Editor's Note

By Rosenthal, Joel H. | Ethics & International Affairs, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Editor's Note


Rosenthal, Joel H., Ethics & International Affairs


If there was any doubt that international affairs must be understood as more than the relations among sovereign states, that doubt was erased one year ago. The terror attacks of September 2001 have riveted our attention on a nonstate actor, the al-Qaeda network. While there is debate over just how powerful this network is--especially after the launch of a massive, multifaceted campaign to destroy it--there is little disagreement about al-Qaeda's demonstrated capacity to disrupt the lives of millions worldwide. As of this writing the campaign continues, and the war on terrorism remains the central organizing principle of American foreign policy.

The coalition of states fighting international terrorism is doing what states normally do--assigning responsibility to sister states to handle threats within their respective borders. When those states are unable or unwilling to respond, as was the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have shown a willingness to take matters into their own hands. The current war on terrorism is the most dramatic and plainly visible example of an unmistakable trend: states struggling to contain, control, or defeat the growing power of nonstate actors.

Everywhere we look we can see the power and influence of nonstate actors. Security challenges are coming not only from paramilitary and terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, but also from organized crime networks trafficking in commodities ranging from human bodies and labor to drugs. Economic and social challenges are flooding the rarefied spheres of international business and finance. As we saw from news stories this past summer highlighting faulty and corrupt accounting practices, states can only respond reactively, after the fact, when global businesses cause global markets to boom and bust. States continue to act unilaterally and regionally to stabilize markets and harness the power of the dynamic world economy. They also continue to invest prestige and resources in international organizations for the same purpose.

As the presence of thousands of demonstrators in the streets attests, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund are nonstate actors created by states whose power is, for good or for ill, a fact of economic life. The activists of Seattle and Genoa also remind us of the comparatively small but influential presence of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)--principally, advocacy groups, philanthropies, and educational organizations.

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