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Nonstate Actors And The New Global Reality Print Nonstate Actors And The New Global Reality

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Many American citizens and decision makers alike are still focused on the role of other countries in US foreign policy—including positive trade deals, competition over energy sources, and possible threats from “rogue states” or “rising peer competitors.” But the world has become increasingly defined by interactions among nonstate actors (who live, work, or fight across national borders) such as the following:


Globalization has yielded not only higher standards of living in many countries, but massive underdevelopment, which includes poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, conflicts over scarce resources, and large socioeconomic divisions in many parts of the world. This raises basic issues of fairness and justice. Indeed, many of these negative factors are often interlinked at the local levels. These “negative externalities” of economic globalization cross borders and territories of traditional countries, and some are arguably created by complex business deals that involve multinational corporations— themselves nonstate actors.

Many poorer governments are unable to mitigate the problem through their own bureaucratic capabilities or budgets. And this is where an explosion of NGOs comes in: citizens both within and between countries who try to influence governments, intergovernmental organizations or IGOs (such as the United Nations (UN), International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, or World Trade Organization (WTO), and other large nonstate actors such as multinational corporations (MNCs).

Beyond global justice and the environment, NGOs have also been quite active, vocal, and successful for some time on weapons and military issues, including nuclear weapons concerns, the global campaign against landmines, small arms and light weapons, and conventional arms. The basic approach of such NGOs is to treat these traditionally state-led, strategic military issues as global, ethical concerns, given the negative violent effects and budgetary consequences of the flow of arms worldwide on ordinary citizens, especially in the developing world.

The global financial and trading system has now evolved to capture most states and nonstate actors in a dense, complex, but largely ungoverned and unregulated web of interconnected economic and security transactions. It is based upon instantaneous information flows, just-in-time transportation, and the free flow of currencies and investment funds in a world dominated by “big capital” and rising levels of consumption of goods and services around the world.

This global “neoliberal” network of finance, manufacture, transport, marketing, and distribution is largely organized by global corporations and often functions without meaningful regulation by sovereign government bureaucracies. Many of the largest MNCs or TNCs have assets and budgets that exceed the economies of entire countries. Large multinational corporations can have a powerful influence in international relations and the policies of national governments, given extensive financial resources available for public relations and political lobbying.

Because of their size, multinationals can have a significant impact on government policy, primarily through the threat of market withdrawal. Countries and sometimes subnational regions must compete against one another for the establishment of multinational facilities, and reap the subsequent tax revenue, employment, and economic activity. To compete, countries and regional political districts offer incentives to multinationals such as tax breaks, pledges of governmental assistance or improved infrastructure, or lax environmental and labor standards.

This investment has helped many new emerging economies grow well beyond what they could achieve through their own indigenous assets alone. However, these practices can also fuel negative trends such as degradation of natural resources, global warming, and socioeconomic and human rights violations in the developing world. This has led to increasingly sharp questioning of the logic of a “neoliberal world order”—although for some analysts, it is not clear who is more to blame for unsustainable practices: the multinationals who invest in new enterprises, and who manufacture and distribute goods; the predominantly First World consumers who buy the final products; or sovereign governments who consistently fail to institute a more stable system of global governance.

Moreover, in addition to efforts by multinational corporations to affect governments, there is much government action intended to affect corporate behavior. The threat of nationalization (forcing a company to sell its local assets to the government or to other local nationals) or changes in local business laws and regulations can limit a multinational's power. Countries that have been most successful in this type of confrontation with multinational corporations are large countries, such as India and Brazil, which have viable indigenous market competitors.

Nonstate actors not only encompass the more familiar terrorist groups or multinational corporations, but also include behind-the-scenes scientific communities that are making breakthroughs with the potential to radically improve people’s lives. At the same time, these communities pose a latent threat of weapons development by both state and nonstate actors alike. Biotechnology is a particularly important area of development, as is nanotechnology.

