CSS Research and Policy Seminar with Burak Kadercan

On May 13, 2020 Burak Kadercan, associate professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, presented several draft chapters from his new book, Shifting Grounds: The Social Origins of Territorial Conflict. His study builds on existing social constructivist research on territory and territoriality in international relations and political geography, and examines the interactive relationship between territory and war from conceptual, theoretical, and historical standpoints. The core arguments of the book are based on a crucial premise long acknowledged by political geographers but rarely examined in detail within mainstream IR research: territory is what states and societies make of it. In other words, territory is not a synonym for physical space, but is a social and political construct.

Kadercan looks both at how conceptions of territoriality affect the conduct of war, and how wars shape the way elites and societies think about territory. These “territorial orders” have two primary characteristics: norms about the demarcation of borders, and norms about the organization of territory within borders. Territorial orders shape how war is fought. Fluid borders lead to a blurring between peace and conflict with shifting goals and commitments, while hard borders formalize wars as abrupt departures from peacetime. Homogenizing organizational concepts are associated with greater violence in war, including against non-combatants, as combatants aim to change the social composition of territory. Heterogeneous territorial orders produce opportunistic wars. Within early Westphalian Europe, these were over fixed borders, while empires abroad contested blurry boundaries and expanding claims.

Kadercan argues that new territorial orders are born out of great, violent conflicts or systemic wars. He tracks how four great wars, the Thirty Years War, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, World War I, and World War II, shifted prevalent norms in international society on territory. He also looks at stable orders themselves, such as the Ottoman system or British rule in South Asia. Seminar participants discussed his chapters on these two cases, which are representative of what Kadercan terms “amorphous” territorial orders with fluid frontiers and heterogeneous societies. CSS looks forward to the book’s publication, and thanks Kadercan for returning to the center, where he was previously a post-doctoral fellow.

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