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Fr. transnational

actors, cosmopolitanism, globalization

Taken literally, “Transnational” refers to any entities (organizations, networks, individuals) or processes (activities, factors, movements, transactions) that cross state boundaries. It should be noted that “transnational” was also promoted by a UN agency to refer to commercial enterprises. Today, the most common term is “multinational company” (MNC), defined as a company operating substantial facilities or doing business in more than one country and not considering any particular country as its national home, even if headquarters are established in a given country.


Transnational relations

Some confusion has been caused since 1965 by the interference of transnational actors and relations with the international sphere understood literally. Transnational organizations may include

-                      multinational companies or corporations (MNCs);

-          international nongovernmental organisations (INGOs) which are not necessarily international (subdivided into national branches), but may be transnational (members will not represent any specific nationality). INGOs are also called “private” (with little or no links with government). There are thousands of religious, environmental, women and humanitarian organizations which promote their own interests, advance causes, and propose global solutions because they mistrust governments or resist official policies.

-                      regimes within particular issue areas (including economics, the environment, security, transport, communications, human rights, arms controls, intellectual property, cultural heritage, etc.),

-                      mixed actors (including states, MNCs, INGOs and/or individuals).

-          Transnational religion has a powerful influence on global politics. While the practice of religions tends to be associated with peace, humanitarianism and the good of the world, history is a mirror of all kinds of conflicts because and in the name of religion. Christian fundamentalism is often associated with tradition and conservative values, and Islamic fundamentalism has been linked with religious extremism and terrorism. Both mix traditionalism with militant nationalism or communitarianism, although this term may also refer to ideological movements (British Chartist movement in 1840s, utopian socialism) or minority, local denominations. Transnational religions and ideologies may be associated with nationalism like Hinduism in India, shia in Iran and Irak, buddhism in Burma, varieties of Orthodox Christianity in Greece and Russia, etc.), while states may conversely fight transnational religions to preserve their secular constitutions and institutions.

The increasing complexity of IR, the intensification of communication and exchanges of all sorts, the impact of civil society in domestic affairs have led to the idea and the fact of transnational relations, in contrast with the conventional, homogeneous theory of interstate relations. This concept was integrated into different disciplines, with different approaches: sociology, political science, law, history, economics, cultural studies, anthropology, human rights, feminism, even though few attempts have been made to bring scholars to comprehensive research. One attempt has been the rise of transnationalism in the inter-paradigmatic debate, which has introduced transdisciplinary concepts such as the transnational and transcultural dimensions, while shedding new light on globalisation. One response to the changing pattern of power relations is to define a form of “complex multilateralism” (O’Brien 2000) involving a system of governance made of a plurality of actors: not only states and inter-state organizations conventionally recognized by international law, but also networks and communities diversely formalised into civil society organizations, whether on a corporate or a non-profit basis. The “multi-stakeholder” dialogues and “multilayered identities” are some of the concepts associated with multipartite governance structures, which have arisen as a novel feature of the institutional landscape.


Old and new

To that extent, the term is an all-embracing concept insofar as its cross-border dimension refers to any non-state actors or even factors: formal or unformal associations, religions, the media, public opinion, capital flows, international trade, migration, tourism, scientific cooperation, standards and norms, cultural fashions and even mafias and terrorist networks.

Despite the novelty of the system, transnational processes have been around since ancient times in the form of geopolitical, religious and cultural influences or ideological universalism. An example was the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, under which Pope Alexander VI Borgia granted Spain and Portugal the New World territories situated on either side of a line dividing South America in two, was a geopolitical operation which left a lasting imprint on the continent. Another example is given by the religious orders that were the underlying forces of social change in the Middle Ages: medievalist Léo Moulin (1980) sees in the Benedictine Cistercian order “the virtually perfect advance version of a transnational organization destined to endure to the present day”. Even though, after its ascendency from the twelth to the fourteenth centuries, it was to suffer, precisely on account of its transnational character, from the emergence of the nation-state. The history of foundations also shows that this other form of non-state controlled institution dates back top a period of the Middle Ages prior to the emergence of states, when the only philanthropic activities on behalf of the underpriviledged were those carried out by town guilds and the Catholic Church (Hodson 1986).

A parallel case is the expansion of the Muslim religion, soon to be subsumed by what was considered to be an empire, otherwise called caliphate, until its suppression in 1924 with the end of the Ottoman Empire. The intercultural exchanges following the expansion of Islam had led, especially between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, to the founding of “non-state” transnational orders and brotherhoods acting as a counterweight to princely authority. Ibn Khaldoun studied its cultural, social, economic and political components, and described the subtle balance of power resulting from the constitution of these networks. Today, most Arab constitutions still assert that Islam is the State religion and that the Islamic law is a main source, or even the main source of modern legislation, even if Islamic law covers today only family law, inheritance law and criminal law in some countries such as Saudi Arabia. The other areas of legislation are governed by laws imported mainly from the West, such as the constitution itself, the judicial system, the civil law, the commercial law and the criminal law.

