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European Journal of

Colonial reflection and International Relations

18(2) 277297
The Author(s) 2010
territoriality: The peripheral Reprints and permissions: sagepub.
origins of sovereign statehood DOI: 10.1177/1354066110383997

Jordan Branch
UC Berkeley, USA

The modern international system is commonly argued to have originated within Western
Europe and spread globally during centuries of colonialism. This article argues, instead,
that the character of the modern system of territorially sovereign states resulted from
a complex interaction between European colonizing polities and events, actors, and
spaces in other parts of the globe. In particular, through a process of colonial reflection,
many of the foundational ideas and practices of modern statehood were formed in the
interactions of Europeans with the unknown, supposedly empty, spaces of the New
World in the 16th and 17th centuries. These novel practices were applied only later
to politics among states in Europe. Most important among these developments is the
ideal of territorial exclusivity as the sole basis for state sovereignty.This analysis also has
implications for the study of contemporary international systemic change.

historical sociology, imperialism, sovereignty, state system, territoriality

Conventional political science and sociology studies of the modern state system see the
origins of these institutions as internal to Europe, with statehood subsequently spreading
throughout the world by colonial expansion and post-colonial independence. This narra-
tive, however, misses an important feature of the initial development of the territorial
state in Europe: the impact of the early modern period of colonial expansion. In an effort
to fill this gap, I suggest a process of colonial reflection, arguing that certain fundamental
features of modern states and international politics originated in the actions of European
polities and rulers outside of Europe rather than within it. The novel requirements of
making political claims in the Americas demanded new authoritative practices from

Corresponding author:
Jordan Branch, UC Berkeley Political Science, 210 Barrows Hall #1950, Berkeley, California 94720-1950, USA.

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278 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

colonial powers, evident in political claims based on linear territorial divisions between
spatial expanses. These New World practices were only later applied within Europe, after
a contested and long-term process of interaction with existing forms of rule. Nonetheless,
by the early 19th century, the transformation of political organization culminated in the
territorial statehood and sovereign equality of the modern international system a
transformation fundamentally shaped by early modern colonial practices.
In order to demonstrate this important but overlooked role played by colonial expan-
sion in the formation of territorial states, this article proceeds as follows. The first section
reiterates the conventional narrative of the expansion of the European state system, dis-
cusses key critiques of this account, and explains how my alternative argument builds on
existing theorizations of the interaction between colonies and metropoles. The second
section outlines the fundamental importance of ideas and practices of political authority
to the character of political structures specifically, the foundation of modern statehood
in a particular form of exclusive, linearly defined territoriality. Then the bulk of the
article describes how European colonial powers implemented some of the key practices
of modern territoriality in the New World first, and only later applied them within
Europe a trajectory particularly evident in the language of peace treaties. Finally, the
conclusion suggests implications for how we might study fundamental change in todays
globalized international system, arguing that peripheral regions may be among the most
likely sources of institutional innovation.

Dominant narratives of the expansion of European statehood

Most discussions of the origins of the now global system of states see sovereign state-
hood and the practices of international relations as a collection of ideas, norms, and
practices that developed within Europe and subsequently were imposed on, or adopted
by, other parts of the globe during and after the period of European colonialism. These
arguments build upon numerous theories from historical sociology concerning the ori-
gins of European statehood, theories that vary widely, both in terms of the exact outcome
being explained (centralization, territoriality, or international systemic practices) and in
terms of which causal drivers are emphasized (military technology and competition,
capitalist economic development, or religious reformation). Yet almost all analyses find
the origins of the European state system to be exclusively internal to that continent. For
example, Tilly (1992) focuses on military pressure driving increased centralization and
fiscal-military extraction in European polities. Spruyt (1994) argues that competition
among different forms of rule within Europe ended in the victory of the sovereign state
over other types of organization. Other arguments include more ideational elements but
still posit that key changes originated within Renaissance Europe and restructured politi-
cal forms there first (e.g. Ruggie, 1993). Many other theorists have approached the origin
of modern states from a variety of angles,1 yet few place causal emphasis on the extra-
European expansion of colonial powers, even though they often note the historical coin-
cidence of colonial expansion and European state formation.
The organizational form of the state and the practices of the state system, then, are
argued to have spread to the rest of the world through direct colonial imposition and post-
colonial institutional mimicry. While this does describe some aspects of the worldwide

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spread of sovereign statehood, it ignores the constitutive importance of ideas and

practices developed during, and as a part of, European expansion. The edited volume by
Bull and Watson (1984) on The Expansion of International Society offers a useful exam-
ple of the English School approach to this question, and it is one of the very few attempts
to deal directly with systemic expansion. The authors in this collection see the practices
of statehood spreading outward through colonialism and adopted by new states as they
are allowed into the system in the 20th century. Although they note that [t]he evolution
of the European system of interstate relations and the expansion of Europe across the
globe were simultaneous processes, which influenced and affected each other (Bull and
Watson, 1984: 67), the analysis finds little influence on state formation from colonial
expansion, instead focusing on the expansion of the system to include new actors. This
emphasizes diplomatic practices and thus leads to a focus on the inclusion of new actors
in events such as multilateral conferences: One way of charting the evolution of a uni-
versal international society is to trace the widening representation of non-European
states at these conferences (Bull and Watson, 1984: 121). By focusing exclusively on the
formal relations among political units, this approach ignores the possibility that those
units may change in fundamental character, rather than merely in number or identity.
Thus, many studies only recognize the interaction between extra-European expansion
and systemic change at the level of inclusion or exclusion of actors or units assumed to
exist prior to this process.
I argue, instead, that certain practices and ideas fundamental to modern states and
international relations appeared first in the colonial world, albeit in the interactions of
European polities operating there, and were only later applied to intra-European political
structures. This process I label colonial reflection, as it involves the reflection of prac-
tices used first in colonial areas onto European internal political arrangements.2 Many of
these practices and ideas were implemented as a conscious response to the perceived
novelty of extra-European expansion. Therefore, the historically contingent process of
European colonialism particularly in the New World of the Americas was a key
factor shaping the development of European states and the international system, although
it was not the only causal dynamic at work.
The dominant narrative of the formation of modern states has also been challenged in
a number of other ways. For example, the conventional focus on military and political
competition has been critiqued by studies emphasizing ideational change (Gorski, 2003),
property relations (Rosenberg, 1994), or the development of capitalism (Teschke, 2003).
Others, rather than focusing exclusively on developments internal to Europe, have noted
the importance of including extra-European dynamics. One such approach convincingly
demonstrates the difficulty of applying the European experience of state-building to
other parts of the world (Centeno, 2002; Herbst, 2000). Additionally, recent work has
emphasized that, in order to understand international systems in general and the modern
state system in particular, we need to expand our inquiry to encompass political arrange-
ments from all regions and historical periods (Buzan and Little, 2000; Ferguson and
Mansbach, 1996; Watson, 1992). Others have explicitly pointed out the interaction
between European and global developments (Keene, 2002) and the potentially extra-
European origins of key ideas, technologies, and practices underlying European political
modernity (Hobson, 2004, 2009). These arguments, and others like them, have usefully

