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The Normative Order of the Territorial State

Abstract

My contribution to the volume "Navigating the Frontiers of Normative Orders: Interdisciplinary Perspectives" (Frankfurt: Campus-Verlag), edited by Matthias Kettemann, forthcoming im 2020.
The Normative Order of the Territorial
State
Daniel Lambach
1. Introduction
Why is the World Divided Territorially? is the title of one of the many
articles on territory and territoriality by the geographer Stuart Elden.
1
This
particular article is part of an edited collection designed to introduce students
to global politics, a wonderful detail in that this question seems very simple
and obvious.
2
Surely, one might think, the inclusion of this article into an
introductory textbook shows that such a question should not be too difficult
to answer for seasoned scholars of International Relations (IR). This could
not be further from the truth. IR, not unlike other disciplines, seems
determined to ignore this question as much as it can, and when it can not,
to disavow that territory and the territorial division of the globe have any
great significance in a globalizing world. This article argues that Elden’s
question, so rarely asked and even more rarely answered, continues to be
relevant for global politics.
In response to the titular question, Elden outlines four answers that can be
found in the literature.
3
The first is behavioral or social: Human beings are
territorial creatures, either by natural instinct or out of social organization.
Second, a Marxist political-economic argument that territory as land
ownership is both a significant capital asset and a decisive characteristic of
feudal power. Third, in political-strategic terms, polities need boundaries in
accordance with military considerations and material capabilities. Fourth,
Elden himself argues for a ‘technique-based approach’ that the territorial
——————
1
Elden 2009.
2
Edkins and Zehfuss 2009.
3
Elden 2009, p. 205-208.
2 L IN KE R KO L UM N EN TI T EL (GE R AD E SE I T E N )
division of the world emerged in parallel to developments in science and
technology, e.g. geometry, cartography, navigation, or land surveying.
These answers highlight important aspects of the problem, especially from
the perspective of the actors doing the territorializing. But they only seem to
capture a part of the issue. Among other things, they pay little attention to
the normative foundations of territoriality. These foundations are crucial for
sustaining and legitimizing territorial forms of governance, especially in the
form of the territorial state, a powerful figure that has been so thoroughly
normalized that it permeates all of our thinking about global politics.
4
That
notwithstanding, the concept of the territorial state has been the subject of
dismissive critique over the past three decades as globalization and the
gradual if uneven emergence of world society have dominated our
imagination. Far-reaching arguments about the impending death by
obsolescence of the territorial state were easy to find, at least for a time.
5
And yet, the territorial state has obstinately refused to go away. Instead, one
might even argue that it has been experiencing a renaissance.
The aim of this article is to historicise these debates by focusing on shifts in
the normative order of territorial statehood that underlies the entire
discourse. The main thrust of my argument views current debates about the
present and the future of the state in terms of the balance between relational
and territorial principles of organization. I find present arguments that
politics are moving (back?) towards a more relational logic unconvincing.
States, as the quintessential manifestation of political territoriality, are
adapting to the present challenges by a) reterritorializing deterritorialized
problems and b) deterritorializing their own instruments of governance.
2. The emergence of the territorial state
When speaking of territorial statehood, it is tempting to view it as some
timeless, stable arrangment. But this would be deeply misleading. Instead, it
is imperative that we first dispense with several layers of myth that have
accreted over this issue.
The first myth is that political rule has always been organized territorially,
that territory is somehow the “natural” form of political organization. Even
if we disregard the implicit assumption that the sovereign territorial state of
——————
4
Agnew 1994.
5
Strange 1996, Ohmae 1995.
R EC H TE R KO LU M NE NT I TE L (U N GE RA D E SE I T E N ) 3
today is functionally the same as earlier forms of polity, this argument does
not hold up. For most parts of human history, rule was not exercised over
space but over people. Territories only mattered inasmuch as they
represented areas that particular peoples were settling in. Allegiance and
authority rested on personal relations of belonging, not on specific places of
residence. The very assumption that human beings must have a permanent
place of residence and that this place is somehow more politically salient
than the people is questionable given how normal mobility and nomadism
have been and continue to be for many human beings.
6
Therefore, Maier is
entirely correct in pointing out that “(t)erritory has been a major sociospatial
invention.”
