Free trade, protecting individual liberty, promoting democratic governance and alleviating suffering are all components of a conservative foreign policy. However, the achievement of these objectives is being hamstrung by the traditional (and increasingly antiquated) theory of realism.

Realism has habitually been the dominant international relations theory adopted by conservative governments when formulating and implementing their foreign policy agenda. Strict adherents to this theory deny the relevance of non-state actors on the global stage, such as: armed groups, terrorists, transnational criminal organizations, private military and security companies (PMCs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community and faith-based organizations, and businesses.

However, in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a debate has been raging, particularly in the United States, as conservatives question whether realism offers a sufficiently robust world view to account for post-Cold War threats to vital national interests posed by non-state actors. Conservative governments of recent vintage in Canada, France and Germany would benefit from a similar debate about the theoretical foundations of their foreign policy.

After making the case against realism, this article describes the realignment in thinking that is required to substantially and directly engage non-state actors to accomplish foreign policy goals. The result is a more demanding, but ultimately more effective, polycentric foreign policy program.

The Albatross of Realism

The tenets of realism can be seen throughout history from Sun Tzu to Machiavelli to Bismarck. Its premise is that sovereign states are the central (even exclusive) actors in an anarchic international system. The economic and military power of each state determines its ability to advance its national interests, foremost of which is the survival of the state. Non-state actors are viewed as proxies for states, which are taken to be the only real actors. Realism is thus a state-centric model of international relations that effectively ignores non-state entities as independent actors to be reckoned with.

Unflinching devotion to realism by conservatives is owed, in large part, to a rejection of the competing international relations theory of liberalism. Indeed, liberal commentators in the U.S. who have forcefully made the point about the blind-spot of realism to the contemporary threat of non-state actors argue that this necessitates a more expansive foreign policy agenda, pursued through soft power and multilateralism. While it is true that realism has a dangerous pre-disposition to discount relevant non-state actors, it does not follow that remedying this problem requires an abdication of national interests, watering down of foreign policy goals, or being restricted in tactics. While there should be a great deal of reluctance among conservatives about whether strict realism helps or hinders their foreign policy objectives, this does not require an embrace of liberalism with all of its trappings. Not all non-state actors are legitimate, but many of them are highly relevant to a state’s foreign policy objectives. Ignoring non-state actors is both a substantial risk and a missed opportunity.

After 9/11, American conservatives have frequently referred to non-state actors like al Qaeda as the “real enemies”,[1] recognizing that the military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq were tactically weak because non-state forces sidestepped the conventional military response that realism dictated.[2] As a result, William Lind has argued that Americans “should also question the hundreds of billions of dollars [they] pour annually into legacy forces and weapons suitable only for fighting other states.”[3]

On the other hand, there is the sharp rejoinder that “the neo-medieval Meltdown of the State is always approaching but never here”.[4] As with most labels in life, rough and ready categories – like realism and liberalism, and their many permutations – either provide a helpful starting point for discussion, or simply close one’s mind. Unfortunately, the latter scenario appears to have subsisted. Much like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, realist-motivated ignorance of non-state actors will not simply make them go away.

During the Cold War, realism showed little signs of weakness with respect to non-state actors. The Soviets and Americans actually relied on certain non-state actors as proxies, exercising a degree of control over them, or at least substantial influence. However, the explosion of non-state actors since the end of the Cold War was to be expected. As the restraints imposed by the superpowers diminished and decolonization accelerated, non-state actors flourished. It is here that conservatives must confront the first realization about many of today’s non-state actors: they are the natural offspring of the open societies and free markets favoured by conservatives. Civil society organizations have thrived because of freedom of association, assembly, expression and religion. This is something to be appreciated, not decried simply because of the ideological tendencies of certain NGOs.

