Stuart Elden: Political Geography, International Relations theory, UN Charter

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (March 2012) Tags: Political Geography International Relations theory UN Charter United Nations Law Territoriality Land Terrain Space

Stuart Elden

Stuart Elden

Book cover Stuart Elden

Stuart Elden is Professor of Political Geography at Durham University, and Academic Director of the International Boundaries Research Unit.

He is the author of three works of social/spatial theory on Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre, and of “Terror and Territory: The Spatial Extent of Sovereignty” which was awarded the Association of American Geographers Globe Book Award, the Political Geography Speciality Group Julian Minghi Outstanding Research Award, and the Royal Geographical Society Murchison Award.

His book “The Birth of Territory” is forthcoming in 2013 (see this page on this project). Finally, Professor Elden runs a personal blog at www.progressivegeographies.com

The ‘Geopolitical Passport’ series offers visitors to ExploringGeopolitics a unique opportunity to find out more about the enormous variety of views within the geopolitical traditions. The floor has been given to scholars from several countries and various disciplines. The questions address issues all people with an interest in geopolitics grapple with. How should we define it? What are the most fascinating geopolitical ideas? And how will the geopolitical future look like?

Your relationship with geopolitics

At what age did you discover geopolitics and what attracted you to it?

I suppose it was when I was doing my first degree in Politics and Modern History. I did a course on International Relations with Michael Hughes (now History, University of Liverpool), and I think that was probably my first exposure to this kind of work.

At the time I was more interested in political theory. While the geopolitical issues during the time I was an undergraduate (1990-1994) were fascinating and included the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War, and the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, I wasn’t that impressed by the international relations theory I was initially exposed to.

Only later did I discover work by people like Michael Dillon, especially The Politics of Security and R.B.J. Walker’s Inside/Outside. I then began to realise how I could combine these different interests.

Which geopolitical topics have your focus and why did you choose especially these?

Territory has been my focus in this regard.

As someone trained in political theory and the history of ideas, who is now teaching in a Geography department, I think I have a good combination of skills to approach the topic in an interesting way. I could never have said what I have said about territory without all the theoretical work I did on Heidegger, Foucault and Lefebvre, which helped me to work through a whole set of conceptual issues.

That said, the explicit references to their work in my writings on territory are minimal (though I have written shorter pieces on Foucault and territory, and Lefebvre and territory – the latter with Neil Brenner). Rather the theory is embedded in the thinking that led to the work I’ve done.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

That’s really for others to judge, of course, but I hope that my work on territory has shown just how complicated this idea actually is.

I’ve made the claim that while disagreements about territory are everywhere, disagreements about ‘territory’ are actually uncommon. But I think the concept of territory is one that needs much more work, and should not be confused with related but distinct concepts such as territoriality, land, terrain, political space and so on.

I hope I’ve been able to show how territory continues to matter today, in the book “Terror and Territory”, and how it has a long and complicated history in my forthcoming book “The Birth of Territory”.

Your geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

I’m not sure I have one.

I tend to take a Foucauldian line on these kinds of questions: I’m much less interested in the definition of anything, and rather ask how concepts have been defined at different times and in different places, and the political effects those understandings have.

I suppose if I was pushed I would say that we need to think a little bit more critically about the geo- element of geopolitics, and think about land, earth and territory as well as the global aspects of that term.

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

It would be people like Gerard Toal, Simon Dalby, David Campbell, Derek Gregory, Stephen Graham, Jenny Edkins, Klaus Dodds, Maja Zehfuss and John Agnew.

They are all very good writers, and find ways to blend theoretical engagements with concrete, political questions. It’s no coincidence that these are all book writers. Yes, they write articles as well, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that all see books as their principal means of expressions.

I came into Geography knowing the geographers that wrote books—as well as those mentioned, people like Doreen Massey, Edward Soja, Neil Smith and David Harvey — and I guess my admiration is for people who write books about geopolitics.

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

It follows from the previous answer that there are too many to list individual ones, but there are some important texts that appear to be largely forgotten.

Jean Gottmann’s “The Significance of Territory” has long been out of print, for example, and Claude Raffestin’s really important “Pour une géographie du pouvoir” has never been translated into English.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

I find the International Crisis Group a continually useful source of good information, and thought-provoking opinions.

There are some interesting blogs by academics in the field as well – Gerard Toal has one, Teo Ballvé at Territorial Masquerades, for example.

These and non-mainstream media have really broadened our sources of news over the past several years.

The geopolitical future

In what direction(s) will geopolitical science be heading the coming decades?

Well I hope that the artificial divide between Political Geography and International Relations can be broken down.

You’ll see that in part through some of the names I’ve mentioned already. While there are some people whose work seems to be able to cross between them, they are too few, and the two disciplines/sub-disciplines are often talking about the same kinds of things, but rarely to each other about them.

One of things I’ve most appreciated about being in the Geography Department at Durham is the number of colleagues who have either taught in Politics/IR programmes or could have done so, and so the conversation rarely follows narrowly conceived expectations of what is, or what isn’t, Political Geography.

Which geopolitical subject has been too little in the spotlight and needs further research?

Not quite a subject, but I’d like to see more work that engages with questions of law and their relation with Geopolitics.

This isn’t a claim for the importance of Carl Schmitt! Rather I think the thinking in Critical International Law on a number of topics of interest to geopolitical thinkers – sovereignty and territory, to take two examples – is often doing really very interesting things, and is too little read outside that discipline.

What will be the largest geopolitical challenge for the world in the 21st century?

It has to be the implications of climate change.

I’ve not worked on this, and not sure I have the expertise to add to it. But the implications that this will have on migration, security, economics, international agreements etc. are huge, and I’m not sure geopolitical theories have really began to address this in sufficient detail. Simon Dalby has made some important contributions here.

Also important—and perhaps here some of the arguments in “Terror and Territory” could have a bit more impact—is the working through of the tensions inherent in the United Nations charter. We’ve moved quite quickly from a bi-polar world to a uni-polar one, and are seeing the emergence of a multi-polar one.

Quite what the implications of this in terms of the UN charter are, I think, up for grabs. Again, I’d suggest engagement with International Law would be helpful.

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