Sara Fregonese: Urban Geopolitics, Hybrid Sovereignty, international diplomacy

Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink (December 2012) Tags: Urban Geopolitics Hybrid Sovereignty international diplomacy Radicals City Polarisation Illegimate non state actors

Editor’s note: Publication of this interview marks a milestone in the development of ExploringGeopolitics as Sara Fregonese is the 100th contributor to the website. Many thanks to all scholars that made an effort to make the website so much larger than envisaged at the start!
Sara Fregonese

Sara Fregonese

Sara Fregonese is Birmingham Fellow at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Studies and the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham.

She grew up in Italy where she obtained a BA in Middle Eastern Studies and an MA in Cross-Mediterranean Cooperation.

She obtained her PhD in Geography from Newcastle University and from 2009 to 2012 has been British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Her research lies in political geography and urban geography and includes urban geopolitics, radicalisation and social cohesion in cities, urban resilience, and spaces of protest.

Please have a look at her blog for more information about her work or a flyer about her new book:

Blog by Sara FregoneseDescription of Sara Fregonese’s book (with Ralf Brand) “The Radicals’ City: Urban Environment, Polarisation, Cohesion”

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?

As a child and of course not entirely consciously. I was curious about a border.

I grew up in Italy during the final stages of the Cold War, near its north eastern border which was then part of the ‘iron curtain’. Like many of my schoolmates, we used to spend the holidays in the Croatian region of Yugoslavia. The border was relatively porous, at least for tourists and especially Italians.

However, the car journey was punctuated by what I now understand as geopolitical sites and performances that are partly lost when arriving by plane: stopping at the military memorial of Redipuglia (here ran the WW1 front with Germany and Austria-Hungary); crossing the ex-Morgan Line which until 1954 partitioned the border town of Trieste; queueing at the border actually looking for this ‘iron curtain’ that my mum was mentioning to pass time during the wait; being a ‘Western bloc’ child in a Yugoslavian seaside resort where only the personnel were Yugoslav.

My curiosity-filled experience was disrupted, together with holiday plans (children’s views of geopolitics can be quite selfish), in 1991/2 when I was about 11, when Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and the Balkans war began.

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

I am interested in the mutual impact between geopolitics and urban life.

Until very recently, I have used the lens of urban geopolitics to understand how civil war took place in a city like Beirut, and how urban places become targets for destruction. This focus stems from my curiosity in how the Lebanese civil war involved minuscule portions of urban territory (buildings, alleyways, squares, floors) that acquired immense territorial and political meanings for local militias, but that were almost entirely disregarded by international diplomacy.

I am also interested in the idea of sovereignty and the importance of non-state actors in shaping and practising forms of sovereignty parallel to the State. This also came from the realisation that, not only in Lebanon, the classic binary between ‘legitimate state’ and ‘illegitimate non-state actors’ obscured what was in fact a hybrid sphere.

Very recently I’ve started working on uprising and protest as the key to understand urban security in the second decade of the XXI century, like terrorism was for the first. I aim to understand how security forces and urban communities cope with uprising, the uncertainties deriving from it, and whether it is possible to find forms of urban security that do not alienate communities from authorities, while guaranteeing the democratic right to protest and voice political opposition.

What do you consider your most important contribution to geopolitics?

I suppose my recent article in Issue 4 of 2012 of Environment and Planning D on hybrid sovereignty made the case for seeing sovereignty as a practice that involves state and non-state – often armed – actors.

This view of sovereignty brings attention to the hybrid practices and degrees of sovereignty as they are performed on the ground, and offers an alternative view of what are considered by foreign policy officials as ‘weak’ or ‘failed’ states.

It is based on people’s practices rather than on disembodied international parameters.

Your geopolitical preferences

What is your favourite definition of geopolitics?

For its clarity, Georges Corm’s: “Geopolitics is a compound word meaning: an approach to situations that are often conflictual in nature having to do with the geographical location of a nation-state and with the essence of its body politic. It combines, therefore, a geographical approach with a political approach.”

However, we ought not to limit geopolitics to the study of nation-states, and moreover, many critical definitions leave out actors such as the city and non-state groups.

Yves Lacoste’s definition fills this gap. He said “Il n’y a pas qu’une seule geopolitique, elle de la raison d’etat; il y a d’autres geopolitiques” (Herodote 25: 3-9, 1982).

He also has a great definition from 2006: “Le terme de géopolitique, dont on fait de nos jours de multiples usages, désigne en fait tout ce qui concerne les rivalités de pouvoirs ou d’influence sur des territoires et les populations qui y vivent: rivalités entre des pouvoirs politiques de toutes sortes – et pas seulement entre des États, mais aussi entre des mouvements politiques ou des groupes armés plus ou moins clandestins – rivalités pour le contrôle ou la domination de territoires de grande ou petite taille.”

Which geopolitical scientist do you admire the most?

I can think of two.

Yves Lacoste: for his plural understanding of territory and power, his inclusion of the life of people who experience geopolitics, and his stress on the non-state including armed groups, precedes a lot of Anglophone scholars. He also did work on Mediterranean Geopolitics, a theme that interests me particularly.

Klaus Dodds’ work on media and geopolitics opened up a branch of critical geopolitics that helped me a great deal during my PhD when dealing with militia propaganda posters. He’s also been my academic mentor for the last 3 years, which only increased my admiration!

What is your favourite geopolitical book?

I could go on writing for hours, but two come to mind:

Stephen Graham’s “Cities, war and terrorism” was an eye opener at the start of my PhD in 2004, when it had just been published.

It is a collection of essays, so it gathers together multiple views, and it began to answer my original curiosity of how cities – even very small portions of urban territory – are shaped by geopolitical processes and in turn shape views of threat and security policies.

Derek Gregory’s “The Colonial Present” helped me appreciate the historical continuities of colonial power and its spatialities, and apply them to my work on Lebanon. His work on bombing has also had a great impact on our understandings of targeting and war.

What is your favourite geopolitical website?

Apart from Exploring Geopolitics?! There are two.

One is Le Monde Diplomatique (slightly belated English translation on MondeDiplo.com). It always has plenty of maps and high-quality, well written analyses of an extremely extensive range of foreign policy issues:

Le Monde Diplomatique Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition)There is also Limes, Italy’s geopolitics magazine:

LimesAlthough Le Monde Diplomatique draws on a wider range of authors and themes, and the analysis is often higher quality, Limes contains the most well drawn maps by Laura Canali. I very often use them for my presentations.

The geopolitical future

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

It is difficult to make predictions, but the 2011 and 2012 uprisings and protests around the world are difficult to ignore and they are already redefining urban security and geopolitics in regions such as the Mediterranean. So we ought to pay attention to this area.

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

The city, and non-state actors.

In academia, and more importantly in international diplomacy, too little attention is paid to how urban territory and its management have geopolitical relevance. In many divided cities like Beirut, the urban aspects of conflict, which are often the ones that affect people the most (think of divisions in Nicosia or Belfast, or the settlement infrastructure in Israel) are only marginally – if at all – considered in diplomacy and conflict resolution.

Non-state actors that are considered ‘illegitimate’ often behave in ways that resemble states, and interact with them in complex ways. I think we ought to consider the geopolitical imaginations of non-state actors more seriously.

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

How people get on with each other in cities: urban multicultural relations, radicalisation and understanding the role of non-state actors in urban geopolitics.

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