Increasingly, the international agenda is being set and moved forward by coalitions of state and non-state actors. In the last decade, non-state actors have out-stripped the influence of many states at conferences setting international law. For example, over 200 accredited NGOs attended the Rome Conference on the International Criminal Court in 1998, lobbying governments in a highly-organized and orchestrated manner on a vast range of issues, despite several attempts to restrict and prevent their involvement by a number of states. The other notable example is the pervasive role of non-state actors at global climate change conferences, where NGO representatives often surpass state representatives with their sheer numbers, and celebrity-studded events bring global media attention.

In several areas of the world today non-state actors are more powerful than central governments. This is certainly the case in Sudan and Iraq, and traditionally the case in Columbia and many parts of Eastern Europe. One cannot seriously expect to have a foreign policy program in any of these countries without a clear and determined approach to dealing with the non-state actors behind hollow state facades.

Criminal non-state actors play a decidedly perverse function through trans-national terrorism or by profiting from the illicit trade in drugs, weapons and human beings. They take advantage of open borders and, through a combination of brute force and corruption, undermine infant democracies. While states that finance, support or harbour terrorists, traffickers or drug lords are responsible for the harm caused by those non-state actors, they are rarely, if ever, alter egos for one another. Indeed, the organic nature of terrorist cells is what has made them so effective. Citizenship does not bind terrorists together, but rather bonds of hatred and fanaticism. Likewise, while traffickers and drug lords depend on the support or ineptitude of states, they are organized and associated based on the underlying profitability of their criminal enterprises. If it becomes cheaper or less risky to ship guns, drugs or people through another transit country, it is simply done without a tear shed for patriotism. The multi-billion dollar global illegal economy of these criminal non-state actors rivals that of many developing countries, and even some developed ones.

In this environment, the myth of the state monopoly on force has long since become a laughable proposition. States and non-state actors alike are increasingly turning to other non-state actors to provide them with security and, in some cases, force projection. The private military and security company industry was valued at US$55.6 billion in 1990. It is expected to top US$210 billion by 2010. At least one-third of the U.S. budget in Iraq is committed to contracts with private military and security companies.[5] Some states, such as Angola, actually require foreign companies to hire PMCs as a condition of doing business there.[6] Not surprisingly, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Mercenaries recognizes that “the proliferation of international private military companies operating in over 50 countries around the world has outstripped the effectiveness of the existing legal framework and enforcement mechanisms.”[7]

The picture painted by the modern role of non-state actors is stark. They have proliferated well beyond the worst dreams of the forefathers of realism. While they vary widely, non-state actors are on the international stage to stay. It is incumbent on foreign policy architects and practitioners to ensure that the out-dated theoretical assumptions of realism that ignore non-state actors are cast aside.

Towards a Polycentric Foreign Policy

To deal with the reality (pun intended) of non-state actors, a state’s foreign policy must confront the threats posed by certain non-state actors, while aligning other non-state actors with its national interests.

The first stage in this process is the burdensome task of identifying and assessing the non-state actors that could have a material influence, either alone or in concert with others, on the national interests and foreign policy objectives of the state. The influence may be a negative one which must be confronted, or a positive one which may be nurtured. Similar to basic intelligence analysis, the work required is to identify the capabilities and intentions of these non-state actors. At the second stage, non-state actors are categorized and ranked according to their likelihood to affect the various foreign policy objectives of that state. The third stage involves developing a plan of action to engage those non-state actors that have ranked highest (for having a potential positive or negative impact) on priority foreign policy areas. This may involve an array of diplomatic, legal, economic, regulatory, military, or public relations tools, as appropriate (e.g. a terrorist organization may be made illegal and its members prosecuted, a humanitarian organization given favourable tax status or funding to foster community business development in poor countries, a communications campaign may be launched to counter the affect on public opinion of a coalition of NGOs opposing a key foreign policy, etc.). Selecting the appropriate tools is arguably the most delicate and challenging task, as discussed further below. The final stage is executing the selected approaches to mitigate the threats of opponent non-state actors, and enhance the impact of allied non-state actors.