This trend also includes the increasingly open nature of outer space as a medium in which financially empowered multinational corporations, private individuals, or nongovernmental groups now vie for strategic information.


For a small glance at our global future, consider the comparison of the role of nonstate processes and actors in the development of biological versus nuclear technologies, as described by leading US global security theorists John Steinbrunner and Nancy Gallagher:

In contrast [to highly-enriched uranium or weapons-grade plutonium], biological pathogens are spontaneously generated in nature, and in physical terms…the process of extracting and producing them is not remotely as demanding as it is with nuclear explosives. The facilities required are not large or distinctive…. Scientific understanding of these pathogens emerges from a globally dispersed biomedical research community...[and] in that context it has been neither practical nor appropriate to sequester information or materials to the extent that it has been done for nuclear explosives. The barriers to hostile use of biotechnology have been primarily attitudinal in character, a form of passive control more significant than is commonly appreciated but clearly not comparable to the physical and procedural barriers surrounding nuclear explosives…. [Therefore], national control and preferential national development of biotechnology is not likely to be feasible for any meaningful period of time regardless of the amount of political will that might be applied to such an effort [emphasis added].


Once used mainly by superpowers for military intelligence, sharp-focused pictures from satellites orbiting high above the earth are now available to just about anyone who has the money to buy them. This includes a growing number of nongovernmental groups that are using satellite and aerial photography for a number of purposes, including the cause of nuclear nonproliferation.

Over the past several years, medium- and high-resolution imagery has become available from a variety of nongovernmental sources. Such photos can be used to determine if governments are telling the truth about military deployments of the United States or other countries. Environmental disasters can also be monitored in real time. The level of land degradation or tropical deforestation in a given country or area can be analyzed independently of government sources. And the very existence as well as magnitude of humanitarian tragedies such as genocide or ethnic cleansing can be revealed, as well as generalized human rights abuses, without reference to official statements from government agencies.

For NGOs, that kind of information is power. As argued by global security analyst John Pike in the Stanley Foundation’s public outreach quarterly Courier, “For decades, the nongovernmental public policy community has labored under a profound, and growing, disparity between the information that is publicly available and the classified information that is available within the government. Too often the nongovernmental sector has been reduced to chewing on the scraps that emerge from the government, while decision makers dine on a splendid repast. Given this disparity in knowledge, it is far too easy for government officials to dismiss the public policy community as ill-informed. Commercial satellite imagery has a significant potential to reduce this disparity in knowledge, and to greatly enhance the ability of the nongovernmental community to influence government decisions.”

Over the past fifteen years, the incidence of failing state environments worldwide has increased in frequency, severity, and complexity, involving ethnic cleansing, genocide, and other atrocities committed against civilians. These situations are often marked by civil wars based on traditional sovereign political concerns alongside more complex and shifting ethnic, religious, and/or socioeconomic differences within and between societies. Because of the heavily social aspect of such warfare, conflicts can spread rapidly across several countries.

Such situations involve a motley crew of armed actors—including relatively independent bandits, extremist paramilitary groups or guerrillas loosely tied to competing political elites, and organized militias of either a state or nonstate character. This reality is easily recognizable in any one of a dozen or more recent hot spots—Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Burundi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Southern Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Angola.

But despite the seeming chaos of complex humanitarian emergencies, they are far from being senseless or irrational. They are purposefully perpetuated by local, armed nonstate actors who see the lack of sovereign order as an opportunity for power and advancement. Parties to conflicts do not fight to win, but rather to perpetuate a level of “durable disorder” enabling them to carry out their illicit economic activities at a minimum of risk.

Massive levels of civilian displacement, either as internally displaced persons or refugees crossing into other countries, are almost always a feature of these crises. The recruiting and brainwashing of child soldiers and assaults on girls and women are also common aspects of this type of warfare.

