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  • Editors’ Note:Ungoverned Spaces Considered
  • Jessica Sobrino, Editor-in-Chief, Patrick G. Rear, Senior Editor, Shuja A. Malik, Managing Editor, and Brittany E. Coley, Web Editor and Publicity Director

The SAIS Review Editorial Board

Ungoverned spaces have the potential to become centers of gravity that pose new and significant challenges to international security and stability, whether they constitute contested land territories and disputed bodies of water or comparatively new frontiers such as outer and cyber spaces. As these areas become more accessible to a broad range of actors through globalization and technological advancements, groups—including states, sub-states, and non-state actors—increasingly vie for control over, the ability to operate within, and stability of these spaces. In light of this trend, the following issue of the SAIS Review of International Affairs marks the first in a two-part volume on ungoverned spaces. Specifically, the issue covers contested territories on land and at sea; the volume’s subsequent issue will address space and technology spheres.

During a 2007 foreign policy speech, US President Barack Obama noted that “impoverished, weak, and ungoverned states” had become “the most fertile breeding grounds for transnational threats.”1 President Obama’s statement—although largely influenced by modern trends—reflects a long-standing and deep-seated history of threats posed by ungoverned spaces on land and at sea. This history is evident in a wide range of ancient maps containing mythical creatures in locations considered by the map’s creator to be dangerous for travelers to traverse. Indeed, the title for this issue owes to the Hunt-Lenox Globe, made of copper and created in 1510, which contains the phrase “Hic sunt dracones” (“Here be dragons”) on the southeast coast of Asia.2

Although the tendency for governance issues to lead to strategic and security threats remains true today, defining “ungoverned spaces”—let alone use of the terminology—is difficult and controversial, if at times detrimental to foreign policy analysis and prescriptions. Generally, the term predicates on the assumption that stable governance reflects state-based governance, which is unduly narrow in scope, and in turn misleading. Moreover, assuming one-directional causality between weak state governance and the proliferation of security threats tends to oversimplify the linkage. This is true because: the link has proven to be at best uneven between cases; the causality can work in both directions; and the hypothesis puts undue emphasis on state weakness as the cause of transnational threats.

Given these limitations, the SAIS Review Editorial Board has broadly defined an ungoverned space as any area where (1) ownership or control is absent; or (2) ownership is notably contested or control is unclear or unviable. This framing definition aside, persistence of the term “ungoverned spaces” in [End Page 1] academia and politics, particularly given the lack of a universal definition for it, leads to critical cleavages of understanding. In addition, misguided perceptions of ungoverned spaces by different types of actors spanning the globe can lead to exacerbated conflicts, as well as ill fitted efforts at stabilizing security threats.

For these reasons, the issue examines four categories of analysis on ungoverned spaces: theoretical contexts behind them; developing conditions underlying them; legal frameworks that aim to prevent their having negative consequences; and local and international efforts at addressing them. Together, these themes importantly consider what ungoverned spaces—as well as academic and political analysis of them—indicate about the future global balance of power; adjudication processes for conflicts related to access and control; and risk factors that challenge local, regional, and global security and stability.

First, the issue addresses theoretical framings on ungoverned spaces. It starts with an article by Andrew J. Taylor on how society perceives and defines ungoverned spaces, and in result how state building has become accepted—whether appropriately or not—as its ideal remedy for it. In his piece, Taylor importantly considers connections between territorial integrity, sovereignty, and statehood. He concludes that although weak governance can create significant security threats, failing governance overwhelmingly creates these spaces, rather than non-state groups such as terrorist organizations. Next, Carla Freeman considers fragility of the global commons. In her contribution, Freeman evaluates how changes to the international order—namely new actors, technologies, and...


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