Some states have already begun to mobilize their resources to engage non-state actors to advance their foreign policy objectives. Canada, however, appears to continue to measure its aims and outcomes on the international stage overwhelmingly in state-centric terms. While there is governmental support at the non-state level for international development, foreign affairs activities and initiatives to promote trade, no apparent coordinated strategy leverages these non-state actors to advance Canada’s national interests. The experiences below provide helpful examples of how this framework may be employed, as well as some likely challenges.

Confronting Threats Posed by Non-State Actors

The openness of Canadian society, like other Western democracies, has given foreign non-state actors, including terrorist organizations, the ability to organize, recruit and finance themselves. Canadians have been very slow to recognize that their good will has been exploited. As a 2003 report on terrorism by the Mackenzie Institute stated: “these non-state actors have moved into our country to take advantages of opportunities we present to them. The members of some groups come here when the price on their heads is too high at home. Others come to generate new followers among their countrymen and co-religionists from home, or to define and enforce a new system of beliefs among them. Canada can be a market for the black or gray market activities that feed their movements; to collect money openly and legally, or to quietly live until the time is right to resume the struggle.”[8] Seen in this light, threats posed by non-state actors may not only have a foreign policy component, but have domestic implications as well. Our military, law enforcement and border officials need to be equipped and mandated to confront these non-state actors. Such direction must come from the top and be backed up with proper funding and support.

Transnational criminal organizations are another priority non-state actor that must be vigorously confronted both at home and abroad. The countries where transnational criminal organization prey have economies that suffer from market failure because supply-and-demand is replaced with gangsterism, legal systems that are unable to protect even basic property rights because of police and judicial corruption, high instances of violence owing to a breakdown in social structures, and a risky climate for businesses to operate. Disrupting organized crime and prosecuting their leadership is no easy task. However, the consequences of inaction make it necessary to confront those challenges and make the necessary investments.

While it is generally uncontroversial to say that terrorist and criminal organizations should be confronted, other non-state actors that oppose a given foreign policy pose a much more challenging question.

The difficulty of assessing non-state actors has been recognized by intelligence agencies for some time. In addition to authoring reports on terrorist financing activities in Canada and the terrorist entity listing process, the Canadian Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) has disclosed that it has completed a top secret report for the Minister of Public Safety entitled: “Lawful Advocacy, Protest and Dissent Versus Serious Violence Associated with the Anti-Globalization Movement”.[9] The title of the report alone sets out the main dilemma. A foreign policy that encompasses free trade will be opposed, and vigorously, by the anti-globalization movement. How are those non-state actors to be dealt with?

Since any free and democratic society protects dissenting opinions, then such groups are to be accorded their freedom of peaceful assembly – there is of course no right to riot, loot and pillage. Therefore, only in the clearest cases where an organization has been devised or co-opted to operate in a manner that exceeds the scope of protected civil liberties should law enforcement and prosecutorial action be marshaled. The appropriate response to non-violent NGO opponents is a determined public relations exercise. The reason for the frequent failure of this tactic is arguably the lack of mature allied NGO stakeholders who support the government’s position – reminding us again of the failure of realism which teaches us that investing in friendly non-state actors is essentially a waste of time. This leads to the proactive discussion of how to align certain non-state actors with foreign policy interests.

Aligning Non-State Actors with Foreign Policy Interests

Non-state actors are not merely a threat or risk to be mitigated. Rather, there are some non-state actors that could play an extremely valuable and effective role in promoting the foreign policy objectives of a state. Claude Bruderlein has explained the value of non-state actors in the context of armed conflict, but his comments are equally applicable to other situations:

“These actors function without the constraints of a narrow foreign policy mandate of state institutions, with increased access to areas inaccessible to official actors. They can talk to several parties at once without losing credibility. They can deal directly with grassroots populations and operate without political or public scrutiny. In addition, non-state actors can more effectively build a network with civil society representatives and focus with them on longer-term perspectives. They are less subject to complaints of outside interference or breaches of sovereignty. In short, these actors are often more flexible than state actors especially in internal conflict situations.”[10]

