International Organized Crime Affects State Authority. Reason Enough for War?

Essay, 2006

7 Seiten, Note: 1,0

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International Organized Crime Affects State Authority. Reason Enough for War?

In this essay I will try to outline the connection between the “long term decline of state authority” stated by Susan Strange and others and the contention that transnational organised crime be at the root of this development. Finally, I will examine critically Moisén Naím's ideas on how to solve the issues at hand.

Susan Strange contends in her article “Retreat of the State” that classical scholarship on International Relations is turning a blind eye towards what she calls the “long term secular decline of authority” of the hitherto unquestioned principal actor of international relations: the state in its post-Westphalian incarnation of a modern nation-state endorsed with the monopoly on physical violence. In her view, impersonal world markets are – due to the rapid pace of technological change witnessed in the 20th century – now more powerful than states, which have turned to compete for allies among the most important actors on world markets: Multi-National Corporations (MNCs). Since high-tech products need high capital inputs, capital is what states compete for. The integration of national economies into one world economy actually deprives states of the power they once possessed to steer the lives of people.

Robert Kaplan pounds on a similar theme, though rather more alarmingly. He sees the “events of the next fifty years” determined by “environmental scarcity, cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny, and the transformation of war”. His approach is that of a geographically schooled journalist. Knowing that resources are scarce – and scarcest, where they are needed most – he sees types of conflict looming that simply do not care any more about state borders. “Frontier”, he says, “is itself a modern concept ... that didn't exist [before the modern nation-state]”. In his vision, the world will come to be divided even more sharply in two than it is today: On the one hand, the pacific rim, parts of Europe and the United States – especially their urban areas – will live in relative affluence and peace secured by tight controls of who may and who may not partake; while on the other, the large majority of mankind will drown in low-intensity, high-risk conflicts, dye in diseases or be swept away by rising sea levels. Talking of retreat in the light of these developments would – if Kaplan were asked – be severe understatement.

How does transnational organized crime fit into this picture? For Richard Friman and Peter Andreas, the “illicit global economy” – which is their term for an alleged global system of criminal transactions – is a source of conflict between nation-states, state agents, non-state entities and international organizations. The dynamics of globalization that propel economic growth, technological progress, trade and migration across the world also help those organizations that reap profits from trading in criminalized commodities such as recreational drugs or migrant labour. However, those same organizations, by virtue of their secrecy and their violence, do pose another serious threat to the authority of states. Crime groups can engage in what they call “turf wars” over territorial control over illicit business, thereby eroding citizen's confidence in the protective power of the state. In some cases, the non-state actors (i.e. the Mafia) can even displace the state with respect to the function of providing protection. In this case, criminal associations assume state functions – up to the point of “employing the typical tools which characterize public intervention in the economy, from levying taxes ... to provision of public goods”. Thus transnational organized crime appears to actually challenge state authority in many ways.

It is important, however, to take into account the fact that it is actually the state that provides the conditions for organised crime to blossom: Were it not for the criminalization of criminalized commodities, there would be no market for illicit goods. Without illicit goods, there is no need to manage the risk, as Phil Williams puts it, of being caught. Risk management for criminal organizations, according to Williams, involves threatening, corruption, and violence. Hence we find a paradox here: Demand for state-criminalized goods produces state-threatening actors. Viewed in this light, the argument put forward by Friman and Andreas that market criminalization is a sign for a reassertion of state power does seem absurd. Susan Strange and Letizia Paoli add another, similar paradox to the picture: Drug trade is criminalized and strictly penalized in many states, whereas the proceeds of drug trade can be laundered in a grey area of jurisdiction that makes it in many cases not strictly illegal. Is transnational organized crime actually a homegrown menace?

At this point, I believe it is necessary to depart from the notion that all states in the world can be viewed with the same pair of spectacles. Friman and Andreas note that “the authority to make rules differs from the authority to enforce them”. This is especially true when looking at weak states, who are often forced to implement legislation (i.e. market criminalization) they cannot actually enforce. This is the kind of gap in which transnational organized crime strives. Weak states are also the focus of Williams, who takes a closer look at the capacity gaps which evolve when a state cannot fulfil its basic functions: Ineffective criminal justice systems, lack of provisions for citizens, regulatory framework, control and transparency, legitimacy, weak border controls all provide “functional holes” for organized crime to thrive in. However: This kind of capacity gap appears above all in weak states – States that suffer from severe economic underdevelopment, ethnic or social tensions, ineffective bureaucracies – mostly postcolonial third-world countries or countries affected by a transition from communism. Developed countries offer fewer such gaps, and thus fewer opportunities for criminal organizations to take hold.

