Is the Threat of a “Mafia State” Real?

Earlier this spring, Moisés Naím provocatively warned against an emerging menace facing our world today—the advent of what he terms the “mafia state.” Analyzing the role of transnational organized crime in the age of globalization has been Naím’s bailiwick for some years now, and familiar readers will find little that catches them off-guard. Still, his argument that illicit actors have penetrated national governments with unprecedented success in recent years should be enough for policymakers to take notice. Naím doesn’t mince words about what’s at stake. “In a mafia state, high government officials actually become integral players in, if not the leaders of, criminal enterprises, and the defense and promotion of those enterprises’ businesses become official priorities.”

The new issue of Foreign Affairs—out this week—features a brief response to Naím’s “Mafia States” article by Peter Andreas, a political scientist at Brown University. Rejecting outright the claim that mafia states constitute a “new threat” to international relations, Andreas piles on evidence to suggest quite the contrary. From Latin America to the Balkans, and including even the prohibition-era United States, Andreas convincingly makes the case that the intersection between state power and illicit actors is as old as the modern nation-state itself. Not only that, Andreas contends, the very idea of a mafia state is itself “misleading, and applied so erratically as to become nearly meaningless,” a barb which prompted Naím to issue his own acerbic attack in response.

This exchange of intellectual artillery fire, while impressive to a point, does little to move the discussion forward, however. From a policy point of view, it doesn’t really matter if the relationship between government officials and illicit actors is new or old. Nor does it make a difference if the scope and scale of transnational organized crime has increased (which should be the logically expected outcome in an age of expanding market opportunities). Effective response to the threat of transnational crime will rely not so much on the “what” of the phenomenon, but on the “how.” And here we see the value of Naím’s back-and-forth with Andreas: namely, that it points to a crucial area of weakness in the study of international relations.

If international relations (IR) scholarship is to advance policymakers’ understanding of transnational organized crime and its role with respect to state power—and therefore by extension, the best ways to militate against illicit power corrupting the national interests of states—new theoretical frameworks are needed. To each of their credit, both writers implicitly acknowledge this—first in Naím’s introduction of a new conceptual category, the “mafia state,” and then in Andreas’ rejection of it as being fuzzy and unserviceable. But the trouble here is that slap-boxing bouts of this variety simply rehash fights over the nature of states that consumed IR study twenty-five years ago. They fail to innovate.

This doesn’t mean scholars need to start from scratch. If anything, students of international relations should continue building on the cutting-edge theoretical work produced over the past decade or so, and look where possible to integrate findings from other fields of political science, sociology and criminology research (something, it should be said, Andreas has done to great profit in his academic work). Happily, political scientists and others have crafted a wide variety of analytical tools with which to understand the world of international politics. It’s time to be smarter and more deliberate in applying them to the threat of transnational organized crime.

One possible route into rethinking the relationship between state actors and their illicit counterparts might be found in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s idea of the disaggregated state. In this view of the world, states comprise various strands of agencies, actors, and other constituent parts which increasingly network with other actors—state and non-state—across and within borders. Shifting perspective from Naím’s monolithic “mafia state,” Slaughter’s model allows for greater precision in homing-in on which “functionally distinct” parts of the state have been colonized by criminal elements, asking questions of how they were penetrated, and understanding their place within the larger power configuration of the government in question. From this perch, scholars and policymakers would get a much clearer sense of how illicit elements use the disaggregated nature of states to their advantage, and what remedies would be most effective in rolling it back.

At a remove from the inner-machinery of state power, but equally important, scholars should also be asking questions about the institutional arrangements that give shape to countries under consideration. All too often, we’ve allowed ourselves to chalk up pathological phenomena in world politics to the pernicious effects of state failure, itself a fuzzy conceptual silo that excuses serious analysis of social dysfunction. But the focus on failed states does possess the virtue of emphasizing the importance of state institutions in determining outcomes witnessed in the global arena. It’s long been recognized, for example, that the institutional arrangement of state power has direct consequences for where multinational corporations seek to do business and where they enjoy the greatest success. Similar studies could be meaningfully undertaken to assess the extent to which the institutional architecture of different states affects the thinking and success of transnational criminal actors, not to mention the efficacy of international efforts at proscribing illicit commerce. And to be sure, there are undoubtedly many other approaches that will offer equally important insights.

What won’t suffice is more of the same. While Naím’s efforts at raising the profile of international crime in the minds of policymakers are commendable, Andreas is right to point out that he has essentially repackaged old wine in new caskets. If practitioners are to get serious, as Naím suggests they should, about confronting the challenges illicit actors pose to human and international security, they’ll need a more richly textured appreciation of the threats they face. The only way they’ll get it is if academics continue refining the production of knowledge and exploring the new frontiers of social science.