7
Even the concept of boundaries is a relatively recent invention
in the European context, as Ruggie points out: “The notion of firm
boundary lines between the major territorial formations did not take hold
until the thirteenth century; prior to that data, there were only ‘frontiers,’ or
large zones of transition.”
8
The second myth is that the territorial state is a product of the Peace of
Westphalia and has been with us since. The myth of 1648 is strong, especially
in the discipline of IR, despite numerous trenchant critiques of this
assumption.
9
In short, the territorial state did not spontaneously emerge
following the Peace of Westphalia. It emerged over time as an assemblage
of ideas and practices that had a history going well before 1648 and took
centuries to fully form thereafter. This is not to say that there is no such
thing as a Westphalian concept of statehood, but the peace treaties should
not be treated as a ‘big bang’ out of which the system of territorial states
emerged fully formed. Instead, we have to approach this in evolutionary and
strategic terms. Territorial rule is more effective and efficient among
sedentary populations of sufficient density than rule over people. A system
of territorial states also made it possible for rulers to (a) internally pacify their
populations without fear of interference and (b) reduce, formalize and
legalize points of contact with other rulers, offering a better chance to avoid
or de-escalate conflict. It is fair to associate “1648” (more as a symbol, not
as a specific year) with a shift in the normative order of statehood and a
reorganization of spatial relations in Europe, but this shift was at least in part
——————
6
Ringmar 2018.
7
Maier 2016, p. 2.
8
Ruggie 1993, p. 150.
9
See for example Osiander 2001, Teschke 2006, de Carvalho et al. 2012.
4 L IN KE R KO L UM N EN TI T EL (GE R AD E SE I T E N )
driven by material concerns about governability and how to re-organize
political relations among European countries.
This also addresses a third myth, that territory has always meant the same to
rulers and citizens across time periods and continents. In his magisterial
history of ideas, Elden has demonstrated that throughout European history
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.
10
And since then, we can observe
practical changes that led to the emergence of a national figuration of
territory, authority and rights only in the mid-19th century.
11
This political
assemblage, as Sassen calls it, has had a twofold effect: The first is the
empirical hegemony of the state within its territorial boundaries, which
overcame alternative centers of power and assimilated self-governed peoples
into its state-nation. Scott rightly points out how this was mainly a techno-
political process. Up until the 19th century, he writes, 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.”
12
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.
13
Modern states had started
displacing other forms of polities earlier, but in the 19th century they fully
came into their own, replacing fuzzy frontier spaces and open borders with
hard borders. As Buzan and Little put it, it was in this era that “(t)he modern
state tightened up the inside/outside construction of world politics”.
14
3. Locating the normative order of territorial statehood
The concept of normative orders places great importance on the explicit
justification and contestation of norms.
15
This means that the existence of a
normative order can be inferred from discourses, narratives and speech acts.
——————
10
Elden 2013. This is not to say that the concept of territory emerged in Europe, just to show
how there was tremendous historical variation even within a region. For comparative
discussions of state formation and territory in East Asia see, e.g., Hui 2005 and Vu 2010.
11
Sassen 2006.
12
Scott 2009, p. 4. This in line with the longue durée argument of Mann 1986.
13
Ebd, p. 11.
14
Buzan and Little 2000, p. 245.
15
Forst and Günther 2011.
R EC H TE R KO LU M NE NT I TE L (U N GE RA D E SE I T E N ) 5
For territorial statehood, there are few such discourses to be found who is
actively debating, contesting or justifying the question whether the world
should be organized as discrete territorial political units? This makes the
normative order of territorial statehood hard to pin down. Instead, for a long
time the territorial state was habitualized to such a degree that few people
ever bothered to critically analyze the reasons behind its existence. Or, as
Ruggie put it, (i)t is truly astonishing that the concept of territoriality has
been so little studied by students of international politics; its neglect is akin
to never looking at the ground that one is walking on.”
16
It would be more appropriate to say that while the territorial state is hardly
ever being justified in normative discourse, we do find evidence of
normative contestation surrounding issues that are intimately tied to aspects
or consequences of territorial statehood. Multiple scholars have identified
the emergence of territorial norms such as an anti-annexation norm, a norm
of border fixity and international legal norms such as uti possidetis juris as
evidence how norms stabilize and legitimize the concept of the territorial
state.
17
But the question remains whether we can do the question of
territoriality justice by viewing it through the prism of norms. Writings from
IR highlight several other possibilities, specifically regimes, institutions and
practices.
