Stuart Elden provides a discussion of territory and its link to terror in his 2009 book, Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty. He describes “territorial integrity as the spatial extent of sovereignty” (171). He directly links territory and violence:
Sovereignty is an issue at the intersection of terror and territory; it operates as the crucial bridge between terror and the state and is integral to the state of territory. Those who have sovereignty – recognized states – are able to exercise a violence within their territory that they claim is legitimate. Those who are deemed not to have sovereign power…are in a different position. Their violence is seen as illegitimate by definition, as ‘terror’. (171)
He then describes two contemporary conditions, one changing, the other staying essentially the same:
- the becoming-contingent of sovereignty as a whole,
- the relation between sovereignty and territory, or the question of extent.
The first condition, as Elden notes, is based on the increasing illegitimacy of states deploying a “sovereign ‘shield’” when they are criticized for any number of infractions, from trade agreements to genocide. This is in line with a shift from viewing sovereignty as absolute to the contingency of “sovereignty as responsibility,” wherein “if a state fails to live up to the responsibilities that the ‘international community’ or the United States and its allies deem appropriate, then it must be reformed” (172).
It is where Elden pivots to the second contemporary condition that I want to focus, though, as he asserts that the “relation between sovereignty and territory – the question of extent – remains strong” (172). He focuses on “territorial integrity” and the ways it has played out in both the decolonial process and the post-Cold War emergence of secessionist states:
The coupling of territorial preservation with territorial sovereignty in the term “territorial integrity” appealed to the ideal of state self-interest, and it was able to create a very real stability in the international system, especially compared to previous periods. (173)
He poses an interesting dilemma in this problematic:
…the dramatic rise in UN sanctioned interventions of various kinds has actually had the opposite effect of what was anticipated. Rather than demonstrating the effectiveness of the institution, they have instead highlighted its flaws. Territorial integrity is challenged through intervention, but on the other hand, there is an attempt to preserve it. Territorial integrity as preservation wins out over territorial integrity as sovereignty. But if a state’s territorial sovereignty is contingent because of its treatment of civilian populations [referring to the contingency of sovereignty as a whole - jk], why should its territorial extent be preserved in all circumstances? If a large, discrete minority exists within its borders, why should international intervention be legitimate to protect it only within those borders, rather than redrawing the borders and changing the geography of the problem? (173-174)
Elden resolves this problem by noting that the “territorial free-for-all” that might ensue such a paradigm shift “would inevitably create the kind of instability in the international system that existing frameworks are designed precisely to avoid” (174).
Ultimately Elden concludes that “Territorial integrity is thus fractured because while there is an insistence on the preservation of territorial extent, the sovereignty within it is held to be contingent” (176). He goes on to say “Territory matters because it is seen to provide the ‘container’ within which sovereignty is said to operate, because its extent limits what the state can do, and because its limits are the limits of the state.”
The limits of the state are exactly what is at stake by looking from the ‘capital G’ Geopolitics study of borders, focusing on the state-level conflicts of territorial disputes and aggressive state expansion, to the geopolitics of borders, a kind of minor geopolitics, where in the state’s relation with its own limits is undergoing the same recomposition as the concept and practices of sovereignty. Elden points in this direction when he takes on the discourse of deterritorialization within globalization:
It is this, rather than a simplistic argument that territory no longer matters, that is at stake in globalization…Rather than a process of simple [!? - jk] deterritorialization, there is a concomitant process of reterritorialization. And it is for that very reason that ‘territory’ itself bears careful analysis. The relation between sovereignty and territory is one that demands renewed attention, both in terms of its conceptual, historical, and legal background and because of the changing nature of the relation today. (177)
Elden concludes by urging a reconsideration of territory, not just reconsiderations of sovereignty (based on assumptions of simple [?] deterritorialization).
If I am capturing his argument accurately – leaving aside the specific focus on the war on terror that drives the book – Elden is prompting us to consider two things:
- Broadly, any discussion of globalization that relies on only the processes of deterritorialization – typically the ‘borderless world’ argument (see Ohmae and perhaps Appadurai’s Modernity at Large) – is flawed, because there is no question that things like territory, borders, and sovereignty still matter a great deal. Rather than the deterritorialization discourse prevailing, he argues for a consideration of reterritorialization. I prefer the term recomposition.
- More specifically, he zeroes in on the link between sovereignty and territory. If territory has been the ‘container’ for sovereignty, what happens if sovereignty is challenged from without (large-scale economic shifts, migration-related pressures, and so on) as well as from within, such as when the state itself begins to manipulate its territory?
What I would specifically like to challenge in Elden’s account is to what extent territory’s tendency can any longer be the assumption of either integrity or preservation, and is instead something else? In other words, if Cold War logic is dead, and its successor logic – the war on terror – can be said to be dying, what can be gleaned from the global attempts to manage borders by dislocating them from border spaces and diffuse the border entirely throughout global space? This is not to say that old fashioned border disputes, or the eroding of sovereignty in the face of humanitarian intervention, no longer matter; it is to say, however, that these kinds of shifts are in themselves re-oriented towards another polarity, one in which the relation between sovereignty and territory is recomposed as non-linear.