in territorializing practices. This allows for a more nuanced reevaluation of the “internet fragmentation” discourse.
Full-text available
In this article, we approach world politics through the lens of its manifold practices, which we define as competent performances. Studying International Relations (ir) from the perspective of international practices promises three key advances. First, by focusing on practices in IR, we can understand both IR theory and international politics better or differently. World politics can be conceived as structured by practices, which give meaning to international action, make possible strategic interaction, and are reproduced, changed, and reinforced by international action and interaction. This focus helps broaden the ontology of world politics, serves as a focal point around which debates in ir theory can be structured, and can be used as a unit of analysis that transcends traditional understandings of ‘levels of analysis’. We illustrate what an international practice is by revisiting Thomas Schelling’s seminal works on bargaining. Second, with the help of illustrations of deterrence and arms control during the Cold War and of post-Cold War practices such as cooperative security, we show how practices constitute strategic interaction and bargaining more generally. Finally, a practice perspective opens an exciting and innovative research agenda, which suggests new research questions and puzzles, and revisits central concepts of our discipline, including power, history, and strategy.
Full-text available
There are widespread worries about the impending fragmentation of the internet. Reviewing the IR literature on cyberspace and internet governance, this paper demonstrates that these debates rest on very traditional understandings of territory and the state, focusing on ways that hard-shelled “power containers” are recreated in cyberspace. Using a practice-oriented conceptual framework drawing on insights from critical geography, the paper highlights how state, corporate, and private actors deterritorialize and reterritorialize cyberspace. Results indicate that there are multiple ways to territorialize cyberspace beyond the reconstruction of the “national territory” and that a multitude of actors engage in territorializing practices. This allows for a more nuanced reevaluation of the “internet fragmentation” discourse.
Full-text available
Assumptions regarding space and spatiality exist in all major theoretical traditions in international relations, from realism to constructivism, but the mutual constitution of space and social interaction in the study of world politics requires further conceptual development in its own right. This article suggests a preliminary research agenda for the study of space and social relations in IR by lending insight from Georg Simmel’s classical sociology of space. Simmel’s approach offers scholars of contemporary world politics an innovative conceptualization of the relations between physical and symbolic space (‘the physical-symbolic axis’) and between space and time (‘the spatio-temporal axis’); and a set of practical analytical tools to apply in IR research by defining the foundational qualities of space (exclusivity, divisibility, containment, positioning, and mobility) and suggesting a typology of distinct sociospatial formations: organized space, governed space, fixed space, and empty space. The article discusses the potential of Simmel’s nuanced relational approach to contribute to the contemporary study of world politics, and demonstrates its utility in two particular areas of research: the study of unbundled sovereignty and mobility in late modernity; and the study of empty spaces in IR.
Why is today's world map filled with uniform states separated by linear boundaries? The answer to this question is central to our understanding of international politics, but the question is at the same time much more complex - and more revealing - than we might first think. This book examines the important but overlooked role played by cartography itself in the development of modern states. Drawing upon evidence from the history of cartography, peace treaties and political practices, the book reveals that early modern mapping dramatically altered key ideas and practices among both rulers and subjects, leading to the implementation of linear boundaries between states and centralized territorial rule within them. In his analysis of early modern innovations in the creation, distribution and use of maps, Branch explains how the relationship between mapping and the development of modern territories shapes our understanding of international politics today.
This article attempts to dissect the term resource nationalism (hereafter RN). It looks first at the origins of the term. Second, it examines various definitions of RN: in the business press where a zero sum conception of state and corporate interest is generally assumed, related definitions in academic writings that hinge on the relative control of resources by government and company, explanations that subsume the phenomenon within economic nationalism, accounts that stress how it restricts outputs and, finally, recent discussions that question prevailing understandings of RN and emphasise instead the diversity of its contemporary forms. The article then considers drivers of RN: the capture of economic rents, the corollary of the influence of market prices on this objective, obsolescing bargaining, the pressures of natural scarcity and the role of national identity. Fourth, the global context, commercial and legal, in which RN operates. Finally, the article considers the fluctuations in RN in recent years.