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Critiques of Transnationalism

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The changes in international politics and economy brought about by the advent of globalization in the 1990s have led to significant theoretical re-consideration of certain issues in the field of International Relations theory. In particular, the uncritically received notions of the exceptional role of a nation-state were substituted with increased attention to a growing prominence of transnational actors. This category may include international financial institutions, transnational banks and corporations, and other actors that asserted themselves in the course of globalization (Genest 154).

Transnationalism, as proffered by Keohane and Nye, proceeds from an assumption that globalization led to decrease in importance of “high politics”, exemplified by the 20th century inter-state rivalries. Instead, the “low politics” of transnational economic growth and development became a chief factor of the new system of international relations (Keohane and Nye 23). Therefore, a state of “complex interdependence” resulting from globalization would lessen chances for armed confrontation among individual nation-states (Genest 163).

However, this approach was in turn subjected to a range of criticism – both from the supporters of neo-Realist orthodoxy and the proponents of unorthodox, or ‘critical’, theories of international relations.  As for the former, Kenneth Waltz suggested that the partisans of ‘complex interdependence’ had underestimated a fundamentally asymmetrical nature of international system. This meant that even in the absence of direct confrontation and the prevalence of ‘economized’ criteria of power politics, a structural inequality of states would still re-assert itself (Waltz 695).

On the other hand, the critical theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein focused on the spatial distribution of power and resources in the international system. Contrary to interdependence liberals, Wallerstein concluded that the situation of interdependence has always been present in modern international relations. Since the very inception of capitalism, the globalized world-system was characterized by the dominance of external economic links, which served as the main form of networking information, resources and power across the world. However, Wallerstein believes that such interrelationships are hierarchical rather than interdependent, with the core countries of capitalist world-economy profiting from uneven development of the system’s periphery (Genest 195).

In my opinion, both lines of criticism leveled against Transnationalism are fundamentally correct. However, the one offered by Wallerstein and other world-systems theorists seems to be more compelling, as it takes into account arrangements and institutions of the historically specific world-economy. In contrast, the argument by Waltz and his followers proceeds from a metaphysical assumption on an inherently competitive motivation of international actors, which cannot be empirically verified or disproved

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