“The end of the Cold War, economic globalization, and the windstorm of technological innovation have all contributed to the new world of diplomacy. But you, as representatives of several hundred non-governmental organizations (NGOs) here today, are one of the chief agents of the sea of change taking place in foreign affairs. NGOs, international organizations, public interest groups, multinational corporations, educational and cultural organizations, and other so-called “non-state actors” — all were once on the periphery of what has been called traditional diplomacy; no longer. Whether worldwide relief operations, human rights, landmines, climate change and biodiversity, infectious disease and HIV/ AIDS, trade reform and antipoverty programs, the NGO community has fundamentally altered the rules of international engagement.”
Thomas R. Pickering, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Remarks, at the National Foreign Policy Conference For Leaders of Non-Governmental Organizations U.S. Department of State, May 19, 2000 The reason I chose to start with this quote is because it captures, perfectly, the escalating importance of non-state actors in international relations and diplomacy. The world today is different from how it was pre-20th Century, whereby states were the main and only actors in world politics, hence diplomacy was constricted to a narrow sphere, catered specifically to the advancement of states’ personal interests. The most important issues on the agenda of this traditional diplomacy were those of war and peace, and issues related to the acquisition of territory or thrones.
Role Of Non State Actors
After World War One, when the European ‘century of peace’ came to a shattering end, international diplomacy began to shift from its bilateral structure to a more multilateral one, consequently yielding much more specialized agendas than before. This type of diplomacy, or ‘new diplomacy’, involved less secrecy than traditional diplomacy, and introduced a specific international organization which would serve as on official forum for diplomacy. After World War One, the League of Nations assumed this role.
However, its effectiveness was extremely undermined with the outbreak of World War Two, a proof of its failed attempt to settle disputes in a peaceful manner, and to deter another world war by setting up a Wilsonian view of collective security. The League of Nations was eventually replaced by the UN, after World War Two; a second attempt to avert the catastrophic consequences of war. However, the UN lost much of its diplomatic potential with the beginning of the Cold War, which spanned over 40 years, and thwarted any collective agreements on peace and security.
International diplomacy was, in effect, bilateral, with talks only being engaged by the two major superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. This Cold War diplomacy was fixated on one object: the necessity of averting a nuclear war. Due to the risky nature of this diplomacy, another one of its objectives was crises management, like in the settling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Today, after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War, the world has undergone radical changes in every domain, be it political, economical, or social. Diplomacy is not confined to the level of states, nor is it associated with two superpowers (though some argue today that current diplomacy is distorted to accommodate the U.S.’s interests). It has taken on a global scope, with functions more diversified and specialized than ever.
No more can we talk of international diplomacy without the mention of transnational corporations, non-governmental organizations, and other non-state actors. This view is heralded by the pluralists who view that all types of actors can affect political outcomes. Even the state-oriented realists admit that certain non-state actors have come to play a noteworthy role in international relations. However, they restrict the non-state actors’ role to Low Politics, of economics, social issues, and human rights, and argue that it is only the states themselves that can determine High Politics of peace and security.
Contradictory to this realist proposition, there have been many incidences where the non-state actors themselves have had more political command than individual governments. They have the power to “make or break” a country. This was the case in Indonesia for example, in early 1998, where transnational corporations helped trigger the uprising that ousted President Suharto from power by undercutting the Indonesian currency and markets- to an extent that the Indonesian public and army lost all confidence in his leadership. In essence, the transnational corporations have taken on such importance that they often form the backbone of the individual economies, especially in an era of globalization and increased interconnectivity and interdependence.
Because these corporations are based in many countries, it is difficult, almost impossible to reduce them down to one specific country. They are global in nature, and care to maximize their profits by minimizing taxes by setting transfer prices, and avoid abiding by government policies by arbitrage and triangulation of trade. The sheer enormity of these firms is evident from the World Bank’s report that the share of total world output by the local affiliated factories of multinational corporations has gone from 4.5 % of world Gross Domestic Product in 1970 to double that amount today! In fact, the 50 largest transnational industrial companies have an annual sales revenue greater than the GNP of 132 members of the United Nations.1
With increased diplomatic attention on social and welfare issues, NGO’s have also gained considerable power in world politics. Whereas the TNC’s gain influence by controlling economic resources, the NGO’s gain influence by taking advantage of improved communications that make it very simple and cheap for them to acquire transnational roles. NGOs can speak to – and speak for – the poor, the disenfranchised, the minorities and others in society to make sure that the needs and desires of the people are heard and responded to by development institutions on a national and international level.
NGOs also serve an important role as “watchdogs” – pointing out where governments and corporations need to improve their performance, and serving to enforce the operation of checks and balances that characterize democratic society. However, NGOs need support to do their work.2 That is why most of the time, they are compelled to work in coordination with governments, and have less leverage than the economic oriented TNC’s. Nevertheless, true to the pluralist view, the NGO’s themselves along with other environmental movements have been responsible for shifting the insular view of development as increasing a country’s Gross National Product, to include providing for people’s needs and using resources in a sustainable way.
Even other non-sate actors such as liberalist movements and guerilla groups have succeeded in gaining official diplomatic recognition. The Palestine Liberation Organization and the South West African People’s Organization are two groups that were allowed membership in the Group of 77 in the 1970’s, as well as observer status in the UN General assembly. In short, even though the power of non-state actors relative to states themselves remains contestable, the fact that they play momentous roles in international diplomacy is a reality necessarily associated with the advent of globalization, and the global economic interdependence as well as the facilitated modes of communication it brings with it.
1. Baylis and Smith, Chapters 15 and 17, pp.316-330 and pp. 356-381.
2. The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman
3. Four Variations on the theme of Diplomacy, http://www.scoop.co.nz/mason/stories/WO0005/S00121.htm
4. Role of NGO’s in international development, http://www.hyogo-ip.or.jp/hiaf/eg/comehia/200012/