Territory Without Borders

Territory Without Borders

. 10 min read

Stuart Elden is a professor of political theory and geography at the University of Warwick. This piece was originally published in 2011.

What does it mean to speak of "territory without borders"? Let me say immediately that this is not the same as the "borderless world" argument, nor in agreement with the idea that geography no longer matters. While borders are less important in some places, such as within much of Europe, in others they continue to be crucial. The US-Mexico border, the external border policing of Europe, and the Israeli wall in the West Bank are only the most striking examples of the continual importance of borders. I am not suggesting that we should comprehend the modern world through a lens that understands globalization as de-territorialization. Indeed, it is the concomitant processes of re-territorialization—the constant making and remaking of territories—that should perhaps be more of the focus in our empirical and political studies.

Nor am I using the phrase as a way of describing modes of political organizations such as Schengenland, which seeks to dispense with border controls. Schengenland has indeed been described as a "territory without borders"; it would be more accurate to describe it as an area with uneven borders. While it is true that mobility in Schengenland is much easier for those individuals whose status is good and whose papers are in order, mobility is restricted and strictly monitored through transnational security and policing for those who fail to meet these characteristics.

In addition, it is essential to note attempts to do away with borders within Europe have applied to its internal divisions, and have resulted in a stronger assertion of external borders. The patrols in the Mediterranean represent one such example, especially given recent events in northern Africa. A similar tension runs through the European project more generally, and attempts to frame an “area of freedom, security and justice” remain juxtaposed to a hardening of borders in other respects, especially around security and migration.

Rather, what I want to do here is to raise the question of whether we can think territory without dependence on borders. This does not mean we should conceive of a territory without borders, an imagined space which has neither limit nor end. Instead, we should stop using a notion of "border," "boundary," or "boundedness" as the key element to define territory, as a concept. I want to suggest that the standard definition of territory as a bordered, bounded or defined space is actually an impediment to understandings of geopolitical relations. In short, I think we need a better theory of territory. We should not take the standard definition of territory as a bounded space under the control of a group, perhaps a state, straight-forwardly. As I look back through history to trace the emergence of modern territorial notions, I hope to address two key questions. How did a singular conception of territory emerge out of the divergent systems of organization that have historically characterized global political culture? And how does that definition inform the modern understanding of global political relations?

The Evolution of the Concept of Territory

The concept of territory within Western political thought is a relatively new one. In classical Latin the term territorium is used very sparingly and means the land surrounding a political settlement such as a town. It is used that way, for example, by Cicero, Varro and Seneca. Only later did the term begin to be used in a broader sense to describe the lands belonging to a single political unit. Even then it was used to characterize the vague notion of an area over which power might extend rather than a tightly circumscribed region. Similarly, when the Romans discussed political control of land they were more likely to use terms relating to the idea of finis, a border or limit. Again, the Romans used such terms in a looser sense than we would today. Cicero tells us in De re publica, for instance, that the Spartans claimed ownership over all the lands that they could touch with a spear.

The key area of Roman thinking that employed notions of territorium was law. Roman law was further developed in the later Middle Ages, with its rediscovery and incorporation into political-legal systems across Europe. It was at this time that jurisdiction became tied to territory in an explicit way. This was a crucial development. Rather than territory being simply the land owned or controlled by the ruler, it now became the limit or extent of the ruler’s political power. Since power became exercised over territory and as a consequence over the people and the actions within it, territory was both the object of political rule and its extent. Particular kinds of rule were exercised thus within territory, but did not extend beyond it.

