Are non-state actors still good predictors of foreign policy making?

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Intelligence and Security, Terrorism, Organized Crime & Security

By Niko Costantino, Senior Researcher KEDISA


With the end of Cold War, also ended an era when foreign policy making had been polarised in the state as the unique actor. The effects of this end resulted in the emergence of multilateralism as the approach to international relations most widely adopted. International cooperation became valued as the only way to guarantee a peaceful and prosper world. The traditional nation-state with its total and arbitrary control of foreign policy became obsolete, and the concept that the shared interests of all the world were the path to be pursued became the guideline for the future of international relations. Such new environment also contributed to the wide spread of globalisation. As globalisation spread and cooperation was being given new value, foreign policy making saw the rise of new players in the international scene, united under the denomination of ‘non-state actors’, namely all actors that were not part of an institution but, as a consequence of multilateralism, were increasingly gaining the power to influence and condition foreign policy making of the states. Non-state actors are all groups of people and organisations that do not belong to any governmental institution. Despite not being part of institutions, though, they have sufficient power to influence decisions within them, and nowadays have the capability to exert enormous pressure on states’ decisions, equally in the economic as in the political sphere, both at national and at the international level. According to Pearlman and Cunningham, a non-state actor is ‘an organized political actor not connected to the state but pursuing aims that affect vital state interests’.

Non-state actors have long existed throughout history, to then be eclipsed by the Westphalian state in the second half of the twentieth century, which saw an exponential growth in both the types of non-state actors and their participation to the international life.

The emergence of non-state actors as a prominent actor in foreign policy making was due to some major conjunctures in international politics.

Throughout the twentieth century, the disastrous outcomes of the two total wars, renewed by the avoided disaster of the Cold War and Cuban missile crisis produced a serious awareness that the world needed to cooperate to preserve peace. And it was after the end of the Cold War that multilateralism and multi-field cooperation started to be cherished with zeal. This new atmosphere gradually gave birth to an increasing number of international institutions, while nations started to abandon their inborn realist attitudes to join forces in every field, from education to energy, to economy. This dynamic was the overall starting point that resulted in the globalised world we know today.

As Cerny argues, we may see this change as a shift of target in the states’ rationality, namely from raison d’État to raison du monde, from the primacy of the state’s interests – supported by the realist school – to the pursuit of the world’s interest in the positivistic view of cooperation as the chief way to peace and prosperity – which is supported by the more recent liberalist and constructivist approaches.

But can we categorise non-state actors? Although with certain debate, there is a mostly univocal classification of what categories are to be defined as non-state actors. This comes with the exception of the UN system, which is sometimes included and sometimes not. I will not include governmental organisations such as UN, because they are – precisely – governmental, that is, state-participated and, to an extent, state-ruled. The Cotonou agreement (2000), a development cooperation treaty between the European Union and ACP countries (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific), recognises non-state actors as:

  • The private sector
  • Economic and social partners, including trade union organisations
  • Civil society in all its forms according to national characteristics

It then adds that ‘recognition by the parties of non-State actors shall depend on the extent to which they address the needs of the population, on their specific competencies and whether they are organised and managed democratically and transparently’. On a broader consideration, this implies that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ non-state actors, namely ones that work in cooperation with the system in force, and others that try to sabotage it.

Specifying these instances, we can qualify as non-state actors in foreign policy the following:

  • Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)
  • Multinational corporations
  • International Μedia
  • Violent actors
  • Religious groups
  • International diasporas

Over the last decades, multilateralism had been enjoying the utmost support across the developed countries. This has come to be not entirely true today, as demonstrate the protectionist and unilateralist tendencies that, lastly, have spread also in the developed economies. On the other hand, non-state actors have been multiplying and so have their efforts to condition foreign policy making. Over the last 60 years, for example, the number of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) has been rising from some 5’000 to over 25’000 worldwide. Still, the disregard of the multilateral practices is not something new. However, it is over the last few years that unilateralist and protectionist instances have come out of the closet and spread in the discourses of mainstream politics, in the most undiplomatic fashions. Pages could be written discoursing on the real nature of multilateralism and if it ever existed, in practice. However, what is relevant, is that there is being an increase of unilateral practices across the world.

Overall, the multilateralist dynamics are is still in positive, as demonstrate the still relevant role of the UN system or world institutions such as the International Court of Justice to global policy making. However, it has been argued (Chesterman, 2003, Gardiner, 2007, Doyle & Samanis, 2006) that the international system has proved ineffectiveness, as well as being losing its appeal.

The latest massive revival of protectionist and unilateralist discourses and policies in key countries in America and Europe, is arguably putting at stake the future of multilateralism. If multilateralism, the involvement of state and non-state actors in global policy making, so comes down, so does the effectiveness of non-state actors such as (I)NGOs to impactfully advocate the interest group they represent – through legitimate means – and see them reflected in governmental foreign policies.

So, where do non-state actors stand in this changing, less unilateralism-leaning world of today? The present precarious situation reflects in also the fall-off of ‘good’ non-state actors’ ability to condition foreign policy, being less nations sensitive to the appeals of non-state actors as groups representing persons with a shared interest. At the same time, ‘bad’, non-recognised actors such as violent groups remain substantially untouched by the decline of multilateral trends (if not benefit from it), as they are intrinsically set in opposition to the international system. However, the means that are available today to the organisations, the immense networking and mobilisation capabilities at their disposal, leave, on one hand, room for constructive multilateral effort but, on the other hand, also for the easier taking root of destructive and disrupting plans. Our ‘liquid modernity’, as Zigmund Bauman called it, is also being reflected in the instability and growing precariousness that characterises today’s political events and, consequently, non-state actors’ roles in foreign policy making.




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