From Hezbollah to Hedge Funds, U.S. Still Bewildered by Non-State Actors

Washington is just beginning to grasp the implications of a world system in which small, ambiguous groups can alter the course of history

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Feisal Omar / Reuters

When will America start to learn how to deal with the dynamic players that shape so many world events? A decade after 9/11 heralded the arrival of transnational terrorism on America's doorstep, policymakers have paid a lot of attention to that particular threat -- but they've displayed a remarkable poverty of the imagination in absorbing that power in today's world is wielded by an array of important actors, and not just by traditional states.

9-11 Ten Years Later The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is prompting all kinds of reflection and remembrance, and for those who follow foreign and security policy it's an occasion to process just how much international affairs is guided by what experts call, for lack of a more clear understanding, "non-state actors."

Anne-Marie Slaughter, writing here at The Atlantic, calls for a "new foreign policy frontier." She has been one of the more vocal thinkers urging decision-makers and the academy to grapple with a world where oil companies and tech giants, religious leaders and jihadist movements, vie with diplomats and generals to influence the course of events.

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I wrote about this failure to absorb the sea change in my most recent Internationalist column in The Boston Globe. There's small but growing chorus of important thinkers -- some in the academy, some in government, some in think tanks, who understand the shift in the nature of power away from a solely state-dominated order, but they have yet to shift the course of foreign policy orthodoxy. Hopefully, that change will come soon.

One of the tragedies of the decade after 9/11 was that the United States insisted on viewing its problems through the outdated logic of "states only." So when the threat was Al Qaeda, the U.S. chose to pursue states that "host" terrorism, through conventional war, rather than opting from the get-go for a strategy of pursuing terrorists through a combination of sleuthing, police work, and military special forces, as it learned to do the hard way.

Nowadays, foreign policy decision-makers are harvesting the fruit of bitter experience, a sort of trickling-up of ideas. Counter-terrorism tactics honed by field operatives have finally become national policy, resulting in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And gradually, people with power are trying to grasp the implications of a complex world system in which a hedge fund, or a group like Hezbollah, or an oil supermajor, can cause a signal event like a financial collapse or a regional war.

There's a great array of smart academics trying to figure this out, including Stephen Walt and Joseph Nye at Harvard, Michael Doyle at Columbia, Stephen Krasner at Stanford, to Bruce Jentleson and Peter Feaver at Duke, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita at New York University, and too many others to name. It's just that, so far, their worldview isn't guiding the behavior of the most powerful government in the world: America's. Sooner or later, Washington will figure out how to navigate the new order to its advantage, but for the time being, it has ceded ground to states like Iran and China that are more comfortable doing deals in the ambiguous and uncertain non-state-centric world.