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15.7: Non-state Actors beyond NGOs

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Discuss different types of non-state actors beyond NGOs and their purposes.
    • Discuss the role of non-state actors in international relations.
    • Explain the factors contributing to the rise of non-state actors.
    • Describe the sources of power for non-state actors.
    • Analyze the ways nontraditional non-state actors present challenges for international relations and state sovereignty.

    Non-state actors beyond NGOs, like multinational corporations, national identity groups, religious groups, and transnational organized criminal groups, present challenges and opportunities for global governance.

    Multinational Corporations

    Multinational corporations (MNCs), also known as multinational enterprises (MNEs), are companies with headquarters in one country that have operations in at least one additional country. These transnational actors influence state policy and international politics, especially in the areas of trade, workers’ rights, and the environment. Because countries rely on the money and jobs multinational corporations generate, and because MNCs possess vast resources, they exert tremendous influence on international affairs.

    Examples of MNCs

    According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), in 2006 almost 80,000 MNCs were active around the world. That number fell to 60,000 in 2018, even as the combined worth of active MNCs rose.71 MNCs account for half of global exports, nearly a third of the world’s wealth, and about a fourth of all global employment.72 Given the immense wealth and power of the largest MNCs, University of North Carolina instructor and former senior reporter for Foreign Policy David Francis has referred to them as “corporate nations.”73 Apple, for example, is wealthier than 90 percent of the world’s countries.74 The most profitable MNCs are in the tech, oil, and finance industries.75

    About 45 percent of MNCs are headquartered in the United States, including Exxon Mobile, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Walmart, Apple, and financial giant Berkshire Hathaway. US multinational enterprises employed 42.5 million workers worldwide in 2017, with the largest number of workers in China, the United Kingdom, Mexico, India, and Canada.76 In the globalized world, MNCs are less bound to remain headquartered in their state of origin. As international relations specialist Parag Khanna notes, MNCs “choose locations for personnel, factories, executive suites, or bank accounts based on where regulations are friendly, resources abundant, and connectivity seamless.”77

    What Are Some Criticisms of MNCs?

    By their very nature, MNCs prioritize private goods (profit) over public goods. While they have the power to do “good” in their host countries, they often choose to set up operations in those countries because the countries are too weak to prevent them from exploiting labor and resources. Many developing countries do not force MNCs to pay minimum wages, to provide health care, to follow labor laws, or to abide by environmental regulations. In fact, the enormous wealth of MNCs enables them to disregard any rules a weak state has in place or to lobby against the future implementation of such regulations. MNCs are notorious for seeking profit above social benefits or even benefits to their country of origin. Many of the largest and most profitable MNCs are structured to avoid taxation and regulation and will operate wherever profit margins are highest.


    What Is a Multinational?

    International law seeks to keep up with the actions of hugely influential multinational corporations.

    Do MNCs Contribute to Global Governance?

    Although they may not seem as political as IGOs and NGOs, the transnational activities of MNCs have transformed the nature of international trade and investment. Decisions MNCs make have enormous implications for a wide range of policy issues—like taxation, investment protection, and immigration—across many countries with different political and economic institutions.78

    MNCs do exert some positive influence over international relations. Because MNCs favor stable and secure environments, states looking to lure MNCs have a vested interest in maintaining stability and in settling disagreements diplomatically rather than through disruptive conflict. Because they benefit from seamless operations, MNCs facilitate transportation and communication across borders by building compatible infrastructures like phone lines, Internet access, and standardized pricing in countries around the world. Trade organizations like the WTO regulate MNCs, and trade treaties help determine the norms of behavior in trade and intellectual property.


    What's the Role of Multinational Companies in Fueling Conflicts?

    When multinational corporations invest in a country, they can be funding—either directly or indirectly—that country’s activities, including its military conflicts.

    Because they generate money, MNCs also have considerable clout with host governments and have the power to encourage states to uphold human rights and environmental protections. In addition to providing jobs for people in developing countries, MNCs can reinvest in local economies—for instance, by donating money for schools or hospitals or providing community services. MNCs can and often do partner with or donate to NGOs to benefit local populations in developing countries.

