Trade-based statecraft: the new spatial logic of the state (TRADECRAFT)

Name of applicant

Peer Schouten


Senior Researcher


Danish Institute for International Studies


DKK 4,104,803



Type of grant

Semper Ardens: Accelerate


What does Helsingør 500 years ago share with Bunagana in eastern Congo today? For centuries, the Øresundstold constituted the Danish crown’s main source of revenue: transit taxes levied at the Bunagana checkpoint are today a key source of financing for the rebel group M23. Both are instances of a widespread phenomenon whereby rulers gain power from, and fight over, control over points of passage along transport routes where wealth can be extracted from flows of transnational trade. The project explores this phenomenon, positing they exemplify a new spatial logic of statecraft—trade-based statecraft—that was widespread before states gained the capacity to exercise control over the populations within their territories, and that today still prevails, outliving efforts to build territorial states in developing countries.


Exploring this phenomenon is important, because it contradicts a deeply rooted definition of statehood in terms of control over the population within a bounded territory, which prevails within the political sciences and adjacent disciplines and informs policy interventions. However, states only developed the corresponding capacities fairly recently, and in many places, these capacities have been crumbling since the end of the Cold War. TRADECRAFT explores the much longer history of a form of statecraft that precedes the modern state, and that is rapidly overtaking it again in fragile states. It is a form of statecraft premised on a radically different spatial logic, in which rulers simply tax transnational trade, requiring much less effort than attempting to extract wealth from often poor populations scattered in vast territories. This form of statecraft is overlooked, I suggest, because our theories of statecraft are concerned with explaining the transformation into the territorial states we know now, not studying the alternatives fiscal strategies that for a much longer time formed resilient avenues of statecraft. Yet, preliminary evidence of thousands of toll barriers in the developing world suggest we urgently need a better understanding of how control over passage along trade routes drives conflict and builds states.


To answer its research question, the project develops a theoretical argument that posits a new and powerful logic of statecraft, premised on toll barriers along transnational trade routes. The project brings together an interdisciplinary research group that develops an innovative combination of historical and geographical methods to analyze and cartographically visualize evidence from historical archives and through surveys. The project focuses on select cases in pre-Napoleonic Europe, arguably the heyday of this form of statecraft, and in present-day Africa, exploring how toll barriers and control over trade routes underpins both competing state-building efforts (in the Horn of Africa) and political fragmentation (in the Sahel). By casting doubt on the assumption that the ambition of fully incorporating all territory and people in it is hard-wired into all modern states, the project hopes to break new ground on how we conceptualize states within the political sciences, with implications for research agendas across disciplines concerned with contentious politics.

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