Transnational Organized Crime: An Imminent Threat to the Nation-State?

By Shelley, Louise | Journal of International Affairs, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Transnational Organized Crime: An Imminent Threat to the Nation-State?


Shelley, Louise, Journal of International Affairs


Transnational organized crime has been a serious problem for most of the 20th century, but it has only recently been recognized as a threat to the world order. This criminality undermines the integrity of individual countries, but it is not yet a threat to the nation-state. Failure to develop viable, coordinated international policies in the face of ever-growing transnational criminality, however, may undermine the nation-state in the 21st century.

The "global mafia" has been sensationalized by an international press eager for exciting copy, and intelligence organizations are assessing the dimensions of international drug trafficking.(2) Furthermore, in November 1994 the United Nations sponsored an international conference to develop strategies to combat organized crime.(3) The European Union is also taking numerous initiatives in this area. Attention to such a serious international problem is long overdue.

The seriousness of the problem lies in the complexity of these organizations and their activities, their global penetration and the threat they pose to democracy and legitimate economic development - these organizations clearly undermine the concept of the nation-state. For the purposes of this article transnational criminal organizations will be considered as organized crime groups that 1) are based in one state; 2) commit their crimes in one but usually several host countries, whose market conditions are favorable; and 3) conduct illicit activities affording low risk of apprehension.(4)

The complexity of transnational organized crime does not permit the construction of simple generalizations; there is no prototypical crime cartel. Organized crime groups engage in such widely publicized activities as drugs and arms trafficking, smuggling of automobiles and people and trafficking in stolen art. They also engage in such insidious activities as smuggling of embargoed commodities, industrial and technological espionage, financial market manipulation and the corruption and control of groups within and outside of the legal state system. Money laundering through multiple investments in banks, financial institutions and businesses around the globe has become a central and transnational feature of these groups' activities, as they need to hide ever-larger revenues.(5)

Given this level of complexity and the political dynamics of the post-Second World War period, it is hardly surprising that no comprehensive international effort against organized crime has been initiated until recently. Transnational organized crime has been problematic for the last couple of decades, but it is only since the end of the Cold War that it has been addressed by so many countries and international bodies. The recently mounted attack on transnational organized crime is, indeed, partly a consequence of the need for security bodies (such as the CIA, KGB and the Mossad) and international organizations (such as the U.N. and the Council of Europe) to develop new missions in the post-cold War era. While the world focused on such highly visible problems as the superpower conflict or regional hostilities, the increasingly pemicious and pervasive transnational crime that now threatens the economic and political stability of many nations was ignored. Long-term neglect of this problem means that the world now faces highly developed criminal organizations that undermine the rule of law, international security and the world economy and which, if they are allowed to continue unimpeded, could threaten the concept of the nation-state.

Factors in the Growth of Transnational Organized Crime

The fundamental forces underlying the growth and increasingly international character of organized crime are the technological explosion and economic boom of the post-second World War period as well as the current geopolitical situation, which has been rapidly evolving since the collapse of the socialist world. The 1960s represent the benchmark for many of the technological and economic changes affecting transnational crimes, whereas the political changes contributing to the spread of transnational crime emerged in subsequent decades. …

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