There is little evidence to suggest that failing states gripped in violent social strife will be declining in frequency or severity anytime soon. This is due in part to the global black market, which includes violent, often global transnational actors such as criminal networks who traffic in human beings, drugs, diamonds, small arms and light weapons, fissile materials, and other illicit substances. This “underbelly of globalization” also includes nonindigenous political movements such as global terrorist networks.

Indeed, because such illicit activities in failing state environments can often be used to fund transnational terrorist group activities, there is an increasing danger of catastrophic conventional or WMD terrorism by a completely nonstate group that is not tied to traditional sovereign enemies. Counterterrorism expert Daniel Benjamin, in testimony before the US House of Representatives in February 2007, argued that for these new types of transnational, stateless terrorists or insurgents, “violence is not a means of forcing an opponent into negotiations...but a sanctified activity that aims at massive change.” It is exactly this combination of a psychologically “sanctified activity” with the revolutionary goal of massive, systemic change that would make future WMD technologies especially attractive to potentially hostile nonstate actors.

In a globalized world, the empowerment of extreme, violent ideologies via information technology is perhaps the greatest strategic threat—especially if such ideologies become fused with technologies of mass destruction.

Joseph McMillan, a former defense official, has described such nonstate groups as “armed bands” who benefit from the globalization of information: “The information revolution is a major facilitator of almost anything a terrorist group would want to do, from collecting intelligence to propagating its ideological message to recruiting, indoctrinating, and training new personnel…. Thorough indoctrination in what soldiers would call ‘the commanders intent,’ coupled with the most sporadic of communications, could yield an unprecedented degree of fluidity and unpredictability in terrorist operations.”

Indeed, former National Security Council official Daniel Benjamin, in testimony before the US House of Representatives in February 2007, argued for a clear division of terrorist groups into three types of actors: local guerrilla-like groups with parochial political demands, state-supported terrorism, and global transnational Islamist terrorism. In this categorization, Benjamin, like many other analysts, largely minimizes the threat to the United States of traditional state-sponsored terrorism and instead focuses on truly transnational actors, including Al Qaeda.

Prior to the US attacks in Afghanistan following 9-11, Al Qaeda constituted a large, centralized network with strong ties to the Taliban government, which touted a totalitarian ideology that oppressed, tortured, and killed anyone who dared to challenge its puritanical fusion of Islam and politics. But at a more macrolevel, Al Qaeda has always held a loose ideology that seeks to capitalize on local conflicts in failed states around the world. It may use (and abuse) states that are failing or weak, but it is not permanently or strongly allied in a consistent way with specific state governments, as seen with the Cold War bipolar system of ideological blocs based on sovereign state allies.

The true danger facing stakeholders in the global order —such as the United States and various rising powers—is not a strong totalitarian government with a huge central army (the Soviet threat that the Bush administration has compared to Al Qaeda), nor is it terrorists aided by rogue states. The danger is rather the exploitation by scattered extremists of information technology, illicit criminal networks, and failed state environments—such as Somalia, Iraq, Sudan, and others who seek to gain recruits and financing.

In sum: the lack of a state government as a center of operational or financial gravity is key to the Al Qaeda phenomenon.

This category or type of terrorism includes local terrorists in the developing world who use low-tech violence as “a tool of the weak” to protest and fight against what they see as a chronically unfair and unjust division of public goods, often against domestic governments who are autocratically ruled by one dominant minority ethnic, religious, or ideological clique. Central Asian post-Soviet states and several African countries provide ready examples of this phenomenon, as do the most violent and rejectionist Palestinian resistance groups in the West Bank.

As argued by former National Security Council official Daniel Benjamin in testimony before the US House of Representatives in 2007, this group “includes the familiar ethno-nationalist groups that persist in such diverse part[s] of the world as the Basque region of Spain and Sri Lanka. By and large, however, such groups show little inclination to increase substantially the lethality of their attacks. They are therefore usually a second-tier concern—highly disruptive to the societies in which they are found but posing little danger to the global order.”

