The Rise of the Non-State

Note: This is Part I of a series on the rise of non-state actors in global politics. For additional reading, beyond these posts, check out my book, Warlords, Inc.

The modern international community — the G7, Interpol, NATO, UN, IMF, etc. — has grappled with the growth and influence of transnational crime (TNC) and Violent Non-State Actors (VNSAs) for decades. Yet, the impact of its efforts — trade embargoes, economic sanctions, military interventions — has done little to curb the worst excesses of their illicit affairs. As the world economy has globalized, driven particularly by advances in information technology and economic policy liberalization, the global impact of TNC and VNSAs, from official non-governmental federations like FIFA to terrorist regimes like ISIL, has risen to unprecedented levels. Their activity not only now touches almost every aspect of global economic activity, in many geographies they’ve become critical engines of economic development.

This post will examine a few of the current realities of transnational crime and VNSAs, and open considerations for what their preponderance may mean for the future of global polity.

A few facts:

While there is no consistent agreement on the total size of the global black-market, lower-bound estimated costs of transnational organized crime to the global economy are thought to be approximately 3.6 per cent, or around US$2.8 trillion in 2014, of global gross domestic product. Upper-bound estimates put the total above 20 per cent of global GDP. Money laundering alone is projected to have a value of 2–5 per cent of global economic output each year.

Violence associated with the drug trade is destabilizing entire regions of the Western hemisphere. Conservatively, as many as 120,000 people have been killed in Mexico due to drug related violence since 2006. Further, homicide rates in the rest of Latin America rank among the highest in the world. Honduras leads the pack with a homicide rate over 90 per 100,000 residents.

Over 12 million people, including approximately 1 million children, are estimated to be trafficked every year for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, almost 21 million people — more than at the height of the African slave trade — live in forced labor. In sum, these activities generate over US$150 billion annually.

Environmental crimes — including harvesting of endangered wildlife, illegal logging, and toxic waste dumping — are estimated to generate at least US$200 billion for transnational criminal groups annually. Indigenous communities in environmentally critical areas like the Amazon rainforest face threats from illegal resource grabbing organizations, which are often financed by some of the largest entities on the planet, including commercial banks.

Sources: RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorist Incidents; National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, Global Terrorism Database.

Terrorism, despite the United States’ decade-plus long war, is up markedly since the turn of the millennium. Between 2001 and 2014, global terrorist attacks grew nearly tenfold, from about 1,700 to over 16,800.

Dark clouds on the horizon

Although challenges posed by these various segments of TNC and VNSA activity appear highly diverse and unrelated, they are not. Security, governance, and economic development do not exist in a vacuum. They are inter-related and share common threads. As a result, non-state actors, both licit and illicit, present an exigent and complicated threat for both individual nation-states and the broader international community, particularly as we consider the future of civil order.

As it stands today, however, non-state actors, across a range of geographies, are confronting and supplanting states, markets, and existing social institutions. In geographies where political turbulence, violent struggle, and institutional transition are persistent factors of daily life, these issues—it should go without saying—are intensified. Combatting the worst of these issues could mean the difference between peace and hostility for us all.

However the established institutions charted with managing peace and stability in the modern era — predominantly, nation-states and the international community — are poorly equipped to address the perils at hand alone. In part, this is due to at least five new realities of global politics, driving a discord in modern diplomacy and global affairs. As this monograph will focus on the issues of transnational crime, the rise of violent non-state actors, and the future of governance, these five new realities will be the topic of my next blog.