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date: 19 November 2019

Transnational Actors

Summary and Keywords

“Transnational” is a frequently mentioned key word in international relations today; it is used to denote in a simplifying manner an organization working beyond state boundaries and acting independently from traditional state authorities. The scholarly recognition of such actors occurred relatively late in the field and advanced with the acceleration of globalizing economic, political, cultural, and social processes. Despite the appearance of transnational actors as a topical and palpable concern for academics and practitioners alike, questions of conceptual vagueness and relational indeterminacy remain, and the continual proliferation of these entities lend urgency to the need for more scholarly attention to these agents.

Keywords: transnational actors, transsocietal relations, transnational agents, transnational relations, transnational organizations, Information and Communication Technology


Before elaborating upon the various forms of actors and theoretical developments surrounding transnational relations, a clarification of the subject matter is needed. Transnational actors (TNAs) have come to be considered political, social, cultural, and economic agents or groups that have transsocietal relations across borders. They pursue their goals somewhat independently of governmental considerations. This entry defines who may fall under this large umbrella term, chronicles the historical and theoretical evolution of TNAs and highlights issues and trends in scholarship relating to the field.

The number and variety of transnational agents operating in a boundary-crossing fashion necessitates a distinction between, for instance, transnational companies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or transnational criminal organizations and terrorists. Viewing transnational actors as (semi-)autonomous from governments is incompatible with a state-centric view, so scholars use the term “transgovernmental” to denote transgovernmental coordinative activity, for example, in regulatory networks. These should be distinguished from broader international activities by intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and regimes on the one hand, and international NGOs on the other. The development of information and communication technology (ICT) has enabled the growth of loose networks such as epistemic communities and advocacy networks. Yet two ambiguities exist in the literature: the term “civil society” at times includes not only NGOs but transnational companies as well, and in the past, “nonstate” was used to include IGOs, but they have been largely excluded nowadays.

Intergovernmental Organizations or Nonstate Actors? Questions of Membership and Mandate

In the groundbreaking work on interdependent transnationalism by Keohane and Nye (1971), all entities interacting across national boundaries with at least one nonstate agent present were considered transnational. Transnational relations, then, were different and novel in that that they represented “contacts, coalitions, and interactions across state boundaries that are not controlled by the central foreign policy organs of the government.” (p. 11). Accordingly, “the broad term transnational relations includes both transnational and transgovernmental interactions—all of world politics that is not taken into account by the state-centric paradigm” (p. 383, italics in the original). In later work, Keohane and Nye (1974) retracted the inclusion of transgovernmental actors and categorized them separately. They emphasized how intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) “help to increase transgovernmental contacts and thus create opportunities for the development of transgovernmental coalitions” (p. 50). Their work created a debate centered on the validity of political agents that were not traditional state representatives, as Gilpin (1971), Huntington (1973), and Bull (1977) contested the government-exclusive reading of transnational actors (TNAs). While the former group of scholars wanted to challenge the state-centric system in view of the proliferation of nonstate actors, the latter remained somewhat wedded to the state system and concentrated on the activity focus, rather than the nature, of these organizations. Current usage confines the term “transnational” to organizations and activities in which the relevant actor is nongovernmental, and the term “transgovernmental” is reserved for bureaucracies within a government that to some extent act independently from other parts of the same government. At the regional and global levels of analysis, transnational actors are often members of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), which do become transnational actors when they act as collective entities. In contrast, governments form intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). Moreover, some research emphasized private business regulation (Koenig-Archibugi & Zürn, 2006) and social activism (Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Dingwerth, 2007), some of which is focused solely on transnational relations and some of which focuses on IGOs.

Transnational does not simply signify international; it refers to the organization of power beyond the state (not between states) and is, thus, a relatively open term (Richter et al., 2006) denoting political coordination, exchanges, and regulation that transcend national boundaries. It should also be conceptually distinguished from supranational agents, as they represent a level of governance above the state. Transnational actors (TNAs), then, encompass a wide variety of boundary-crossing entities addressing a host of issues that cannot be resolved alone and thus are, for better or for worse, managed in a cross-border fashion. These activity areas vary from regime promotion to social activism to combating international terrorism, and they involve INGOs, epistemic communities, religious communities and social movements, transnational companies as well as network-based organizations. Examples of these types of actors range from the Climate Action Network to the infamous gang Mara Salvatrucha to the antiglobalization movement ATTAC (which even proclaimed the first “transnational republic” with passports and representations) as well as a host of transnational corporations (TNCs).

Risse (2002, p. 8) provides a valuable distinction to categorize the highly diverse field of actors. He classifies them according to their raison d’être as two types of actors, those motivated by instrumental, mainly economic, gains and those promoting ideas and knowledge, although these two categories are not mutually exclusive. In a post-9/11 globalized world, an additional third category considering the fragmentation of the transnational system is required: those who are seeking to advance their cause or objectives through disruptive, illegitimate and, at times, violent actions, e.g., transnational terror networks and organized criminal networks. Echoing Risse’s distinction, Koenig-Archibugi and Zürn (2006) classify transnational organizations into the ones aiming to influence governments through public pressure, such as INGOs, and the ones providing the organizational support for governance, e.g., the International Chambers of Commerce. Some of them pursue a single objective, such as banning land mines, while others pursue a broader agenda, such as large-scale social equality. Likewise, some TNAs may only operate in a few countries or in one region, whereas others span the globe (Risse, 2002). The differences in categorization of ideologies and function notwithstanding, all of the aforementioned actors have in common the fact that they organize across national borders in transnational arrangements or coalitions to realize their objectives separately from governmental oversight and control. Yet the interaction of transnational activists, state governments, and IGOs extends not only to the treatment of policy questions but also to the normative creation of international order (George, 2008).