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280 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

widened our focus beyond the traditional focus on internal European developments and
have pointed out, in fact, the fallacy of conceptualizing Europe as a distinct and bounded
unit of historical political analysis.
This articles contribution builds on these insights, arguing that our understanding of
the development of European states continues to be incomplete because important
aspects of what I have termed colonial reflection have been overlooked. Key elements of
the current international systems foundational norms namely, exclusive territoriality
and linear divisions first appeared in 16th-century European colonial claims to the
New World and were only consolidated in intra-European practices in the 19th century.
By focusing narrowly on the changing nature of claims to political rule (over territories
and persons), my argument provides new traction on the ongoing inquiry into the impor-
tance of extra-European events to political modernity.
The importance of colonial practices to later European political developments has
been noted by other studies, none of which, however, focuses on explaining the shift to
exclusive territoriality as a foundation for modern statehood. For example, Arendt (1966)
sees the origins of 20th-century totalitarianism in the racism and expansionism inherent
in 19th-century imperialism. Colonial practices eventually made their appearance within
Europe in a boomerang effect, to the shock of a society of states accustomed to more
civilized forms of conflict among themselves. Keene (2002) notes a similar process of
importing colonial ideas, particularly regarding the justification for war as a means of
defending or spreading civilization. Benedict Andersons argument about the construc-
tion of nations as imagined communities rests on a similar logic. He contends that
modern nationalism appeared first in America, not in Europe:

Out of the American welter came these imagined realities: nation-states, republican institutions,
common citizenships, popular sovereignty, national flags and anthems, etc. In effect, by the
second decade of the nineteenth century, if not earlier, a model of the independent national
state was available for pirating. (Anderson, 1991: 81)

The fact that this aspect of Andersons argument is often overlooked reveals how deeply
ingrained our notions of the European origins of modernity are. The integral part played
by extra-European events, actors, or practices needs to be incorporated into our under-
standing of modern state formation.
While such explanations focus predominantly on 19th-century developments, a pro-
cess of colonial reflection also occurred in the first colonial age of the 16th and 17th
centuries, fundamentally shaping the origins of territorial states. For example, OGorman
(1961) notes that the initial Columbian encounter and the subsequent invention of
America as a New World by Europeans not only altered their understanding of the here-
tofore unknown parts of the world, but also reconstructed their conception of the world
as a whole and the place of Europe within it. Schmitt echoes this point, arguing explicitly
that the encounter with America initiated an internal European struggle for this new
world that, in turn, led to a new spatial order of the earth with new divisions (Schmitt,
2003 [1974]: 87). Anghie (2004), Muldoon (1999), and Bhambra (2007) have also noted
the importance of the first wave of European colonial expansion to the formation of
political modernity and international law.

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In particular, the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Amerindian civilizations which

were difficult to fit into the conventional categorization of peoples as Christians or as
known enemies of Christendom brought up questions with implications not only for
the position of New World possessions, but also for the fundamental basis of political life
within Europe as well (Fernndez-Santamaria, 1977; Jahn, 1999, 2000; Pagden, 1995).
In debates following the Spanish conquest including one called by Charles V at
Valladolid specifically to discuss the legitimacy of his New World possessions those
participants involved understood the potential repercussions of their arguments: The
jurists and theologians were acutely aware that any political theory used to legitimize in
this way the conquest of the territories of non-Christian rulers could just as easily be used
by Christian rulers against each other (Pagden, 1995: 4748; see also Fernndez-
Santamaria, 1977: 58). The justifications used were fundamental to the later develop-
ment of modern political theory, as well as to practices of political rule and the discipline
of international relations (Jahn, 1999, 2000).
As will be clear in the pages that follow, my argument builds on the insights provided
by these wide-ranging studies, as I adopt a similar approach but focus on a different
aspect of political modernity. The ideas and practices of territorial statehood examined in
this article are part of the larger universe of ways in which colonial ideas and practices
restructured European politics. Specifically, in a transformation that occurred in conjunc-
tion with other dynamics (both internal and external to Europe), the target of political
claims shifted from persons and places to territorial spaces. This form of exclusive
territoriality part of the fundamental structure of sovereign statehood and modern
international politics appeared first in European expansion into, and political compe-
tition over, the New World. These norms and practices were later applied to European
interactions, creating by the 19th century the hegemonic norm of political organization
represented by the territorial state. This aspect of colonial reflection, which has been
overlooked in existing studies, forms the subject of this article.3

