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This paper reviews current literature on transnational relations; it presents these readings in five parts. First, the challenges to the concept of the sovereign state and the difficulties that this poses for the traditional state-centered international relations theories are enumerated. Second, an overview is given of new international actors, the difficulties in defining them and their implication for existing political theories. Thirdly models explaining regime change or norm adoption are explored through texts dealing with the environmental and human rights movements. Fourth, the factors affecting success of transnational activity or regime change are explored. Lastly, persistent questions and problems in this domain are enumerated.


Challenges to the role of the state

The change in relation between states, International Organisations and non-governmental actors has put into question the usual theories used in International Relations. This change has been brought about in part by increased interaction between countries by people who do not represent the state (Keohane and Nye). The increase in interaction is due to increased ease of communication, transportation, financial transactions and travel across borders (Keohane and Nye).

These interactions have had many effects (Keohane and Nye, Tarrow). National interest groups have joined with each other in transnational structures, usually transnational organizations. These transnational organizations can have a profound effect on domestic policy, making specific policies unfeasible. Transnational Organisations or International Organisations have become more autonomous from the states that have created them and can oppose government policy. Keohane and Nye among others (Risse-Kappen) have labelled these transactions, whether tangible or intangible, across state boundaries, where at least one actor is not an agent of the state, transnational relations – as opposed to international relations which occur between state actors. Multinational corporations and human rights activities are only two examples of activities that benefit from the increase in transactions across national boundaries; they also present situations in which individuals or groups of individuals rather than states have impacted national or international policy.

Overall there has been an increase in interdependence between state and non-state actors who have become increasing sensitive to decisions and events in other parts of the world (Young, Keohane and Nye). The increasing importance of the markets has also reduced the relative importance of state actors (Della Porta and Tarrow). States now face constraints on their actions from both domestic and external sources.

Although politics remains a power struggle, it is the distribution of power that has changed to included non-state actors and international organisations. Keohane and Nye define politics as a relationship in which at least one actor consciously employs resources, both material and symbolic, including the threat or exercise of punishment, to induce actors to behave differently than they would have otherwise. Rosenau also contributes to the reflection on power by stating that compliance is no longer obtained by states and national governments by the nature of constitutional legitimacy but rather because common needs of all the actors in question. This does not suggest that authority and power are disappearing but that are being relocated upward to supra and transnational groups, sideways to social movements and downwards to subnational groups. He has labelled this tendency of simultaneous integration and fragmentation as fragmeration.

This has put the realist paradigm and the state centered approach to IR in question; Keohane and Nye have proposed the world politics paradigm in its place. Interest has also turned to the concept of governance for dealing with the interactions of new actors. Governance involves the establishment of social institutions involving state or non-state actors as a basis for cooperation and unlike government it does not presuppose a material existence (Young). International Regimes are the form through which global governance is managed (Rosenau). A regime is a set of agreed upon decision-making processes, norms, rules and programs that govern the interaction of actors in specific issue areas (Young). Rosenau argues that seeing states as the only actors makes it impossible to understand the functioning of regimes or global governance in which many actors play an important role. Increasingly often the members of regimes are not states (Young). According to Young, regimes need to negotiate state interests and social interests or global civil society interests (this concept will be elaborated on further). He differentiates between state interests that are negotiated between international regimes and society interests that are negotiated between transnational regimes; although in practise most regimes are a fusion of the two. Young has reflected on the process of regime change itself and the role of regimes in global society. He enumerates two possibilities. The first is that institutional arrangements are created by dominant members of society to control other members of society and secure or advance their own interests. The second is that regimes are agents of social change in international society. The latter option this implies that non-state actors can create and operate regimes to change society and that global civil society will continue to grow and act independently from states.

Despite the recognition of new actors, states remain important actors if not the most important actors in world affairs (Keohane and Nye, Walker, Tarrow). Not only do they have central roles in national policy but they are key figures in transnational actions (Tarrow). Risse-Kappen, Rosenau, Walker among others agree there is influence of non-state actors in the international domain and across national boundaries, but criticize the debate over the dominance of the state-world or the society world (non-state actors) in international affairs; it is more important to understand the nature of their interactions, their significance, and their mutual influence that to question the dominance of one actor over the other. This requires a better understanding and definition of state and non-state actors. The various categories of non-state actors will be explored in the following section.

