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Unbundling, Identity, and Othering: What's Happening to the Nation State?

With the demise of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the discourse surrounding sovereignty and territory began to shift. Traditionally, sovereignty is the monopoly on the legitimate force of power the state possesses over a populace within a given area (Anderson, 1996); therefore, territory denotes the area over which the sovereign power has supreme rule. However, the rise of neoliberalist attitudes argues contemporary configurations of political, cultural, economic and diplomatic space are becoming highly complex, shifting away from traditional perceptions of the nation-state with the growing importance of supranational, transnational and intranational actors, towards a ‘new medieval’ where sovereignty and territory are being pulled apart (Anderson, 1996; Bull, 1977). Interrogating the perceived unbundling of these two concepts from each other (Forsberg, 1996; Holsinger, 2016), this article unpacks the devolution of nested hierarchies in the EU, explores the impact of warfare on international relations based on internal and external recognition, and analyses the complex nature of sovereignty and territory through Indian-Bangladeshi enclaves, to ultimately question the reach of this so-called unbundling in the 21st century.

Figure 1: French students in anti-National Front rallies (2014)

The unbundling of sovereignty can be attributed to contemporary globalisation overlaying the mosaic of nation-states. The growth in prominence of subnational and supranational non-state actors in a range of spheres can be seen when looking towards the European Union (EU), where geographic space has become increasingly complex and relative with time-space compression (Anderson, 1996). The nation-states that make up the EU are being “eroded ‘from below’ by regionalism, and ‘from above’ by EU institutions and globalisation” (Anderson, 1996). As referred author and lecturer in Geography James Anderson discusses, the growing neoliberalist attitude of world common good undermining traditional sovereign-territory relations through the expansion of the EU, where complex, overlapping and partial sovereignties can be seen to exist in a contemporary global society (Anderson, 1996).


The evolution of common markets such as the Single European Market (SEM) is an example of economic affairs becoming highly transboundary, with nation-states being dependent on the economic progress of others. This in turn implicates politics, culture and diplomacy not only all over the EU but across the world due to the freer movement of capital and people back and forth boundaries. The typical nested hierarchies are becoming multileveled and multi-scalar: communities across the EU are often directly members of international networks, such as the European Parliament, causing political theorists such as John Ruggie to argue that the EU may be ‘the world’s first truly postmodern international political form’ (Anderson, 1996, p. 134; from Ruggie, 1993) where overlapping and hybrid forms of authority are the precedence. The growth of city-states within Europe such as Berlin, London and Paris also demonstrate this ‘new medievalism’ whereby European politics, economics and culture appear to concentrate, with many people feeling, for example, like a Londoner and simultaneously European, embodying these sub- and supranational identities rather than a national identity. The EU manifests how the contemporary ‘shrinking of the world’ (Harvey, 1989) demands new thinking about the relationship between sovereignty and territory.

Figure 2: A pro-EU march in London, following the British referendum that voted in favour of Brexit (2017)

Nonetheless, the EU remains a site of borders for many, creating a sovereignty within the physical territory of the Union that many are excluded from. This becomes reflected in the embodiment of what it means to be European and creates a European ‘Other’. Europe is currently experiencing an unprecedented rise in reterritorialisation, where borders of territory and social relations against non-member states are being remade and restructured (Popescu, 2008). At Romania’s Ukrainian-Moldavian border, boundaries are becoming reproduced through the imposition of travel visas and trade-related restrictions. Participation in cross-border cultural events that intended to promote inter-ethnic understanding has declined across these borderlands since Ukrainian and Moldavian residents require visas to cross state borders into the EU from Romania; this visa requirement prevented the participation of a large Ukrainian delegation of folk artists in a 2005 interethnic festival held in Romania (Popescu, 2008).


This demonstrates how a European ‘Other’ is being created, where paper walls of citizenship are creating divisions between EU and non-EU members. The embodiment of transboundary behaviours that reflects the unbundling of sovereignty and territory is here exclusive to communities within the EU. Furthermore, a rise in nationalism within the EU, seen through political parties such as ‘Britain First’ and ‘Rassemblement National’ indicates ties between sovereignty and territory remaining across Europe, rather than completely divorcing from one another. This unbundling is therefore uneven and partial across Europe.

Figure 3: Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen lead a Britain First demonstration in Rochdale (2017)

The ability to experience and embody this contemporary unbundling of sovereignty and territory is highly selective and pertains to privileged, unmarked bodies that are able to transcend metaphysical boundaries (Haraway, 1988). The US and UK ‘War on Terror’ demonstrates this, as from a Western and liberal viewpoint, the invasions into Iraq and Afghanistan can be considered unbundling due to international organisations, governments and non-state actors working together to provide aid, bring down a corrupt regime and destroy terrorist organisations (Elden, 2007). The liberalist vision that states can move towards interdependence and pursue economic, social, cultural and political integration reinforces arguments that these invasions were necessary to create global harmony and democratic peace (Snyder, 2004). Sovereignty is not being fixed to territory, but rather transcending said borders to promote international cooperation and democracy.


Furthermore, external sovereignty of no higher moral authority can be seen to be broken by these invasions, that were labelled a ‘crusade’ against terror (Gregory, 2004). However, from a realist perspective, the War on Terror was a campaign to promote Western sovereignty over the Middle East through strategically trying to disempower these countries (Mearscheimer, 2001). The war has led to marked individuals such as those who identify as Muslims and Arabs being faced with prejudice and racism in the US and UK due to the ‘Us versus Them’ discourse that was created. A border between the West and the Middle East, between Muslims and the rest of the world, has formed from actions by the West that can be perceived as a campaign to retain power and sovereignty over the East. This is supported by the lack of involvement in Syria from the US and UK governments, indicating these countries are acting in strategic self-interest and that the international cooperation of previous years can be compared to a façade.