Positing territoriality as a regime is unconvincing. Kahler attempts it
nonetheless by speaking of a “territorial regime […] constituted by the
norms, institutions, and practices associated with territorial governance.
18
But regimes depend on multilateral treaties and organizations which have
been created with the explicit purpose of governing a particular issue. More
constructivist regime theories add that a regime may influence interests and
identities of signatory states but cannot constitute these states themselves.
19
While a ‘territorial regime’ is no theoretical impossibility, there is insufficient
empirical evidence of explicit and formalized agreements between states to
regulate the territorial nature of the international system. Instead, we find
evidence of territoriality as an ordering principle in other regimes, suggesting
——————
16
Ruggie 1993, p. 174.
17
See, e.g., Zacher 2001, Anstis and Zacher 2010 and Atzili 2011.
18
Kahler 2006, p. 4-5. Agnew (2005, p. 437) also speaks of sovereignty regimes but means
a system of rule, not merely some sort of international protocol or agreement between
putatively equal states.
19
Zangl 2003, p. 135-137.
6 L IN KE R KO L UM N EN TI T EL (GE R AD E SE I T E N )
that territoriality exists on a different, more fundamental level of
international relations.
Taking an institutionalist approach to territoriality goes somewhat further
but is ultimately too limited.
20
More functionalist approaches conceptualizes
international institutions as “sets of rules […] often conceived as statements
that forbid, require or permit particular kinds of actions
21
although
Simmons and Martin admit that this concept of institutions is more suited
to regulative rather than constitutive rules. Another way is via the English
School notion of primary institutions which views institutions and
members of international society as mutually constitutive. Buzan describes
primary institutions as persistent patterns of common practices which are
anchored in values shared among members of the international society and
includes territoriality as one of the ‘master’ institutions of the current
international system which others are derived from.
22
This approach is
similar to Ruggie’s notion of “constitutive rules which he describes as the
institutional foundation of all social life
23
, opening up the possibility of
rules existing that are not subject to political deliberation: Some constitutive
rules, like exclusive territoriality, are so deeply sedimented or reified that
actors no longer think of them as rules at all.”
24
But while Buzan’s and
Ruggie’s approaches seem to broadly capture the essence of territoriality,
they are too theoretically underdeveloped to be of much help.
It makes more sense to approach territoriality in terms of norms.
25
One key
advantage of a normative approach over an institutional or a regime
perspective is that norms can exist without ever being fixed in formal
documents. As Finnemore points out, many norms are so internalized and
taken for granted that violations do not occur and the norm is hard to
recognize.”
26
Norms can be regulative, procedural and constitutive, although
the differences between these types should not be overstated. The latter
category is especially relevant to territoriality in that constitutive norms
create categories of actors, interests or actions.
27
——————
20
See, e.g., Branch 2017.
21
Simmons and Martin 2002, p. 194, see also Duffield 2007.
22
Buzan 2004, p. 182-184, similarly Friedner Parrat 2017.
23
Ruggie 1998, p. 873.
24
Ebd.
25
See, e.g., Forsberg 2003.
26
Finnemore 1996, p. 23.
27
Björkdahl 2002, Duffield 2007.
R EC H TE R KO LU M NE NT I TE L (U N GE RA D E SE I T E N ) 7
Compared to a primary institutions perspective, a norms approach offers a
clearer definition of what a norm is and how we might a recognize a norm
of territorial statehood. However, this is still difficult to observe in practice.
A norm consists of a regularized form of behavior as well as discursive
references to the norm in case of a breach, i.e. justification by the norm-
breaker and condemnation by others.
28
As a result, norms typically leave a
trail of communication that can be studied.”
29
This is, unfortunately, not the
case for territoriality but only for its implications and emanations. In other
words, the international community is quick to condemn breaches of
territorial sovereignty but discussions about whether governance of the
globe should be organized territorially the core of the norm of territoriality
are few and far between. Clearly, it should be possible to identify
controversies, condemnations and justifications about territoriality. But even
in high-profile cases, e.g. surrounding the Responsibility to Protect in cases
like Syria, discussions typically revolve only about second-order effects of
territorial statehood not about territorial statehood itself. In addition, by
restricting our focus to controversies, we are likely to underestimate the
everyday maintenance of the normative order, the manifold little things that
it does to stabilize itself and the system of territorial states ,and the many
little actions by which actors support and legitimize it.