Statistics about transnational actors are hard to come by because the definition encompasses a multitude of groups, only an approximation is possible. By some estimates, between 10,000 and 18,000 transnational actors exist, not counting more than 100,000 transnational companies and their subsidiaries (Willetts, 2013). The Union of International Associations lists more than 60,000 organizations, including IGOs and INGOs (2015). In his earlier work, Risse (1995) systematizes these groups according to the degree of institutionalization, which makes sense considering that transnational relations are contingent upon opportunities for communicative exchange to function. IGOs tend to be highly structured in terms of membership and proceedings, whereas nonstate actors such as transnational advocacy networks or social movements lack the permanency and structure of the former. Similarly, IGOs are vertically institutionalized, from domestic to international levels of decision making, while nonstate transnational activity is generally organized horizontally across state borders, usually on an equivalent level of leadership. With the professionalization of the latter group of TNAs, however, the development of internal hierarchies took place as well. Transnational activists are hardly able to operate in a cross-border fashion without a minimum level of organizational structure for correspondence, exchange, and promotional activities. In an increasingly fast-paced global environment, one may even assume that transnational capital, activism, and policies have become agents in themselves, without noticing the crucial, hidden steering organizations behind these phenomena.

International Relations Theories and Transnational Actors

The major strands of international relations theories conceive of transnational actors differently, according to their stance on the substantive role of state governments and their assessment of changes in the international system. Among neo-realist, neo-liberal institutionalist, constructivist and neo-Marxist theories, realism and neo-Marxism possess a largely negative attitude toward these agents. For realists, who maintain state integrity and power as fundamental analytical categories, the power of transnational actors is hardly acknowledged. While Marxists recognize transnational relations based on the internationality of class struggles, most critical theorists come to a pessimistic judgment about TNAs; they see market-based agents such as multinationals and even IGOs inextricably linked to state governments, which represent, in their view, the extended arm of capitalism. Institutionalists perceive the issue differently: liberal institutionalists find international bargaining and monitoring, particularly of transnational issues of common interest such as trade or environmental protection, useful tasks that could not be sufficiently addressed domestically. Most constructivists view the emergence of transnational actors as expanding the limited statist outlook of realists and institutionalists, thus reflecting a globally diverse world made up of a variety of actors, interests, and identities that aim at the advancement of pluralistic values in an increasingly transnational political space. Whereas neo-realist, neo-institutionalist, and neo-Marxist approaches are similar in that they tend to favor rationalist explanations based on expected gains, constructivists differ in that they base their analyses on the values, identities, and norms that they find present. Acknowledging the increasing role of nonstate agents, alternative models of IR are evolving, ranging from neo-liberal market-based conceptions to cosmopolitanism, to the alternative world of those opposing globalization (Marchetti, 2009).

Irrespective of the meaning attributed to TNAs, research on transnational actors mushroomed over the past two decades. Knowledge about these agents is increasingly focused on their dynamic interaction with other actors in the political field. Even skeptics acknowledge their growing influence so that most contemporary work in international relations no longer disputes that TNAs influence decisions and outcomes (Risse, 2002, p. 262).

The Evolution of Transnational Actors

Historically, the existence of trade-related transnational organizations has been observed since the days of European colonialism (Risse, 2002), although a scholarly gap in the historiography of transnational actors and more generally, international relations, exist (Schmidt, 2002). Closer to home, in the 14th century, European merchant guilds along the main bodies of water established guidelines for the smooth exchange of commodities threatened by foreign militaries and rulers (Zweifel, 2005, p. 33). Keck and Sikkink (1998) locate the emergence of activist TNAs in the antislavery and suffrage movements of the 19th century. Transnational actors, however, gained in importance only with the advance of globalization processes in the 20th century. Exploiting technological advancements, the main economic actors consisted of large U.S. and European agriculture, mining, and oil companies operating in their colonial territories (Willetts, 2013). Around that time, transgovernmental policy coordination was still in its infancy—the major exception being the League of Nations. Its task of protecting national minorities in the aftermath of World War I connected the League with transboundary nongovernmental advocates of such groups. Once decolonization accelerated in the 1950s, multinational subsidiaries continued their trade relationships and thus established an irreversible trend toward the transnationalization of the global political economy. Its impact was such that it reshaped a previously protectionist-state-centered global system and pushed it toward the liberalization of markets and the removal of trade barriers while simultaneously having a deteriorating effect on the less developed economies of the Global South.

Following the League’s demise, the United Nations (UN) and its funds and programs were created. Its formation was predicated upon regulating specific policy areas in a multilateral manner. Only the historical developments as they relate to the increase of transnational relations are discussed here. The UN as a system of globally acting functional entities coincided with the founding of the Bretton Woods institutions to address both political and economic concerns in the aftermath of the Second World War. The meetings of the Bretton Woods institutions, including the UN-associated World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the independent General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT)—the precursor of the World Trade Organization (WTO)—provided opportunities for transnational political coordination. All of these organizations were intergovernmental in character, and they displayed fundamentally traditional power relationships in their relations to member states. The balance, however, was tipped when the UN began assisting the decolonization of the Global South’s colonies, thereby nominally improving the leverage of the developing world in the General Assembly. Evidence of this change in power relations can be found in the call for a new international economic order, the establishment of the Trade and Development body (UNCTAD) and the UN Center on Transnational Corporations (UNCTC) advocating a code of conduct for TNCs. Despite the shortcomings of bureaucratic politics and nationalism, and the proliferation of TNAs competing with it for influence in the world, the UN remains the vehicle for calling attention to global security, social issues or environmental issues that are of concern to all constituents of the international community.

