Non-state groups from ISIS to transnational crime syndicates deploy an assortment of tactics and new technologies that strengthen their power to organize, mobilize, fight, and wield influence. As a variety of non-state actors grow stronger, more states are either failing or losing the capacity to fully control their territory, writes Seth D. Kaplan, a Professorial Lecturer in Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Several trends are changing the balance of forces, making the more fragile states less sustainable in their current form, and more likely to tip over into instability than before, he writes for The American Interest:
- New ideologies are increasing the centrifugal forces acting on states. Whereas once it was thought (at least in the West) that liberal democracy would triumph everywhere, it is now clear that other ideas are more attractive to many. Indeed, democracy and capitalism have often failed to fulfill their promises in many developing countries, at least partly because they require greater cohesion and better institutions than these states can muster. Meanwhile, new (or resurgent) ideas about identity and faith have proliferated in response to the pressures of globalization…..
- New communications technology is empowering non-state actors and weakening national cohesion. Whereas once the state had a monopoly on media and communications, now it controls neither. The proliferation of cell phones, smartphones, new television channels, the Internet, and social media has weakened the legitimacy of many governments while promoting societal fragmentation along ideological or identity lines. Different narratives about the past, present, and future now compete with what the government says. …
- The proliferation of weapons is weakening the state’s significant edge in using violence. Non-state actors have access to more sophisticated weapons than ever before. Some of this is due to technological change—individuals and small groups can buy cheaper weapons or even develop their own. The failure of countries such as Libya has increased supply (storage depots were pillaged), as has the entry into the weapons market of new small-arms exporters such as China. The expansion of international criminal networks has also played a role, opening new channels of supply……
- An increasingly multipolar power dynamic is weakening the international response. The rise or reemergence of China, India, Russia, and regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia has produced a fragmented, divided international order with less capacity to impose its will than was the case even ten or 15 years ago….These new powers have their own ideas about how the international system should be run and their own interests to protect. In some cases, they directly oppose Western ideas and interests, as in Syria and Ukraine…At the same time, the U.S. government, and the rest of the West alongside it, has shown a growing reluctance to project force and defend the international order it created due to changing ideas at home about its role in the world coupled with perceived economic and financial weakness.
The United States and other leading international actors ought to advance reforms with great care in fragile yet stable countries (such as Jordan and Ethiopia), which are highly vulnerable to shocks, Kaplan contends:
We need a greater appreciation for the institutions that do work—no matter what form they take and how imperfect they may be at times. In these places, change that preserves stability can only happen incrementally, in ways that do not undermine or disrupt whatever system exists. ….It may be better to evaluate how states perform on measures such as these than just to look at what shapes their formal institutions take.