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Non-State Actors, New Disruptors

Apr 27, 2022
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is a rare war between two major countries after the Cold War. The territories of Russia and Ukraine, their demographics, comprehensive national strengths and geopolitical influence — combined with the broad, collective involvement of Western nations — give the conflict a thick color of a major-country war and major-country wrangling. Meanwhile, various non-state actors have played important roles in the conflict and complicated interactions with traditional state actors. Conspicuous characteristics of a new type of international conflict have emerged.

Non-state actors have played the role of disruptors. Prominent international capitalists, small and medium-sized technological entities and emerging international platforms have all taken advantage of their own strengths to get involved in the process of the conflict as well as corresponding diplomatic games. Elon Musk, Tesla CEO and the richest person on the Forbes list of billionaires, for instance, openly took sides in the beginning of the conflict, not only vocally supporting Ukraine but providing the Ukrainian public with internet services using his Starlink system.

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich even directly played the role of mediator, participating in Russia-Ukraine negotiations and shuttling between Moscow and Kyiv as a messenger.

The internationally famous hacking group known as Anonymous issued a call on social media for hackers all over the globe to launch a cyberwar against Russia, and more than 1,500 websites related to Russian and Belarusian governments, media, banks and companies have been attacked, opening up another battlefield.

Small and micro technology companies in Western countries have actively or passively been involved in the war by taking advantage of their advanced technological capabilities, providing satellite imagery and facial recognition services to Ukraine. Such social media websites as Twitter and Facebook have taken restrictive measures against Russian media, prohibiting them from publishing ads or monetizing their content.

On the other side, multiple encrypted currency platforms including Binance and Coinbase refuse to enforce an all-around ban on Russian clients, claiming that excluding the entire country would be inconsistent with Bitcoin’s spirit of providing payment channels free of government oversight and having a significant ameliorating effect on Western financial sanctions against Russia.

Over the past few decades, non-state actors have undoubtedly played significant roles in the international community, yet there have been few cases where they were so directly and prominently involved in significant international affairs as in the case of the current war. Non-state actors’ intervention in the Russia-Ukraine conflict has not only significantly expanded the combat space but have essentially created a new gaming format.

Although intervention by non-state actors has not substantially changed the comparative strengths of the warring parties, it has been disruptive. They have had amplifying or diminishing effects, becoming balancers sufficient to influence state actors’ decisions. More important, once the strengths of non-state actors are combined with state actors, there may be critical impacts on the balance of power.

With their intervention in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a hallmark, non-state actors are demonstrating a new momentum. Their rhetorical impacts and actual influence have risen further and they have dealt prominent blows to the pattern of international relations dominated by state actors.  This is the combined outcome of the accelerated evolution of the digital age and decentralization of global power.

On one hand, the process of digitalization has changed the traditional sources of wealth creation and models of power. Non-state actors have become beneficiaries of the changes. In the digital age, technology, data and corresponding capabilities for processing and analysis have become core sources of new wealth and influence. Non-state actors with emerging core technologies have seen their wealth grow exponentially, and their influence has become immeasurable. 

On the other hand, global power decentralization has provided a long-term foundation for the rise of non-state actors. Against the current background of centennial changes, major-power competition has again intensified, and global governance has shown conspicuous flaws. Various risks and challenges have also been on the rise. The traditional models of international relations and global governance have both faced increasing challenges, and it has become increasingly difficult for individual forces to cope with them. In such circumstances, non-state actors have found greater room to play a bigger role with their own resources.

In the future, the continuous development of non-state actors will inevitably change the interactive factors in international relations, thus becoming an important force affecting the evolution of the international order. When they are empowered by modern technology, they will have a significant influence on the international balance of power balance, processes of global governance and international public opinion and trends of thoughts. They are quietly shaping the orientation of changes unseen in a century.

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