Non-state actors that are supportive of a government’s foreign policy agenda are a decentralized asset in advancing the state’s objectives with other states, international organizations and non-state actors. This so-called “track two diplomacy” exponentially expands the number of channels by which a state can advance its objectives. Non-state actors can be, and often are, more effective at program delivery and development field work than governments acting alone. Building coalitions of states and non-state actors to support its foreign policy interests would enable middle-powers like Canada to achieve much more than they could otherwise. Such systematic coordination appears to be wholly lacking at present with respect to major foreign policy objectives. While it is a long-term investment to identify, enlist and support non-state actors that are receptive or friendly to a given foreign policy agenda, the dividends can be significant both in terms of rallying public support and ensuring effective implementation.

The state’s diplomatic, economic and development resources should be coordinated to maximize the contribution of non-state actors that are supportive of the government’s foreign policy program. For example, Christopher Sands and Shuvaloy Majumdar have recently written about the opportunity for Canada to support non-state actors to contribute to democratic assistance abroad.[11]

In another demonstration of how foreign policy realigned to reflect non-state actors can work, U.S. Republicans have made combating human trafficking – a practice that denies human liberty and allows organized crime to flourish – a foreign policy priority. Organizations that obtain government funding to combat human trafficking in the U.S. must be committed to the abolition of the modern-day slave trade, as opposed to promoting a regulated sex trade. Faith-based organizations alongside humanitarian organizations have formed a powerful coalition around the issue. At the same time, U.S. law enforcement agencies are active abroad and at-home investigating and prosecuting both traffickers and child sex offenders. NGOs in the field help identify victims and offenders, gathering evidence for prosecutions. Diplomatic pressure is kept up by an annual ranking of how other countries are doing on combating human trafficking, drawing on information from NGOs in the field. Tourism companies are also required by law on certain flights to caution travelers about extraterritorial and local laws against child sex tourism. U.S. embassies around the world organize informal meetings of local groups to build coalitions to catalyze change on the issue. This overarching approach of building a powerful NGO and business coalition to combat transnational criminal organizations is compelling, and it is working. It is a remarkable demonstration of how far a polycentric strategic foreign policy can go, without making a large financial investment. Indeed, so much foreign aid funding is uncoordinated that merely coordinating what is already budgeted could lead to big results.

Likewise, the U.S. has been fully aware of the economic power of its businesses for some time. It has long recognized that aligning these non-state actors with its foreign policy objectives is necessary. Most notably, the U.S. has opted to do so through legal prohibitions on export and travel to unfriendly regimes. The private military and security company industry has also not escaped notice. The U.S. licensing regime for military services requires all American PMCs to register with the State Department, and their activities must conform to the United States Munitions List and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (both of which regulate military services as well as arms). A license must be obtained for every U.S. PMC contract. Larger contracts (i.e. those over US$14 million in equipment or US$50 million in services) require Presidential approval.[12] Realizing the strategic importance of PMCs, the U.S. barred its PMCs in the 1990s from working for certain parties in the former Yugoslavia, and in 2002 for Robert Mugabe’s Government of Zimbabwe.

There does not appear to be any similar regime in Canada, despite the existence of Canadian PMCs operating in conflict areas abroad. The most recent high profile example was the abduction of four British bodyguards employed by Montreal-based GardaWorld in Iraq.[13] Canada’s Foreign Enlistment Act[14] is out-dated and ill-suited to PMC regulation. It also has relatively minor penalties for non-compliance.[15] It may be time for Canada to consider regulating its PMCs, as the United Kingdom and South Africa have recently done, rather than waiting for an incident to catalyze the need for such change.