Sovereignty, territoriality, and the modern state

In short, the territorial statehood and linear boundaries that have defined international
politics since the 19th century first appeared in European colonial practices. This sec-
tion provides theoretical and empirical background for this argument, first, by summa-
rizing the importance of territoriality and authority to the constitution of the international
system and, second, by outlining the transformation of authority in the development of
modern states.
The important characteristics of the international system include more than diplomatic
practices (which the English School emphasizes) or the anarchyhierarchy distinction (of
neorealism). The characteristics of the actors themselves must be considered as well
(Ruggie, 1993; Spruyt, 1998), and these characteristics are fundamentally structured by
ideas and practices of sovereign authority. Parallel to the realist assumption that anarchy is
the immutable organizing principle of international politics, many theories implicitly
assume that polities have been constituted only by a single form of sovereign authority: the
exclusive reliance on territorial authority of the modern state system. Yet if we wish to
understand how international systems change over time, we need to conceptualize authority

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282 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

as a variable characteristic of polities. The foundation of sovereign authority or its

constitutive dimension4 is determined by the types of authority held to be legitimate
bases for political organization. Both internal and external aspects of sovereignty are
defined by the authority that an actor claims or holds internally vis-a-vis subject persons,
jurisdictions, or territory, and externally in terms of the divisions between units and the
criteria for recognition as a legitimate polity.5
In this key dimension of state and system structure the form of legitimate authority
the modern state system differs fundamentally from other historical international sys-
tems, both the medieval political structure that preceded it in Europe and the non-Western
political systems from various eras.6 In the modern state system, the primary political
entities (i.e. states) are defined solely in terms of exclusive, homogeneous territorial
authority, which is circumscribed by linear geographic boundaries. This particular form
of territoriality is so strongly ingrained in the modern conception of politics that it is
often mistakenly seen as a recurring pattern throughout history, rather than as the innova-
tion of modernity that it actually is. Thus, the following paragraphs briefly outline the
divergence between modern statehood and other, earlier forms of political authority and
organization, highlighting the unique character of the modern state.
The European medieval political world, for example, was structured by a mix of
territorial and jurisdictional or personal forms of authority. Political units were consti-
tuted based both on personal feudal bonds between actors and on territorial notions of
control. Yet the form of territoriality in this system was very different from the exclusive,
linearly bounded territorial authority of the modern world. Instead, territory was under-
stood as a series of places, with authority radiating outward from centers rather than
inward from linear boundaries. Furthermore, authorities in medieval Europe were often
non-exclusive, decentralized, and overlapping, such as in the case of vassals simultane-
ously owing homage to various often competing lords (Bloch, 1961; Finer, 1997;
Ganshof, 1970; Revel, 1991; Ruggie, 1993).
Outside of Western Europe, political systems were often based on similar, non-mod-
ern forms of territorial authority or personal quasi-kinship bonds. Many pre-colonial
African polities, for example, were understood in terms of authority radiating outward
from a center of strong control to fading peripheries (Bassett, 1998; Herbst, 2000;
Klinghoffer, 2006). Imperial suzerain systems also lacked the exclusively and homoge-
neously territorial character of modern sovereign authority: empires such as Rome or
China were conceived of as holding authority over the entire world, but with control
simply diminishing from the center into tributary areas (Kratochwil, 1986).
The modern state system, on the other hand, has been structured since the early 19th
century by exclusive territorial authority, with no other form of authority considered
legitimate. Although some theories of international politics assume all systems to have
been structured by similar notions of territorial exclusivity, in fact this is a unique and
fundamental characteristic of modern states and international relations, and it is the result
of a set of contingent causal processes. In the modern system, the only internationally
legitimate form of authority is territorial, defined by linear cartographic boundaries and
homogeneity within those lines (illustrated by the modern political map of the world,
with color-coded and linearly bounded states). This form of territorial authority is
non-overlapping, making situations of mixed or shared rule exceptions requiring extraor-
dinary justification. Finally, authority is highly centralized, particularly at the level of

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international relations and state-to-state interaction. Even todays most loosely federated
states are far more centralized than the composite polities of medieval Europe or imperial
In order to understand this transformation of sovereign authority in Europe and the
constitution of an entirely novel international system built exclusively around territorial
authority, we must widen our focus to include the important effects of the colonial
expansion of European actors and their attempts to deal with the spaces of the suppos-
edly New World of the Americas. The transformation of political authority among
European actors which by the 19th century had consolidated as modern territorial
states is evident far earlier in the colonial expansion into the New World. The
Columbian encounter and the subsequent attempt to make claims to political authority
demanded a new form of territorial rule, structured around linear divisions and homoge-
neous expanses of space. Although a number of other sources of political transformation
also operated during this same period, the transformative impact of colonial expansion
provided a key element in the shift from medieval forms of authoritative claims to modern
territorial exclusivity.
The following section explores, first, the immediate implementation of new linearly
territorial notions of authority in the period following Columbus and the continuing use
of territorial exclusivity in the New World thereafter; second, the concurrent persistence
of non-territorial authorities within Europe; and, third, the later application of colonial
ideas and practices within Europe in the process of colonial reflection.

New World territoriality and European reflection

New World territoriality
The discovery of America in the 1490s was not easily incorporated into European geo-
graphic and cosmological thinking. In particular, there was confusion among European
intellectuals and rulers as to whether what had been encountered was part of Asia (as
Columbus believed) or an entirely new land unconnected to the known continents. It was
not until 15 years after Columbuss first voyage that the first clear and widely influential
statements of the New World character of the discoveries were made (OGorman, 1961).
Even before this view was solidified, however, political actors wished to claim author-
ity over the newly encountered lands. Although the nature of these territories was unclear,
the Spanish monarchs wanted to secure their claims no matter what the geographic facts
turned out to be:

The Crowns reaction is governed by one primary interest: to ensure possession and juridical
rights on whatever it was that Columbus had found. With equal haste, the Crown started
negotiations to obtain a legal title from the Holy See. Here, also, the question of what the lands
might be was not uppermost: the urgent thing was to insure juridical lordship over them.
(OGorman, 1961: 81)

Columbuss traditional means of asserting authority on the spot in his own words, by
proclamation made and with the royal standard unfurled (Greenblatt, 1991: 51) was
insufficient for claiming a poorly understood territory. These new claims had to be made

