What makes a nation in the beginning is a good piece of geography.

Territoriality Territoriality

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    - Robert Frost

    Have you ever traveled to a foreign country? Was it easy to enter the new country? You may be aware that countries have borders where land is divided between specific governments. Countries with clear and definable territories are an important feature of the international system and allows easier state governance and sovereignty.

    Territoriality Definition

    Territoriality is a key concept in geography, so it is important to understand what it means.

    Territoriality: The control of a specific, identifiable portion of Earth's surface by a state or other entity.

    States have a right to territory and clear borders to identify where this territory falls geographically on Earth's surface. It is most practical and desired for these borders to be well-defined and agreed upon by neighbors. Territoriality is often visible on political maps.

    Territoriality World Map StudySmarterFig. 1 - Political map of the world

    Territoriality Example

    To define their specific, identifiable portion of Earth's surface, borders are a key feature of territoriality. However, there are different types of borders around the world.

    Some borders are more porous than others, meaning they are more open.

    The US has 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, with defined borders and territory, yet there are no border guards nor barriers to entry between them. It is easy to cross from Wisconsin into Minnesota and the only visible sign of a border may be a sign that says, "Welcome to Minnesota," as seen below.

    Territoriality state border sign Minnesota StudySmarterFig. 2 - This sign is the only evidence you are crossing a border

    Within the European Union, borders are also porous. Similar to the United States, you may know you have entered a new country is from a roadside sign. The language on traffic signs will also be an obvious change.

    A peculiarly porous border is in the village of Baarle which is shared by both the Netherlands and Belgium. Below is shows an image of the border between the two countries passing directly in through the front door of a house.

    Territoriality house shared by two countries Baarle StudySmarterFig. 3 - The border between Belgium and Netherlands passing through a house in Baarle

    The porosity of borders around the Schengen area has led to an era of unprecedented trade, ease of travel, and freedom on the European continent. While each European country maintains its individual sovereignty and territory, this is impossible in many other countries.

    For instance, the border between North and South Korea is heavily militarized with soldiers, weaponry, and infrastructure. Few can cross this border. Not only does it prevent foreigners from entering North Korea, but it also prevents North Koreans from fleeing to South Korea.

    Territoriality demilitarized zone border North and South Korea StudySmarterFig. 4 - The heavily militarized border between North and South Korea

    While the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea is an extreme example of borders and is a result of a Cold War-era proxy war on the Korean Peninsula, the Schengen area is an extreme example of open borders. The standard for borders around the world, however, lies somewhere in between.

    The border between the United States and Canada is a good example of a standard border. While the United States and Canada are allies with no major disagreements and relatively free movement of goods and people, there are still checks and guards at the border to control who and what is entering each country. Even if countries are allies, the principle of territoriality is a key factor in sovereignty. You may have to wait in traffic to drive into Canada from the United States, but once you get to the border and the Canadian guards check your documents and car, you will be granted access with relative ease.

    Territoriality Principle

    Because countries have sovereignty over their territory, governments can adopt, enact, and enforce criminal laws within their territory. The enforcement of criminal laws can include the right to arrest individuals and then prosecute them for crimes committed within the territory. Other governments do not have the right to enforce laws in territories in which they lack authority.

    International organizations such as the International Criminal Court of Justice also lack the ability to enforce laws within state territories. These organizations offer forums for governments to interact about global issues, but their legal jurisdiction is limited.

    In the States, the federal government has legal jurisdiction to rule and control the entire territory of the nation from sea to shining sea. Yet, the United States lacks the authority to rule over the Himalayas because these do not fall within the identifiable borders of the United States.

    The survival of a state depends on the ability to control their territory. The state would collapse or be conflict-ridden otherwise if it does not possess the power to be the sole source of authority within a territory.

    Please see our explanations on the Disintegration of States, Fragmentation of States, Centrifugal Forces, and Failed States for examples of states losing control of their territory.

    Concept of Territoriality

    In 1648, territoriality was enshrined in the modern world through two treaties called the Peace of Westphalia. The peace treaties that ended the Thirty Years' War between the warring powers of Europe laid the foundations for the modern state system (Westphalian sovereignty). The foundations of the modern state system included territoriality because it helped to solve the issue of states competing for territory.

    It is important for territories to be defined to prevent conflict over where one country's sovereignty and rule of law ends and another's begins. A government cannot effectively govern a region in which its authority is disputed.