This is why I argue that an analysis of the normative order of territorial
statehood should be expanded to include practices of territoriality as well.
30
This allows for a more fluid understanding of territories which 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.”
31
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
——————
28
Hurrell 2002, p. 143.
29
Björkdahl 2002, p. 13.
30
See, e.g., Brighenti 2010.
31
Adler and Pouliot 2011, p. 4.
8 L IN KE R KO L UM N EN TI T EL (GE R AD E SE I T E N )
discourses with the material world because the discourses give meaning to
the act.
32
I define territorial practices as those practices whose performance have
spatial aspects and a political dimension. Territorial practices can a priori be
performed by any actor although the following examples will focus on
typical practices of states.
33
Based on suggestions from Blacksell and
Vollaard I suggest the following taxonomy of state territorial practices:
34
1. Reification of a territory by representing it as a distinctive, bounded
and named space on maps, in national statistics and administration,
in patriotic art and public discourse.
2. Communication of boundaries between inside and outside through
the demarcation of borders, their symbolic (e.g. signs) or material
representation (e.g. walls, gates, barriers), and rituals of border-
crossing (e.g. passport controls).
3. Regular displays of power, e.g. through patrols, policing, taxation,
governance and surveillance in peripheral or disputed territories.
4. Connecting peripheral spaces within the territory to the center, e.g.
through material infrastructure (e.g. roads, telecommunications),
political representation in national parliaments, deploying symbols
and agents of the political center to the periphery.
4. Whither the territorial state?
Looking at both norms and practices, we can take a more sober look at
claims that the territorial state is becoming an endangered species.
Obviously, such a look must take into account the historicity of territory as
a concept. In other words, we should be very careful about extrapolating
from our present situation into the future or about projecting our present
situation onto the past, for that matter.
There are a few radical normative challenges to the concept of territorial
statehood. One is the Caliphate as a political identity transcending and
overcoming state borders in majority Muslim regions. Another is the
——————
32
Ebd, S. 7.
33
See {Lambach, 2019 #12684} for a discussion of territorial practices by non-state actors.
34
See Blacksell 2006, p. 21-27, and Vollaard 2009. Rasmussen and Lund (2018) 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. See also Atzili
and Kadercan’s (2017) notion of territorial designs.
R EC H TE R KO LU M NE NT I TE L (U N GE RA D E SE I T E N ) 9
‘Bolivarian’ notion of socialist solidarity across borders. On the internet,
libertarians dream of cryptocurrencies and other blockchain applications
overcoming the need for centralized government. But these are niche
ideologies, not even rising to the power of previous “post-national”
narratives like Pan-Africanism or Pan-Arabism.
A more serious, but much more diffuse contestation of the territorial state
occurs through discourses of globalization, transnationalization, “world
society”, de-bordering (Entgrenzung), global governance and the like. These
discourses, which have become very prominent since the 1990s, posit a
fundamental incompatibility between the concept of territorial rule and
changing economic and social relations. As such relations become ever more
cross-border, a mismatch emerges between a more decentralized web of
linkages and the territorial state as the vessel in which sovereignty resides.
This is a popular viewpoint and it is not without merit. Clearly, traditional
practices of gatekeeping between “inside” and “outside” are becoming less
viable in a “world of flows”
35
. But it does not necessarily follow that the
territorial state is thereby doomed to obsolescence. There are many possible
arguments against overly sceptical claims about the viability of territorial
governance; I will restrict myself to just three. The first is that territory as a
political technology is still useful to elites. Oligarchs and the global business
class use territory to pursue their economic and political objectives, e.g. by
buying citizenship, offshoring, or even funding utopian micro-state or Mars
colonization projects. Second, there are no practical solutions for scaling up
democracy beyond the level of the state. Notions of “global democracy”
have failed to provide ways how this can be made to work. Paradoxically, by
pointing out the erosion of democracy under globalization, globalization
discourses themselves identify the demos with a territory and thereby stabilize
the notion of territorial statehood.
