As the quarter draws to close, I am finding myself scrambling (as usual). My second year paper is due by March 31, I am presenting a paper at the International Studies Association annual conference in San Francisco in about three weeks, and my undergraduates are rushing to get their final papers in by Thursday. This means answering lots of questions now, and many many hours of grading very soon.
What has been largely lost in the mix is my plan to get funding for my research this summer. Well, I finally got myself in gear last night and wrote up two applications. With some very generous assistance from my advisor, Will Reno, I should have both in by the end of the week. I haven’t posted much up here recently largely because I haven’t had anything to post.
Now these applications have forced me to write a fairly concise and coherent summary of my dissertation topic. I have provided it below; feedback is welcome!
Broadly, my dissertation research will examine the sustainability of an international system premised on sovereign territoriality in a world in which the immutability and relevance of borders is coming under increasing stress. Whereas outright territorial revisionism and expansionism are largely a thing of the past, there appear to be a growing number of territorial disputes which problematize existing borders and threaten international stability in other ways. From disputes over occupied territories in the aftermath of decolonization and late interstate war in the developing world, to a large number of ethnonational separatist movements in the Balkans, Baltics, and Caucasus following in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to the breakdown of the efficacy of borders in Africa, it is becoming increasingly clear that sovereign territoriality is less able to explain the international system outside of the Western world than it might have even ten years ago.
In particular, I am interested in the persistence of territorial disputes where a state occupies or maintains a claim over territory in defiance of international norms. These cases often share a number of problematic features including transgression of accepted state borders, domination of minority groups seeking self-determination, violation of property and human rights of that population, and the perception of belligerence by the state in question toward neighbors. This behavior appears anachronistic in most respects given an overall global trend towards stability of international borders, normative privileging of minority self-determination, and demands for the respect of liberal human rights norms. Indeed, most conventional indicators would predict not only that the challenging of the territorial integrity of one state by another is unlikely to yield positive benefits to the challenger but also that the project of occupation and incorporation of legally foreign space into a host state’s formal sovereign territory is ultimately doomed to failure.
What makes these instances particularly interesting then is that they occur at all. From Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to Serbia’s unrelenting claims to Kosovo even as the province has been granted formal recognition as an independent state by much of the international community to Armenia’s substantial support for the quasi-independence of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan, some states continue to press for the alteration of borders in the face of relatively substantial international opposition. The real question is why, in the face of high structural costs and clear normative disincentives, do states persist in making these claims?
The answers posed by the extant literature are remarkably broad. They include realist claims of perceived security benefits to territorial expansionism, elite misperception of the costs and benefits of revisionism, minority capture and subversion or stalemating of the domestic political process, and eventual alterations to domestic conceptions of appropriate territoriality whereby the disputed territory comes to be seen as an integral part of the state. Yet by embedding territorial claims in the particular context under which the territory itself was either “illegitimately” captured or controlled, these theories implicitly or explicitly assume that both the territory in question has no value exogenous to those conditions and, should the basic underlying conditions revert to some prior status quo, the state’s reason for maintaining control of that territory would vanish. Often this is simply not the case.
Rather I hypothesize that disputed territories are frequently laden with histories and cultural meanings which, when instrumentalized by political actors, make return to the status quo ante exceptionally difficult regardless of the externally imposed political, diplomatic, and strategic costs. It is my contention that, by analytically marginalizing the culturally constructed meanings of territory, the existing literature has largely failed to explain how disputed claims, particularly in seemingly intractable conflicts, are substantially constituted. Accounting for these meanings is critical not only because they contribute to domestic perceptions of the “rightful” national space, but also because acknowledging their presence or absence may condition the selection of more sustainable strategies and solutions to the conflicts to which they contribute.
States may then maintain claims to disputed territories not simply because controlling the space addresses some immediate instrumental imperative, but because the territory itself is imbued with culturally informed historical meaning. Such discourse may give rise to alternative conceptions of appropriate territoriality based on ethnohistorical narratives rather than status quo ante territorial arrangements. These claims assign meaning to territory neither dependent on nor perfectly substituted by “more conventional” concerns of security, economic growth, strategic political positioning, or regime survival. The value-laden nature of these spaces further contributes to the sense that they are integral to the identity of the state and nation making the prospect of withdrawal domestically abhorrent. While most often politically subordinate to sovereign territoriality, when coupled with disputes over ethnoculturally salient territories, the activation of ethnohistorical discourse significantly contributes to political stalemate and persistent failures to resolve conflict over disputed territories.