    While the Peace of Westphalia established international norms for modern states, there are plenty of places around the world where conflict over territory is active. For instance, in the South Asian region of Kashmir, there is an ongoing dispute over where the intersecting borders of India, Pakistan, and China are located because these three powerful nations have overlapping claims to territory. This has led to military battles between these nations, which is extremely problematic because of all three possess nuclear weaponry.

    Territoriality Kashmir border conflict mapStudySmarterFig. 5 - The disputed South Asian region of Kashmir.

    Political Power and Territoriality

    Territoriality is a key feature of the international system that allows for governments to have sovereignty over their defined territory. Because countries have defined territories, territoriality creates political debates on issues such as immigration. If countries have defined borders and territory, who is allowed to live, work, and travel within this territory? Immigration is a popular and contentious issue in politics. In the United States, politicians often debate immigration, specifically as it relates to the United States-Mexico border. Many newcomers into the USA enter the country through this border legally or without the proper documents.

    Additionally, while the Schengen Area's open borders are a key feature of the European Union's mission of continental integration, the freedom of movement has been controversial in some member states.

    For instance, after the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, millions of Syrians fled from their Middle Eastern country to nearby European Union countries, particularly to Greece via Turkey. Upon entry into Greece, refugees could then freely relocate around the rest of the continent. While this was not an issue for a rich and multicultural country like Germany that can afford an influx of refugees, other countries such as Hungary and Poland were not as welcoming. This led to conflicts and division within the European Union, as member states disagree on a common immigration policy that suits the entire continent.

    The amount of land, and thus territory, a government controls is also not necessarily a prerequisite for wealth. Some micronations such as Monaco, Singapore, and Luxembourg are extremely wealthy. Meanwhile, other micronations such as São Tomé e Principe or Lesotho are not. However, huge countries such as Mongolia and Kazakhstan are also not wealthy. Indeed, some territories are more valuable than others based not on the amount of land but rather on the resources. For example, territory containing oil reserves is quite valuable, and it has brought tremendous wealth to otherwise geographically disadvantage places.

    Before the 1970s, Dubai was a small trading hub. Now it is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, with architectural and engineering marvels. This is possible thanks to the United Arab Emirates' lucrative oil fields.

    As we enter a world increasingly dealing with the effects of climate change, territory may become an even more crucial issue as countries fight for necessary resources such as arable land and dependable sources of freshwater.

    Territoriality - Key takeaways

    • States govern specific, identifiable portions of Earth's surface, defined by borders.

    • Borders differ in variety around the world. Some are porous, such as in Europe's Schengen area. Others are nearly impossible to cross, such as the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

    • States have sovereign legal jurisdiction over their territories, which maintains their control over the territory. Other states do not have the authority to intervene in another state's internal affairs. The survival of a state depends on the ability to control their territory.

    • While territory can be a determinant of wealth and economic opportunities, the opposite can be true as well. There are many examples of small states that are wealthy and large states that are underdeveloped.


    1. Fig. 1 Political Map of the World (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Political_map_of_the_World_(November_2011).png) by Colomet licensed by CC-BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2 Welcome sign (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Welcome_to_Minnesota_Near_Warroad,_Minnesota_(43974518701).jpg) by Ken Lund licensed by CC-BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3 House shared by two countries (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:House_Shared_By_Two_Countries.jpg) by Jack Soley (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Jack_Soley) Licensed by CC-BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    4. Fig. 4 Border with North Korea (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Border_with_North_Korea_(2459173056).jpg) by mroach (https://www.flickr.com/people/73569497@N00) Licensed by CC-SA-2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Territoriality

    What is territoriality? 

    Territoriality is defined as a state governing a specific, identifiable portion of Earth's surface. 

    What is the difference between territory and territoriality? 

    Territory refers to the specific land controlled by a state, while territoriality refers to the state's exclusive right to control the specific territory.

    How do boundaries reflect ideas of territoriality? 

    States have designated territory over which they govern defined by borders on the perimeter of the territory. Borders differ around the world. On the European continent, borders are porous, which allows for free movement of goods and people. Meanwhile, the border between North and South Korea is impassable. In the region of Kashmir, there is disagreement over where borders lie, which leads to conflict as neighboring states compete for control of the area. 

    What is a real world example of territoriality? 

    An example of territoriality is the process of customs. When you enter a different country, customs agents and border guards manage who and what is entering the territory.

    How is territoriality expressed? 

    Territoriality is expressed via borders and other infrastructure that defines that you are entering a new state’s territory and thus are leaving the legal jurisdiction of the previous territory.

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