Department of Geography
1984 West Mall, Room 235
University of British Columbia
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z2, Canada
Tel. (604) 822-3443
Merje Kuus is a political geographer whose work concentrates on geopolitics and policy processes in transnational settings. Geographically speaking, her research investigates geopolitical knowledge production inside modern bureaucracies: what might be called political geographies of expertise. This work blends human geography with insights from international relations, anthropology, and sociology. Dr. Kuus has also written on state sovereignty, intellectuals of statecraft, identity discourses, and the idea of Europe. She is the author of Geopolitics Reframed: Security and Identity in Europe’s Eastern Enlargement (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), numerous articles in geographic, international relations, and European studies journals, and a co-editor of the Ashgate Research Companion to Critical Geopolitics (Ashgate, 2013). Dr. Kuus serves as a review editor of the journal Geopolitics and a co-editor of the book series Critical Geopolitics at Ashgate. She has been the recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship as well as individual research grants from the United States Institute of Peace, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, among other bodies.
The list below highlights the key themes within that work.
Geopolitics and diplomacy
Geopolitics is a tricky term that many rightly associate with the violent inter-state power politics of the previous two centuries. In my work, as in much of contemporary human geography, to study geopolitics is to analyze and deconstruct the geographical assumptions and definitions that underpin international politics today. In broad terms, I investigate how political practices, especially on the international arena, are underpinned by spatial assumptions—by geographically defined categories like center and margin, inside and outside, Self and Other. These assumptions are central to the processes by which complex political issues come to be defined and managed in a particular manner.
Empirically, my current work focuses on transnational diplomatic practices in the European Union: a summary of the project is enclosed after the list of research themes. This example undergirds a broader argument about knowledge and authority in bureaucratic settings.
Transnational policy processes
Policy impinges on all aspects of self and society. It shapes not just societal outcomes but, more importantly, the processes that produce these outcomes. To study policy is to investigate not a ready-made blueprint but a dynamic and unpredictable process. In geography as well as other social sciences, there is today a growing recognition of the need for close-up studies of policy processes. My work is a part of that effort to understand the fields of power that operate within policy-making bureaucracies.
Empirically, this strand of my research focuses on the European Union as a key power center in today’s world. Any attempt to understand the diffuse operation of power in the international sphere must closely consider the EU in all of its irresolvable ambiguities. My particular interest lies in the Union’s external relations, specifically in the ways in which these relations are conceived and codified within the Union’s bureaucracy in Brussels.
Security, identity, and the state
Security is a key political dynamic today, as an ever wider range of social issues, such as environment, health, or minority rights, are increasingly framed in terms of national security in many countries. Such security threats are not simply external to the community which they allegedly endanger. Rather, threats from the 'outside' are necessary components of maintaining and consolidating that community's identity 'inside'. Inscription of threats is therefore a key part of political struggles. Focusing empirically on Europe, I examine how particular foreign and domestic policies are justified by invoking national security, and with what effects. In so doing, I illuminate the transformations of state power in the context of growing immigration pressures, cross-border cooperation, and the current 'war on terror'.
Many of the geographical and territorial concepts that we take for granted today, such as nation and state, originate in Europe and were first put into practice there. By studying Europe, we can better understand their historical emergence and transformation, their mass appeal, and their societal effects. Today too, mainstream understandings of civilizations, borders, and historical memory are closely bound up with geographical understandings of identity and belonging. Unraveling this inherently spatial operation of culture and politics in Europe therefore tells us a great deal about that continent, and others.
Geopolitics and Expertise
This multi-year project synthesizes my interest in geopolitics and policy, especially in contemporary European settings. It investigates how geopolitical space is produced within labyrinthine bureaucratic structures. I am currently developing this project into a book. Abbreviated summary follows:
The power of European Union institutions both inside and outside the Union rests on their expertise: their ability to make other actors work with their data and their analytical tools. This expert authority brings diverse places in Europe into one regulatory space. It also packs a constant tug of war over whose expertise specifically, from where, is built into European expertise. The Union’s knowledge production appears standardized in institutional charts, but the social reality in Brussels is a highly ambiguous transnational scene of power relations. It is a space with its own geopolitical and social scripts about what kind of space is Europe and who has expertise on it. There are unwritten—and sometimes unspoken—rules for the production of rules inside the European bureaucracy.
Geopolitics and Expertise investigates the scripts of and struggles over expertise at the central place of European knowledge production—Brussels. Drawing from over one hundred interviews, conducted over six years with the professionals who wield EU foreign affairs expertise, it unpacks the ways in which this daily production of expert authority works: not how the process is modelled to unfold but how it actually operates. Eschewing a traditional ‘big picture’ account of inter-state and inter-institutional relations, the book instead offers a more agent-based and peopled account of the ambiguities and idiosyncrasies of expert knowledge in Brussels. A blend of policy studies, geopolitics, and sociology of knowledge, the study speaks to scholars of international relations, political geography, critical policy studies, and contemporary Europe.
For further information, see ‘Geopolitical Passport’, an interview with Leonhardt, van Efferink, published at Exploring Geopolitics (website) , April 2011