Examining the Relationship Between States & Corporations Through the Lens of Territoriality

On Friday, November 3, 2017, Joshua Barkan and David Ciepley were the guests of the Mellon Sawyer Seminar on Corporations and International Law. Barkan and Ciepley were the first guests of the seminar to explicitly bring together its two named subjects: corporations and international law.

Barkan, a geographer at the University of Georgia, discussed his paper, “Property and Sovereignty: Political Territoriality and the Corporate Control of Land.” He addressed questions of sovereign power and territorial power as they relate to both corporations and states. Ciepley, a political scientist at the University of Denver, discussed his paper, “Three Corporate Ages and the Dynamics of Western History.” He addressed questions related to the evolution of the corporate form, specifically within the symbiotic relationship of the state and the corporation.

The discussion that stemmed from Barkan and Ciepley’s papers was wide-ranging and, for the most part, inconclusive. More than with any other meeting of the seminar thus far, questions posed by faculty and students were lengthy and multi-dimensional. Answers, subsequently, were lengthy and often inconclusive. It was almost as if one could see the wheels spinning in each person’s mind for the duration of the seminar meeting as ideas were pressed further or examined in a new light.

Members of the seminar bounced between questions about the relationship between the republic of the United States and corporations as imperial islands to the understanding of maritime territory.  While no single string united the conversation, it nonetheless advanced the purpose of the seminar in a meaningful way. The questions that stemmed from these papers and these speakers were bound to be large ones – after all, they form the foundation of this entire course. At this point in the semester, it was a refreshing intellectual challenge to examine the broad questions posed by the seminar through the ideological frameworks of Barkan and Ciepley rather than to examine specific subsets of the relationship between corporations and international law through the broad ideological frameworks of the seminar.

For example, one question was posed about the idea of a corporation that might exist outside of any kind of territorial state. What would this do to the model that assumes that corporations are beholden to states? Barkan and Ciepley responded that one of the fundamental principles of a corporation is that it is subordinate to the law of another government and is therefore able to rely upon its court system to protect its property, rather than hiring an independent militia, for example. One of the broad questions of this course is how corporations and states interact with one another, as senior and subordinate or as equals. What are the implications of this relationship? How do both domestic and international law define it? Rather than looking at a specific industry sector or state/corporation relationship, this meeting of the seminar addressed these large questions. However, members of the seminar did so using one of the frameworks provided by Barkan and Ciepley: territoriality. This challenged individuals to attack the issue from a different perspective and arrive at new conclusions about the relationship between the corporation and the state, as it is defined in international law.

Members of the seminar might have left this week’s meeting with more questions than answers. They are however, questions of a productive nature that will guide individuals throughout the rest of the semester in carefully considering the complex relationship between corporations and international law.

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