Fr. Acteur

Sp. Actor

-> Agency, association, empire, factor, nongovernmental, state, system

The environment of IR is typically described in terms of arenas and subarenas or, in other terms, factors. Within these areas and processes, there have emerged over time a variety of actors, whether conceived as units (states, inter-state organisations, and possibly nongovernmental associations and federations of such bodies, or even individuals), unformal movements or sets constituted into systems or networks.

A state system

Modern states have formal organizational structures and pursue a wide variety of interests and goals that reflect a broad spectrum of internal and external factors and influences, with the greatest range of choices at their disposal when operating in the international arena. The primacy of the state in the international system dates to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 (actually a pair of Treaties, the Treaty of Osnabrück and the Treaty of Münster, two Wesphalian cities), which brought to an end the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch and the German phase of the Thirsty Years’ War, which had diminished Germany's population by two thirds. The Spanish-Dutch treaty was signed “in the name of the most holy and individual Trinity » on January 30, 1648. The Treaty of October 24, 1648, comprehended the Holy Roman emperor Ferdinand III, the other German princes, France, and Sweden. England, Poland, Muscovy, and Turkey were the only European powers that were not represented at the two assemblies.

Today, in the absence of a world polity to impose universal rules and standards of behavior and impose and enforce order, states remain sovereign entities, free to govern affairs within their territorial borders and act in defense of their national interests. This state of affairs may include what some political scientists call “the return of empires”, referring to former empires with a nominal state structure but longing for the past. For example, the Russian state is not exempt from the sense subjugation, as it was for two and a half centuries part of the Mongol Empire, having laid claim to be the Third Rome and rule the world after the fall of Constantinople, the ‘Second Rome’ in 1453. Neither is it familiar with democracy, as its colonial subjects were forced to bear the weight of the Empire, first as serfs, then as nominally free people but without the right to land, self-government or real representation in the organs of power, until the failed attempts to bring genuine emocracy in recent times.

Another type of “return to empire” was once pleaded for by former Tony Blair's foreign policy guru Robert Cooper, who thinks that chaotic situations and failed states should be met with a new type of imperialism compatible with human rights and cosmopolitan values. He calls it “voluntary imperialism” (global economy and global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, and European enlargement), “postmodern imperialism” (protectorate policies imposed on instable neighbouring countries, as in Bosnia and Kosovo). The EU in particular is presented as a cooperative empire offering rules and norms, liberty and security, and ethnic inclusiveness as ooposed to ethnic exclusiveness of nation-states.

Obviously, even in the latter case, states are the ultimately decision makers, despite the substantial body of international law, norms, and principles they are willing to accept and the agreement to renounce the use of force in international affairs. It also reflects the persistent sense of identity people derive from their nation-state or nationality and their reluctance to accept a supranational authority. International cooperation between states, as occurs in the European Union, appears as “utopian realism”, with its all-embracing technocratic management and the absence of strong common political institutions. The relative failures to integrate in areas such as foreign policy, immigration, and internal security may imply a retreat from the prospect of a “ever-closer union” or a transition period before a two-tier EU is established, or new supranational bodies are created to control financial markets, fiscal policies or external borders.

Non-state actors

The supremacy of states has been otherwise questioned by the emergence of transnationalism, formally subdivided into three forms of interstate cooperation - supranationalism, multilateralism, and transgovernmentalism, but can also imply relationships between state and non-state actors. The latter type gave rise to the concept of transnational governance as the coordination of policy decision making or enforcement in a given issue area across national borders. Beyond and across traditional government and interstate relations, the concept of governance typically involves nonstate (nongovernmental organizations, multinational firms) and inter-state (international organizations) actors to respond to problems which cross national jurisdictions, often in the absence of meaningful involvement by national governments. True, this issue is not new, as stated by Thomas Jefferson, 3rd president of US (1801-1809): “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [the banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake-up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.” (attributed by the Associated Press, March 11, 2009) In the 20th century, this view was reflected in the quasi-religious beliefs that market forces are guided by the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith. A striking illustration of this stereotype is given by the World Business Academy, which is “not just another association of business people to exchange information and foster collegiality,” but understands that business is the dominant institution in society today and the one most capable of responding to rapid change and to disseminate business into the world to rekindle the human spirit in business: “Business has become, in this last half of century, the most powerful institution on the planet. The dominant institution in any society needs to take responsibility for the whole, as the church did in the days of the Holy Roman Empire. But business has not had such tradition. This is a new role, not yet well understood or accepted” Harmann, 2005).