Importantly, the UN also incorporated INGOs, interest groups, and nonprofit organizations into its working procedures by relating them to its Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), albeit only in a consultative fashion. Nongoverning organizations (NGOs) were invited to provide their expertise in specific matters to the UN, to represent world public opinion and to bolster support for the institution. Over time, their influence spread to other agencies in the UN, evidenced by the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the UN (CONGO). Reviving the debate on TNA characteristics, increasingly hybrid organizations and networks composed of governmental as well as civil society representatives, such as the International Red Cross or World Conservation Union, conflate the distinction of transgovernmental and transnational actors. Nevertheless, the UN provides a significant platform for epistemic communities, INGOs, and other nonstate actors to be heard (Puchala et al., 2007), while at the same time, these TNAs continue to be constrained by the political will of their member-state governments.

In the 1970s and 1980s, after the theorization of complex interdependence of states based primarily on economic exchange, TNCs and IGOs remained the main entities theorized in the field. TNCs had varying impacts on the modernization of developing economies based on domestic conditions rather than on TNCs constituent characteristics (Risse, 2002). TNCs, by virtue of their reliance on the market, are largely able to circumvent control of their home government and, because of the tremendous size of some companies—the 50 largest TNCs each had annual revenues greater than the GNP of half of the UN member states (Willetts, 2013, p. 333)—are capable of lobbying governments into trade-related and fiscally related policies at home and abroad. The WTO itself is a result of the Bretton Woods institutions that were created in the postwar period to regulate the global economy and finances under American auspices, which prompted an impressive degree of neoliberal influence over private and public sectors alike. Yet this rationale has, just like the main objectives of the World Bank of providing loans for development projects and the IMF’s prevention of financial crises, come under pressure by transnational civil society agents (as well as beneficiary governments) for the ineffective and socially detrimental solutions that were prescribed in the “Washington Consensus” of the early 1990s and beyond. This debate generated a rich body of literature on transnational activists (Cleary, 1996).

The evolution of the WTO attests to the power of governments in promoting their economic policies as well as TNCs, although, ironically, the protectionist ambitions of some companies and their backing governments speak against the much-touted neo-liberal internationalism. Thus, while transnational actors such as TNCs did not eradicate state governments in the globalized marketplace, they certainly diminished their power and empowered a variety of other nonstate actors (Strange, 1996). As TNCs amplified their power in the global economy, an augmentation of countermovements and advocacy networks protesting the adverse developmental, social, and ecological effects of these firms occurred (Smith, 2008). This aspect became particularly accentuated as public exposure of companies in various media outlets by social justice movements and INGOs started to reach a global consumer audience, thus making customers aware of problematic production cycles involving, for instance, child labor, exploitative wages and environmental degradation. Whereas TNCs from industrialized countries were the first to experience the wrath of an increasingly critical civil society, companies from emerging economies, mainly because of their impressive growth, came to be viewed as endangering the labor standards of industrialized economies. The regulation of TNCs through IGOs, however, remained rather weak, with most regulatory models based on voluntary codes of conducts (Mingst & Karns, 2010). Research in this area depicts the relationship between TNCs and the UN as an evolving, increasingly cooperative yet ambiguously interdependent one, particularly with regard to outcomes (Sagafi-Nejad, 2008). In the economic sphere, another set of actors rising to prominence in the transnational marketplace are the so-called “sovereign funds,” governmental wealth funds as well as privately owned credit-rating agencies, seeking to exploit global investment opportunities.

In contrast to these examples, some TNAs lack political legitimacy or economic power, yet they are able to exploit the connectedness of markets, countries, and people. Scholarly and political recognition of the augmented importance of “the dark side” of TNAs—transnational criminals (money launderers, pirates, human traffickers, weapons smugglers, and drug smugglers), terrorist networks, etc., has occurred only in the past decade and half. In addition, failed states provide fertile ground for illegal activities based on the lack of basic security and order. Private mercenaries, questionable practices by multinationals, and disruptive civil protest movements add complexity in the absence of governmental control. While they may be excluded from participation in ordinary state-society or state-to-state relations, extensive forms of illegitimate networks are increasingly able to abuse the manifold technological, spatial, and communicative interdependencies of a globalized world. This transition has diminished the ability of domestic law enforcement agencies to respond appropriately to these groups. At the same time, transnational security and justice regimes are slowly responding to the challenges they face, for instance, in the case of Interpol’s expanding police cooperation. Academics have only begun to explore the ramifications of these developments on governments, IGOs, and nonstate transnational actors: Some theorized them as counter-reactions to global processes of homogenization and Americanization/Westernization (Barber, 1995), others as utilization of power vacuums created by economic liberalization and the spread of communication technologies (Bunker, 2005). Illegal networks have increasingly become more prevalent within transnational space. For example, social media networking and other technologies have enabled terror networks to grow in influence. The spread of transnational radical ideology is exemplified by two similar terrorist networks with essentially the same goals but different outcomes—Al Qaeda and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

The seeds of al-Qaeda’s activities were planted in the early 1980s when it was set up to facilitate the arrival of young Arabs, from across the world, to fight the Soviet forces in Afghanistan (Shahzad, 2011). Since the 1990s, it had an ideological makeover fomenting the group’s dogmatic dialect of struggle against “the West,” thus enhancing its transnational appeal. More recently, however, ISIS has emerged as the most effective transnational actor within Islamic fundamentalism. It has had greater success at attracting foreign fighters through its sophisticated use of digital information and communication technology (ICT) (Nissen, 2014) and its reign over oilfields within the region. The most widely used ICTs: blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other online sharing networks are used by ISIS to attract foreign fighters from Western Europe, the United States, and Canada (Farwell, 2014). Through the transnational mix of ICTs and ideology, ISIS has influenced a disparate, transnational community to fight for the restoration of the caliphate.

