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Or why we need to pay more, not less, attention to non-states actors.

This post started a while ago as some thoughts about Kilcullen’s book, The Accidental Guerilla, and Australian strategic policy.  But I found I kept returning to some key themes bigger than either.

Let’s start with WP2009.  Its authors remain confident in the continuing ability of nation-states to shape international order:

We have a strategic interest in preserving an international order that restrains aggression by states against each other, and can effectively manage other risks and threats, such as the proliferation of WMD, terrorism, state fragility and failure, intra-state conflict, and the security impacts of climate change and resource scarcity. (Executive Summary, p12) 

Moreover, they believe that non-state actors—Islamic terrorists—will have strategic effect only when they gain WMD, weapons currently the preserve of nation-states:

Despite its potential to cause mass casualties and catastrophic attacks on infrastructure, Islamist terrorism will continue to have inherent limitations as a strategic threat. Terrorists will keep aspiring to develop or acquire chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear weapons. A WMD attack by a non-state actor in the coming decades cannot be ruled out. (4.49, p38)

However, there are three distinct trends that counter WP2009’s confident view of the continuing dominance of nation-states and their ability to solve the problems of international security.

First, there’s the fraying of the Westphalian-dominated international system, as many accepted norms and even institutions are losing both currency and their constituency.  The United Nations is struggling, as is NATO, for example.  And the cases of both North Korea and Iran show how difficult it is to achieve a consensus on strong action when states, let alone non-state actors operating within a number of states, actively seek WMD.  It’s far from clear that there is any consensus on appropriate new security institutions for the future—though the Proliferation Security Initiative may be such a one

Second, there is the reduced leverage of nation-states over international order, as argued by Kilcullen and a range of other analysis including Cooper and Bobbitt, as mentioned.  A key lesson of the post-2001 world is that nation-states are ill-equipped to deal with non-state threats—whether accidental guerrillas, loosely condoned hacker groups, proliferation networks or Islamic terrorists—yet deal with them they must to retain to retain their integrity and security as nation-states.  There is, however, the problem that the apparatus of nation-states tend to focus on the apparatus of other nation-states; they are ill-equipped to recognise or understand behaviours and effects outside that realm.

Third is the rise of statelessness, best expressed in Grygiel’s recent paper.  Possession of states is no longer the necessary goal for non-state groups. Globalisation and the spread of civilian and military technologies now enables non-state groups to pursue their goals unimpeded by the security, politics and governance that come with state responsibilities.  Stateless groups don’t want to take over and control territory—a Westphalian definition of strategic threat—but they are more than happy to deny states the ability to control territory and to pursue their interests, and to limit states’ behaviours through a range of other means, not necessarily reliant on possession of WMD.

The changes in the international environment over the past few decades, often ‘black-boxed’ as ‘globalisation’ has generated a substrate of communications, financial flows, ideas, peoples, technology and material that have allowed non-state actors an effect disproportionate to their apparent size.  Concurrently, these changes have rendered nation-states less an integral entity, defined primarily by geographically and a largely homogenous population, and more a diffuse if still roughly bounded aggregation of rules, populations, organizations, financial trades, cultures, interactions and, yes, physical presence.

It is true that nation-state warfare remains a possibility.  But it is equally true it should not be the only–not even the primary–focus of strategy or determinant of force structure.  Bobbitt again

“We’re not thinking [at all]. We’re going off unreflectively with the habits of mind that were quite successful for us in the struggles of the 20th century. Understandably, we are reluctant to abandon those habits. My fear is that it will take some catastrophe to shake us out of our complacency.” 


Bobbitt, P. (2002). The Shield of Achilles, Knopf.

Cooper, R. (2004). The Breaking of Nations. London, Atlantic Books.

Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.

Etzioni, A. (2009). “Tomorrow’s Institution Today.” Foreign Affairs 88(3).

Grygiel, J. (2009). “The Power of Statelessness.” Policy Review April-May 2009(154): (accessed 6 May 2009).

Kilcullen, D. J. (2009). The Accidental Guerilla, Oxford University Press.

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.

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