This late 14th century idea was only slowly picked up in political theory more generally, especially by German writers in the 17th century trying to make sense of the multiple and conflicting powers within the Holy Roman Empire. Alongside these political-legal developments there was also a set of innovations in a more political-technical register which enabled polities or nascent states to survey, map, defend, catalogue and control their lands in new ways. Developments in a whole range of political techniques are therefore important in this broader story. Notions of limitation are instrumental in understanding these developing theories of territory, and many of these arguments and practices looked to assert or reinforce them. But borders were not ultimately the defining notion of a territory or of the territories belonging to or subject to a political unit. Many of the borders to these historic polities were very loosely defined and were marked informally with ditches, fences, rivers, and even lines drawn on the ground: These borders were often of an unspecified width, and were more akin to a zone. They represented a kind of fortification, a temporary stopping point in to an empire with a theoretically limitless extent. Only rarely were these borders seen as fixed and static. It is often claimed that the first boundary in a modern sense, as a defined line of zero width, was the one through the Pyrenees which separated France and Spain following the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees. That boundary was only made possible because of the legal practices and technical ability that were available at that time.

Territory, then, in this modern sense, should not be understood as defined by borders, in that putting a border around something is sufficient to demarcate it as a territory. Rather, territory is a multi-faceted concept and practice, one which encompasses economic, strategic, legal and technical aspects, and can perhaps better be understood as the political counterpart of the homogeneous, measured and mathematicized notion of space that emerged with the scientific revolution. In that way of thinking, the political rendering of that sense of space is the condition of possibility for the demarcation of such modern boundaries as the one through the Pyrenees. The geometric basis of surveying and cartography was simply not present before. It is the understanding of political space that is fundamental, and the idea of boundaries a secondary aspect, dependent on the first.

As the French writer Paul Alliès suggests in his book L’invention du territoire, "To define territory, we are told, one delimits borders. Or to think the border, must we not already have an idea of homogeneous territory?" To put this more forcefully, since Alliès' doubt is well-judged: borders only become possible in their modern sense, as boundaries, through a notion of space, rather than the other way round. Focusing on the determination of space that makes boundaries possible, and in particular the role of calculation in determining space opens up the idea of seeing boundaries not as a primary distinction that separates "territory" from other ways of understanding political control of land; but as a second-order problem founded upon a particular sense of calculation and its consequent grasp of space. Space, in this modern understanding, is often something bounded and exclusive, but more crucially is something calculable, extended in three dimensions.

In the early modern period, particularly, we see a whole range of strategies applied to the lands controlled by political entities such as the newly emerging states. Land is mapped, ordered, measured, divided, and controlled in various ways, with attempts at making it more homogeneous, with movement of goods and people allowed, prevented or regulated, and internal order imposed. These kinds of political rationalities or techniques are calculative like those applied at a similar time to the population. Political arithmetic, or population statistics, impact on land too.  Territory, on this reading, is thus a rendering of the emergent concept of "space" as a political-legal category, made possible by a range of techniques.

The modern notion of territory is certainly partly about boundaries and impermeability, but more as a particular form that it took in certain times and places. For a variety of reasons, the idea of a tightly circumscribed area, with networks of rule and reinforced boundaries fitted the aim of rulers across Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At that time the notion that those borders might be fixed was not seriously considered—land could still be conquered, bought, exchanged or otherwise gained through alliances or marriage, or removed through punitive peace settlements. Colonialism saw many of these ideas extended beyond Europe itself, though it should be stressed that many of these techniques were actually trialed first in colonial settings and only later brought back to Europe. Gaining territory through conquest or losing it when defeated remained common into the twentieth century—the Treaty of Versailles, or the wider Peace of Paris, for instance. Yet from the sixteenth century on there was a strong assertion of the rights of the sovereign power within those borders. Territory increasingly became associated with exclusive forms of sovereignty.

