Over ten years ago, I advanced some preliminary observations about evolving patterns of diplomatic interactions between governments and nonstate actors, and how we might conceptualize these patterns. As the World Bank’s Jean-Francois Rischard has argued, it is not easy to generalize about the relationships between sovereign states and the peoples of this planet.[1] The recurring question is whether new forms of diplomatic relations, in which at least one of the participants is a nonstate entity, can be incorporated under a single rubric, one that not only helps us to see transformations in the international system at large, but also enhances our ability to describe these changes, and even give some guidance about possible responses. It is important to distinguish state-nonstate interactions from the two basic forms, or dimensions, of diplomacy that have evolved over the centuries: bilateral, the conduct of relations between two states, usually via resident missions; and multilateral, the conduct of relations between three or more states, at permanent or ad hoc international conferences. Accordingly, I argue that polylateralism constitutes diplomacy’s third dimension and define this concept as:

The conduct of relations between official entities (such as a state, several states acting together, or a state-based international organization) and at least one unofficial, nonstate entity in which there is a reasonable expectation of systematic relationships, involving some form of reporting, communication, negotiation, and representation, but not involving mutual recognition as sovereign, equivalent entities.[2]

Today, we hear claims that we are entering “a new age of international politics”[3] as the balance between the sovereign state underpinnings of the international order is challenged by globalization and by the proliferation of a variety of nonstate actors. My purpose here is to test such claims, revisiting the problem of how to conceptualize state-nonstate relations, by addressing some key, persistent definitional issues; considering how the international context has changed over the past decade or so; and evaluating, in light of that changing context, six hypotheses that help determine the robustness of the polylateral concept. These hypotheses deal with state adaptive capacity, state size, state type, plus the distinction between high and low politics, the nature of nonstate actor engagement, and the decision phase. I conclude with a note of caution and a word of encouragement for advancing the debate about the future of the state and global civil society actors in the international system.

Persistent Definitional Issues

An ongoing problem for debate on these issues is lack of agreement about key terms. It is relatively easy to define state actors (e.g., the 192 member states of the UN). To be sure, there are differences in how we classify and subdivide the world of states. International Relations realists tend to make much of the differences between the great, middle, and small states. Others, such as former British diplomat Robert Cooper, divide state actors into pre-modern, modern, and post-modern variants.[4] Yet while we may disagree on how to classify states, custom and the international legal doctrine of recognition allow us to find a high level of agreement on what more or less constitutes a state. UN membership has become a convenient marker.

Defining and grouping nonstate actors is more problematic. Ann Florini sees three fundamental types of actors, or forces, making up that make up the international system — sovereign states, the private sector, and civil society. Florini and a number of constructivist scholars, such as Richard Price, distinguish between transnational civil society and global civil society, preferring the former, more modest, term on the grounds that there are few civil society actors with truly global links in every part of the world. For Florini and Simmons, transnational civil society includes non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and like groups that are “not governments or profit-seeking private entities” but work across national borders in varied forms.[5] This states-firms-citizens model for the international system is appealing, but leaves the problem of how to classify “bad” nonstate actors that influence world politics- a question to which I return later.

Price defined the term transnational as “interactions across national boundaries where at least one actor is a nonstate agent.” In other words, transnational civil society refers to “interactions among an imagined community to shape collective life that is not confined to the territorial and institutional spaces of states.”[6] The transnational concept is similar to my notion of polylateralism. However, while the term transnational describes cross-border interactions involving nonstate actors, it does not distinguish between “good” and “bad” nonstate actors and does not sufficiently imply a purposive form of action — diplomacy—a problem I address below.

Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s notion of transnational advocacy networks is an alternative that has become popular with many constructivist theorists as well as practitioners.[7] However, despite its well-deserved attention, this concept may be too narrow for my purposes, in that NGOs are typically divided into two types — advocacy and service organizations — and the concept appears not to capture the latter.  As P. J. Simmons noted in 1998, the size and importance of the service NGOs are substantial, with eight major families or federations of international NGOs controlling about $500 million in the $8 billion relief market.[8] Moreover, the network concept, even when it includes advocacy and service variants, risks missing many significant individuals in world politics that have not organized as NGOs, including celebrity activists — wealthy and creative individuals who are supporting, to paraphrase Hedley Bull, purposes beyond themselves.

For this article, therefore, transnational civil society comprises groups and individuals that operate essentially on a not-for-profit basis, promoting and supporting a range of legitimate socio-political causes across currently recognized international borders. However, for my purposes, transnational civil society nonstate actors include service NGOs (such as CARE, World Vision International, and Oxfam), as well as advocacy human rights NGOs (such as Amnesty International); religious groups, such as the Catholic organization Sant’Egidio; think tanks, such as the Council on Foreign Relations; philanthropic foundations, such as the Ford Foundation; organized and transnationally connected social movements that have arisen in different countries to protest repressive governments; wealthy individuals, such as Ted Turner and Bill Gates; celebrity activists, such as Angelina Jolie; former heads of state, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton; and blue ribbon international commissions. They also include two well-known traditional international NGOs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Olympic Committee.