Defining new actors

Global civil society is an important concept yet one that is very controversial. The term is used to describe social movements’ transgression of the limits of modern politics and states (Walker). However the concept is ambiguous and consensus has yet to be established on whom global civil society includes: social movements, economic actors, etc. (Young). This concept has also been criticised for applying the concept of social movements (originally a concept pertinent within a nation) to the international level, thus negating the role of individual states.

The categories of actors discussed here are all social movement actors which mean that they are involved in political practise and seek to redefine politics (Walker, Tarrow). It should be made clear that not all non-state actors are ‘good’ and can include terrorist groups, multi-national corporations and human rights activists. The conceptual lack of differentiation between these various categories of actors is an important criticism. This section deals mostly with theories based on human rights, environmental and global justice movements; some of the concepts presented from different authors overlap.

Della Porta and Tarrow present the concept of transnational collective action as a form of global justice movements. This involves coordinated international campaigns on the part of networks or activists against international actors, other states or international institutions; the three main processes for transnationalising movements are diffusion, domestication and externalisation. Diffusion is the exposure of campaigns in one country to citizens of another country and allows countries to adapt successful tactics used elsewhere to their own situations; ideas and framing (choice of problem formulation) of issues implies are shared. Externalization means that additionally issues can be framed globally in order to resonate with a larger audience in various countries. According to Keck and Sikkink framing allow for an understanding of an issue in terms of right and wrong, it must demonstrate that the issue is not accidental and it must identify who is responsible; it must also be framed in a way which invites individuals to participate in the debate on the issue. Currently the master-frame of global social justice is used. Inversely international issues can be domesticated. The existence of ‘vertical targets’, such as international treaties or organizations, can increase links between activists across borders. Overall this means that local actors can respond to global issues or that local issues can be heard at the global level. The former allows citizens to respond to issues which arise internationally even if they have no voice in that institution; the latter allows action to take place even when domestic opportunities are lacking. The number of levels that issues can be acted upon is also increased by international or regional institutions; this provides multi-level openings for influence and change.

In Tarrow’s work we find an elaboration of three categories of transnational actions. The first is transnational social movements (TSM); these must have social or political bases outside of the state targeted for action. At the same time, as a social movement it must have roots in social networks and be engaged in continuous sustained interaction with the state, an international institution or multinational economic actor. The second type is international non-government organisations (INGOs). Tarrow defines these as members of two or more countries, who operate independently of governments, and are organised to advance their members’ international goals and provide services to citizens of other states through transactions with states, private actors and international institutions. The difference between the two types presented so far is the first is involved in contentious activity whereas the second participate in routine action. Additionally, the second is less attached to social movements and tends to be more professional (see Tarrow p12 for a fuller description). The final category Tarrow presents is transnational activist networks. These are loose networks of INGOs and TSMs who work together for short or extended periods of time with other domestic, transnational, state and non-state actors. TAN encourage domestic groups to adopt their norms, model behaviours and frame claim around international politics. In the long term domestic social movements from different countries become aware of each other and form transnational social movements. Tarrow raises important issues regarding the functioning of TAN. Among which are the relation of powerful INGOs to domestic social movements, and the lasting impact of the TAN on domestic movements once the campaigns are over.

Keck and Sikkink have dealt with TANs in their research under the label of transnational advocacy networks largely in the human rights domain. According to them TAN function in a way similar to social movements, through persuasion and socialisation; their actions are based on values and principled ideas; they use sophisticated political strategies in their campaigns. A closer look at how these activities bring about political change will be taken in the following section.

The models of change

Models for political change through norm adoption have been elaborated by Keck, Sikkink and Finnemore with the norm lifestyle model, and by Risse and Ropp with the spiral model. Sikkink defines norms as standards of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity; regimes can be seen as an ensemble of norms. Since norms are based on moral beliefs to a large extent, it is important to ask how norms emerge and moral assumptions can be changed (Finnemore and Sikkink).

A norm lifestyle has three main stages, norm emergence, norm cascading and internalisation. Norms emerge through the actions of norm entrepreneurs; they create issues by identifying them and framing them. For framing to be successful it must challenge the way people understand the issue and resonate with their beliefs. Norm entrepreneurs are NGOs, TAN or international organisations. During the emergence process, norms are adopted by individual states, mostly as a result of significant domestic pressure. Once a certain number of states adopt these norms a threshold is reached called the tipping point. This is the point at which enough states have endorsed the norms for it to seem like appropriate behaviour for all states. Theories on when this tipping point is reached have not yet been established. Subsequent to the tipping point, is the period of norm cascade. During this period countries will adopt these norms or norm compliant behaviour even without strong domestic pressure. The final stage is internalisation during which norm conformance becomes integrated into normal state behaviour.