To sum up the historical overview of TNAs, while governments have conducted transgovernmental relations in the past, they lagged in regulating or controlling nonstate TNAs or TNCs. Tarrow (2008) states that the focus on the characteristics of transnational organizations is one major avenue of research for academics, while the scholarly preoccupation with a specific activity area exemplified by the workings of civil society organizations detailed below represents another. However, the integration of both of these, institutional and activity-based areas of research, remains one of the main challenges for future scholarship.

Debating Representation and Legitimacy

More recently, some of the problematic issues connected to the rise of TNAs concern questions of “democratic and legitimate governance beyond the nation-state” (Risse, 2002, p. 269). Many citizens do not uniformly support such governance, but they judge these second-order institutions and organizations on the merit of their treatment of specific issues (Everts, 1995). On the other hand, the self-proclaimed moral high ground of INGOs and social movements as promotors of global human rights, social justice, and other idealistic goals negates egotistical and corrupt occurrences within these entities. Regarding the participatory input by civil society and the ensuing postulated democratization of, for instance, IGOs, the call for more “bottom-up” democratic participation may not always be feasible (e.g., when national interests and identities collide), appropriate (e.g., when government-delegated technocratic expertise is required) or even legitimate (e.g., when special interest groups hijack consensus-based policies). Aside from the initial question of legitimate power transfer for entities above or below the level of state governments, the probing of institutional legitimacy in view of the democratic deficit of IGOs and the related increase of transnational coordination by civil society actors emerged only in recent years and offers the promise of a more nuanced understanding of both sets of actors (Steffek & Hahn, 2010).

The creation of IGOs for the prevention of security crises and for spurring of development under a hierarchical system of international powers resulted in unintended consequences as well. For governments, the subsequent transnationalization of policy coordination, together with processes of globalization and the mobilization of large segments of the world’s population, posed new challenges for previous autonomously acting governments (Koenig-Archibugi & Zürn, 2006). They had to share information and influence with TNCs and increasingly active and knowledgeable transnational civil society actors.

Social movements, interest groups, and other nongovernmental actors constituting civil society have became more vocal about their demands and have addressed their demands not only to the national, but increasingly, to regional or global governance levels. Optimistic voices contend that a myriad of such civil society actors “function across state boundaries very much in the way that societal groups within countries assemble and function across provincial or regional boundaries” (Puchala et al., 2007, p. 197). Processes of neo-liberal globalization engendered countermovements for transnational collective action against states, TNCs or IGOs (Della Porta & Tarrow, 2005). In this regard, the detrimental impact of transnational divisions of labor upon populations exposing intersecting characteristics of gender, class, and race is exemplified in, for instance, the creation of “transnational tortillas” in the global economy (Munoz, 2008). Moreover, the “great recession” of 2008–2010 inspired several transnationally acting movements such as Occupy that contested the primacy of the financial and economic sectors at the expense of the public sector with regard to inequality and welfare. This global social justice movement linked up with the European groups and actors in the Arab Spring, influencing each other while advocating against austerity measures as well as for more social, civil, and human rights protections. In an attempt to respond to these new challenges, some scholars have explored the sociopolitical conditions necessary for the development of global democracy, such as an expansion of governance beyond states in an effort to improve economic realities (Moghadam, 2012; DellaPorta & Mattoni, 2014).

Furthermore, civil society advocates such as INGOs contend that the international human rights regime should not only apply to states but also to TNCs and IGOs, which lack accountability in this area (Karp, 2009). They push for corporate oversight and participatory input in regional organizations such as the European Union or the African Union and global institutions such as the United Nations or the Bretton Woods Institutions (Zweifel, 2005). In some of these entities, for example in the European Union, UN, and African Union, liaison bodies such as the Economic and Social Councils link accredited transnational civil society actors with these institutions. Many of their actions are directed at the establishment and/or restitution of participatory rights in these bodies in the transnationalization processes of domestic political arenas (Imig & Tarrow, 2001). But as Koenig-Archibugi and Zürn remind us, their presence in social, developmental, and economic policy areas does not equal influence (2006, p. 9), in contrast to the power of corporate actors or lobby groups. The latter have shown remarkable adaptability to the reconfiguration of spatial governance and increasingly operate at regional and global levels. Activist TNAs not only have to compete with corporate forces, they have also begun to press for more involvement in legislative considerations and transparency of decision-making procedures and thus have opened the door for transnational civil society participation. In the 1970s, the peace, environmental, and women’s movements in Europe attempted to realize their unifying objectives across borders. The 1980s then saw a proliferation of public interest groups combining advocacy and lobbying in an increasingly market-oriented system. Emerging from the remnants of earlier path-breaking movements, so-called “new” social movements developed and articulated a transnational public critique of the emerging current neo-liberal economic system (Rucht, 2006).