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284 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

over territories for which rulers had little or no knowledge, in the traditional sense of
naming jurisdictional rights over towns or cities they were, in effect, spaces without
places.7 A more effective means for making a claim over the unknown was, instead,
linearly defined territorial authority.
Europeans found particularly useful the ideas built on techniques of mapping newly
rediscovered from the classical Greek author Ptolemy, whose work contained instruc-
tions for mapping according to the now-familiar celestial coordinate system of latitude
and longitude (Thrower, 1999; Woodward, 2007). Previous European mapping traditions
lacked the global, 360-degree foundation required to make claims over unknown territo-
ries. The Ptolemaic cartographic grid made possible the linear division of the world
according to abstract lines, a technique demanded by European rulers desire to make
political claims over the (to them) unknown spaces of this New World.8
These technologies inspired and made possible new practices of global linear think-
ing among European political actors (Schmitt, 2003 [1974]: 8788). The first examples
were the Papal Bulls of 1493 and the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas between Spain and
Portugal. In these agreements, Spain was allotted all newly discovered territories west of
a line drawn in the Atlantic Ocean, and Portugal was apportioned those to the east. The
importance of these treaties was not in the details of the line (the exact measurement of
which was technologically unobtainable), but instead in the very idea of using a linear
division to assign political authority: For the first time in history an abstract geometric
system had been used to define a vast global area of control (Sack, 1986: 132).
In the first half of the 16th century, however, Spanish explorers discovered that the
abstract spaces claimed in the 14934 agreements were, of course, inhabited by indige-
nous peoples. Subsequently, debates arose in Spain about the legitimacy of the conquest
and enslavement of these groups. Similar to the geographical novelty of the New World
requiring a new form of spatial claim, existing legal constructions at the disposal of the
Spaniards became irrelevant (Jahn, 2000: 49) because the Amerindians were neither
Christians nor could they be accused of being enemies of Christianity enemies in the
sense of having known the true religion and resisting it (Jahn, 2000: 45). The conquest
was instead justified by an innovative application of natural law principles (Fernndez-
Santamaria, 1977: 8485; Jahn, 1999: 417). Yet this did not invalidate or undermine the
primacy of the linear territorial claims of the 1490s. These early agreements remained
central to Spanish claims and were often brought up if only to be rejected by
French and English counterclaims (Pagden, 1995: 48). Thus linear territorial claims were
used in conjunction with other innovations in order to delineate and justify New World
possessions. The Spanish conquest involved brute force, theological disputes, and, on
occasion, complex negotiated settlements. Yet the claims made vis-a-vis other European
rulers in the New World which later redefined interactions within Europe came to
rest predominantly on notions of control over spaces, not peoples.
This tendency becomes increasingly clear in the second century of European colonial-
ism, as other European states made their own claims in the New World. For example, the
use of abstract, cartographic territoriality to assert control is unmistakable in the 17th-
century English charters to North American colonies. Even when English claims to New
World territory involved the written legal cartographies of charters and grants rather
than maps per se (Baldwin, 2007: 1765), such documents typically based their authority

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claims on the ideas of geometric cartography: lines of latitude or longitude. For example,
the 1606 charter of Virginia delineated the colony as being all land on the Atlantic coast
between four and thirty Degrees of Northerly Latitude from the Equinoctial Line, and
five and forty Degrees of the same Latitude.9 Charters for other colonies followed simi-
lar patterns (Sack, 1986: 134). These types of claims used by both the English and the
French were based on the notion that American land was res nullius, or land belong-
ing to no one (Pagden, 1995: 76).
The cartographic basis for these large territorial claims in colonial charters was then
followed by the imposition of survey-based property mapping as a key element in delin-
eating and assigning colonial lands to settlers, often along equally geometric lines (Kain
and Baigent, 1992: ch. 8). In these property allotments of supposedly empty areas, land
grants resembled the titles used in medieval Europe for reclaimed lands rather than the
standard feudally encumbered grants (Keene, 2002: 63). Once again, the expansion to
the New World yielded novel practices and changes in how existing institutions were
The territorial homogenization of North American political space culminated in the
creation of the US as an independent entity, defined geographically and territorially by
cartographic lines and homogeneously federal subdivisions (Sack, 1986: 149). Although
these colonies were European creations, this geometric territoriality was implemented in
the New World at a time when political space within Europe was still organized in a mix
of old and new forms, as will be discussed later.
In short, the conquest of the Americas created a break with previous practices of
political expansion:

Old World conquest before the Age of Exploration involved subduing and establishing
suzerainty over older and resident agricultural populations. It did not involve displacing them
entirely, even when these populations were thought by their conquerors to be inferior. (Sack,
1986: 8788)

In the Old World, filled with recognized authority structures and legal titles, an invader
could conquer a people and claim the same authority that the previous ruler had held.
In the New World, the absence of recognized authorities demanded a new means of
claiming authority vis-a-vis other European powers: linearly defined territoriality,
expressed abstractly in maps or cartographic language. Thus it was the very need to
divide, claim, and assign the unknown spaces of the New World that drove the first use
of the newly available abstract mathematical and geometric methods for understanding
and claiming space.10 Although these new forms of rule were sometimes combined
with existing ideas and practices, the fundamentally novel character of New World
political claims is highlighted when they are compared with contemporary practices
within Europe.

