The Impact of Non-State Actors on World Politics

Table of contents

Introduction: Theoretical Polarity

Conceptualizing the contemporary dynamics of world politics on the basis of a theoretical meso – level analysis, the relevance of state versus other non-state actors in the international political arena can be perceived in multiple ways. Promoting a highly state-centric vision of international relations, classical realist academics would imply that modern, market oriented and interest driven nation-states are indeed the only relevant actors in world politics. On the other side of the theoretical spectrum however, the liberal school of thought would oppose that the realist “neglect of actor variation and diversity” renders an incomplete and inaccurate reflection of the empirical reality (Mansbach and Vasquez, 1981:26), endorsing instead a cooperative model of international and transnational channels of interaction between state and non-state actors. The answer to the question of whether states can be perceived as the only relevant actors in world politics, or whether a more holistic framing of the contemporary international systems is necessary to accurately reflect on the actors and dynamics of the global political arena, therefore depends on the theoretical perspective adopted.

As mentioned, based on a conceptual meso – level analysis indicating the group – organization level that falls between the micro and macro analytical levels and which encompasses the formation of modern-day states, this essay will focus on the contention between the two main ideological approaches, Realism and Liberalism, highlighting key aspects of the traditional perspectives and their conceptual polarity on the issue of relevant actors in international relations. Emphasizing the ubiquitous increase in numbers and importance of non-state actors engaging with and influencing world politics, the essay will conclude by prioritizing the Liberal approaches to state activism, as more reflective of the contemporary power relations and complex negotiations at play on the global level.

Realism, Liberalism and State Relevance

As mentioned, the two traditional approaches in international relations are Realism/neo-Realism and Liberalism/neo-Liberalism. Having developed along opposite sides of the theoretical spectrum, due to their ontological and epistemological differences and disagreements on the appropriateness of deductive versus inductive methodology in political science (Landman, 2008:17), both Realism and Liberalism offer diverging views on the empirical reality of international politics. To make sense of this plurality, Lim (2006) compares the traditions to “looking through different sunglasses”, whereby “different lenses allow us to focus on different aspects of the same larger reality” (2006:68). Even though both perspectives have now taken steps to acknowledge the weaknesses of their traditions by integrating aspects from other areas, as demonstrated for example in Waltz’s neo-realist ‘Theory of International Relations’ (1979) or Keohane and Nye’s neo-liberal ‘Power and Interdependence’ (1977), the problem more or less endures as academics persist that their ‘lenses’ and ‘realities’ are more appropriate, reflective and reliable (Lim, 2006:67).

Upholding that the international political system can be perceived on the basis of inter-state relations, realist academics promote a state-centric anarchical world view. As Hans Morgenthau explicates in his book ‘Politics among Nations’ (1948), Realism is based on the assumptions of rationality, national sovereignty and interests, and pursuit of power. Defined against and in opposition to Idealism, Realism portrays the international system as an arena of “anarchy” and “extreme inequality of nations” (Morgenthau, 1948:8), whereby a balance of power and relative peace are only achieved through continual state struggle for power and acquisition of military strength against one another. Conceived as rational sovereign interest-maximizers, operating on a calculated cost-benefit basis, states are primarily concerned with security issues, pursuing their national military interests to safeguard power and control over their territory. In extension therefore, as states are the only units that possess the capacity to acquire and exercise power, they are deemed as the only relevant conceptual actors in world politics (Geeraerts, 1995). International institutions are then perceived as mere instruments, emulating hegemonic power politics abroad (Cox, 1981).

However, with the recent large-scale shifts in power relations, decentralisation and “transit to a new power equilibrium” caused predominantly by globalization and transnationalization processes of the 21st century (Cederman, 1997:4), liberal and neo-liberal critics have opposed the above highlighted view, contending that a narrow state-centric view is no longer valid and cannot account for the complex, interconnected and multi-faceted nature of global governance. Promoting a more optimistic depiction of the international system, the liberal school refutes realist theory as endorsing the Cold war status-quo and legitimizing immoral behaviour. Emphasizing instead the fundamental changes in the structure of the international system, from the surge of non-governmental organizations campaigning on a range of social, environmental and cultural issues other than security, to the recognition of state-less nations as significant actors in world politics, liberal academics suggest that traditional nation-states are succumbing to so-called ‘hollowing out’ processes, as the post-Westphalian balance of power disseminates across multiple layers and disperses among range of variegated actors. The state hence loses its hegemonic position as the main actor in world politics engaging in, at times cooperative, at times coercive, power play with diverse non-state actors and forces, ranging from civil society groups and non-governmental organisations to private market actors (Geeraerts, 1995).

This however is not to say that under Liberalism, states are no longer relevant actors in world politics. Instead, what results is a novel political model of “complex interdependence” (Keohane and Nye, 1977:24), whereby the “new world overlaps and rests on the traditional world” in which power is shared between geographically dependent state actors and fluid non-governmental actors with equal significance (Keohane and Nye, 1998:82).


Reinforced by demonstrable evidence from current international affairs, where state power is continuously challenged by community groups and activists from bottom-up, as well as top-down by international global governance bodies, this essay sides with the latter liberal view, suggesting that the 21st Century dynamics of word politics provide space and opportunities for a variety of actors other than states. While the number of politically-engaged non-governmental and community-based organization has grown rapidly in the past decade, transnational events and movements, such as the anti-globalisation protests of the 1970s or the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, have had significant impact on influencing the policy process and raising awareness of global issues. Granting limited attention to the diversity of non-state actors and self-regulating economic processes, the realist theory therefore proves inaccurate in maintaining that states are the only relevant conceptual actors in world politics.


  1. Buzan, B. (1996) ‘The timeless wisdom if Realism’ in Smith, S. et al (ed) International Theory: Positivism and Beyond. UK, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Cederman, L., E. (1997) Emergent Actors in World Politics. USA, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  3. Cox, R. (1981) ‘Social Forces, States, and World Order’ in Millennium, 10(2), pp. 128 – 130.
  4. Geeraerts, G. (1995) ‘Analysing Non-State Actors in World Politics’ in Pole Paper Series, 1(4). Available at:
  5. Higgott, R., A. et al (2000) Non-State Actors and Authority in the Global System. UK, London: Routledge.
  6. Keohane, R., O. and Nye, J., S. (1977) Power and Interdependence. Glenview: Scott Foresman.
  7. Keohane, R., O. and Nye, J., S. (1998) ‘Power and interdependence in the information age’ in Foreign Affairs, 77(5), pp. 81 – 94.
  8. Landman, T. (2008) Issues and Methods in Comparative Politics. UK, London: Routledge.
  9. Lim, T., C. (2006) Doing Comparative Politics: An introduction to Approaches and Issues. UK, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.
  10. Mansbach, R., W. and Vasquez, J., A. (1981) In Search of Theory: A New Paradigm for Global Politics. USA, New York: Columbia University Press.
  11. Morgenthau, H. (1948) Politics Among Nations. USA, New York: Alfred Knopf.

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