Thus, such local terrorism, though technically carried out by nonstate groups, is nonetheless nationally centered rather than truly transnational in character—unlike many other, more global types of nonstate actors in the 21st century.

How dangerous is the dynamic of state-sponsored terrorism in the 21st century? As argued by former National Security Council official Daniel Benjamin in testimony before the US House of Representatives in 2007: State-sponsored terror…persists and is unlikely to ever disappear. But there is something approaching a consensus among scholars that it is a phenomenon on the wane. [S]tate-sponsorship of terror continues most strongly in the Middle East, where both Iran and Syria support Palestinian rejectionist groups…. But attacks against European nations and the United States have declined greatly. Syria has avoided targeting Westerners and its proxies have not attacked United States assets in the last two decades. Iran’s last major attack on a Western target was the 1996 bombing of the US troop facility at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia.

As state-sponsored terrorism against the developed countries is on the wane, however, traditional “local” types of terrorism against domestic governments in the developing world continue—based on domestic issues of politics and identity in the country of origin—while globalized, transnational, Islamist terrorism directed against the West and the global order has been steadily on the rise since the 1990s, including but not limited to Al Qaeda.

This category of terrorism involves truly transnational extremists who oppose the socioeconomic and cultural implications of globalization. These groups, such as Al Qaeda, use as a world-spanning, utopian, and revolutionary ideological script, completely separated from any local sense of national tradition or culture. This ideological script uses catastrophic violence against global centers of power as a source of legitimacy and as a means of recruitment of those people in local environments who are already alienated or disempowered by the same forces of globalization that the transnational extremists themselves oppose.

This category also includes terrorists in the developed North or “First World” who are experiencing strong forms of cultural, social, and economic alienation due to their original uprooting from their countries of birth and their increasing frustrations with failed attempts to integrate into Western societies, especially in Western Europe.

Indeed, antisystem, transnational terrorists coming to US territory are most likely to come from Europe or other allies, and are most likely to be a motley mix of second-generation Moroccans, Tunisians, Algerians, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Saudis, or many others from throughout the Muslim world—not Iranians or Syrians, nor the proxy anti-Israeli groups they support such as Hamas or Hezbollah. Thus, the state-sponsored terrorism of countries such as Syria and Iran has little, if anything, to do with the transnational, Islamist threat to the US homeland itself.

Noted counterterrorism expert Peter Bergin has summarized the operating realities of Al Qaeda for a Princeton University project on US security strategy:


Although bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al Zawahiri don’t exert day-to-day control over Al Qaeda, they do continue to supply broad strategic guidance.... Statements from [them]...have always been the most reliable guide to the future actions of jihadist movements around the world.... Shortly after bin Laden called for assaults against Western economic interests in October 2002, an Indonesian disco was bombed, killing 200 mostly Western tourists, and a suicide attack was launched at a French oil tanker steaming off the coast of Yemen. In December 2003, after al Zawahiri condemned Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf for supporting the campaign against al Qaeda, Musharraf narrowly survived two assassination attempts. Around the same time, bin Laden called for attacks against members of the coalition in Iraq. Terrorists subsequently bombed a British consulate and a bank in Turkey and commuters on their way to work in Madrid.


This type of terrorist operating environment represents the negative side of globalized information networks used by a plethora of other nonstate actors. Due to the lack of a state-based center of operations, it represents a different kind of warfare in the 21st century.

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This page is part of Rising Powers: The New Global Reality, a project from the Stanley Foundation.

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The global order is changing. The 21st Century will be marked by many competing sources of global power. Across politics, economics, culture, military strength and more, a new group of countries have growing influence over the future of the world:



South Africa
European Union

South Korea


Other Countries

Big issues are also playing a cross-cutting role in this changing global order:


Nuclear Nonproliferation
Nonstate Actors

Global/Regional Systems

And this changing global order has implications for the United States.

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