Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Law and world order

Janice Bially Mattern studies how the world should respond to transnational criminal organizations.

When Janice Bially Mattern looks at a map of the world, she doesn't see clusters of nation-states occupying their corner of the globe. She sees instead networks that span nations and traverse political norms, such as drug traffickers, sex slave traders, money launderers, and illegal immigrant smugglers.

She also sees the potential to re-articulate global political space as these criminal networks evolve beyond function into political communities designed to advance a collective vision.

"I'm interested in the way that world politics is organized," says Bially Mattern, an assistant professor of international relations at Lehigh. "The historical view has been that the world is carved up into nation-states and that's that. It's almost a prism we can't see beyond."

It's not a view shared by Bially Mattern, who began studying political science and international relations while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and later, as a graduate student at Yale, where she earned her M.A., her M.Phil., and her Ph.D., which was awarded with distinction in December 1998.

Since then, she has authored the upcoming book Ordering International Politics: Identity, Crisis and Representational Force, co-authored Measuring National Power in a Post-Industrial Age, and has begun research on a third book that will focus on transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).

"My research hasn't been completed yet and the book is still in its formative stages, but the topic of transnational criminal organizations is one that tends to catch people's attention," Bially Mattern says.

Her research has taken her to Italy, the Netherlands, Ecuador, and Russia, and has led her to conclude that the conventional notion of boundaries and containment is outdated and must be revised to creatively anticipate contemporary threats.

"Globalization has changed the ability of the nation-state to properly and efficiently control activities within its boundaries," she says. "For example, it's not always possible to track money because it can flow through cyberspace. Our nation-states are leaky, our boundaries are leaky."

What intrigues her about this development, she says, are the new forms of political community that are emerging and the potential for these communities or networks to alter the future of world order.

She cites the example of the transnational cocaine trafficking organization forged among the Cali and Medellin cartels in Columbia and various Mexican criminal groups in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana to provide illegal drugs throughout the U.S. and Europe. Observers viewed the operation as purely economic, a lucrative manifestation of supply and demand.

"And then, starting in 1996 or so, out of nowhere, this group began offering economically costly logistical backing to the ETA group of Basque separatists in Spain," Bially Mattern says. "Clearly, something had changed in the nature of the Colombian-Mexican transnational criminal organization. The criminals in it stopped seeing themselves as engaged in strictly economic collaboration."

She theorizes that members of this network began to see each other as more than illicit profit seekers; they also evolved into a political community with shared goals.

"In other words, they vested their leadership the authority to plan and engage in not just illicit economic operations but also activities that pursue the network's shared normative convictions."

The question is how can law enforcement officials, national security analysts, or public policy experts deal with such transnational crime networks?

"The conventional thinking, as exemplified by the war on drugs, has been to deal with transnational crime by trying to eliminate supply and demand -- to shut down black markets. The idea has been that if we do that, we crush the network," she says. "But what if the members of the networks bond or identify with one another for a purpose that is not strictly economic? If that's the case, the old method won't work."

As a theorist, Bially Mattern says she "isn't stumping for public policy," but recognizes that research can have implications for policy- makers, as well as other scholars.

"An illicit TCO that develops into a political community is a much bigger threat to the world order than a TCO that isn't a political community," she says. "And the more transnational criminal networks get internally organized, the more they're going to start to look like political communities. So far, we don't have any research that even addresses this possibility because we are so blinded by the idea that these groups are economic actors.

"We need to make sure we understand these networks properly," she adds, "so we can develop effective policies -- policies that actually address the problem we are facing."

--Linda Harbrecht

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Winter 2005

Posted on Friday, January 21, 2005

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