Challenging the still prevailing myth that the origin of the modern concept of territory is with the modern state system in the Peace of Westphalia, this more historically nuanced understanding of the emergence of this concept helps to shed light on more than simply Europe’s history. Understanding territory in this broader sense, as the political control of a calculative space, as a political technology, allows us to account for a range of modern phenomena. The purpose here is less to offer a better single definition of territory, which can be contrasted with other ones, than to raise the kinds of questions we would need to ask to understand how territory has been understood and practiced in a range of different times and places. Conceiving of territory as the bringing together of a range of different political phenomena—economic, strategic, legal, and technical—does more than simply offer a historically sensitive account of the concept and its emergence. It allows us to understand that while borders are extremely important, they are not a defining element of territory but rather its consequence. Territory as a political counterpart of calculative space makes possible the delimitation and demarcation of borders as boundaries, rather than borders making territory. While it might take on a strictly bordered form at particular times, looser, overlapping and multiple arrangements are also possible. We can then understand the plurality of different political-spatial arrangements that take place.

Contemporary Developments

Much has been written, in this symposium from the Harvard International Review and elsewhere, about a whole range of important political changes that are taking place concerning borders. As the example of Schengenland shows, the "borderless" world is, at best, profoundly uneven. Some people are able to cross international borders with ease, while others are delayed or prevented from crossing them, or even imprisoned within their logics. Many borders are now no longer located at the physical limits of a state, but taken to other places. For example, it is common to clear immigration to enter the US while still within the confines of a Canadian airport, and many European states have taken their immigration processing off-shore. Some Australian islands are declared non-territorial for this very purpose.

Non-recognized borders, such as that between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, perform many of the rituals of border crossing; this example most clearly shows how any modern border, while nominally a boundary line of zero width, is actually a zone. The wall in the West Bank is another anomaly, because Israel’s legally recognized sovereignty ends someway before the wall itself is reached; but the effective sovereignty of its projection of political power extends to the Jordan valley.

Many other contemporary political geographical issues similarly complicate the straightforward idea of a states exercising exclusive sovereignty within tightly defined borders. The most pressing border disputes today are often over maritime boundaries, with the strategic and economic importance of laying legal claim to rocks or small islands, allowing the technical exploitation of vast expanses of sea and seabed. Rich states lease land for various purposes from neighbors, such as the Bintan Resorts on an Indonesian island, which are owned, regulated and controlled by neighboring Singapore. China is using its economic might to use land in Africa for agriculture and to extract minerals. Embassies and military bases often have complicated jurisdictional status. Most notoriously, Guantánamo bay, leased from Cuba following a 1903 treaty, is legally considered not to be part of the United States territory, and therefore outside US law, while remaining under its effective control.

In the wider context of the "war on terror," we have seen a shift in the relation between territorial preservation—the fixing of borders and the rejection of ideas that territory can be gained or lost—and territorial sovereignty, where a state is able to exercise exclusive internal sovereignty within those borders. In states such as Afghanistan or Iraq, the actions of the rulers of those states within their borders were deemed to legitimatize external intervention. This co-opted longer standing ideas of humanitarian intervention or the responsibility to protect civilian populations in relation to other challenges—in these instances the harboring of terrorists or the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Yet at the same time, the international community was unwilling to allow either of these states to fragment along ethnic or religious lines or to countenance the wider redrawing of borders within their regions. In early modern Europe, sovereignty was claimed to be absolute but the borders within which it was exercised were continually mutable; today we are seeing the reverse: an attempt to have borders fixed but sovereignty within them contingent. The fracturing of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia along the lines of their constituent republics led to ethnic conflicts and still enduring border disputes. Even though sovereignty had been directly challenged by the 1999 NATO war in Kosovo, there was a strong reluctance in the international community to allow an independent state to emerge. The independence of South Sudan will be a fascinating process to watch. As I argued in my book Terror and Territory: the Spatial Extent of Sovereignty, what we were seeing in these and other instances such as Lebanon, Pakistan and Somalia was a challenge to the existing relations among territory, borders and sovereignty, but not the end of their importance. Similar arguments could be made about ongoing events in Libya.

The historically informed and conceptually developed way of thinking about territory, outlined above, allows us to grasp the changes that are taking place in the world today. Thinking territory without borders provides us a better understanding of the borders of territory.