In addition, the increase in migratory movements across the globe led to a more scholarly engagement related to transnational aspects, such as the expansion of voting rights (LaFleur, 2013), the role of diasporic networks (Eade & Smith, 2011), transnational religious communities and cultures (Haynes, 2012), and the significance of migration in development issues (Faist et al., 2011). Given the relevance of economic factors in migration, more scholarly attention ought to be given to the transnational mobilization of (social, human) capital in this issue area. In summary, most activist organizations have come to operate in a transnational public sphere with respect to the articulation of claims and the building of linkages between dispersed civil society actors (Guidry et al., 2000), thereby posing a conceptual challenge for scholars trying to discern their impact and legitimacy on extended forms of previously domestic governance.

The State of Transnational Governance

Derived from the concept of global governance, which highlights the interaction of governmental actors and transnational actors, transnational governance denotes a system of governance without the presence of the former. Transnational governance, then, is exerted by international governing organizations (IGOs) as well as classic nonstate transnational actors (TNAs) and constitutes a regoverning embedded in multiple, interacting institutional and organizational structures (Djelic & Sahlin-Andersson, 2006). Among those institutions conducting transnational exchanges, international and regional courts as well as legislative-regulatory networks are increasingly recognized as significant actors in their own right (Slaughter, 2005). The speed at which particularly new judicial bodies develop (e.g. the International Criminal Court in 2002 and the 2004 established African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and their augmented workload) attest to their recognition in the global judicial system. Notably, the International Criminal Court established its reputation despite the objection of the U.S. government, which reflects on the acceptance and substantial autonomy of these agents from powerful states in the international system, made possible by the joining of allied states in their attempt to provide credibility to and enforcement of international law. Yet the deliberate way in which international justice impacts African countries, or the slow speed at which coordination for transnational trade and investment agreements proceeds is evidence of the continued reliance of judicial and regulative bodies on the support of geopolitically important member-state governments and their constraints on nonstate actors.

Transnational governance has grown stronger in the past two decades in that network-oriented nonstate actors such as INGOs, activists, and experts pushed governments for the creation of a variety of regulatory associations to oversee parts of the multilayered governance system. In fact, newer research by Dingwerth (2007) distinguishes transnational from traditional global governance by emphasizing the central role of nonstate actors in coordinative activities (p. 2). Hence, nonstate and governmental actors shape each other inasmuch as they are “to various degrees associated with, embedded in, or in close interaction with national regulatory traditions and institutional frames” (Djelic & Sahlin-Andersson, 2006, p. 16). Prominent among these hybrid agents of this “new” transnationalism feature the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Forest Stewardship Council, and many other regulatory bodies for policy fields such as the environment, fair trade, or telecommunications (Dingwerth, 2007, p. 3). In the spirit of fast-paced globalizing pluralism, these bodies seemingly blur the line of lobbying and regulating and utilize ICTs to coordinate transboundary rules, in contrast with traditional IGOs, which rely on hierarchical bureaucracies and governmental support as well. Policy networks resembling epistemic communities, on the other hand, are characterized by their nonhierarchical structure, which is composed of a variety of experts from the private sector, governments and civil society in the pursuit of common goals such as bringing up new global issues or developing environmental or labor standards (Holton, 2008). While many of them lack formal political legitimacy, IGOs and states increasingly welcome the expertise of these transnational network actors.

The impact of globalization processes on the insertion of TNAs in governance cannot be overestimated. Not only did increased intergovernmental interdependence create and diffuse a whole set of regimes and norms for the mitigation of North-South and “West-Rest” relations, it augmented pressures to recognize the issue-based expertise of nonstate TNAs. Yet Risse (2002) points out that the strength of INGOs originating in “Western” democratic states may simply be an extension of (neo)liberal-democratic states rather than the evolution of a truly global civil society representative of all world regions. While most analysts connect the recent rise of transnational economic, social, and political actors to an increase in democratic pluralism, some realize that this process undermines the state governments’ ability to maintain control and provide security, for example, where nuclear proliferation and the response to failed states are concerned. They acknowledge that progress has been made in the multilateral coordination of socioeconomic policies, and they attest to a lack in performance regarding security matters, where reciprocity is difficult to maintain and geopolitical interests interfere (Newman, 2007). But even in the transnational regulation of the global marketplace, the complex implications of market volatility and real-time transcontinental mobility of capital are difficult to anticipate and just as hard for governments to react to, as the international efforts of the G7 (formerly G8) and G20 powers to contain the most recent world recession has shown. This development also questions the continuance of the “Northern”-led neo-liberal economy, with emerging powers challenging the established system by advocating and setting up alternative regional blocs and institutions, as seen in South America and Asia. More generally, the emerging transnationalism in the international system constrains unipolar policies, despite the fact that many IGOs have initially been set up to reinforce hegemonic influences (Telo, 2008). Coincidentally, some of the TNAs that erode state authority seem to be better equipped to respond to these challenges because they can plan and implement on shorter notice and are often single-purpose organizations that do not consider the manifold consequences of government behavior. Questions about the legitimacy and transparency of these new agents in global governance continue to emerge, and research in this area is constantly evolving (Koenig-Archibugi & Zürn, 2006; Steffek & Hahn, 2010).

Trends in Scholarship

Scholarship on transnational actors and relations dates to Kant’s cosmopolitan vision (for an overview of the evolution of classic scholarship on the topic, see Risse, 2002) and could, in a wider sense, include Smith’s and Marx’s economically inspired works as well. But as the focus is on scholarly works in the field of international relations, rudimentary explorations of transnationalism are found in several theoretical schools exploring the possibilities of cross-border integration based on the shifts toward market- and citizen-oriented, rather than state-oriented economic and political processes.