So in less developed countries, transnational organized crime is not only likely to take hold, but also possibly in a position to serve as a substitute for state authority. Coupling this with the thought of group identities that don't respect borders put forward by Kaplan, one can easily imagine the world outside the OECD countries (and possibly even inside) suffering from periodical turf-war for protection or territorial power of ethnic groups. The image he poses of a two-tier world society which could be portrayed only as a chaotic, ever-moving hologram becomes actually plausible. There is a “political crack-up” happening, and transnational organized crime does play a role.

What could be a political answer to these kinds of developments? Moisén Naím suggests to understand the struggle for social well-being across the globe (which is globalization's promise, remember?) as a five-fold war: War against drugs, money laundering, “alien smuggling” (a derogatory term he applies for criminalized migration), against intellectual property theft and arms traficking. According to him, these five issue areas have common characteristics – not being bound by geography, defying traditional notions of sovereignty, pitting governments against market forces and networks. Thus, the intellectual response ought to be adequate (the same way military response is adequate?): “Develop more flexible notions of sovereignty, strengthen existing multilateral institutions, devise new mechanisms and institutions and move from repression to regulation”. However, there is one more transnational phenomenon to which all four characteristics apply – transnational licit business, which, as Susan Strange argues, is the strongest driving force that makes states lose authority. Besides: Naím's seamless narrative puts five very different issue areas into the same vein. The most telling of these is the inclusion of intellectual property theft in transnational organised crime: While on the surface it seems like his interest is fighting five phenomena, under the surface there is an iceberg of vested interests all too visible. It is commonly agreed that neo-liberal globalization tends to exacerbate the gap between haves and have-nots, and that that difference aids international organized crime on various levels, most notably recruitment. Now three of the four suggestions Naím makes in order to fight transnational crime aim at fortifying institutions that rather widen the gap:

1 “Develop more flexible notions of sovereignty”: More flexible in this case means less sovereignty for less powerful states – even in his example it's U.S. planes monitoring drug traficking routes in Venezuela. Extending that kind of thought further, we're at U.S. planes bombing the hell out of poppy farmers in Afghanistan.
2 “Strengthen existing multilateral institutions”: Naíms example are Interpol and Europol, two minuscule bureaucracies for multilateral law enforcement. However, the advice he gives would also apply to the Bretton Woods institutions whose blind enforcement of the Washington consensus made farmers plant cash crops (often enough: drugs) in the first place.
3 “Devise new mechanisms and institutions”: Here things get outright scary. Naím is proposing not one, but five wars, and now asks for rethinking the geographical notion of “front”? Well then: Be front where killing people is wanted. In the same line goes the argument about redefining a “combatant” according to the Geneva Convention: Naím actually wants to detain and torture people, I get from recent events and disputes on similar issues.
4 “Move from representation to regulation”: This is the only point that makes limited sense to me. If large profits are reaped from traficking certain goods because they're illegal, it makes sense to regulate and internalize that kind of business for states. A good example would be medically supervised programmes of controlled dispensing of clean heroine to addicts.

Waging more war on already violent issues might be an “adequate response” - but won't solve the problems. If we are about solving, we will have to look at the structural and ideological foundations of state authority decline, and we will have to look at ways to make transnational organised crime unprofitable. By raising the stakes, the profits rise, too – probably at the expense of human lives.


Andreas, P. (2002): Transnational Crime and Economic Globalization. Transnational Crime and International Security: Business as Usual. M. Berdal and M. Serrano. Boulder, Lynne Rienner: 37-52.

Serrano, M. (2002): Transnational Organized Crime and International Security: Business as Usual? Transnational Crime and International Security: Business as Usual. M. Berdal and M. Serrano. Boulder, Lynne Rienner: 13-35.

Shelley, L., J. Picarelly, et al. (2003): Global Crime Inc. Beyond Sovereignty: Issues for a Global Agenda. M.C. Love. Mason, Thompson: 143-166.

Naylor, R. T. (2004): Wages of Crime. Black Markets, Illegal Finance, and the Underworld Economy. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, chapter 1.

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International Organized Crime Affects State Authority. Reason Enough for War?
Universität Potsdam
The Dark Side Of Globalization
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International, Organized, Crime, Affects, State, Authority, Reason, Enough, Dark, Side, Globalization
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Martin Meyerhoff (Autor), 2006, International Organized Crime Affects State Authority. Reason Enough for War?, München, GRIN Verlag,


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