The Role of Transnational Corporations and NGOs in International Relations

Table of contents

The recent increase in the international activities of transnational corporations and non-governmental organizations has challenged state-centric models of international relations to explain the apparent contribution that non-state actors make to the international political system. NGOs influence the international system by introducing principles into discussions on the legitimacy of states’ behavior, while TNC capital movement affects states’ policy decisions more directly. Accordingly, one-dimensional state-centric theories are ill-equipped to account for our multi-dimensional world with its various actors and their interests. The 50 largest transnational corporations (TNCs) have an annual sales revenue greater than the gross national product of 132 member countries of the United Nations, and many non-governmental human rights advocacy organizations (NGOs) now count their members in the millions while at least 40 UN countries have fewer than a million citizens (Willetts, 2001). The involvement of such large transnational corporations and NGOs in international politics suggests that state-centric models of international relations, which propose states as the primary international actors, are outdated. The aim of this paper is to describe the involvement of TNCs and NGOs in international relations and to show that state-centric models are unable to explain many of the changes in the international political system.

The International Activities of NGOs

Numerous recent changes in the international system can be traced directly back to NGO activities. In the 1970s Amnesty International led an extensive worldwide campaign against state torture, which culminated in the 1984 signing of the international convention against torture. A second example is a group of NGOs and governments that campaigned for the banning of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of landmines and cluster munitions. This process eventually resulted in the Ottawa mine ban treaty and the convention on cluster munitions that have now been signed by 160 and 108 countries respectively. A third example involves Child Soldiers International, a group of transnational NGOs that managed to bring about the 2000 UN “Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict”, currently signed by 129 countries. These three cases, among very many others, demonstrate that transnational NGOs contribute many changes to the international system and that they are, thus, important international actors. Robert Keohane and Joseph Nye (1971), Richard Mansbach (1976, 1981) and James Rosenau (1990) reached a similar conclusion following extensive quantitative analyses of the amount of NGO involvement in international decisions. Kenneth Waltz, on the other hand, argues that NGOs sometimes do play a role, but that the capabilities and power of states render them so much more significant that the international system can be understood without reference to non-state actors (1979).

The most powerful actors determine the structure of the international system and regulate the roles that others can play. States operate to ensure their survival in an insecure international environment, so when “the crunch comes, states re-make the rules by which other actors operate (Waltz, 1986). Accordingly, almost all countries use torture when they experience a substantial loss of security, employ landmines if no better weapons are available (Evans and Leigh, 2010) and utilise child soldiers if no other option presents itself (Human Rights Watch, 2011). This implies that NGOs can make contributions to international policies, but only to policies that governments are willing to change. Those policies that states are strongly attached to cannot be changed by non-state actors, and will be altered only when those states discover new methods to obtain the same benefits or avert the same threats. This state-centric view captures the foundational elements of the international inter-state security milieu, but cannot account for the international interactions that shape it. NGOs are gradually affecting a shift in the types of policies that states can legitimately and publically adopt without widespread mutiny.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, theUnited Statescould persuade most of its citizens that the war inVietnam, with its tens of thousands of American and millions of Asian deaths, was crucial to American interests. With much lower damage, the majority of Americans quickly opposed their wars inAfghanistanandIraq. Similarly, in 2006 and 2009,Israelreceived a more hostile civil society response to their killing of 1,100 Lebanese and 1,417 Palestinians than it received to the killing of 20,000 Lebanese in the 1980s. Even the Russian conduct inGeorgiain 2008 was more measured than its carpet-bombing of Afghan villages in the 1980s. Similarly, concerned reports of sanctions-related Iranian civilian suffering have already appeared in the European press. It is doubtful that civil society will tolerate thousands of deaths, let alone the hundreds of thousands of sanction-related deaths thatIraqsuffered during the 1990s. Over time, transnational NGOs have contributed to the debate on what can qualify as a security problem and what can pass as an acceptable response to it. By introducing information, norms and the language of rights into international policy debates, their contribution is tangible through their influence over those upon whom governments rely to carry out state policies.

The International Activities of TNCs

Transnational corporations exercise their influence in the international system through the movement of capital from states that curb their profits to states that do not. Accordingly, states tend to conceive of corporate interests as national interests and often implement business-friendly policies without being explicitly pressured (Korten, 1995, Ohmae, 1995, Willetts, 2001). The current reluctance of Europe and theUSto regulate the financial sector stems partly from the fear that large investors will transfer their investments from countries that do regulate to countries that do not. The same dilemma is noticeable in African debates about investors with poor human rights records. For example, while the trade unionists in the South African government opposed Walmart’s investment in the country, they were outvoted by ministers who argued that the country needed the investment. While Andrew Walter argues that academic literature often over-states the case for corporate influence, he cites only a few East Asian states as examples of states that manage to resist it successfully (Walter, 1999). A detailed investigation of the question is beyond the scope of this paper, but the prima facie case is certainly strong that corporate capital mobility has affected the contours of the international system.


While the state-centric model of international relations may have been appropriate to capture the post-world war II international system, it lacks the ability to account for a world where state security has to compete with human rights and financial profits for importance on the international stage. While it is true that states champion security issues, it is also true that NGOs promote human rights and that TNCs advance the goal of financial profit. A one-dimensional world fit for a one-actor theory has given way to a complex world of multiple issues and the multifarious actors that promote them.


  1. Evans, R. & Leigh, D. (2010) WikiLeaks Cables: Secret Deal Let Americans Sidestep Cluster Bomb Ban. The Guardian. London. Human Rights Watch (2011) U.S., Don’t Fund Child Soldiers. New York.
  2. Keohane, R. O. & Nye, J. S. (1971) Transnational Relations and World Politics, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press. Korten, D. (1995) When Corporations Rule the World, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler.
  3. Mansbach, R. W., Ferguson, W. Y. & Lampert, D. (1976) The Web of World Politics: Non-State Actors in the Global System, New Jersey, Prentice Hall.
  4. Mansbach, R. W. & Vasquez, J. A. (1981) In Search of Theory: A New Paradigm for Global Politics, New York, Columbia University Press. Ohmae, K. (1995) The End of the Nation State, New York, Free Press.
  5. Rosenau, J. N. (1990) Turbulence in World Politics, New York, Harvester Wheatsheaf. Walter, A. (1999) Globalization and policy convergence: the case of direct investment rules.
  6. IN HIGGOTT, R. & BEILER, A. (Eds.) Non-State Actors in the Global Economy. London, Routledge. Waltz, K. (1979) Theory in International Politics, Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley. Waltz, K. (1986) Political Structures” and “Anarchic Orders and Balances of Power.
  7. IN KEOHANE, R. O. (Ed.) Neorealism and its Critics. New York, Columbia University Press. Willetts, P. (2001) Transnational Actors and International Organizations in Global Politics.
  8. IN BAYLIS, J. B. & SMITH, S. (Eds.) The Globalisation of World Politics. New York, Oxford University Press.

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