Early modern European territoriality

Contemporary with the implementation of territorial exclusivity in the political claims
and counterclaims of colonial powers in the New World, authority relations within

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286 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

Europe remained relatively unchanged for several centuries. Rulers continued to make
political authority claims based on personal or jurisdictional notions, as well as territorial
claims built on the medieval idea of territory as a series of places rather than a geometri-
cally delineated space. This is evident in the language used in major European peace
treaties, which provide one means of gauging the ideas held by leading political actors in
the early modern period. Whether or not a ruler plans on abiding by an agreement, the
negotiating and signing of that agreement exposes fundamental ideas about what is being
negotiating over (see Krasner, 2001: 34).11 In particular, the way in which political
authority is exchanged, transferred, or claimed reveals foundational understandings,
even if the specifics are in dispute. Most pertinent to this articles focus on the origins of
the exclusive territoriality of modern statehood, texts can be examined in terms of the
form taken by claims, conquests, and cessions: are they made in terms of groups of
people, listed places, or delineated spaces?
Nearly contemporary with Columbus and the Treaty of Tordesillas, late medieval
treaty settlements were built on notions of political authority very different from
those evident in New World claims. Within Europe, agreements focused on issues of
feudal homage and territorial control, with the latter defined in terms of a series of
individual places such as forts or towns rather than linear boundaries. For example,
the 1435 Congress of Arras brought together the major actors in the Hundred Years
War: the English King, the French King, and the Duke of Burgundy. The unsuccessful
negotiations between England and France involved demands for control over towns,
listed as a series of places and not defined as a homogeneous territory (Dickinson,
1955: 148). In the agreement reached between Burgundy and France, express
mention is made of the cession of Mcon, Auxerre, Pronne, Montdidier, Roye, and
Bar as a series of towns, not as a delineated spatial area (Dickinson, 1955: 166). In
short, the negotiations and treaty clearly demonstrate the medieval notion of spatial
authority and its complete dissociation from linear boundaries or cartographic divi-
sions. Furthermore, personal feudal forms of authority remained important, illustrated
by the French kings demand for homage from the English monarch (Dickinson,
1955: 150, 167).
Over a century later, in 15589, France, Spain, and England met to negotiate an end
to the Italian Wars, yielding the Peace of Cateau-Cambrsis. In the several treaties that
resulted from these meetings, territorial trades and cessions were once again made in the
form of lists of towns. For example, Article 11 of the FrenchSpanish treaty stated, The
King of Spain shall restore to the King of France S. Quentin, Le Catelet and Ham, with
their dependencies (Russell, 1986: 243), while another agreement mandated an equal
division of revenues from a newly created diocese. These examples reveal the continuing
importance of overlapping jurisdictional divisions that do not line up with territorial
boundaries, as well as the persistence of the non-linear view of territorial political author-
ity into the 16th century, even in the agreements at the highest levels among the most
powerful and culturally central polities of Europe.
Contrary to the conventional narrative in international relations theory about the inno-
vative and transformative nature of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the treaties signed
at Mnster and Osnabrck demonstrated that territorial authority continued to be under-
stood in the medieval fashion, as a series of differentiated places, and non-territorial
authorities also continued to be important.12

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For example, in section LXXVI of the Treaty of Mnster, after listing a series of
Alsatian towns to be under the control of the French crown, the following text appeared:

Item, All the Vassals, Subjects, People, Towns, Boroughs, Castles, Houses, Fortresses, Woods,
Coppices, Gold or Silver Mines, Minerals, Rivers, Brooks, Pastures; and in a word, all the
Rights, Regales and Appurtenances, without any reserve, shall belong to the most Christian
King, and shall be for ever incorporated with the Kingdom of France. (Israel, 1967: 3132,
emphasis in original)

Or, for another example, the list of possessions to be returned to Austria included the
following passage:

Item, The County of Hawenstein, the Black Forest, the Upper and Lower Brisgaw, and the Towns
situate therein, appertaining of Antient Right to the House of Austria, viz. Neuburg, Friburg,
Edingen, Kenzingen, Waldkirch, Willingen, Bruenlingen, with all their Territorys; as also, the
Monasterys, Abbys, Prelacys, Deaconrys, Knight-Fees, Commanderships, with all their
Bayliwicks, Baronys, Castles, Fortresses, Countys, Barons, Nobles, Vassals, Men, Subjects,
Rivers, Brooks, Forests, Woods, and all the Regales, Rights, Jurisdictions, Fiefs and Patronages,
and all other things belonging to the Sovereign Right of Territory, and to the Patrimony of the
House of Austria, in all that Country. (Article LXXXVIII, in Israel, 1967: 35, emphasis in original)

Although the authority was mentioned as a list of places with all their Territorys, this
had to be followed by a careful listing of all the personal and jurisdictional authorities
associated otherwise these would not have been considered included. While this
yielded the end result of giving control over basically the entirety of the territory in ques-
tion to the receiving party hence sounding similar to the modern notion of exclusive
and complete sovereignty over territory in fact it demonstrates the persistent strength
of the medieval notion of territorial authority. Every single aspect of the towns
concerned sub-jurisdictions, economic resources, and so on had to be explicitly
named; it was not yet sufficient simply to delineate a certain spatial area and thus claim
authority over it and all that exists within it. These examples are representative of the
other territorial exchanges in the treaties.
What is also notable in 1648 is the continuing absence of cartographic or geographic
language of the kind being used in the New World. There was no discussion of delineat-
ing territorial claims or exchanges by the use of linear divisions, mapped features, or
even natural frontier divisions. The complexity of the passage quoted above demon-
strates that it was not yet acceptable simply to describe the geographic limits of a territo-
rial claim and leave it at that all of the detailed particulars of the places within the
territory had to be named for authority to be exchanged.
Furthermore, these treaties contained numerous references to rights and privileges asso-
ciated with particular places. These referred to medieval jurisdictional notions of authority,
which continued to be asserted in the mid-17th century. In addition, there were many passages
that discuss feudal concepts such as fiefs or vassalage. For example, referring to several
German princes, these Vassals shall be bound to take an Oath of Fidelity to the Lord Charles
Lewis [the Elector Palatine], and to his Successors, as their direct Lords, and to demand of
him the renewing of their Fiefs (Article XXVII, in Israel, 1967: 16, emphasis in original).

