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Who Are the “actors” of World Politics?

The problem of actors is one of the central, and at the same time one of the most controversial in the study of international politics and relations. Indeed, one of the main criteria of international relations is the presence of regular interactions between the social communities geographically separated by political boundaries.

In international relations actors are those whose activity goes beyond one state and, therefore, participate in cross-border relations and communications. In other words, in one way or another, any argument about international relations assumes directly a reference to the State with sovereignty as its most important attribute. However, there are several issues: the first is associated with explaining the specifics of these interactions, in other words, their differences from the interactions of non-international character; secondly, there are arguments on the interpretation of the place of the state as an international actor, and hence the very essence of the concept of “actor”.

In the paper it is necessary to consider who are the ‘actors’ of world politics, and to present alternative positions on this issue.

The most common term, which denote in the international relations the interaction of the participants in the global arena, is the term “actor”. “Actor – is any person who actively participates and plays an important role,” – wrote Rassett and Starr. In international relations, they emphasize, under the actor should be understood any credibility to any organization, any group or even any individual, able to play a role, influence.( Rassett & Starr 1981)

B. Russet and Starr noted that the term “actor” has a number of advantages. First, it reflects a wide range of interacting communities and, therefore, it is quite comprehensive. Secondly, using it we focus on the behavior of communities, that is why this term helps to understand the essence of community that behaves in a certain way, takes any kind of action. Finally, thirdly, it helps to understand that different actors play different roles, and yet they all participate in creating “a complete performance on the world stage” ( Rassett & Starr 1981, p. 72).

Thus, international actor is an active participant (collective or individual) of international relations, which has the opportunity to independently make decisions and implement the strategy, in accordance with his own understanding of the interests, has a significant and lasting impact on the international system, recognized as such by other actors which take him into account when making their own decisions. (Kaplan 2005)

International actors are considered structured social communities (or, in special cases, a particular individual) based on the organization or recognized as representing the ideals or interests, which work goes beyond one state and which, therefore, is involved in cross-cultural relationships and communication. Social community can be regarded as an international actor if it has an impact on international relations, has been recognized by the states and their governments, but also has some degree of autonomy in making its own decisions (Kaplan 2005).

In this case, the organization, company or group having any relations with foreign organizations, enterprises or citizens, are not always able to play the role of international actors. On the other hand, this role can perform the individual. The growing role of the individual in international politics can be manifested in the actions of prominent personalities, and most ordinary people. However, this raises the following questions: first, what kinds of social communities, which interact in the global arena, may be considered typical of international actors; secondly, what is the hierarchy between the types of international actors, or, in other words, which of them can be regarded as the most influential, authoritative and ambitious? Both of these issues are, to varying degrees, the subject of scientific debates, theoretical disputes.

There are many typologies of international actors, depending on the goals and objectives of the analysis undertaken. However, at present the main discussions are not so much on the typology of actors, but which of them are the most important as political entities. There are differences in the interpretation of this issue between the competing approaches. For example, realists insist that the main actors remain sovereign states, and consider them as rationally acting homogeneous politic entities, unitary entities that conduct uniform policy towards other states – the participants of international relations. A. Wolfers wrote that “the space in world politics is completely captured by States, each of the them has control over the territory, people and resources in the framework of its borders”. (Wolfers 1962, p. 24)

Realists give preference to tangible items of actorship: the main objective of governments, acting on behalf of the States, is an effective policy of national interests, defined in terms of force against coercion by the international system and other states – its elements. In cases where national interests can not be defended in the peaceful means, then the use of military force is legitimate. States through their representative government have legitimate reasons and have the necessary resources to conclude agreements, declaration of war and other acts which constitute the essence of international politics. (Rosenthal et al., 1991)

Based on the provisions of that international order is always hierarchical, as any other social order in general, realists assumed that international actors are not all but only the most powerful states, conflict and cooperative relations between which constitute the essence of international politics. As emphasized Hans Morgenthau, “not all states are equally involved in international politics … the State’s attitude to international politics is a dynamic quality. It varies with the change in power of the state, which may push him to the forefront of international politics, and may prevent him from actively act on the international scene.” (Rosenthal et al., 1991)

Therefore, realists believe that powerful states do what they can and the weak just do what they are allowed to by strong states. Any state of international relations depends on the interactions between the few great powers. By making alliances and coalitions with each other, starting wars or other kinds of conflicts, strong and powerful states can sacrifice the positions and interests of small countries. Only the efforts of the largest and most powerful actors in international relations, according to proponents of realism, can be saved (if the great powers could agree on their own interests and achieve a balance of power) or broken (if they fail to keep him), the international stability and world order. As for intergovernmental organizations and non-state actors in international politics, they can not be considered as true actors, because they do not have the autonomy to make decisions and sufficient resources. If they achieve their goals, it is largely through and with the assistance of states and / or intergovernmental organizations. (Rosenthal et al., 1991)

