“All the world’s a stage”, exclaims Jacques in his monologue in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene IV, Line 139). Global politics can be, and is often, viewed in the same manner. Many players with different agendas, characteristics, resources, incentives, schemes and plans.
It is no wonder then that the word “actor” is used frequently in global affairs.
When global politics was first studied, the subject was actually referred to, and still is in many parts of academia, as “international relations”. That is, relations between nation states. States were seen not only as the most important actor in international affairs but the only actors.
It was the idea that states were the sole operator globally and these nations acted in their own “national self-interest”.
Such an approach obscured and reduced the influence of other actors to zero. As the discipline evolved, other actors were incorporated into the analysis and were divided into two groups:
State Actors And Non-State Actors
The definition of a state is pretty straight forward. They are countries like France, China or Germany. They are sovereign. That is, they have the monopoly of power within their borders.
A sovereign state or country is independent and not under the authority of any other country
And these states act in their own national interest. According to one definition:
states exist within an anarchic international system in which they are ultimately dependent on their own capabilities, or power, to further their national interests. The most important national interest is the survival of the state, including its people, political system, and territorial integrity. Other major interests for realists include preservation of the culture and the economy.
So, in the early days of the study of international relations, the global system (stage) was deemed to be anarchic (i.e. no world government) and, thus, the only players or actors were sovereign states.
It may have made some sense 100 years ago; though that is also debatable. However, in the 21st century, in a globalised world, such a framework is no longer fit for purpose. It is clear that the world is not only interconnected politically but also financially and culturally. The idea that the nation state is the sole source of power is absurd. These non-state actors therefore need some fleshing out.
As a quick aside, it is increasingly common to see the word “international” or “transnational” replaced with “global”. All terms are used interchangeably in the definitions below but are clearly global in nature, i.e. their interactions across the world are not solely with states or nations.
Central Banks: such as the US Federal Reserve or the Bank of England. Some of these institutions are legally mandated to operate independently of government policy.
Criminal Groups: such as drug cartels or criminal gangs which have large networks of operations and financial flows that move globally
Global Corporations: any large multinational company that has influence on global policy making or activity within and across multiple countries. Oil companies and more recently social media companies can play huge roles in global politics.
Global Media: a subset of the above. These organisations hold significant power as they decide what stories and narratives to draw attention to, and what not to.
Global Movements: for example, the climate change movement which is forcing governments, consumers, and corporations to change their behaviour. The Black Lives Matter movement is another example. As is Feminism.
IGOs (International Governmental Organisations): Institutions such as the EU, the World Bank, the IMF (International Monetary Fund), and the Bank of International Settlements.
NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations): organisations such as the Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontiers that have substantial operations across the world, and significant influence on media, government and IGOs.
Prominent Persons: people such as Elon Musk and his influence on energy policy and the transition to electric cars or Bill Gates and his influence on global health policy.
Religious Groups: decentralised religions such as Islam or Protestant Christianity and unitary institutions such as the Catholic Church all hold huge sway over multiple populations globally and are key influencers in policy debates, especially regarding social matters.
Terrorist Groups / Freedom Fighters: Violent groups with political aims such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS or other fights for independence such as the US War of Independence.
Non-Violent Movements for Independence: such as Catalonia, or Scottish Independence.
The list is not exhaustive and is subject to debate. For example, how can a central bank or an IGO be a non-state actor? Well, the former is part of a state (not a state itself) and the latter is comprised of many states and, thus, again is not a state in of itself. The literature is full of such detailed idiosyncrasies that we are best to avoid in order to see the bigger picture.
All The Players On One Stage
In order to try to get the big picture it is crucial to factor in all the actors and how they play on the stage. The interaction between governments and corporations, between social movements and social media and all the other possibilities all combine to move the world politically, culturally and financially.
Think of it as a butterfly effect. How did the war in Syria contribute to Brexit? One could show, with reasonable logic that the images of Syrian refugees arriving in Germany were used by anti-immigration campaigners and their sympathisers in the UK Press to show that the UK needed a stronger immigration policy and that this was not possible within the EU. Whether that indeed was correct is not the point.
And how did the Syrian war start? It was perhaps influenced by the so-called Arab Spring where social media played such a pivotal role.
Understanding all the actors on the stage and their motives helps create a better picture. It helps us understand consequences that may not be so clear at first glance. After Brexit the pound collapsed, and gold thus performed very well. Gold and politics are inextricably linked. This will be discussed in a different lesson in the academy.
Everything is connected.
Or, to put it in a more human form:
“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell