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Dossiers and Documents : Discussion Papers : Non-state Actors and World Governance

Non-state Actors and World Governance

Non-state actors have always played an essential role in global regulation, but their role will grow considerably in this, the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Non-state actors have always been important in world governance

Non-state Actors and World Governance


Pierre Calame ¤ 2 June 2008 ¤
Translations: français (original) . Español . 中文 .

The issue of the role of non-state actors in international regulation is not new, but with growing interdependency it takes on a new dimension. Throughout history, states have been far from being the drivers, and even less so the sole promoters of new international regulation. We could even go as far as to say that the conception of international action is determined and limited by the conception of the state itself.

The model that emerged in Europe after the Renaissance, whose main characteristics were established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, was solely based on national interest. Any foray across national borders has always been driven by national interest: whether it be to conquer new territories, to defend existing borders or to acquire new territories to control their natural resources imperialistically. This means that not only do states not have the monopoly on international action and the implementation of the transnational regulations necessary to manage interdependencies, but moreover from the moment they engage in international regulation, they meet a major political and philosophical obstacle.

The genetic characteristics of the Westphalian State, although historically defined to serve more or less absolute monarchies, have been reinforced rather than weakened by the quasi-generalized spread of democratic regimes: To the state’s genetic nature we must add the nature of the governed: citizens are concerned by local and national interests; in electing their leaders they find their interests are taken beyond national borders and where this is the case they prefer to act through non-state, not for profit organizations.

The fundamental Nation-State model is based on international agreements with clearly defined objectives of common interest, and not on abandoning sovereignty for the benefit of entities which transcend national interests.

The European Union, whose evolution no doubt benefited from the trauma of the Second World War and the acknowledgment that categorical defense of national interests lead to collective suicide, is at present the only existing historic model that validates the possibility of surpassing sovereignty.

Historically, it is the non-state actors that have doggedly crossed national boundaries: This is true in an economic context, for example the West Indies Companies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and colonial undertakings of the nineteenth century; it is also true for movements like the Red Cross, the anti-torture movements, the abolition of slavery, or even the promotion of international institutions such as the League of Nations, the UN or even the construction of Europe. (For example, if we think about the role of the Congress of The Hague, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year).

The role of non-governmental organizations in the United Nations’ current activities is so important, whether in lobbying, research, political analysis or in contributions to ideas and new information, that Richard Jolly and his colleagues do not hesitate to talk about “United Nations no 3”. This United Nations is made up of non-governmental organizations, while The General Assembly is the “United Nations No. 1” and the agencies secretariat are “The United Nations No. 2”. [1]

To think again in historical terms about our societies’ capacity to widen their horizons, we must consider both the development of commercial exchanges and the spread of ideas and convictions. Entrepreneurs and traders generally built the first bridges between civilizations: with the route to the Indies and the creation of trading posts. Religions, in particular the Christian religions and Islam were the first international institutions, each bearing an ideology on the world and on humanity according to its structure: The hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the decentralization of the Protestant Churches and the different Muslim communities.

The model of the Greek city-state expanded following Alexander the Great’s conquests during the development of the Ancient Greek civilization across vast territories. In Europe, traveling doctors and architects from the Middle Ages and philosophers from the Age of Enlightenment promoted the exchange of ideas beyond national borders.

The relationship between state and non-state institutions is always complex. Colonial commercial companies have little benefit from national protection. The relationship between worldly and spiritual powers in Islam and Christian religions has often been very close. It is the combination of the Age of Enlightenment and the conquests of Napoleon and then, in the nineteenth century the combination of military conquests and the spread of new ideas and ideologies which interwove international relations.

Closer to our time, the role of large American foundations has always been significant. From the beginning of the twentieth century when Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller created the first modern foundations they have had a large impact on the American and international political stages. In the specific case of the context of the United States, relationships between foundations and politics have always been very close, so much so that in 1969 the United States Congress enacted a law restricting the political activities of private foundations. These political activities were in part replaced by think-tanks. In one way or another, American foundations have played an important part in spreading the American model, be it in a positive light particularly during the Cold War or more conflictively as is the case today. Having understood the limits of state action, certain foundations have become more independent and now hold their own international agenda.

From this first point we should retain that the role of non-state actors in the development of international regulation is as old as civilization and surpasses the role of the state. Cross-border relationships have always been the result of a combination of non-state actors together with state intervention.

[1Annual Report of the Foundation Center, 2005

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