Risse and Ropp have developed a spiral model; although different it does not contradictory to the norm lifestyle model. It is based on the concept of “the boomerang effect” elaborated by Keck and Sikkink. According to this concept, when communication between domestic actors and the state are blocked, these actors can search out international partners who will pressure the state from the outside. The spiral model enumerates three phases for achieving the socialisation of norms into domestic practise. The first phase is of state repression; human rights networks work at this stage to put the actions that they are contesting onto the international agenda. The first reaction of most norm violating governments is to deny the validity of the human rights norms and to claim national sovereignty over the issue so as to discourage international pressure. From denial, states then begin to make tactical concessions. An important aspect of this stage is that it can create room for domestic opposition. These concessions then permit criticism when the state does not keep to its words. It is noted that there are occasions when this last step does not lead to human rights improvements but rather to increased repression as the state tries to maintain control. The final stage consists of prescriptive status for the norms and rule consistent behaviour and usually occurs in the face of domestic and transnational pressure.

Factors impacting success

Along with understanding the models of change it is important to understand the tools used or the conditions necessary for the initiatives to be successful.

Risse and Ropp found through their work that both institutionalisation and argumentation such as moral consciousness raising were essential tools for achieving enduring human rights changes. Additionally they found that interaction at many levels was necessary for norms to be socialised: between domestic society and the norm violating government; between domestic opposition and transnational human rights networks; between transnational advocacy networks and IO or western countries; lastly between IOs, TANs, Western governments and norm-violating governments.

Finnemore and Sikkink proposed three factors which make norms successful First, a norm is more likely to be adopted if it will relieve domestic turmoil by legitimating the state in the eyes of its citizens. Second, norm-violating states seek to copy the model successful states that have adopted the norm in order to improve their image. Lastly, since empathy is an important tool for promoting human rights norms, the intrinsic characteristics of the norm are important and not all norms will gain prominence as rapidly. Keck and Sikkink have advanced that norms involving bodily harm to innocent people or legal equality of opportunity are more likely to be effective. Risse-Kappen’s research shows that economic and environmental issues which frequently imply economic redistribution are more likely to face opposition. He also notes that material power or economic resources and degree of institutionalisation do not seem to be significant with regards to policy impact as strength was gained through principled ideas and values; this reasserts the importance of the intrinsic characteristics of the norms.

Risse-Kappen argues in his work that the domestic structure has a large impact on access to and influence of political systems from the outside (unlike Finnemore, Sikkink and Keck, Risse-Kappen’s work does not focus on human rights but also economic actors). This approach takes three aspects of the domestic structure into account. The first aspect comprises the nature – centralised or fragmented – of the political institutions of the state. The second is the societal structure; strong societies are characterised by less social cleavage, are more politicised and more easily mobilised. Last are the policy networks between the state and the society, such as political parties; the presence of strong intermediate institutions can facilitate change. This affects transnational relations firstly by permitting or denying access of transnational actors to the political systems and secondly by affecting their ability to form winning coalitions within the country; in countries with strong civil societies transnational activities can provoke domestic resistance.

Risse-Kappen argues that international institutions are also key to the policy impact of transnational actors; not only do they facilitate the formation of transgovernmental coalitions but transnational actors working in international institutions gain easier access to the governments of member states.

Young and Risse-Kappen agree that transnational activity is more likely to be effective when the regimes which are ‘top down’ are supported by domestic actors who act from the ‘bottom up’. All other thinks being equal, Risse-Kappen has concluded that transnational relations appear to strengthen the society in its relations to the state.

Remaining questions in transnational theory

The definition of actors remains problematic; even when actors are well defined in certain research projects, the definitions are not common to all of the research projects which makes comparison difficult and slows theoretical progress.

Specifically global civil society is a problematic concept. Walker contests that the connections being made between actors across national borders constitutes global civil society (Walker). While Della Porta and Tarrow have made progress in clarifying the interactions between actors across national boundaries, the significance of these actions and their impacts, the debate remains open.

With regards to regime formation, Young comments that of the three stages, agenda formation, negotiation and operationalisation, the second is the most discussed yet the others equally need to be understood. He questions which factors influence the success or failure of the regime formation. Young and Walker question theorist’s ability to understand how specific topics become important. Generally there seems to be information lacking on the processes which create change.

On a pragmatic level Young questions what tools regime analysis has produced to help solve collection action problems nationally and internationally.


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