Patricia Clavin emphasizes that transnational history allows us t0 explore the history of supra-, trans-, and international institutions. She often references the League of Nations, as well as the United Nations, as heretofore unexplored nexuses for transnational history. However, it is also important to note that often, a central part of defining transnational history is that it rejects the nation-state as the primary category of inquiry, and in this way provides a break with previous historical analysis. The definition by Nye and Keohane of transnational history that Clavin cites explicitly excludes interactions where national governments are a party from the scope of transnational historical analysis. My question, however, is: can we look at national governments as transnationl ‘institutions’, in Clavin’s words, and analyse domestic government policy that could have possible transnational impacts as a part of our analysis?

Think of domestic government policy, around, say, illegal drugs. Historically the United States has taken a strong stand against the use and trafficking of illegal drugs, much of which comes into the country moving north across the US-Mexico border, despite the country creating one of the largest markets for illegal drugs in the world. It would be interesting to look at the networks which the sheer demand for narcotics create as they’re trafficked through South and Central America and the black market economy created by the trafficking of narcotics. One could also look at the foreign investigations of the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is responsible for investigations into drug trafficking in different countries, and often steps into diplomatic hot water in its interactions with various South American governments. Historically, one could also investigate the intersection between American involvement in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan in relation to American drug policy, given that these areas heavily involved in drug production and trade. Even the history of drug use in the United States is focused on othering and criminalizing non-white and immigrant American drug users – Chinese immigrants using opium on the West Coast, or Mexican workers using marijuana. The United States’ no-tolerance drug policy has an impact on transnational networks around the trading of illegal drugs, both within and without American borders, and perhaps future historians might look at the impact that the legalization of marijuana and other recreational drugs might have on drug trading networks.

There are many ways that domestic policies can affect transnational networks. Immigration might be another one, where less or more favourable immigration policies might affect ethnic communities; financial and manufacturing regulations might affect the ways that capital and products flow (or don’t flow) across international borders; government surveillance, perhaps with the aim of preventing terrorism, might also involve domestically ordered surveillance working covertly around the world. I think that while it is important to look carefully at the history of transnational institutions, we should also look carefully at the impact that domestic policies that can have on transnational networks.


Clavin, Patricia, ‘Time, Manner, Place: Writing Modern European History in Global, Transnational and International Contexts’, European History Quarterly 40/4 (2010), 624-640

Clavin, Patricia, ‘Defining Transnationalism’, Contemporary European History 14/4 (2005), 421-439

The interest in narcotics trafficking was inspired by a recent viewing of Eugene Jarecki’s 2012 documentary film The House I Live In.


National governments as institutions in the study of transnational history
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