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To understand the international security system, policy-makers need to consider not simply nation-states but a range of other, non-state actors, and all their interactions. 

All interactions, of course, are not equal: some matter more than others, and some will form different organisational models.  Some, even between individuals, have strategic effect. 

Recent examples include the interactions between the 19 conspirators of the September 11 attacks, the AQ Khan nuclear proliferation network, and viral Chinese hacker groups.  All are new, strategically significant forms of organization outside the nation-state system, and all remain outside direct nation-state control (Coll, Albright et al. 2007; Broad and Sanger 2008; Hoffman 2008; Hvistendahl 2009). 

But, embedded in the system of nation-states, policy-makers have focussed on relationships they know best—those with other nation-states, with which they have established shared understandings, even between adversaries, and commonalities of interests. 

Concentrating on the familiar, however, can blind one to other influential elements.  IMF bankers, for example, focussing on central bank governors, can fail to miss the dealings, and so effects, of entrepreneurs (Hale 2007). 

Similarly, defence planners can easily fall into the trap of narrowing their gaze, and focus on the familiar—such as the Iraqi military or the PLA state security apparatus—so missing, or misunderstanding, the unusual, such as tribal or religiously motivated insurgents or cyber flash mobs.  

While nation-states will remain heavyweights in international security, their comparative influence has waned and is increasingly vulnerable to the attitudes, actions and relative power of other actors, and particularly of their collective, networked effect. 

There are now many ways and many alternate means of organisation available through which to achieve goals and to influence the security environment, and without recourse to conventional military instruments. 

It is not inconceivable that an alternative form of organization may supersede the nation-state much as the nation-state superseded the church and princedoms as the key strategic actor in international security. 

In the meantime, good strategic policy necessarily must take account of the influence, sometimes critical, of non-state actors on international security.


Broad, W. J. and D. E. Sanger (2008). In Nuclear Net’s Undoing, a Web of Shadowy Deals. The New York Times. New York.

Coll, S., D. Albright, et al. (2007). Finding innovative ways to detect and thwart illicit nuclear trade. Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference, Washington DC, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hale, D. (2007). Econoshocks: The East Asian Crisis Case. Blindside. F. Fukuyama. Washington DC, Brookings Institution: 42-53.

Hoffman, B. (2008). “The Myth of Grass-Roots Terrorism:  Why Osama bin Laden Still Matters.” Foreign Affairs 87(3).

Hvistendahl, M. (2009). Hackers: the China Syndrome. Popular Science.

August 2020