Figure 4: Cover page of Newsweek on the October 15th, 2001 (2001)

It is important to recognise the complexity of sovereign and territorial relations is not a new phenomenon to be associated solely with globalisation and the end of the Cold War. Mismatches of de jure (legal) sovereignty and de facto (actual) sovereignty have existed within India for several decades following their independence in 1947 (Jones, 2009). The 198 enclaves that exist along the northern border between India and Bangladesh demonstrate de jure sovereignty, as these pieces of land on the ‘wrong side’ of the borders legally belong to the home, rather than host, country, but all typical services provided by the state are either completely absent or are carried out by residents themselves. In the 92 Bangladeshi enclaves in India, most have no form of government, poor education and infrastructure, a lack of hospitals and so forth (Jones, 2009). The residents are officially Bangladeshi citizens and so are provided no support by the Indian state, which is especially apparent in times of emergency, such as monsoons, yet no support is given by the Bangladeshi government either.


The existence of these enclaves undermines the claim of an unambiguous connection between sovereign authority, territory and a single people, but simultaneously supports the concept that sovereign power is based on the ability to exclude: the residents of these enclaves have territory without sovereignty. In the reverse, the existence of Tibet in northern India as a nation-state with no territory is an example of de facto and tacit sovereignty, where residents claim Tibetan citizenship despite officially being on Indian land (McConnell, 2009). Regardless of the Tibetan government being in exile with other states not legally recognising it, the Tibetan government is able to operate as a state on the ground, holding elections, collecting voluntary taxes and having a parliament (McConnell, 2009). This partial and uneven imposition of the modern sovereign state system around the world is a postcolonial legacy that reinforces the complexity of sovereignty and territory, and how in a globalising world of time-space compression, tenuous links remain underexplored and underappreciated outside of the Western frame.

Figure 5: Enclaves along the Indian-Bangladeshi border (n.d.)

In the contemporary international system, the unbundling of sovereignty and territory can seem obvious due to the increased political, economic, and cultural roles of non-state actors across the globe. The transboundary actions of cities, transnational corporations, NGOs, and subnational communities as well as supranational organisations such as the EU are creating for many a ‘new world order’ of neomedievalism, whereby the state becomes increasingly superseded as a sovereign entity over territory (Anderson, 1996).


However, the complete erosion of state sovereignty is not only an exaggeration but is a highly westernised and neoliberal viewpoint that relates only to unmarked bodies being able to transcend said boundaries and act as higher authorities. The unbundling of sovereignty from territory that is exhibited within the EU is not reflected at EU borders, where a space of exclusion is maintained. This does not pay homage to the increased ‘Us versus Them’ rhetoric that is a product of the international cooperation of the War on Terror in the Middle East (Gregory, 2004). Furthermore, it is important to recognise that the multifaceted relationship between sovereignty and territory is an enduring reality for millions across the world, as explored here through the experiences of de jure and de facto sovereignty that exists within India and across its borders. Although time-space compression is a very real phenomenon that is shaping the lives of unmarked bodies as they transcend boundaries with ease, the unevenness of this unbundling remains an exclusive and elitist experience within the 21st century (Jones, 2009).


Bibliographical References

Anderson, J. (1996) The Shifting Stage of Politics: New Medieval and Postmodern Territorialities? Environment and Planning. D, Society and Space, 14(2), 133-53.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1068/d140133 Bull, H. (1977). The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics. Macmillan. Elden, S. (2007). Terror and Territory. Antipode 39 (5), 821-45.

https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stuart-Elden-2/publication/227522242_Terror_and_Territory/links/5b84f23e4585151fd137117d/Terror-and-Territory.pdf Forsberg, T. (1996). Beyond Sovereignty, within Territoriality: Mapping the Space of Late-modern (Geo)politics, Cooperation and Conflict, 31(4), 355-86.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0010836796031004001 Gregory, D. (2004). The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Basil Blackwell. Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), 575-599.

https://philpapers.org/archive/HARSKT.p Holsinger, B. (2016). Neomedievalism and international relations. The Cambridge companion to medievalism, 151-164. Jones, R. (2009) Sovereignty and statelessness in the border enclaves of India and Bangladesh. Political Geography, 28(6), 373-81.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229132254_Sovereignty_and_Statelessness_in_the_Border_Enclaves_of_India_and_Bangladesh

Mearsheimer, J.J. (2001). The tragedy of great power politics. WW Norton & Company.

McConnell, F. (2009). De facto, displaced, tacit: The sovereign srticulations of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Political Geography, 28(6), 343-52.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0962629809000432 Mountz, A. (2013) Political Geography I: Reconsidering geographies of sovereignty. Progress in Human Geography, 37(6), 829-841.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0309132513479076 Popescu, G. (2008). The conflicting logics of cross-border reterritorialization: Geopolitics of Euroregions in Eastern Europe. Political Geography, 27(4), 418-438.

Ruggie, J. (1993) Territoriality and Beyond: Problematising Modernity in International Relations. International Organisation, 47(1), 139-74.

https://people.ucsc.edu/~rlipsch/migrated/Pol272/Ruggie.Territoriality.pdf Snyder, J. (2004). One world, rival theories. Foreign Policy, 145(145), 52

https://www.proquest.com/openview/2bb0fe90b0f6158a2f6f6c312f4dcde3/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=47510

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