Unlike realists, liberals consider the configuration of actors in the international relations not as hierarchical, but as polyarchical. In various versions of liberalism it is argued about expansion and diversity of international actors, changing all the usual landscape of the world politics. In these circumstances, the nation-state no longer has a monopoly on political decision, which partly goes to the various alternative actors – more legitimate, more powerful, or simply more willing to answer the new challenges of the postmodern world. Moreover, the state itself can not be regarded as rational and unitary actor. International policy of the state is the resultant of a constant struggle, reconciliation and compromise of interests of the bureaucratic hierarchy, and individual power structures, civil and military systems of society, different political parties and movements, non-political associations and professional groups, etc. (Rosenau 1992)

Proponents of the liberal neo-institutionalism argue that globalization and the triumph of market economy competition and pricing become more imperfect because of the lack of information and asymmetric distribution of resources between actors. Therefore, there is a need to unite and coordinate efforts aimed at reducing the negative effects of market and economic processes through the creation of institutions. Once in place, the last determines the scope and rules of international actors and even definition by the last of their interests. The idea of cooperation among nations based on institutions is understood as a combination of formal and informal rules, norms, principles and procedures marked the starting position in the theory of international regimes. (March & Olsen 1984)

Representatives of the school of transnationalism proposed the position about the “complex interdependence”, based on the idea that the growing number and diversity of actors and the complexity of their interactions lead to the transformation of the entire international system. In support of this idea J. Rosenau defends his thesis about the division of the world of international political relations on the “statoi-centric” and “multi-centric” worlds, which coexist and sometimes interact with each other. (Rosenau 1997, p. 11.)

As a result, there is a new world – a world of “post-international relations.” In this case, the representatives of transnationalism talk about division of the world into the states, transnational actors and the “entrepreneurs of identity”. (Rosenau 1990)

The ideas of representatives of transnationalism of a asymmetric interdependence with the position of neo-marxists, according to which global politics is played out by three main groups of actors:

  • Significant social forces that have power in the central states, along with lesser significant forces, which have power in the states of the periphery and semi-periphery;
  • Narrow, but despite this very powerful group of “globalized private” entrepreneurs;
  • New “globalized” anti-systemic movements that represent and actually include most of the world population.

Constructivism is also pluralistic in its approach to the problem of actors in the world politics, although its supporters call the state as the primary unit of analysis of the international relations, viewed not so much as an actor, but more as “agent” that emphasizes the dependence of its (government) action on the social and cultural context. From the perspective of constructivism, while the world remains institutionally separated, the states as international actors retain their special role in world politics. ()

Together with liberals, constructivists believe that powerful actors can be not only states, and include in the category of “agent” along with the states also political, professional and other elites, NGO networks, expert
Community, social movements, individuals, etc. Constructivists pose the question of the formation of identity and pay attention to the need to take into account the increased number of mechanisms for change in international relations. Ultimately, the goals and of priorities of States in the context of globalization are to ensure the harmonious coexistence of different levels of identities within the national ideology. States can not ignore the desire of transnational identities to assert themselves and to equitable existence in state-centric international system, because they are sufficiently motivated and strong. On the other hand, the state’s task is to turn inward, to civil society, being the embodiment of collective ideas and values, that should serve as a source of changes in national identity.

Thus, even a brief and schematic review of the views of representatives of different ideologies and paradigms on the place and role of various actors, shows considerable divergence of views.


Rosenau J. (1992). “Turbulence of Sovereignty in World Politics : Explaining the Relocation of Legitimacy in the 1990s and Beyond”. in Z. Mlinar (ed.) Globalization and Territorial Identities. Aldershot: Avebury, p. 60-76.
Kaplan M. System and Process in International Politics. ECPR Press, 2005
March J. & Olsen J. (1984). “The New Institutionalism: Organisational Factor in Political Life”. American Political Science Review, № 78
Rassett В., Starr H. World politics. Menu for Choice. ≈ San Francisco, 1981, p. 71.
Rosenau J. (1997). Along the Domestic-Foreign Frontier : Exploring Governance in a Turbulent World. Cambridge: Cambridge UP
Rosenau J. (1990). Turbulence in World Politics. Princeton: Princeton UP
Rosenthal Joel H. l, Thompson Kenneth W. “Righteous Realists: Political Realism, Responsible Power, and American Culture in the Nuclear Age. LSU Press, 1991
Williams, Michael C. “Why Ideas Matter in International Relations: Hans Morgenthau, Classical Realism, and the Moral Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 58 (2004): 633-65.
Wolfers A. Discord and Collaboration. Baltimore. The John Hopkins University Pres s. 1962