Throughout its existence, one of the major issues in research on transnational actors has been the indiscriminant application of the term to a multitude of actors, be they economic, political, social, or cultural in nature. Structurally, transnationalism was perceived largely in terms of “complex interdependence” (Keohane & Nye, 1971), and initially, IGOs were analyzed as instruments of international negotiation and regime monitoring. Transnational economic relations became visible when Gilpin (1971) cautioned against the assumption that states would not be able to constrain or influence TNCs. Despite the evolving awareness of the impact of TNCs in the academic community, knowledge about economic actors still lagged behind the actually occurring transnationalization of economic relations. The involvement of TNCs in the global economy received more critical attention in the 1990s, as definitional questions surfaced again with the insight that TNCs continue to remain mainly national in their exertion of control and coordination, and the realization that while foreign direct investment, transactional operations, and correspondence increased significantly, transboundary outsourcing of production still remained comparatively low (Doremos, 1998). Since the end of the 1990s, however, outsourcing has become increasingly more prevalent (Quinn, 2000). As the costs of production continue to increase with the rising demands of the growing middle class in China, TNC production is moving to other countries in Southeast Asia, in particular, Vietnam (Biswas, 2016). Political economics research has followed the overall move away from definitional questions to relational ones, such as the exploration of actor interplay between states, corporations, and other agents (Strange, 1996).

In the first wave of explicitly transnationally oriented international relations research in the 1980s, no coherent research program was developed that would be applicable to all TNAs and that would produce testable hypotheses. The existing research agenda at the time had an overly strong political economy focus (Tarrow, 2001). At the same time, Rosenau (1990) criticized the state-centric view of his peers and pleaded for a more inclusive comprehension of transnational relations and acknowledgement of the political changes these new agents initiated. Similarly, Hoffman (2002) argued for recognition of these actors but also reminded us of the negative externalities and national rootedness of many transnational phenomena.

The end of the Cold War in the 1990s was predicated as having been contingent upon transnational-internationalist epistemic communities promoting ideational change (Risse, 1994) and led to the mushrooming of transnational interactions with postcommunist countries. This change coincided with the emergence of social constructivism as a major theoretical school in international relations (Kubalkova et al., 1998; Wendt, 1999), complemented by a “normative turn” in the field of TNA research. This theoretical approach arguably tended to be much better at mapping the status quo than exploring the mechanism of transnational activity (Tarrow, 2001, p. 8).

Subsequently, many scholars in the field pushed the transnational research agenda to emphasize activism-based actors pursuing principled ideas, distinguished as either structured INGOs, coordinating social movements, or loosely associated advocacy networks (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). Despite a narrower focus—or maybe because of it—civic, boundary-transgressing activism as a research area thus became firmly established by focusing on “transnational actors promoting and diffusing causal knowledge (epistemic communities) and norms (advocacy networks)” (Risse, 2002, p. 259). These civil society groups represent a plethora of activity areas sustained by horizontal, reciprocal patterns of communication with varying degrees of affinity toward state actors and a range of strategies to attain their goals. During this time, the bifurcated and somewhat disparate exploration of both IGOs and INGOs in relations to state governments led to a leveling off of knowledge, which signaled the need for a more integrated research of the triangular interrelationships between governments, IGOs, and TNAs. The analysis of the systemic effects of their interaction eventually received more attention (Stone, 2013), with some studies attesting to the INGO-supportive stance of IGOs and member state governments (Joachim & Locher, 2009; McKeon, 2009). Still, the comprehension of this multistakeholder interplay lacks in both empirical breadth and depth.

The much-emphasized relationship between states and TNAs has been one of contention, competition, and at times, collaboration. Transnational relations, as its own field of research, focus on a wider variety of cross-border interactions between international and domestic actors, governments, and nonstate organizations. Here, the question of the perceived mechanisms by which TNAs converse with traditional state structures should be revisited, as well as the question of the influence of these transnational agents—in other words, the dynamics and direction of the agent-structure debate. These actors have been treated as dependent and independent variables in terms of the research conducted, signifying a potential coconstitutive effect for both collective agency and institutional structure. Risse (1995), for instance, in his assessment of transnational viability of nonstate TNAs, concentrates on the access of domestic structures and the ability to form successful policy coalitions with other like-minded agents to effect system-wide change.

Notably, criticisms come from international relations scholars who state that TNA influence is limited by the degree of openness of governments and IGOs. While openness of states and IGOs to nonstate TNAs are significant determinants, the statist argument lacks explanatory power in view of the empirical counterevidence collected: among scholars in transnationalism research there is an established consensus that TNAs in their various configurations achieve changes in policies at home and abroad, either through successful interaction with governments and coalition allies based on the resonance effect in domestic settings (Risse, 2002), or through the “boomerang” effect that occurs when domestic activists reach out to transnational allies to pressure domestic players (Keck & Sikkink, 1998). As the power of INGOs has grown, so has the impetus for IGOs to monitor these while at the same time requesting sectoral expertise from them. More generally, research has revealed a complex mix of utility-based and normative factors providing access of TNAs to IGOs (Tallberg et al., 2013).

