By Anahad Khangura
With the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the modern state system was established along with the significance of territorial sovereignty of the state. In the sphere of international relations, power, which can be further classified into military, economic or diplomatic powers of the state, has emerged as significant instrument which is utilised by states to regulate the affairs of the international relations. Nation-states aim to maintain a ‘balance of power’ through which states aim to maximise their security by creating an equal distribution of power to avoid accumulation of power in one state. States pursue this balance of power by either maximising their capacity or by creating alliances with other nations to augment their power collectively.
However, different schools of thought adopt a varied approach to the nature of power in international relations. The realist paradigm considers power particularly in the military aspect. Therefore, realism considers states as the chief actors who regulate power politics to secure their interests. The liberal paradigm focuses on the power and interests of states but in relation to other groups of society. Liberalism highlights the significance of cooperation between states and other actors to maintain their positions in international politics. Additionally, the neo-liberal institutionalists believe that states with converging interests create international institutions such as inter-governmental organisations (IGOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which digress power and sovereignty from the nation-state. The transnational nature of issues like climate change and disarmament, demand the involvement of international institutions which can facilitate effective communication between nation-states. In correspondence with the neo-liberal perspective, it can be said that the growing significance of non-state actors challenges the conventional ‘state-centric’ approach to international politics and subsequently replaces it with a ‘transnational’ system. In line with the neo-liberal institutionalists, it is imperative to acknowledge the significance of international institutions in international relations. Even though states remain the decisive factors in the international relations apparatus, the participation of international organisations cannot go unobserved. Therefore, international relations not only engage with the state and its powers but also with other significant agents such as international organisations, not-for-profit initiatives, and the civil society.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the concept of war became distant for nations due to the devastation and havoc caused. Consequently, the role of international institutions began to expand as they emerged as instruments of maintaining world peace and order. For instance, in 1945, the United Nations (UN) emerged as an outcome of the turmoil caused by the Second World War to avoid potential destructive wars. Today, the UN holds a form of power which maintains a system of checks and balances on the behaviours of nation-states. Therefore, the notion of power is no longer confined to states, but it has been dispersed to other bodies as well. The fast-paced globalisation process has had a detrimental impact on the traditional perspective of the state and its powers. This has led to the expansion of the scope of international politics to include more actors. The ability of international institutions to influence the behaviour of states in the political realm has increased their significance and scope.
SIGNIFICANCE OF NON-STATE ACTORS IN WORLD POLITICS
In the context of the shifting power dynamic, a ‘polyarchy’ has emerged where nations and sub-national groups have created a pattern of coexistence. In the sphere of international relations, non-state actors can be defined as all those actors that are not states. This includes organisations and institutions operating at a global, national or local level. Non-state actors have emerged as important components of international relations as they maintain a system of constraints which holds states accountable for their actions. International institutions highlight the impact of government actions to the public which creates a standard of transparency between the officials and the public. The structure of international relations has emerged as a mutually dependent network where states cooperate with non-state actors to maximise their interests and to uphold world order.
The realm of international politics has been complicated due to two main reasons: primarily, the diversity of actors in the political system; secondarily, the linkages between various issues and their transnational nature. In order to maximise cooperation between nation-states, international organisations play a significant role by providing a medium of communication where the realisation of common goals could lead to a consensus regarding political matters. International organisations regulate international relations by facilitating effective inter-state cooperation to help states to achieve their objectives. Therefore, such organisations seek to maximise the advantages of nation-states by serving as instruments of communication and cooperation. Therefore, outcomes regarding security cannot be considered solely as results of state action as the contribution of international organisations is significant to the process.
However, the functioning of international institutions is regulated by the participation of states. Nation-states are the significant navigators of international institutions. In international organisations, the objectives and interests of some states are more significant than those of the others. More powerful states can sway international organisations in favour of their interests. However, great powers uphold their hegemony and maximise their interests at the expense of the benefits of smaller states. For instance, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is dominated by the Permanent Five (P5) nations which hold the power to veto resolutions which are opposed to their primary interests.
Additionally, human rights organisations have also emerged to challenge the sovereignty of states by upholding a medium of transnational constraints regarding human rights practices which the states are expected to observe. For instance, the European Commission of Human Rights has emerged as an agency which was developed by European nations by submitting a part of their sovereignty to help monitor human rights breaches in Europe. Therefore, these international institutions have emerged as important components of the international relations.
On the other hand, terrorist organisations and militant groups have also become important determinants of international relations. The multi-ethnic nature of almost all states has prompted a sense of victimisation amongst certain communities. Consequently, terrorism has been utilised as an instrument by individuals and communities to expose their grievances with the political system. Additionally, there have also been multiple cases of state-sponsored violence where governments have adopted a violent methodology to suppress weaker communities of society. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) can further exemplify the impact that terrorist organisations can have on the system of international politics. ISIS emerged as a terrorist organisation which challenged the sovereign territory of nations and declared its caliphate. Additionally, ISIS also managed to maintain a constant influx of finances and ammunition. The ability of terrorist organisations to function as independent bodies, with territory and financial support, questions the supremacy of nations in international relations.
Another significant aspect which has emerged is the participation and the involvement of civil society in the process of international relations. The progress of democratic states has escalated the impact and influence of civil society in politics. Individuals outside the political realm have the power to hold the government accountable for their actions by exercising their right to protest and voice dissent. The collective participation of the civil society can influence the flow of international relations.
The traditional approach to international relations upheld that states regulate power to maximise their interests. However, the globalisation process has undermined the superiority of states in international politics by introducing other agents as significant stakeholders. The contribution of non-state actors to international politics cannot be overlooked. States may continue to remain significant actors in international politics but the medium of cooperation and communication between states would not be attained without the involvement of international institutions. The contemporary understanding of power has divided power between different participants. An approach to international politics which solely focuses on the state and its powers could be inadequate. Therefore, a multi-pronged approach to international politics acknowledges a network of co-dependence between nation-states, non-state organisations and the civil society.
Anahad Khangura has recently received her Master’s degree in International Peace and Security from the War Studies Department at KCL. Her academic interests are inclined towards types of political violence and counterterrorism strategies. For her Master’s dissertation, Anahad evaluated the adaptability of terrorist organisations in light of a comparative analysis between Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hezbollah. You can follow her on Twitter: @Anahad15