Battle for State Control: Lessons from Violent Nonstate Actors Imitating the State: Colombia, Nicaragua, and Lessons for Iraq

By DiPaolo, Amanda | World Affairs, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Battle for State Control: Lessons from Violent Nonstate Actors Imitating the State: Colombia, Nicaragua, and Lessons for Iraq


DiPaolo, Amanda, World Affairs


How do violent nonstate actors seek local change? Literature on international relations theory finally has started to take into account the role that nonstate actors play in world affairs. (1) However, most of this literature has focused primarily on nonviolent, not-for-profit nongovernmental organizations that engage in advocacy or provide services and that are placed in the framework of global civil society and social movements. Violent nonstate actors that also seek change either locally or globally are not discussed in the transnationalist literature focusing on nonstate actors. Specifically, violent nonstate actors that seek local or global change by imitating the structure of the state have yet to be explored in the context of transnational nonstate actor literature. These organizations will be the focus of this article.

Insurgencies and revolutionary groups imitate the structure of the state to achieve local or global influence or change in a similar fashion, as do nonviolent nonstate actors, which are the traditional focus of analysis. In this regard, I refer to the idea put forth by a number of scholars, (2) but which is best exemplified in a recent chapter in Comparative Foreign Policy, by Hans Peter Schmitz, that suggests that nonviolent, not-for-profit nonstate actors imitate the structure of the state. Doing so, Schmitz suggests, helps facilitate the efforts of the nonstate actor in gaining access or the ability to set the global agenda and to implement change independent of state influence. Likewise, when an insurgency group imitates the structure of the state, it is likely to achieve greater success in its goal of gaining control of the state than if the group were less or differently structured. It is not the use of the state structure by violent nonstate actors that differs from the nonviolent nonstate actors, but rather the methods and tactics used to force change once the structure is in place.

This article contains two sections, in the first section, I will explore the existing literature on the role of nonstate actors in international relations theories. I will define key propositions and look at the need to take nonstate actors more seriously in international relations. I will then show how nonstate actors imitate states to gain global influence to argue that this approach to understanding nonstate actors' influence in global affairs can be applied to how violent nonstate actors seek local change. In section 2, I will present three cases that demonstrate how violent nonstate actors that imitate the structure of the state can be successful. Furthermore, I will show that imitating the structure of the state is only the start of influence gained by the violent nonstate actor, whose use of methods and tactics in the state-like structure affects international security through asymmetric threats and hence, independent of states, affects global change. The first case is the Sandinistas' successful efforts to overthrow the Somoza government in Nicaragua in the late 1970s. The second case involves the rise of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from their creation in the 1960s until the present and their connection to the drug wars. The third case concerns the current hostilities taking place in Fallujah, Iraq, where insurgents have much at stake. Finally, I will offer suggestions for policymakers to consider in their attempts to neutralize threats posed by violent nonstate actors.

It is important to note how insurgency groups likely will achieve greater success in creating means of protecting state security from potential criminal-terrorist safe havens. Understanding the influence and the potential global reach of violent nonstate actors is significant for American foreign policy in the larger context of its conduct in the so-called war on terrorism. It is the current U.S. administration's position that failing governments (3) with massive insurgencies are threats to international security, as the inability to control such areas provides safe havens for terrorists and organized criminals.

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