In sum, what is relevant in terms of IR theory and history is that Christian and Muslim transnational religious communities predate the emergence of centralised secular states. Religious interactions were pivotal to the emergence of an international system in which both Christianity and Islam grew to become world religions, conveying their associated civilisations around the world via colonisation, conquest and the expansion of global trade. Contending religious beliefs were the chief motor of international stakes, until the political importance of religion in Western international politics became increasingly negligible with the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the religious wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants. The Treaty of Utrecht Treaty of Utrecht (1713) aimed at maintaining the balance of power in Europe, breaking more decisively with claims to religious universalism and initiating the history of clashing nationalisms until 1914. The conference of 1884-5 (attended by Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Norway and Turkey) had already limited the spheres of influence of colonial empires, until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the Second World War conferences finally redefined the allocation of state territories to consolidate the interstate system.

Transnational initiatives can also be seen in the activities of private trading companies in founding the first colonies of what was to become the British Empire, in contrast with the Spanish colonies, which were born out of a clash between a recently established absolute state based on a feudal society. European colonies were initially the product of private initiatives such as the East India Company or the Virginia Company acting for political or religious purposes. The first American setllements were founded by settlers belonging to movements of citizens rebelling against the moral standards or political regime of the time, such as the Puritans in New England or, later, the Quakers in Australia (Lloyd 1984).


International v. transnational

In the twentieth century, European scholars were struck by the effect of transnational relationships in the 1960s. In his book Paix et guerre entre les nations, Raymond Aron, the French sociologist, contrasted the international society, consisting of interactions of states, with transnational society, consisting of the interactions of individuals. Aron gave as an example of a flourishing transnational society pre-1914 Europe, which was manifested in commecial exchanges and a common gold standard, relatively free migration or residence (a frenchmlan could easily live in Germany just as a German could decide to live in France), associations which transcended frontiers, transnational ceremonies and competitions such as the Olympic Games, and international political parties with common doctrines (Labour parties were grouped into an International).

-                      The transnational concept was most explicit in the most comprehensive inter-paradigmatic debate, which is also the most recent. The first two debates consistently assumed that states were the sole actors in international politics, whereas the third debate challenges the state-centric outlook shared by idealism and realism and introduces in the 1970s the claim that the state is no longer the dominant actor. The central issues of loyalties and activities that connect humans across states, nations and nation-states boundaries is the central problematique of such seminal works as Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye’s Transnational Relations and World Politics and Marcel Merle’s Sociologie des relations internationales. They inspired a new generation of scholars resolutely committed to an interdisciplinary structuring of the IR field of studies (Badie 1992, Risse-Kappen 1995). To some extent, rival theories have been coexisting, with the common recognition that both the state and societies are to varying extents constant references in history. While transnationalism proclaims the fading of the state and the emergence of a new Cosmopolis based on the setting up of universal jurisdictions, realism and idealism keep announcing the demise of multilateral institutions and international law, retreating to a nostalgic identification with the sovereign nation-state, if not with the closed community, populism or an all-embracing “civilisation”. This paradoxical trend has taken a more explicit turn with the transnational demonstrations against Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in 1998, against globalisation in Seattle in 1999 (the WTO conference), in Prague and Genoa around 2000. The movement was exacerbated by the terrorist attacks on the 11th September 2001, the second Iraq war in 2003, the war in Syria and the extension of transnational terrorist networks, among which the Islamic State (IS) as a result of those conflicts.

Transnationalisation has become a process more recently with the advance of technology and mass communications and the speeding up of human interactions and the transfer of ideas across national borders. It has led to a complex system, with the intermingling of aspects of cultures around the world and the emerging of a transnational culture. In Jihad versus Mc World (1997), Benjamin Barber examines how globalism* and tribalism are reshaping the world as a fight between two distorted, fundamentalist versions of transnationalism which may focus on language, cinema or cuisine, endangered indigenous peoples in the Amazon or the ecosystem. The extreme form of resistance to the transnational culture is the creation of reactionary traditionalism, fundamentalism and what Barber calls “the culture of jihad”, this term being understood as a holy war, the most extreme contemporary outcome of the march of transnationalism.

As could be expected, the multifaceted processes of globalisation and globalism have triggered counter-reactions like the “return to the state” (Hall 2002, Telhami 2006, Alvarez 2011) , which belies the announced demise of the state. Before the 1970s, the dominance of the state had undergone a number of challenges posed by transnational factors. First, the calls for an international working-class opposition to the First World War were supposed to unite them against the separateness of states, presented as a piece of mystification that helped to perpetuate capitalism. This claim was undermined by the events of 1914, as the working class rallied to national flags and volunteered to fight the Great War. Second, the demise of the nation-state in the 1950s was to result from its susceptibility to economic warfare, the rise of international communications, the development of air warfare and the development of nuclear weapons, which threatened the very survival of states (John Herz (1957). Third, from the 1950s neo-functionalism (Haas 1958) built a new theory of the “rise and demise of the state” based on two facts: first, a nuclear stalemate ruled out major war as a means of inter-state policy in the foreseeable future, and second, the European experience of economic integration, which was to lead to political integration, undermined the absolute sovereignty of nation-states. The final two decades of the 20th century were an era of fundamental global political, social, economic and cultural changes, often associated collectively as globalisation, but the early 21rst century has rather seen an increasing skepticism taking on transnational proportions, causing clashes expressed as a renewed “return of the state”, if not “of empires” (Grosser 2013). Further, the one-dimensional view of globalization has been exposed by authors like John Ralston Saul, because globalization's central tenet is that "civilisation should be seen through economics, and economics alone".