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288 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

In short, Westphalia marked not the creation, let alone the consolidation, of the
modern state system, but instead continued the intra-European practices of exchanging
authority along medieval lines. While there is no question that some aspects of interna-
tional politics had changed in the two centuries leading up to 1648 such as the new
emphasis on the pursuit of rational goals by dynastic rulers the fundamental constitu-
tion of what was being claimed or ceded remained relatively unchanged since the late
Middle Ages: places and persons, rather than linearly bounded spaces.13
Finally, in the negotiations ending the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713, most of
the discussion and treaty text was dedicated to assuring the permanent separation
of the crowns of France and Spain (since the war had been initiated to prevent Louis
XIVs attempt at such a union). Nonetheless, there were some territorial cessions made.
Similar to earlier treaties, however, these were made by listing a place to be handed over,
as well as its attendant rights and properties. For example, such language was used for
Spains cession of Gibraltar to Britain and with regards to the transfer of the Kingdom of
Sicily to Savoy. As with the Treaty of Westphalia, the absence of cartographic territorial
language for intra-European settlements is notable.

The divergence between New World and Old World practices

Early modern peace treaties among European powers thus illustrate the disconnect
between linear territorial exclusivity in the New World and jurisdictional complexities in
the Old. The negotiations and documents concerning the New World dealt in linear divi-
sions, often tied directly to cartographic notions such as lines of latitude or longitude,
while the intra-European agreements continued to rely on an understanding of political
territory as a series of places, defined by centers rather than boundaries.
For example, compare the place-focused territorial exchanges and jurisdictional com-
plexities of the cessions in the treaties of Westphalia with the cartographic abstraction
and linearity of English colonial charters from the same century. While the colonial char-
ters simply outlined the boundaries of territories to be granted, the negotiators at
Westphalia felt the need to include a listing of every place, jurisdiction, and right to be
granted to one party by the other. The perception that the New World territories were
empty (of legal titles and political authorities recognized by Europeans) created a strong
impetus toward the use of cartographic territorial exclusivity: spaces could only be
claimed in such a manner, because there were no known political authorities that could
be and had to be included in a treaty.
The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht offers an illustrative example of this divergence between
colonial and intra-European ideas about territorial political authority. The territorial
transfers within Europe were effected as a listing of places, without linear boundaries or
cartographic descriptions. The territorial adjustments to New World possessions, how-
ever, took the form of geographic descriptions of spaces. For example, the treaty between
Britain and France contains the following, concerning North America:

The said most Christian King [of France] shall restore to the Kingdom and Queen of Great
Britain, to be possessed in full Right for ever, the Bay and Straits of Hudson, together with all
Lands, Seas, Sea-Coasts, Rivers, and Places situate in the said Bay and Straits, and which

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belong thereunto, no Tracts of Land or of Sea being excepted, which are at present possessed
by the Subjects of France. But it is agreed on both sides, to determine within a Year, by
Commissarys to be forthwith named by each Party, the Limits which are to be fixed between
the said Bay of Hudson and the Places appertaining to the French; which Limits both the British
and French Subjects shall be wholly forbid to pass over, or thereby to go to each other by Sea
or by Land. The same Commissarys shall also have Orders to describe and settle in like manner
the Boundarys between the other British and French Colonys in those parts. (Article X, in
Israel, 1967: 207208, emphasis in original)

The emphasis placed on limits, or boundaries, stands in stark contrast to the focus on
places, or centers, in intra-European territorial claims. Thus, the divergence between
territoriality in the New World versus Europe is apparent not only in contemporary
events, but even within a single political settlement.

Reflection of linear exclusive territoriality back onto Europe

The discrepancy between New World territorial practices and those used within Europe
was slowly narrowed and finally eliminated, beginning in the 18th century, but culminat-
ing only after the defeat of Napoleon. While the Treaty of Utrecht continued to demon-
strate the presence of medieval notions of territorial authority within Europe as places
were exchanged in a listing, without any cartographic delineation the later 18th cen-
tury would evince the gradual transformation of territoriality. Again, interstate agree-
ments demonstrate the trajectory of change. While the 1748 Treaty of Aix La Chapelle
restored the status quo from before the War of Austrian Succession by listing places to be
handed back (Article VI, in Israel, 1967: 274), a series of late 18th-century treaties
between France and her neighbors implemented linear boundaries and eliminated juris-
dictional complexities (Black, 1999: 125; Sahlins, 1989).
Furthermore, the treaties involved in the partition of Poland among Austria, Prussia,
and Russia in the 1770s through 1790s began to include cartographic delineation of ter-
ritory, of the kind seen earlier in the New World and later at Vienna (detailed later). In
fact, the third partition (in 1795) included both types of territorial language: the listing of
lands, cities, districts and other domains to be claimed and the division of territories
using linear demarcations (Articles I and II, in Israel, 1967: 422). Like New World colo-
nial charters, these partitions involved the imposition of linear divisions over territories
inhabited by people not consulted in the process. Outside of Europe, such practices
began with Tordesillas and continued throughout the colonial era, but the Polish parti-
tions represent one of the first such cases within Europe. In fact, the parallel was not
entirely lost on the participants: after Austrian officials in Poland encountered difficulties
in obtaining the geographic information required for boundary demarcation, Emperor
Joseph II wrote, I dont believe that even among the Iroquois and the Hottentots such
ridiculous things occur (quoted in Evans, 1992: 492). The imposition of colonial territo-
rial practices in Poland involved the demotion of the Polish people to the status of indig-
enous subjects of European colonial rule.
As far as the rest of Europe was concerned, it was only after the great upheavals of
the revolutionary era and Napoleons conquest that it was possible to impose

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290 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

linear territoriality wholesale across the continent. In fact, Napoleons conquest and rule
represented a vast experiment with colonialism within Europe (Schroeder, 1994: 391),
and likewise territory inside France was rationalized through extensive land surveys
and administrative reorganization. With Napoleons defeat, the possibility was opened
for the imposition of exclusive territoriality throughout the continent, as French expan-
sion had either eliminated (through conquest) or undermined (through co-optation)
nearly all of the previously existing legitimate authority structures. The series of negotia-
tions and treaties ending the Napoleonic wars thus reveals a transformation in how
European rulers operationalized political authority. In sharp contrast with a century prior,
territory was divided linearly, with those lines of division described in careful geographic
and cartographic terms. Authority was now defined exclusively by its boundaries, and
places within those boundaries were implicitly claimed; no longer did all towns, rights,
and jurisdictions have to be explicitly listed. In short, colonial territorial practices were
applied within Europe.
In the treaty signed at the Congress of Vienna, for example, the redivision of the
Duchy of Warsaw among Austria, Prussia, and Russia was effected in an entirely linear

