Power is diffusing away from states to a much broader range of actors. According to a recent roundtable hosted by the British Council, this has created a ‘diplomatic deficit’ in the old structures of international relations; but it also presents opportunities for countries willing to reach out to - and through - non-state actors.

Complex Problems in a Complex System

We live in a time of profound changes in technology, communication and the diffusion of power. Carne Ross, author of Independent Diplomat: Dispatches From An Unaccountable Elite, argues that, in this context, the current system of formal international diplomacy is no longer fit for purpose. That it is insufficiently open or inclusive of those most affected by global decision-making. This is problematic at a time when more and more of the world’s problems, from climate change to mass migration to terrorism, are transnational in scope and beyond the capacity of single countries to resolve alone – and when there is a growing shift in power away from states and towards non-state actors. Indeed, the transnational nature of today’s problems suggests that the state system itself with its formalised diplomacy, dominant since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, may no longer be sufficient to resolve today’s global challenges. The world may need to find broader forms of international cooperation and coalition building. 

The transnational nature of today’s problems suggests that the state system itself with its formalised diplomacy, dominant since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, may no longer be sufficient to resolve today’s global challenges

Traditional state diplomacy conducted behind closed doors, it is suggested, risks perpetuating the self-interest of certain states and their diplomatic elites, excluding affected groups or peoples from representation, lacking legitimacy and failing to take advantage of the growing power of non-state actors. This is resulting in a ‘diplomatic deficit’; undermining the effectiveness of international diplomacy. Recent examples include climate change negotiations – where inhabitants of regions most affected by climate change, such as those living in low-lying areas and islands, are underrepresented, as are private sector organisations and cities, which have been increasingly instrumental in driving the climate change agenda. Another example is the Syrian refugee crisis - as the refugees themselves and the civil society organisations which support them have little opportunity to influence discussions about the issues that profoundly affect them. 

Also potentially relevant to this problem is ‘complexity theory’, which argues that seeking to impose top-down solutions on complex systems is doomed to failure and likely to create unintended adverse consequences. In an increasingly interconnected and globalised world, this could have major implications for how states engage internationally. It suggests the need for a shift of emphasis from formalised top-down diplomatic relations between national foreign ministries towards bottom-up engagement with a much wider array of state and non-state groups - and more direct liaison between non-state actors across international borders.

Beyond Raison d’État

It is true that non-state groups, such as civil society organisations, cultural institutions and the private sector, already contribute to states’ soft power. The international engagement of such groups often influences the way states are perceived by other states and peoples, affecting opportunities for bilateral relationships on issues such as trade and security. A recent report by ResPublica has argued that the UK’s independent institutions, organisations and associations, from universities to sports clubs, represent an enormous source of soft power. This potentially strengthens the case for such bodies to have deeper role in international decision-making, as they are often able to provide first-hand insight on the grassroots implications of foreign policy. Similarly, countries should be more aware of the need to work with institutions, groups, and peoples in other countries as well as with those countries’ diplomats. More and more international engagement with important economic and soft power implications is taking place at organisation-to-organisation, city-to city, and people-to-people levels.

In this context, the term ‘non-state actors’ is a broad one, which could include civil society groups, academic voices, and the private sector, all of which can be powerful champions for positive change. For example, Microsoft has been instrumental in asking for new international rules on cyber-warfare. And in Northern Ireland, women’s groups and even punk musicians played an important role in bringing peace. Yet traditional supra-national institutions where international relations take place, such as the UN, were designed for state-to-state negotiations and as such are predicated on a unitary model of the state as a single international actor - something which looks less and less like the contemporary world. Non-state actors increasingly have an international voice through social media, but have little ability to be involved in formal diplomatic processes. As a result, ad-hoc solutions dealing with a range of non-state actors are on the rise. 

The rising power of non-state actors could be an important opportunity

This raises important questions of democratic legitimacy in international relations. But as the international community seeks to grapple with more and more complex global challenges, the rising power of non-state actors could be an important opportunity. It could for example help states to form or empower multinational relationships of citizens, institutions, NGOs, and businesses to help solve international problems. It could also help to create convergence around common standards that protect global public goods on a wide range of issues such as climate change and gender inequality. This is particularly an opportunity for countries such as the UK with flourishing and internationally-recognised strengths in institutions and civil society. They could perhaps be more confident in playing to their strengths - and in finding new ways to reach out across the world.