    In 2000, the United Nations created the Global Compact to address the way MNCs could play a role in global governance.79 The Global Compact asks companies to self-regulate by following set principles around human rights, the environment, and anti-corruption efforts. Almost 15,000 companies have joined the Global Compact, and businesses and states have committed to promoting development goals and sustainability.80

    National Identity Groups

    Members of national identity groups share a common ethnic, religious, or linguistic identity and object to the political or territorial status quo. Typically, these groups are struggling for greater autonomy or recognition. They may be clustered in a specific region of a country, and they often represent a minority in that region, with grievances stemming from real or perceived marginalization and oppression that has left the group at a disadvantage. Even when these groups are primarily located within one state (such as the Rohingya in Myanmar or Basques in Spain), migration and globalization have a way of internationalizing their concerns. These groups often demand more representation in government, the protection of linguistic or religious traditions, and the right to establish institutions distinct from those of the country in which they reside. National identity groups may seek regional autonomy (relative independence from a central government), secession (breaking away from a state), or irredentism (reclaiming land).

    Regional Autonomy Movements

    Groups seeking greater regional autonomy are among those that are least likely to directly impact international relations. Autonomous regions within states have considerable control over regional governance, including education, language, and local laws. Examples of autonomous regions include the Åland Islands (Finland), South Tyrol (Italy), Kosovo (the former Yugoslavia), Cordillera and Mindanao (the Philippines), Zanzibar (Tanzania), Greenland (Denmark), and Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (the UK). Regional autonomy is often a relatively peaceful solution to accommodate the demands of ethnic minorities.

    Secessionist Movements

    Some groups are not interested in regional autonomy or other concessions from the government but instead favor establishing an independent state. In democratic states, these secessionist movements may resolve nonviolently via a sovereignty referendum that asks members of the minority group to vote on whether they want independence. South Sudan, East Timor, and Montenegro gained independence following referendums. Other groups win independence through warfare. Such was the case in Eritrea, although that victory was followed by a referendum declaring the Eritrean public’s desire for independence. Other ethnic groups’ efforts to gain independence have been less successful. For example, the efforts of citizens of the Catalonia region of Spain and of the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey have been met with silence or oppression. In 2020 there were 60 active secessionist movements, with only one or two expected to lead to independence.81

    A large mass of people fill a tree-lined street, their arms raised, many waving Catalan flags.
    Figure 15.11 Catalan separatists rally in support of independence from Spain in 2014. (credit: “Demanding to vote!” by Joan Campderrós-i-Canas/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    When independence movements are successful, a new state joins the world community (UN membership is considered the marker of an independent state), maps are redrawn, and new bilateral and multilateral agreements can be negotiated. Numerous states joined that community in the 1960s as colonialism fell around the world.

    Irredentist Movements

    A region under the political control of one country but ethnically tied to another is called an irredenta. Often, the ethnic group in the region constitutes a minority in the state where they live but a majority in a neighboring state. This particular configuration is ripe for conflict, either because people within the region want to leave their state to join their ethnic kin or because the country where the ethnic group is a majority wants to “reclaim” their lost territory and reunite the ethnic group.82 For instance, during World War II Hitler claimed that he wanted “Germany for the Germans,” which gave him cause to expand German borders to include the Germanic people living in neighboring countries. More recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin used a similar excuse when he occupied the Crimea, a territory in the country of Ukraine that is heavily populated by ethnic Russians. As these examples suggest, irredentist rhetoric can be cover for a traditional political strategy of territorial expansion to gain power and influence.


    Crimea Four Years after the Russian Takeover

    Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its aftermath suggest Russia’s continuing cultural and territorial goals in the region.

    Religious Non-state Actors

    According to the Pew Research Center, approximately 84 percent of the population in the world identifies with a religion. There are thousands of different religious groups in the world, but 77 percent of the world’s religious adherents are part of one of the five largest religions: Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Judaism.83 Religious organizations or groups of adherents to a faith are known as religious non-state actors (RNAs). RNAs include individuals motivated by religious beliefs, by specific churches, by religious-based NGOs, and even by the transnational nature of the religious beliefs themselves. The Catholic Church has historically played a prominent role in international relations, and the Holy See, the governing body of the Church, has observer status at the United Nations. Given that there are almost one billion Catholics worldwide, the Pope has tremendous global influence.84

    RNAs can organize themselves or specific categories of their work into NGOs. The International Islamic Charitable Organization and Catholic Relief Services are examples of this type of NGO. Many religious groups use NGOs to help the marginalized and the impoverished, extending their reach far beyond their local community.

    The Transnational Nature of Religion

    Religious beliefs are transnational; there are few religions the adherents of which all reside in one state. Adherents to a given faith often feel a form of kinship or solidarity with others of that faith regardless of regional, linguistic, ethnic, or practical differences. Jews in the United States who have never visited Israel may feel a kinship with the Israelis. Muslims worldwide orient themselves toward Mecca to pray even if they have never been to Saudi Arabia. Terrorist attacks on religious groups, such as the bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019 on Christians celebrating the Easter holiday, are seen (and may in fact be intended) as an attack on the religion itself, not just on certain individuals.

    The Role of Religious Leaders

    Individual religious leaders can use their platform to comment upon and try to influence world affairs. Exiled religious cleric Ayatollah Khomeini instigated the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. The Dalai Lama of Tibet put forward a democratic constitution, based on Buddhist principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as a model for a future free Tibet. For his work in addressing collective problems including “international conflicts, human rights issues, and global environmental problems,” the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.85 From the 1930s to the 1950s, Catholic Popes Pius XI and Pius XII condemned communism as antithetical to the Catholic faith and helped fuel anti-Soviet sentiment among Catholics worldwide. In 2020, Pope Francis urged governments around the world to use the COVID-19 pandemic to focus on “creating a fairer market economy, addressing the rapidly escalating dangers of climate change, and providing basic healthcare to their citizens.”86

    Two people wearing head scarves walk down the street in front of an Ayatollah Khomeini mural hung on the side of a brick building.
    Figure 15.12 A mural depicting Ayatollah Khomeini outside the former US embassy in Tehran reflects his lasting influence. (credit: “Imam Khomeini” by Kamyar Adl/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    Violence in the Name of Religion

    Schisms within religions, such as between Catholics and Protestants in the Christian faith, between ultra-Orthodox and Reform movements in Judaism, or between Sunnis and Shiites in Islam, can lead to enduring conflict and even violence. Religious leaders can position threats to the faith from outside as a rallying or unifying force. Osama bin Laden, former leader of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, issued a manifesto against “Christian invaders” in Muslim holy lands as a call to all Muslims, not just Sunni Muslims, to join his fight. Similarly, the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel and the subsequent displacement of Palestinian Muslims met with resistance from both Sunnis and Shiites. RNAs can form communities of the faithful to advocate for changes in far-flung corners of the world where they believe their “brothers and sisters” are persecuted or oppressed.87

    Although many RNAs advocate for peace and devote themselves to humanitarian missions, others engage in conflict “for the good”—that is, they believe their cause is so important that they are justified in using any means, including violence, to achieve it. This level of conviction propelled Catholic soldiers during the Crusades in the Middle Ages, and it motivates several notable religious groups today, including al-Qaeda and the militant Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).88

    Two groups of people dressed in combat fatigues and cloth head coverings sit in the back of two pickup trucks in a dry, sandy landscape. Several of the people hold long guns. Another person stands to the left, wearing light brown camouflage and a dark cloth head covering.
    Figure 15.13 Ethnic tribal militias like the Tuareg, pictured here, have joined with other militant Islamic groups in attempts to secure an independent homeland in Northern Mali. (credit: “Al-Qaeda draws Maghreb militants to Mali Al-Qaida rejoint par ses militants du Maghreb au Mali” by Magharebia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    How Do RNAs Contribute to Global Governance?

    It is difficult to classify a particular RNA and that RNA’s role in global governance as “good” or “bad.” Some RNAs help reinforce norms and participate in conversations about the global good, but others promote violence and challenge global governance norms. The net contribution of a single RNA can be mixed. The Muslim Brotherhood provides a telling example. Although the Egyptian government considered the Muslim Brotherhood an illegal political movement and classified it as a terrorist organization, the Brotherhood provided goods and services like hospitals and schools to Egyptian neighborhoods where the government was not providing those services. During periods of Egyptian democracy, the Brotherhood ran candidates for office and participated in the legislature.89 Thus the Brotherhood has engaged in both humanitarian and politically democratic activities and illegal, antidemocratic, and violent ones.

    Violent Non-state Actors

    Transnational actors that flagrantly violate established laws and employ violence to achieve their goals are considered “illegitimate.” They endanger security, stability, and the rule of law and are condemned under international law as a threat to global governance.90 Like RNAs, sometimes the lines between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” transnational actors are blurred. Some nationalist and religious groups may pose a threat to peace and stability only in particular regions or for particular groups. Sometimes whether a non-state actor is considered legitimate depends on who you ask—as a saying from the Cold War era goes, “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”

    This discussion focuses on two main types of violent non-state actors: transnational organized crime (TOC) syndicates and terrorist organizations. These groups engage in various types of illegal activity including financial crimes, cybercrimes, and human rights violations. Their membership may be multinational, regional, or country-specific, but their crimes are transnational, involving activities across borders and in multiple states. They pose a significant threat to international and domestic security, and countering that threat requires a coordinated international response. Criminal networks flourish in weak states—those without functioning central governments, sophisticated criminal justice agencies, communications, or traditions of rule of law. Weak states often only nominally control certain regions of their countries, and in uncontrolled regions it is particularly easy to evade the rule of law. Violent NSAs also flourish under conditions of poverty and limited economic prospects, when people can be easily tempted by the potential for wealth or “revenge” against groups they believe have wronged them.