In this context, the recognition of non-state actors, and the development of a more restricted civil society in democratic societies in the second half of the 20th century, have increasingly assumed transnational dimensions. These related concepts are particularly fuzzy, as they include conventional NGOs, unofficial social movements and economic agents as well as nationalist groups such as the Kurds of Iraq or Syria or non-state actors such as ISIS (which by the way take advantage of an environment of weak or failed states to claim state status), but they are widely shared among both specialists and the public. Interestingly, interventions in these cases by external states are presented as being about “saving” failing states. Both concepts are studied in different disciplines, with different approaches: sociology, political science, law, history, economics, cultural studies, anthropology, with few attempts to bring scholars to arrive at a comprehensive understanding of transnationalism. One such attempt emerged from the inter-paradigmatic debate, introducing transdisciplinary concepts such as the transnational and transcultural dimensions, while shedding new light on globalisation and its impact on political, social, or communal identities. A response was being sought to the changing pattern of power relations, toward what appears as a form of “complex" or "plural" multilateralism (O’Brien et al., 2000, Chan 2017) involving a system of governance made of a plurality of actors: not only states and inter-state organizations conventionally recognized by international law, but also networks and communities diversely formalised into civil society organizations, whether on a corporate or a non-profit basis. The “multi-stakeholder” dialogues and “multilayered identities” are some of the concepts associated with multipartite governance structures, which have arisen as a novel feature of the institutional landscape. To some extent, a coexistence has been prevailing between various paradigms, implying the common recognition that, in the debate between state-centric and transnationalist views, both the state and societies are constant references in history. While the latter proclaim the fading of the state and the emergence of a new Cosmopolis based on the setting up of universal jurisdictions, the former keeps announcing the demise of multilateral institutions and international law, retreating to a identification with the sovereign nation-state, if not with the closed community or an all-embracing “civilisation”. This paradoxical trend took an explicit turn with the transnational militancy in Seattle, Prague and Genoa around 2000, which clashed with the “emerging” powers, the terrorist attacks on various cities in the early 21rst century and various fundamentalist trends, among which the so-called Islamic State that emerged from a disintegrating Middle East.

Another aspect which has usually been ignored in IR is the role played by individuals. In the past, historical figures include celebrated women such as Boadicea, the historical queen called Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, wielding her spear against the armies of occupying Rome; the Rani of Jhansi, rousing her troops against British forces in India; Cleopatra of Egypt, Tamara of Georgia, Catherine the Great of Russia, Golda Meir, Indira Ganghi, Margaret Thatcher and other women who are not only in charge but in charge of war. The difficulties in conceptualizing the role of individual actors in world politics has been addressed by a number of researchers, such as Michel Girard (1994) and a dozen colleagues, or more recently Jacobi and Freyberg-Inan y (2015). Both argue that human beings have always been central to IR. The former reminds us of the long way from the undefined individual to the human person recognized as such, but warns againt an excessive subjectivism which would undervalue the state and other collective structures, as a result of the ascendancy of a critique of the state by idealistic of transnationalist scholars. Another argument in the latter book is that, by decentring human beings, an underdeveloped concept such as agency can be better understood ‘by moving not from human agents directly to social structure, but first of all to the social structure of agency” (326).

Top