Research into expertise-based power delegated to INGOs by IGOs, stemming from principal-agent approaches declaring a certain level of autonomous activity based on bureaucratization and specialization, has also evolved (Hawkins et al., 2006). IGOs have come to be viewed either as intergovernmental negotiation forums, in which states retain significant power, or autonomous actors in their own right, constraining and enabling agency by TNAs. In this view, “the bureaucratization of world politics means that international organizations have more authority than ever before and therefore have more power over other actors than ever before” (Barnett & Finnemore, 2004, p. 165). This institutional analysis combines well with a sociologically inspired one emphasizing collective agency of experts and activists, who use IGOs as arenas and instruments (Koch & Stetter, 2013).

In the context of transnational strategies, states often play a two-level game when they delegate responsibility for (unpopular) decisions to the transnational level, thereby “passing the buck” or “shirking blame” (Zweifel, 2005, p. 17). Conversely, with regard to transnational activists, diffusion of movements across borders, transnational media framing, and the domestic mobilization of collective action are essential components of TNA strategies vis-à-vis more powerful players (Della Porta & Tarrow, 2005). The impact of the media, either through the use of social media or access to mass media, has been a particularly important variable in the search for the effectiveness of human rights organizations who rely on the “CNN effect” to pressure governments into compliance by establishing the attention of a worldwide audience. Transnationally used, ICTs are key instruments in the strategic use of social media. During the Arab Spring revolutions (2010–2012), Twitter was the most effectual of these newly employable communication systems. The social network’s capability of instantaneously transmitting information across the globe was critical for the dissolution of at least two regimes involved—Tunisia and Egypt (Stepanova, 2011). ICT as “liberation technology” (Diamond & Plattner, 2012) is used with legitimate and illegitimate purposes in mind; however, as witnessed during the Arab Spring and more recently in Ukraine, ICTs are effectively aiding the voiceless in reaching the outside world and globalizing their causes. For over a decade, ICTs have arguably been the most effective tool in garnering support across borders not only on issues of human and civil rights but also in transnational crime or terrorist recruitment. Its empirical expression is found in widely measured transnational media discourses by domestic outlets focusing simultaneously on supranational issues (Trenz, 2013) or in the observation of deliberative discursive usage of transnational movements to organize and mobilize (Cammaerts, 2015). Despite its infancy, research into the interrelationship between domestic actors and the intermediary transnational actors seemingly concentrates on the dynamics, strategies, and patterns of exchange between them.

In an attempt to provide more nuanced research on TNA dynamics, the established view of the unidirectional mode in which they were challenging and pressuring state agencies has been reevaluated to a bidirectional relationship in which governments influence nonstate actors in order to further their own strategic interests (Hägel & Peretz, 2005). The European Union is one of the world’s foremost promoters and sponsors of INGO activity and as such presents a case in which a supranational IGO, supported by powerful member states, exerts influence over INGOs with regard to funding or access. At the same time, these states effectively approach multiple stakeholders to promote their causes (Thiel, 2014). Regarding the strength and direction of this mutual dependency, the more powerful a TNA, the less restricted by, dependent on, and pressured it is by state actors, with some TNCs and INGOs showing exceptional independence, particularly vis-à-vis smaller or politically weaker states. On the other hand, a weak state will only gain leverage when working through an IGO. In this respect, parallels can be drawn between the degree of influence of TNAs and IGOs and the balance of power between domestic and transnational actors.

Some regions and countries are certainly more exposed to and influenced by transnational actors than others. While in the United States and other similarly powerful states, the influence of any kind of transnational actors on government and society remains within limits, based not only on its economic and military power but also on the preeminence of its political culture of exceptional sovereignty, other countries have taken transnational coordination literally to a “new level.” In Europe, the European Union is not only the most powerful regional IGO but also through its own regulatory philosophy, has also encouraged a plethora of agencies, activists, TNCs, and associations operating transnationally. The case has been made that the new and prospective EU member states’ transitions in particular are, to a greater degree, determined by the presence and activities of these agents as these postcommunist countries were led into a complex web of interdependence (Orenstein et al., 2008). Supranational institutions, such as the European Court of Justice, have even managed to redefine and expand previously domestic legal settings in which TNAs operate, and thus offered migrant, gender and sexual minorities and cultural activist groups a new activity scope for obtaining regionally binding rights and privileges (Prügl & Thiel, 2009). Thus, over time, IGOs such as the European Union as well as INGOs undoubtedly exert a significant degree of influence over state governments, with a resulting “transnationalization” of domestic policies and legislation, political culture, and foreign policy rationales. This dense web of transnational connections has expanded the notion of what is considered domestic in Europe, with organizations such as the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or the Council of Europe, facilitating this process through regularized policy coordination in a multilevel governance system (DeBardeleben & Hurrelmann, 2011).

Based on the advancement of transnational governance coordination and the ensuing civil society presence in Europe, many studies of transnational actors and relations, such as the ones cited in this article, tend to be from European authors, with a Euro-centric perspective. The evolving regionalism found in the case of economic and/or diplomatic blocs in South America, the African Union, the Association of South East Asian Nations, or the nascent Eurasian Union, presents an opportunity to examine comparatively transnational actors interacting in more or less cohesive regions. Comparative studies of transnational actors in such regions are found in the sociologically inspired literature on social movements (Smith, 2008), and more recently, area-specific research focusing on the potential of transnational activism within Asia (Piper & Uhlin, 2004), in Africa (Obamba, 2013), or in Latin America (Silva, 2013) has been published. However, the question of comparability of institutional designs for dissimilar regions looms large and delays the expansion of comparative knowledge in this area.

