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The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumption of International Relations Theory

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Even when political rule is territorial, territoriality does not necessarily entail the practices of total mutual exclusion which dominant understandings of the modern territorial state attribute to it. However, when the territoriality of the state is debated by international relations theorists the discussion is overwhelmingly in terms of the persistence or obsolescence of the territorial state as an unchanging entity rather than in terms of its significance and meaning in different historical-geographical circumstances

Contemporary events call this approach into question. The end of the Cold War, the increased velocity and volatility of the world economy, and the emergence of political movements outside the framework of territorial states, suggest the need to consider the territoriality of states in historical context. Conventional thinking relies on three geographical assumptions-states as fixed units of sovereign space, the domestic/foreign polarity, and states as 'containers' of societies - that have led into the 'territorial trap'.

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The field of international relations has been defined by the notion of a world divided up into mutually exclusive territorial states

The very term describing the field implies a focus on relations between states (albeit often confused with nations) in contradistinction to what happens within state territorial borders. To the extent that there has been any debate about this distinction it has been entirely in terms of the presence or absence of the territorial state rather than whether any or all states are ever entirely territorial in their modus operandi. The irony in this, as Rob Walker once pointed out, is that international relations theory “has been one of the most spatially oriented sites of modern social and political thought” in fixing an understanding of space as simply territorial that is held as trans-historical in its effects. My 1994 paper argued that three distinctive geographical assumptions underpinned this theoretical perspective binding statehood to territory. The first and most important isthe association between state sovereignty and the state’s territorial field as both limiting and legitimizing the state. The claim of all states is to represent the workings of an abstract or idealized sovereignty irrespective of the effectiveness with which that is administered or the degree to which it is devolved onto other authorities (including a wide range of private as well as public but non-state actors). But this more often than not is a fictive claim that cannot be backed up empirically. Consider the long history of imperialist interventions by more powerful states in less powerful ones and the longstanding ability of big businesses to manipulate government policies across borders to their satisfaction.

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As the Cold War dissolved, a new research agenda linking security and the environment through international relations (IR) theory gained momentum. One of the research program’s most durable offshoots has been a body of literature examining transboundary water systems. Yet, while the environment and security literature has critically questioned the implications of transposing IR theories into analyses of environmental governance. In the SADC, information dissemination and sharing are being advanced through the Protocol requirement that environmental impact assessments be promoted for all proposed projects in a basin (Bruch, 2003: 49), and through the use of the Internet as a forum for scientists and managers to share data and policy ideas (Salewicz, 2003: 128).13 Although information sharing is viewed as a key tool for the development of a functioning regime at each scale of governance, the most significant interactions in the SADC are its extensive network of inter-basin transfer (IBT) projects

In fact, information sharing often follows proposals for such large developments rather than vice versa, as the theory would predict. IBTs have been a feature of Southern Africa for decades, stemming from the region’s particular form of water ‘scarcity’, which has led to high water demand in areas of low water availability.

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In essence, the end of the Cold War, the increased velocity and volatility of the world economy, and the emergence of political movements outside the framework of territorial states, suggest the need to consider the territoriality of states in historical context. Conventional thinking relies on three geographical assumptions ‐ states as fixed units of sovereign space, the domestic/foreign polarity, and states as ‘containers’ of societies ‐ that have led into the ‘territorial trap’.

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Rothert, S. (1999). Okavango pipeline not needed, research shows. World Rivers Review, 14(5).

Sadoff, C. W., Whittington, D., & Grey, D. (2003). Africa’s international rivers: An economic perspective. Washington, DC: World Bank.

Salewicz, K. A. (2003). Building the bridge between decision-support tools and decision-making. In M. Nakayama (Ed.), International waters in Southern Africa (pp. 114e135). Tokyo: United Nations University Press

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