Ignoring non-state actors in the design and execution of a state’s foreign policy is no longer an option. Realignment in thinking is needed to directly engage non-state actors in a coordinated and strategic manner. A reactive aspect of this new polycentric foreign policy program requires investments in military, law enforcement and intelligence capabilities that are specifically designed to respond to terrorists and criminal organizations, as opposed to just conventional threats. The proactive aspect of this approach necessitates the identification of receptive non-state actors to develop and utilize them in advancing foreign policy goals through coalition building, track two diplomacy and program implementation.

The current mission in Afghanistan offers an excellent opportunity for Canada and its partners to implement this emerging model of focused non-state activity, alongside its important military contribution. The security, economic, social and political challenges facing Afghanistan are exacerbated by non-state actors that seek to return the country to a totalitarian Islamist theocracy. The now popular doctrine of winning a “Three-Block War” through defence, diplomacy and development will not succeed if it is only implemented through state actors. Engaging and developing Canadian and foreign non-governmental organizations and businesses to work in coordination with our armed forces in this environment is a model that is more likely to succeed.

Today’s international problems demand a fresh approach. The overwhelmingly majority of challenges that Canadian foreign policy must address are not posed primarily by states. Free markets and free people cannot last long in the clutches of terrorists, guerillas and transnational criminals. Confronting these criminal non-state actors would be a valuable contribution for our country to make, and could be a unifying aspect of our national identity. Similarly, expanding free trade and enabling NGOs to get serious about promoting democracy and alleviating suffering would be in the best of Canadian traditions.

Benjamin Perrin is assistant professor at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law in Vancouver, Canada.

[1] Paul Weyrich, “A Call for Conservatives to Debate Foreign Policy”, Human Events, November 8, 2004.

[2] William Lind, “Strategic Defense Initiative: Distance From Disorder is the Key to Winning the Terror War”, The American Conservative, November 22, 2004.

[3] Paul Weyrich & William Lind, “The Next Conservatism”, The American Conservative, February 12, 2007.

[4] Michael Lind, “The Future of U.S. Foreign Policy: A Reply”, Open Democracy, February 12, 2007.

[5] Paul Keilthy, “Private Security Firms in War Zones Worry NGOs”, 11 August 2004, online: Reuters AlertNet (visited 5 June 2007).

[6] Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces, Private Military Firms: Working Group on Private Military Companies (Geneva, 2004) at p. 12.

[7] “Report of the Special Rapporteur, Shaista Shameem: Use of Mercenaries as a Means of Violating Human Rights and Impeding the Exercise of the Right of Peoples to Self-Determination”, U.N. Commission on Human Rights, 61st Sess., UN Doc. E/CN.4/2005/14, 8 December 2004 at p. 12. For an analysis of the incentives facing these companies, see Benjamin Perrin, “Promoting Compliance of Private Security and Military Companies with International Humanitarian Law” (2006) 88 International Review of the Red Cross 613.

[8] John C. Thompson & Joe Turlej, Other People’s Wars: A Review of Overseas Terrorism in Canada (The Mackenzie Institute: 2003), online: (viewed 2 June 2007).

[9] “Appendix A: SIRC Reviews Since 1984” in Security Intelligence Review Committee, SIRC Annual Report 2005–2006, online: [viewed 7 June 2007].

[10] Claude Bruderlein, “The Role of Non-State Actors in Building Human Security: The Case of Armed Groups in Intra-State Wars”, Human Security Network: Ministerial Meetings (5 March 2000).

[11] Christopher Sands & Shuvaloy Majumdar, “Going Global with Peace, Order and Good Government” (2007) 1 C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas 38.

[12] Carlos Ortiz, “Regulating Private Military Companies: States and the Expanding Business of Commercial Security Provision” in Kees van der Pijl, Libby Assassi and Duncan Wigan, eds. Global Regulation: Managing Crises After the Imperial Turn (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) 205 at pp. 213-214.

[13] “Gunmen Kidnap Britons from Baghdad ministry”, 29 May 2007, CBC News, online: [last visited 7 June 2007].

[14] Foreign Enlistment Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. F-28.

[15] Ibid., s. 14(b).