Most of the newer research focusing on TNAs expresses a concern for the integration of the interplay between domestic and international actors and thus crosses the line between purely comparative politics and international relations. Similarly, the binary of state and nonstate transnational actors is slowly being eroded through the scholarly recognition that states have developed innovative hybrid regulatory frameworks and thus, moved previously state-governed issues to a deterritorialized level (Schmitz & Orenstein, 2006), be it in the governance of the international economic system, the tackling of environmental issues, or increasingly, the network-based regulation of global public policy through public-private partnerships (Stone, 2013). Moreover, the competing, ambivalent, and sometimes paradoxical impact of globalization on TNAs is recognized and analyzed, thus providing a more accurate picture of TNA co-constitution. For instance, the emerging sociolegal scholarship on international law grapples with interdisciplinarily capturing the ongoing fragmentation of legal orders with overlapping jurisdictions. As such, issues of fragmentation and competition are privileged over earlier idealistic conceptions of the mobilizing potential of globalization (Rosenau, 2003). In addition, a certain amount of realism, or even skepticism, about the ideational platforms and instrumental motives of TNAs set in, reflecting a less normative and more empirically diverse orientation in the conduct of research. As a result, the diversity of research approaches has expanded as well, now encompassing positivist quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methodologies. Despite the growing interest in TNAs, problems remain with the application of suitable methodologies to measure causal relationships, in which positivist and normative-interpretive approaches clash, as well as questions of data collection and testing limited by institutional access or actor accreditation (Omelicheva, 2009). The multiplicity of actors, their interaction, and their continuous expansion of influence, coupled with an interdisciplinary varied discipline such as international relations, almost inevitably leads to insufficient empirical knowledge about TNAs that conforms to the methodological rigor and conceptual richness expected in nationally focused or comparative research. It provides, on the other hand, opportunities for interdisciplinary views (from history, law, sociology, etc.) transcending methodological nationalisms and documenting the impact of these continuously evolving actors.

Toward an Integrated Research Agenda?

The field has certainly moved beyond treating the question of whether or not transnational actors (TNAs) matter vis-à-vis state governments or intergovernmental organizations. The exclusion of transgovernmental actors has been replaced by the acknowledgment that states are inevitably involved, either as addressees of claims by civil society or in the cooperation with international governing organizations (IGOs) and international nongoverning organizations (INGOs). Clearly, all of these actors have become significant interlocutors for the management of global issues. Rather, the focus of contemporary research is on the interactive dynamics between governments and TNAs as well as between IGOs and nonstate actors, aiming at an integrated view of the participating agents. New hybrid forms such as public-private partnerships and expert networks conflate the distinct labels scholars used to examine TNA actorness in the past. Thus, the major research challenge is to provide evidence of the mutual constitution of transnational politics among a networked set of actors, structures, and other contributing variables in a systematic and empirical manner.

One continuing issue remains the difficulty of finding a unifying theoretical framework that is able to encompass the diversity of TNAs while simultaneously providing students of the field with a concise research agenda, as exemplified by attempts to introduce novel concepts such as “global governors” (Avant et al., 2010). Furthermore, the review of transnational actors and transnationalism is dominated by European, and, to a lesser extent, North American authors. This may reflect the degree to which transnational actors operate in these environments already, but it is also an expression of the international North-South divide and Eurocentrism in international relations. Future scholarship should contribute to more diversity in this area so that it may become truly “transnational.”

The negative transnational externalities of market-driven globalization such as recessions, pandemics, or illegal activities, have caused governments to rethink liberalization and IGOs to be reformed to respond to new emergencies. Although they illustrate the limitations of transnational actors—and states alike—to contain such crises, the globalizing effect of these agents has created already a path-dependent web of transnational communication and exchange. They are indicative, however, of implications for the future development of TNAs, particularly IGOs and TNCs, which may become more conscious of the ambiguous volatility caused by complex interdependence. In this sense, the systemic interaction of governments, IGOs, INGOs, social movements, and TNCs under the growing influence of market forces has received too little scholarly attention and remains underresearched.

In the global system, competing IGOs may become stronger in the next few years, initiated by a multilateral commitment of major states and a genuine interest on the part of emerging states and regions to refashion the current international system. In this increasingly pluralistic transnational system, questions still awaiting academic explanation are focused on the horizontal and vertical dynamics and mechanics of transnational “actor-ness.” These dynamics include issues relating to the self-representation of civil society actors and the empowerment of specific bodies within IGOs, such as dispute settlement bodies, regulatory networks, and secretariats. With regard to nonstate TNAs, empirical research into the politics of civil society actors is scant and often colored by normative values rather than rigorous empirical analysis. Coupled with these open questions, the rise of TNAs in numbers and complexity will thus continue to reshape global politics and occupy scholars for decades to come.

Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies. A research consortium of Berlin’s universities.

King’s College London Dickson Poon Transnational Law Institute. An interdisciplinary research and teaching institute uniquely focusing on transnational and comparative law.

Syracuse University Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs Transnational NGO Initiative. An initiative focusing on the effectiveness of transnational NGOs as well as to our understanding of TNGOs as significant players in global affairs.

Transnational Institute: A Worldwide Fellowship of Scholar Activists. A critical research and advocacy group devoted to building a just and democratic world.

Union of International Associations. A comprehensive listing and description of most kinds of TNAs, their aims, status, and organization.

University of Amsterdam Centre for the Politics of Transnational Law. A multidisciplinary academic research center that focuses on law and politics in a globalizing world.

University of Warwick Center for the Study of Globalization and Regionalization. A University-based scholarly site for the exploration of globalizing processes, with a variety of working papers.


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