Third, there is no reason why territorial states cannot continue to exist and
be relevant even in a globalized world. Any claim to the contrary rests on
overly simplified notions of statehood and territory. In fact, we do see states
adapting to globalization in two ways. For one, states reterritorialize global
problems, e.g. by agreeing on national emissions caps, by assigning
jurisdiction over internet content according to the physical location of
servers, and by parcelling out responsibility for non-state spaces such as the
high seas. For another, states develop deterritorialized means of control. For
——————
35
{Paasi, 1998 #9189}.
10 L IN K ER KOL U MN E NT I TE L (G ER A DE SEI T E N )
instance, states are developing legal instruments and protocols for accessing
data that is stored beyond their jurisdiction.
36
In the field of trade, finance
and law, “regulatory spaces” have always diverged from national territories,
especially when it came to regulations originating in the United States.
37
At the level of state practice we see the same thing: moderate adaptation but
not wholesale deterritorialization. Looking at several core practices of
sovereign statehood, we the same pattern over and over again. Traditional
interstate diplomacy, with state visits and their elaborate ritual, continues to
exist but is now enhanced with intergovernmental networks and digital
diplomacy” via social media. In terms of warfighting, states are still capable
of territorial defence but, in most states, develop new capacities for force
projection beyond national borders and for highly de-bordered acts of drone
warfare. Domestic security provision still rests on traditional institutions like
the police but is increasingly supplemented by content control and
surveillance activities (e.g. against dissidents) in cyberspace. Finally, border
control has shifted from conducting spot checks at the phyisical border
towards a more continuous mode of control throughout the entire process
of transit and travel.
5. Conclusion: The resilience of the territorial state
Returning to the big and sweeping historical trajectories from earlier in the
article, we might rephrase ongoing debates about the state. The big argument
seems to be that political authority used to be relational, was then
progressively territorialized, and is now becoming deterritorialized and more
relational again. But I think that narrative is misleading, at least in part, for
the third step is not a return to relationality but a coexistence of territorial
and relational logics of rule and authority. And it is precisely the figure of
the state that is evolving from a territorial construct into a territorial-
relational system of governing. In other words: states continue to matter by
developing deterritorialized capabilities in addition to, not at the expense of its
territorial character.
As the brief discussion in the preceding chapter illustrated, there are acts of
contestation against the normative order of territorial statehood, albeit not
in a grand, sweeping challenge from an alternative normative order but in a
smaller, more piecemeal fashion. But then, the territorial state as a form of
——————
36
Berman 2018.
37
Irani 2019 and Liste 2016.
R EC H TE R KO LU M NE NT I TE L (U N GE RA D E SE I T E N ) 11
social and political organization would be difficult to replace too many
social goods, like law and democracy, depend upon its continued existence.
My argument is not that the global system of territorial statehood will
continue to exist unchanged. Such an argument is often premised on
assumptions of national containers, hard-shelled states with the ultimate
authority to gatekeep between inside and outside. Critiques of this
assumption go back as far as 1957 when Herz argued that the development
of capabilities to deliver nuclear payloads across the entire globe obliterated
claims by the state to offer security to its population.
38
Instead, my argument
is that territorial statehood will continue to be with us for the foreseeable
future not because it is somehow timeless and unchanging but rather
because it is adaptable and resilient. The normative order underpinning
territorial statehood is shifting gradually, thereby redefining what it means
to be a territorial, sovereign state in a globalized world.
In slighly more concrete terms, we might see the intensification of several
trends and practices that are widespread today, such as the “pooling” of
sovereignty for issues of mutual concerns and the further development of
“post-national” notions of statehood that are more compatible with inter-
and supranational institutions as we can see, for example, in the European
Union.
39
But these changes will continue to invite resistance and
contestation. Some of the most interesting debates currently occuring about
the state are between “sovereigntists” and “internationalists”, where
sovereigntists posit that the state is the “natural” home of the political and
ought to be preserved against the tides of globalization.
40
But where my
account of the resilient territorial state points to its adaptability and rests on
a territorial-relational conception of political space, the sovereigntists’
argument is regressive, pointing to a mythologized past of container states.
Sovereigntism offers no constructive way forward but wishes to roll back
globalization and international integration. But it offers a challenge to
theorists of post-national statehood how they justify their modifications to
the normative order of territorial statehood.
——————
38
Herz 1957.
39
Sørensen 2001.
40
Abrahamsen 2019.
12 L IN K ER KOL U MN E NT I TE L (G ER A DE SEI T E N )
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