Territorial Sovereignty: A Philosophical Exploration

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Territorial Sovereignty: A Philosophical Exploration, Anna Stilz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 304 pp., cloth $35.95, eBook $34.99.

We find ourselves today at a pivotal moment for political philosophy. After 250 years of domination, the statist framework within which justice and democracy have been normatively theorized is being called into question by both supranational and subnational challenges. Today we must determine whether or not we need a new dominant normative framework for international politics. Are we and should we be moving past the “age of territorial states,” toward the consolidation of one global state, or multiple regional unions such as the EU, or even nonterritorial political communities? Or do we have good arguments to keep the states system as we know it?

Anna Stilz’s recent book Territorial Sovereignty goes to the heart of this question. This impressive work offers a robust defense of the international system of states, understood as self-governing, spatial units with territorial boundaries that make and enforce collective rules. Stilz defends the state against all its enemies, especially against political cosmopolitans and global state defenders, but also against nonterritorialists and anarchists.

That said, she does not defend the status quo. Some changes to the current system of states ought to be implemented, she argues, in the form of limits to the full set of traditional rights of sovereignty that states currently enjoy. Thus, for example, she argues that states do not have the right to prohibit access to immigrants whose fundamental territorial interests are threatened, except in cases where citizens are significantly harmed by the incoming migration. She also emphasizes the compatibility of her argument with an expanded set of international duties of justice for states, including duties to eradicate global poverty. Finally, Stilz holds that states should allow for internal federal-style political decentralization where this satisfies the preferences of substate national minorities for political autonomy.

Yet, these changes do not necessitate a poststate world order, and Stilz argues that in fact we should rely on the international system of states to realize the changes. When states commit certain wrongs, such as failing to decentralize to the benefit of substate minorities, other states should intervene through naming-and-shaming strategies or by imposing conditions on membership in international organizations. But overall, states have the authority to decide their own policies and, absent human rights violations, military interventions and economic sanctions must be avoided.

Why, then, do we want states? The core argument in the book is that an international system of territorially bounded states is desirable because it protects three valuable human interests.

The first interest is occupancy. Stilz argues that people have a preinstitutional right to occupy the places where they currently reside and where their life plans are situated. This right to occupancy encompasses the right to live and continue living in those areas, and to establish a state there that controls those areas. It is grounded in the importance of particular places to individuals.

The second interest is basic justice. People have a core interest in the implementation of a uniform system of law in a territory that secures minimum conditions of justice focused on realizing individual autonomy for all citizens. This includes security rights (to freedom from slavery or torture), subsistence rights (to satisfaction of basic needs), core personal autonomy rights (to freedom of conscience and property), and self-determination rights (to freedom of expression and association). Territorial control, argues Stilz, is necessary to preserve and protect these rights. She allows for the possibility that dispersed minorities may govern some policy domains (such as education) nonterritorially, but since no effective dispute regulation can take place among people living in proximity without their common subjection to the same territorial system of law, territorial jurisdiction is necessary for basic justice.

The final interest is self-determination. People have an interest in living according to their own beliefs and in not being dominated by the will of others. This Kantian interest in self-determination and collective autonomy drives Stilz’s case against a global state: we instead need a variety of states within which political autonomy can be exercised. This interest also provides the justificatory basis for secessionist projects.

Stilz notes that basic justice and self-determination sometimes conflict. Where basic justice is possible in the territorial units within which people want to pursue self-determination, we should allow this to happen. This is why the global state is problematic and why (and when) secession is justified for Stilz. But where basic justice and self-determination clash, the former trumps the latter. She argues that “if there is no other way to secure the essentials of justice, security, and public order, the wrong of unilateral coercion—though important—may be trumped by its strongly beneficial effects. . . . While self-determination is of very great weight, it is not the only value, and the requirement to respect it is not absolute” (p. 101).

While compelling in many respects, the book’s core argument suffers in my view from two shortcomings. First, it remains unclear why occupancy, the first interest above, is an argument for states. The right to occupancy is grounded in place-based ties that structure the life of individuals. But the sum totals of the places to which people are attached do not necessarily map on to the territories of states. For many people, states may be too cramped for their life plans: if my family members live overseas or if my religion involves visiting holy places abroad, then my life plans are better served by a world state, or they in any case demand rather idiosyncratic state boundaries.

Stilz herself allows for granting occupancy rights without statehood: “Suppose,” she argues, “that in the future, Alaska were to secede from the United States. It would be wrong for Alaska to close its borders to people from other US states who have family ties or associational or occupational commitments in the area: it ought to allow these people to continue to come and go freely, reside there, and so on” (p. 57). But this is puzzling. If granting access to an independent Alaska to U.S. citizens who have Alaska-based life plans suffices to protect their occupancy rights, occupancy does not ground states.

Rather than a justification for the states system, occupancy is in my view merely a protection-worthy interest. This interest is arguably so important that its protection should be a legitimacy condition for existing states. Indeed, Stilz often presents the matter in this way, claiming that states only have the right to rule if they protect occupancy (and basic justice and self-determination). But she also makes the stronger, and in my view unwarranted, claim that beyond an interest to protect, occupancy is a reason to have states.

This leads me to my second qualm. If not occupancy, do Stilz’s other two interests— basic justice and self-determination—bring us to the states system? Basic justice does not. A single territorial world state and other forms of political cosmopolitanism could protect basic justice. All depends, then, on self-determination. Any state is coercive, but for that coercion to be legitimate, it must be backed by a collective authorization by the population. Stilz argues that that authorization is lacking for the world state. This argument is persuasive. Yet, it shows the contingency of Stilz’s case against the world state. Whether that authorization is lacking is an empirical matter. There is no principled argument here against political cosmopolitan efforts to create a global “we” feeling (or a European state feeling, for that matter). If in due time, people are willing to form a global political community, the argument for the current world of states evaporates.

Moreover, Stilz’s reasoning allows for a second way for that argument to disappear, even in the absence of such global identification. As we saw above, the self-determination constraint against alien coercion should for Stilz be lifted when, in the absence of the coercion, decent governance is threatened and grave social harms occur. All thus depends on the assessment of the urgency of threats such as climate change and global terrorism, or of the injustice of the absence of the fulfillment of basic needs for all humans. If these are compelling enough—and if the international pressure that Stilz justifies in her preferred international system is insufficiently effective—basic justice considerations counsel in favor of establishing a global territorial state, even where this frustrates the self-determining and anti-alienation wishes of portions of humankind.

The critiques above notwithstanding, Stilz’s theory is exceptionally impressive. In the course of building this systematic defense of the state, she provides a unified normative framework for assessing a wide variety of topical political-moral demands that are usually treated in different literatures, including territorial removal, conquest, annexation, political globalization, colonialism, sovereignty, migration, territorial jurisdiction, nationalism, and secession. This is a major achievement. Territorial Sovereignty is necessary reading for both friends and enemies of the statist premise of justice and democracy.


—Helder De Schutter

Helder De Schutter is professor of social and political philosophy at KU Leuven. He works on the moral justifications of language rights, federalism, and nonterritorial political autonomy.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 35.1

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