That part of the Duchy of Warsaw which His Majesty the King of Prussia shall possess in full
sovereignty and property, for himself, his heirs, and successors, under the title of the Grand
Duchy of Posen, shall be comprised within the following line: Proceeding from the frontier
of East Prussia to the village of Neuhoff from thence shall be drawn a line. (Article II, in
Israel, 1967: 520)

Two features of this text stand out. First is the clear linear nature of the division. This
was understood so geometrically that, later in the description of the line of division, part
of the boundary was drawn by a semi-circular territory measured by the distance from
one town to another (Israel, 1967: 521). Second, the Prussian King was assigned this
territory in full sovereignty based solely on the delineation of its boundaries no
other description (listing of places, etc.) was necessary.
Even when places were listed in the old style, this listing was no longer sufficient, and
the exact territorial delimitation was required. For example, Article VI of the Vienna
Treaty declares, The Town of Cracow, with its Territory, is declared to be for ever a Free,
Independent, and strictly Neutral City, under the Protection of Austria, Russia, and
Prussia (Israel, 1967: 522). A century earlier, this simple declaration would have been
sufficient the place has been named, and all the related rights and jurisdictions would
be included. In 1815, however, territorial authority was no longer defined from the center
outward, and therefore the exact boundaries of this neutral entity had to be delineated.
Thus, the next article states, The territory of the Free Town of Cracow shall have for its
frontier upon the left bank of the Vistula a line and then proceeds to describe care-
fully the placement of that line (Israel, 1967: 522). Spatial authority could only be
claimed geometrically, defined by boundaries, not as a listing of places; linear definition
was both necessary and sufficient for territorial claims.

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Finally, remaining non-territorial authorities, such as feudal rights or privileges,

were actively removed or waived by the signing parties. For example, regarding the
Swiss cantons the Vienna Treaty states that feudal rights and tithes cannot be re-
established (Israel, 1967: 554). Concerning the boundary of Saxony with Prussia, the
Vienna Treaty contains the following exemplary passage:

His Majesty the King of Prussia and His Majesty the King of Saxony renounce, each on his
own part, and reciprocally in favour of one another, all feudal rights or pretensions which they
might exercise or might have exercised beyond the frontiers fixed by the present Treaty. (Israel,
1967: 527)

The process is clear: the implementation of linear boundaries required the elimination of
non-territorial authorities extending across those lines. In 181415, the New World ter-
ritorial practices of linear boundaries and territorial exclusivity were imposed wholesale
on European political space.
This chronology of the linearization of boundaries and homogenization of territorial
authority appearing first in the New World and later applied within Europe
illustrates the process of reflection of colonial ideas and practices. Yet the question
remains as to why these novel arrangements would be applied in the European setting,
where centuries of custom supported traditional notions of authority and forms of politi-
cal organization. The answer may lie in the usefulness of the new arrangements to rulers
seeking to claim and impose authority on spaces both near and far.
European rulers quickly found some of their new colonial ideas and technologies
of power useful enough that efforts were made to apply them within Europe. For
example, in the 1570s the Spanish crown distributed a series of detailed questionnaires,
known as the relaciones geogrficas, to colonial officials. This represented the first suc-
cessful systematic effort to gather geographical information about the colonies and thus
provided detailed knowledge to support the abstract territorial claims of Tordesillas
(Cline, 1964; Mundy, 1996). These efforts subsequently influenced how the Spanish
crown attempted to gain knowledge of its Iberian territory as well. In the 1580s,
Peninsular RGs [relaciones geogrficas] appear actually to derive from procedures
developed earlier for the American dominions (Cline, 1964: 343344). A technique for
gathering information and asserting authority on New World territories was applied to
European space, once its usefulness was proven.
Similarly, the use of maps and linear divisions to delineate political claims had proved
to be very useful to colonial powers, including the commissioning of surveys and bound-
ary demarcation in colonial treaties (such as that seen in 1713, discussed earlier). These
exact practices were then applied within Europe in the Vienna settlement of 181415 and
thereafter. Once adopted as part of the repertoire of political rule, linear divisions and
cartographic definitions of authority were used to displace more complex forms of rule.
The basis for linear territoriality in the visual depiction of the world as a globe spanned
by a geometric grid of latitude and longitude strengthens this norm (Pickles, 2004). If
lines can easily assign territory in one part of the world, they can just as easily be used in

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292 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

every part of the world including areas previously filled with complex authorities.
This eventually culminated in the redefinition of the territorial basis of rule within and
among European states.
Thus, the colonial linearization of rule was built on contemporary developments in
European techniques of spatial depiction specifically mapping which provided
both the foundation for the New World claims and, later, the tools for the implementa-
tion of territorial exclusivity within Europe. As the ability of cartographers to depict
the world accurately through surveying, position-finding, and mapping improved dur-
ing the early modern period, rulers were able to put such skills and tools to use in
demarcating intra-European space as well. This only occurred, however, after the use-
fulness and legitimacy of linearly bounded authority claims were made clear by centuries
of colonial practice.

