Charles Maier’s Once Within Borders is a history of the organization of the earth’s surface by law, war, commerce, and technological change. Intertwined with but distinct from a history of the state, the book is a history of territory, the underlying framework that makes states possible. In the passage below, excerpted from the book’s Introduction, we begin to see how examining the logic of territoriality can throw new light on the making of history from geography.
Territory—an idea that seemed to have fallen into genteel disuse—has intruded into our lives with a renewed and menacing urgency. It refers to a geographic space, set apart from others by law and boundary. Until recently we could take territory for granted; it was protective and offered security and belonging, with less and less self-conscious effort. After the end of the Cold War, Europeans and Americans tended to believe that territorial priorities had become anachronistic, subsisting mostly among stubborn peoples in the Balkans or the Middle East or as a stake in East Asia. Now the security that territory once offered seems precarious everywhere and to be maintained only with constant surveillance.
The new sense of vulnerability rarely arises from traditional international rivalries as it used to. Rather, all our customary homelands seem assailed by global trends that transgress once reassuring borders and spatial stability—by threats of terrorist attacks, uprooted refugees, tidal flows of international capital, the scary spread of new diseases, and the threat of climate change oblivious to frontiers. Peoples who have long enjoyed territorial security no longer feel sheltered. Some seek new and nonspatial defenses; others mobilize to reaffirm boundaries under threat. And in many places, groups that have never possessed territorial security are prepared to kill and die for it. Territory is not what it was, but it remains indispensable.
Territory is not just land, even extensive land. It is global space that has been partitioned for the sake of political authority, space in effect empowered by borders. Territories allow people to be governed or taxed or imbued with loyalty by virtue of their shared spatial location, not their race or their kinship ties or their faith or their professional affiliation. Territory has been a major sociopolitical invention.
We have a sense of why territory has become precarious in recent times. But how did this spatial sheltering of group life emerge, flourish, and then perhaps decay? Can we write a history of territory as a central attribute of human society? Certainly we can research and write the history of particular territories, small or extended: of city-states and vast empires, Luxemburg or Russia. But until recently territory as such has had little attention from historians, although geographers and political scientists have reflected on its evolution.