The study of networks and its widening influence on international relations and global governance has grown incrementally over the past two decades. This as a result, out of an area of research that began, somewhat sceptically, to critically engage the ever evolving concept of the “state” within a 21st century context.
Although defined differently depending on context, the concept of networks may be understood universally as an informal institution that links actors across national boundaries, as well as carrying on various aspects of global governance in new and informal ways.
Within their trans-governmental form, these networks exhibit patterns of regular and purposive relations among similar government units which work across the borders that divide countries from one another and that demarcate the “domestic” from the “international” sphere. They also allow domestic officials to interact with their foreign counterparts directly, without much supervision by foreign offices or missions as well as senior executive branch officials, and feature loosely structured, peer-to-peer ties developed through frequent interaction rather than formal negotiation.
In addition, networks exhibit low-key characteristics of informal collaboration. They also, critically, demonstrate a compliance or inertial propensity as the network develops and grows. The existence of networks strengthens incentives to seek convergence because convergence allows for deeper and broader cooperation. As networks have grown in size, complexity and importance as well as taking on increasingly more important tasks, their aspect has changed, and in many cases they have become more formal.
The importance of networks has become increasingly crucial as the balance of global power and influence has also undergone a metamorphosis over the last two decades. As the world emerged from a bi-polar world order — characterised by the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s — a multi-polar order of shared dominance has come to fruition as we have entered the 21st century. Multi-polarity simply means multiple poles — or centres of power — distributed widely and more equitably across global states, with no single pole inordinately dominating the other. This shift in global power and dominance has inextricably transformed the conditions for the organisation of effective and legitimate governance within the framework of an international system.
Operating within the same context of moving from a bi-polar to multi-polar world has been the emergence of globalisation, which has resulted in the widening, deepening and speeding up of global interconnectedness that has predominantly been observed over the past 20 years.
It is within this context that networks comport with critical intuitions about how the notion of globalisation really works within a networked framework. The two most important implications of the fit between networks and globalisation are particularly worth noting. First, thinking about globalisation from a disaggregated, networked perspective challenges claims about homogenisation and centralisation of power and allows for at least the possibility of continuing diversity in implementing common standards. Secondly, where traditional power relations continue to operate, as they surely must, they must now operate in a networked rather than a centralised context.
Globalisation is often characterised as a process of acceleration, driven by dynamic technological change. As an example, the near complete integration and 24-hour operation of global financial markets and the media, severely constrains the time frame available to public policy makers for weighing options and preparing informed decisions.
The continued and rapid development and innovations of the information revolution and information communications technologies also potentially provides the architecture within which the concept of networks can continue to become more influential and important within a globalised and multi-polar existence.
Existing network literature continually emphasises how the revolution in communication has enlarged the promise and even the possibility of networks. Modern communications systems mean that national and even sub-national decision makers now have the ability to interact horizontally with officials in other countries if they so require. In addition, the growth of the internet has also publicised trans-governmental networks. They have become more real to their participants and the broader public, by becoming virtual, leading to greater accessibility to more people around the world.
The challenge for global governance and international relations generally is not simply to design multiple institutions to meet multiple challenges. Instead, to also determine how they can best fit together. Where trans-governmental networks best potentially fit into this multi-polar framework, and how they can best be deployed to strengthen or replace inter-governmental institutions will continue to be an interesting area of knowledge and development as we move through the 21st century.