Conclusion: Peripheral sources of political change

The importance of colonial reflection to the eventual consolidation of a system of states
founded on territorial exclusivity has implications for how we understand systemic
change in general. First, the definition of the modern international system exclusively in
terms of territorial statehood came about predominantly as an unintended consequence of
the actions of European rulers actions that subsequently constituted structural con-
straints on even the most powerful polities (Ruggie, 1993: 166). Of course, diplomats and
other political actors sometimes aimed consciously to invent or implement new norms,
practices, and institutions, particularly in peace settlements such as those considered
earlier.14 Yet there is a difference between, on the one hand, the issues and goals dealt with
directly by diplomats and, on the other, the fundamental framework of territorial versus
non-territorial rule. It is the transformation of this framework that this article has sought
to explain. Ruggie (1993: 162163) frames this difference by contrasting constitutive,
configurative, and positional wars. While negotiators were almost always concerned
with configurative issues (such as dynastic disputes) and with positional conflicts (the
familiar strategic and tactical clashes between states), they were rarely aware of how
their negotiated settlements manifested a transformation in the fundamental constitution
of rule. In fact, constitutive norms of authoritative rule which shifted only slowly
structured how political actors approached configurative and positional issues.
Thus, since the post-Napoleonic settlement, the constitutive basis of European (and
eventually global) statehood has remained relatively fixed, even as the goals pursued by
states in war and peace have been transformed. For example, at Vienna rulers used linear
territorial demarcations to promote stability among and within conservative regimes
across the continent. Following World War I, the same techniques of territorial division
were used, but this time in pursuit of new goals, such as the US delegations effort to
promote Wilsonian self-determination. In neither case was the territorialization of rule
the main focus of the participants. Territoriality was rather an ideal that had come to
define legitimate political organization, thanks in part to the earlier use of linear claims
in the New World. This ideal then structured how political actors pursued their immedi-
ate goals, whether of expansion, stability, or justice.

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The importance of colonial claims to exclusive territoriality also points toward the
role of peripheries as sources of institutional innovation. Thus, in terms of understanding
the potential for future changes in major constitutive norms of todays state system, we
should not necessarily focus exclusively on the center, on the actions taken and ideas
promoted by the most politically powerful actors. Instead, new ideas from the peripher-
ies of the system may be applied at the center in unexpected or unintended ways.
Therefore, although the European Union offers a potential model for a postmodern or
post-territorial political order with implications for contemporary international politics,
it may be equally useful to look at areas typically considered peripheral. Are todays
major powers pursuing new practices or claims in supposedly marginal regions of the
international system that might make their way back to the core? For example, the rush
of foreign land purchases in sub-Saharan Africa may lead to a renegotiation of spatial
property rights, and the potentially transformative effects of climate change on the Arctic
could be producing new types of claims and counterclaims regarding marine resources
and transit.15 Or, even further into the peripheries, could a new regime in orbital and
outer space yield new forms of international organization and interaction?16 These lines
of inquiry may point toward new practices for actors seeking to deal with the complex
pressures that globalization has put on the sovereign territorial state.

My thanks to Chris Ansell, Adam Branch, Ron Hassner, Steve Weber, and the participants at the
2009 International Studies Association panel where this work was first presented. I am also par-
ticularly grateful to the editors of EJIR and the two anonymous reviewers for their detailed and
helpful comments.

1. For further examples of recent historical sociology on European state formation, see Downing
(1992), Rosenberg (1994), Ertman (1997), Teschke (2003), and Gorski (2003). The English
School approach, discussed in more detail later, generally focuses on international political
practices such as diplomacy, but again sees these as internally developed within Europe before
their application elsewhere. See, for example, Wight (1977).
2. This concept is partially inspired by, but distinct from, Taussigs notion of a colonial mirror
which reflects back onto the colonists the barbarity of their own social relations, but as imputed
to the savage or evil figures they wish to colonize (Taussig, 1984: 495).
3. As Jahn (2000: 111) points out, it is useful to focus on a particular gap in our understanding of
the origins of political modernity (as she does with regard to the concept of the state of nature),
thereby providing new traction on an important question while not claiming to have an all-
encompassing explanation.
4. Although sovereignty has a variety of definitions in political theory, I focus on sovereignty as it
is typically conceptualized in international relations. This notion of a fundamental constitutive
dimension of sovereign authority builds on Thomson (1994: 1415).
5. For a related but slightly different conceptualization, see Lake (2003).
6. As Buzan and Little (2000) point out, most historical international systems have been empires,
not systems of territorial states. For further evidence of the unique character of the modern

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294 European Journal of International Relations 18(2)

state system, see also Ruggie (1993), Hall and Kratochwil (1993), Ferguson and Mansbach
(1996), Spruyt (1998), and Osiander (2007).
7. My thanks to Robert Adcock for suggesting this term.
8. I examine the link between mapping and the formation of modern states directly in Branch
(2011). For other interpretations of the interaction between mapping and state formation, see
Biggs (1999) and Strandsbjerg (2008).
9. Full text available at the Avalon Project, Yale Law School. Available at:
edu/17th_century/va01.asp (accessed 14 April 2010).
10. Of course, the colonial application of new mapping techniques and spatial ideas was made
possible by contemporary developments that occurred within Europe itself (such as the
rediscovery of Ptolemaic techniques and the expansion of printing). As Hobson (2004) points
out, however, even innovations such as these were never entirely internal to Europe, but rather
depended on an interchange of materials and ideas throughout Eurasia.
11. While there is potentially a problem of selective quotation with textual evidence, in early
modern peace treaties the way in which political authority is operationalized tended to
remain consistent throughout any single document most likely because this feature is the
consequence of deeply held norms rather than deliberate negotiations.
12. For an informative debunking of the conventional wisdom on Westphalia, see Osiander (2001).
13. A further example of the continuity of Westphalia with previous agreements is the settlements
religious framing: its goal was stated to be a Christian and Universal Peace (Israel, 1967: 9).
Religious language persisted, in fact, into the post-Napoleonic period. Yet in the 19th
century, even as actors affirmations of religious motivations remained unchanged, the
operationalization of political authority was fundamentally transformed. The latter was as
important to the constitution of modern statehood as were the changing motivations of rulers.
14. This point is made forcefully by Bobbitt (2002) and others.
15. See, respectively, Zoomers (2010) and Young (2009).
16. See, for example, Duvall and Havercroft (2008).

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Biographical note
Jordan Branch is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of California,

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