Thinking about Non-State Actors, part 1

This will likely (hopefully) be the first of at least a couple of light ruminations on non-state actors (NSAs) on the global political stage.

As anyone who has read, followed, or participated in various aspects of international relations, international security, or globalization studies knows, NSAs have for decades been regularly, and increasingly, cited as important political actors at the regional and global levels. Academic, government, and mainstream media reports all carry the prominent signs of the belief that NSAs are increasingly relevant actors that need to be taken seriously as spoilers, antagonists, and partners.  One of the most recent assertions comes from the Atlantic Council’s report on Dynamic Stability, in which the authors recommend that the US government should focus on more coalition building with NSAs as key partners in those networks.

While NSAs have clearly gained in importance, there remains debate about the extent of their importance on the global stage.  These debates keep returning me to the question of how we think about NSAs and how we should think about their role, now and in the future.

NSAs have of course always been defined in contrast to the nation-state, hence their label as non-state actors.  Understandable, given the state-centric political lens through which we have been taught to perceive and understand global affairs.  Yet, I have often wanted to get away from defining all other politically-relevant actors in terms of their relationship to the state.  So, I recently tried to come up with some alternative taxonomies and typologies, but had what I admit was very limited success.

I did, however, come up with a tentative typology of politically-relevant actors.  They are largely defined in relation to the state, but the types attempt to highlight other meaningful characteristics that in part define why these classes of actors represent threats and opportunities for traditional state actors and interstate relations.

  • Multi-state actors: more commonly known as intergovernmental organizations, these are any and all organizations formed as memberships of at least three states.
  • State-regulated actors: corporate entities, both profit and nonprofit, licensed and regulated by states.
  • Self-chartered actors: formal organizations that neither need nor seek approval for their existence from a state.
  • Loosely-networked actors: informal organizations or networks with mutable and transitory agendas.
  • Emergent networked actors: informal organizations that emerge in an ad hoc or spontaneous fashion.
  • Individual actors: individuals, acting primarily outside of or without the support of either informal networks or formal organizations.

Again, it’s just an initial list, but I think it starts to capture some of the range of what we see out there in the world today.  Ultimately, we want to create typologies that provide some sort of analytic value, that add to people’s understanding and enable them to make more informed and insightful decisions.

Dynamic Stability: US Strategy for a World in Transition


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