    Transnational Organized Crime

    Organized crime groups operate in almost every region of the world, and transnational organized crime (TOC) threatens international peace and security.91 Some groups have stable and definable memberships; others are more loosely organized. The Sicilian Mafia and various transnational street gangs are among the most prominent TOC syndicates.92

    TOCs engage in a variety of illicit activities, including smuggling, human trafficking, weapons trafficking, wildlife or artifacts trade, intellectual property theft, counterfeiting, cybercrimes, and money laundering, to fulfill their purpose: to make money. TOC syndicates rarely engage in only one illicit activity. International drug trafficking is the second largest source of TOC revenue, second only to counterfeiting, and drug trafficking organizations, many of which are affiliated with terrorist groups, are among the highest-profile TOCs.93


    How Somalia’s Pirates Make Money

    Poverty is a main cause of international crime, including piracy. This video explains how pirates make money in one of the poorest countries on Earth, Somalia.

    TOC activities contribute to government corruption. In weak states, TOC groups bribe or ally with government officials, jeopardizing economic development, undermining the rule of law, and threatening government stability. As the 2018 World Atlas of Global Issues puts it, “Corruption, trafficking, poverty, conflicts, and terrorism all sustain and reinforce one another.”94 Globally, TOCs test international law, make the expansion of democracy more challenging, and siphon money away from governments and people.

    Transnational organized crime represents a global governance problem that cannot be satisfactorily addressed by one government alone. Criminals are typically headquartered in one country, but their crimes cross state borders and break both domestic and international laws. Because TOC groups encourage and depend upon government and law enforcement corruption, and because they tend to flourish in states that lack strong domestic criminal justice organizations that could investigate and prosecute them, a coordinated international effort is needed to fight this type of crime. Domestic criminal justice organizations such as the FBI in the United States coordinate with comparable organizations in other states and with crime-fighting IGOs like the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime to stem the activities of TOC organizations.


    Neil Walsh, UN Expert on Cybercrime

    In this video, Neil Walsh, chief of the UN cybercrime team, talks about the role of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime in battling international cybercrime.

    Terrorist Organizations

    Terrorism is the use or threat of violence by non-state actors to influence citizens or governments in the pursuit of political or social change. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, terrorism became a global security concern. Globalization and advances in technology have allowed terrorist organizations to access funding and recruits from far beyond the organization’s headquarters and to spread their message via social media. In an article published only weeks before the 9/11 attacks, Paul Pillar of the Brookings Institute said, “In today’s globalizing world, terrorists can reach their targets more easily, their targets are exposed in more places, and news and ideas that inflame people to resort to terrorism spread more widely and rapidly than in the past.”95 Like most other transnational issues, terrorism is a threat to all states, and it is impossible to envision a single-state solution.

    Terrorists are motivated by some combination of nationalism, ideology, and religion. Islamist terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), and Boko Haram have been responsible for the deadliest terrorist acts in the 21st century.96 Like other religious extremist groups, Islamist terrorists want to impose their version of their religion on all spheres of life, including the political state. The desire for national independence in places like Palestine and Northern Ireland, as well as extremist ideological beliefs such as White nationalism or neo-Nazism, can also motivate terrorist attacks.

    International cooperation is crucial to monitor and prevent terrorist activities. Following 9/11, the UN Security Council formed the Counter-Terrorism Committee, which coordinates international counterterrorism measures.97 In 2006, the General Assembly called on member states to focus on the underlying factors that contribute to terrorism, including weak institutions, ongoing conflict, and human rights violations. Most regional IGOs have counterterrorism programs. INTERPOL, the International Criminal Police Organization, is an IGO that coordinates the efforts of the police in countries around the world. NGOs contribute to counterterrorism activities as well. IGOs and NGOs work in tandem to help states implement global counterterrorism strategies.

    15.7: Non-state Actors beyond NGOs is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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