The Politics of Territorial Stability and Change

Publications | Working papers

A third theme in my research agenda concerns a constitutive element of stateness: territory. Territory defines the spatial extent over which states exercise sovereign authority and exclude outside actors. States prize territory, sacrificing significant blood and treasure to defend their territories and acquire more. Because sovereignty is mutually exclusive, these actions have significant implications for determining who is subject to whose authority.

What explains stability and change in the territorial configuration of states? The international relations literature suggests that post-1945 norms of territorial integrity and laws against anti-annexation are responsible for territorial stability. Despite these norms and laws, territorial conquest still occurs. I show that, to a surprising extent, the origins of modern conquest lie within militaries and occur as a result of self-aggrandizing actions of senior military officers. Third-party states sometimes seek to enforce the territorial order and reverse territorial seizures, but democratic leaders must build coalitions to support enforcement action. My work shows that two common justifications – the illegality of seizure and the consequences of seizure for international stability – increase support for enforcement.


Selling International Law Enforcement: Elite Justifications and Public Values.” 2020. Research and Politics July-September: 1-7. (with Lauren Prather)

International law enforcement is an understudied but indispensable factor for maintaining the international order. We study the effectiveness of elite justifications in building coalitions to enforcement violations of the law against territorial seizures. Using survey experiments fielded in the United States and Australia, we find that the effectiveness of two common justifications for enforcement — the illegality of a country’s actions, and the consequences of those actions for international order — increase support for enforcement and do so independently of two key public values: ideology and interpersonal norm enforcement. These results imply elites can build a broad coalition of support by using multiple justifications. Our results, however, highlight the tepidness of public support, suggesting limits to elite rhetoric. This study contributes to the scholarship on international law by showing how the public, typically considered a mechanism for generating compliance within states, can impede or facilitate third-party enforcement of the law between states.

“The Causes of Modern Conquest.” Working paper. (with Dan Altman). 

Although conquests of entire states became rare after 1945, conquests of small pieces of territory persisted. With puzzling frequency, states continue to seize — and even fight wars over — what are often remarkably small areas. This study investigates the causes of conquest attempts since 1945 by combining new conquest data with new geospatial data on territorial disputes. We argue that traditional explanations predicated on the value of the disputed territory — resources, strategic location, population, and ethnic composition — fail to explain modern conquest, in part because they are mismatched with the size of the seized territories. We theorize instead that the roots of modern conquest lie in careerist incentives within militaries. Military officers confront distinctive incentives to seize small pieces of territory in pursuit of promotions and in service of political aspirations. States in which militaries hold more power provide environments more conducive to these officers either seizing territory on their own initiative or successfully lobbying the government to back these operations. We find evidence in favor of this argument and some evidence supportive of domestic diversion and status dissatisfaction. Taken together, these results suggest that actors more often seize territory to be seen to have seized it rather than because they value the territory itself.