I do not include in my definition of transnational civil society nonstate actors for-profit multinational corporations, private military firms, and lobbying firms, whose activities are generally seen as legal but sometimes controversial. Neither do I include illegal and illegitimate organizations, such as transnational criminal organizations, Somali pirates, or terrorists. The term nonstate actor is commonly used at the UN to imply terrorists; and terrorist networks are generally nonstate actors (though some have state sponsors) and pursue socio-political aims. But terrorists’ aims are widely and appropriately regarded as malevolent and illegitimate, leaving them outside my definition. In sum, since transnational civil society is, by definition, nonstate, I use the term transnational civil society actor.

As intimated above, while the transnational and polylateral concepts could arguably be seen as interchangeable, I prefer to distinguish between them. Transnational connotes interactions, whereas polylateral diplomacy has the advantage of connoting purposive diplomatic interactions and is thus an extension of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Polylateral clearly indicates that the participants are thinking and acting diplomatically: they represent, communicate, report on, negotiate with, and promote better relations between entities with standing in world politics. I contend that if the 20th century saw the formal acceptance of multilateral diplomacy as a complement to bilateral diplomacy, the newly turned century has seen the advent of polylateral diplomacy.

The Changing International Context

The early 1990s were characterized by attempts to formulate conceptions of the new world order that were replacing the Cold War system (notably Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis and Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”). No all-embracing neologism emerged to encapsulate the new era, although “the age of globalization” and “America’s unipolar moment” were common, if contested, descriptions. For many scholars interested in the rise of a global civil society following the Cold War’s demise, the successful conclusion of the 1998 Ottawa Treaty banning anti-personnel land mines was seen as an exemplary case, signaling the retreat of the sovereign state as the organizing unit in world politics.

Also during the 1990s, a number of diplomatic concepts were developed with a view to capturing shifts in the new global dialogue.  These included second-track diplomacy, meaning methods of diplomacy outside the formal governmental system, often initiated by non-governmental actors and involving diplomats in their personal capacity; and virtual diplomacy, a process of direct global and transnational communication and bargaining between states, nonstate groups and individuals, made possible by new technologies, such as the Internet. These diplomacies imply an increasing role for transnational civil society actors and are best encapsulated conceptually under the polylateral rubric.

Conflicting trends in the first decade of the 21st century make it difficult to evaluate whether the emerging international system is more or less hospitable to transnational civil society actors and issues. On the one hand, globalization increased dramatically with improvements in information and communication technologies and the rise of new, Internet-based media that appeared to erode state sovereignty further.[9] On the other, the U.S. response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — arguably the defining moment of the new century’s first decade — appeared under George W. Bush’s Republican administration to reinforce the idea of the national security state and to set an unfortunate example for human rights norms supported by civil societies around the world. Despite the impact of the U.S.’s  “war on terrorism,” however, many sovereign states, at least the “normal” ones (the modern and post-modern states, in Robert Cooper’s terms), have shown a high degree of resilience in recent years. Most remarkable in this respect is the rise of the so-called BRIC emerging powers — Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Additionally, when it came to solving such global problems as climate change, the spread of nuclear weapons and the global financial crisis, sovereign states — often coming together in multilateral fora — never seemed to be far from the action. And even where impressive political uprisings occurred (e.g. Ukraine, Iran), they challenged the incumbent gatekeepers of sovereignty, not sovereignty itself; the goal being to replace a dubious regime with a better one, generally within the current state framework.

Ironically, the fact that the two traditional dimensions of diplomacy — bilateral and multilateral — had acquired the status of taken-for-granted norms[10] became apparent only when the Bush administration appeared to challenge them.[11] In one key respect, however, the administration’s main contribution to diplomatic theory was in its recognition, if less so in its implementation, of the need to address foreign audiences as a policy strategy, giving rise to the renaissance of public diplomacy. The significance of this development was that a new wave of scholars and students began to conceptualize public diplomacy in nonstate terms, viewing public outreach to foreign audiences as a policy tool for not only states, but a wide range of nonstate actors as well.

In sum, international developments over the past decade suggest a mixed, perhaps cautious, conclusion as to whether state diplomatic actors and institutions are adopting polylateral practices, welcoming the presence of transnational civil society actors in the international policy process and in other tasks normally reserved for state diplomatic agents. However, we can test transnational civil society actor participation in the global policy dialogue more systematically by considering the six hypotheses discussed next.

Assessing State-Nonstate Relations

The following six hypotheses — related to state adaptive capacity, state size, state type, type of issue, the transnational civil society actor’s adopted mode of persuasion, and the various stages of the international bargaining and decision-making process — help test and assess the robustness of the polylateralism concept.

1. State capacity for diplomatic innovation is generally underestimated.

Most explanations for the rise of global civil society over the past twenty years focus on the emancipating effect of the Cold War’s end and on the globalizing trends in international economics, travel, transport, and information technology. These explanations are generally suffused with the assumption that the role of the sovereign state is consequently heading into irrevocable decline. Underlying this end-of-sovereignty thesis is the idea that the sovereign state is structurally unable to adapt to the new conditions and that its vertically organized, hierarchy-bound diplomatic agents are incapable of thinking creatively to solve global issues. Compounding this impression, many international policy debates have focused on bad states (e.g., rogue, failed, failing, and pre-modern), which in turn have encouraged bad nonstate actors (e.g., terrorists, criminal organizations, pirates). At the same time, as Fred Halliday has argued, the rise of transnational civil society actors has been romanticized.[12] This romance of the good nonstate actor has been balanced in recent years by increasing demands for greater transparency and accountability by transnational civil society actors.[13] Moreover, the emergence of rising powers in the international system — such as Brazil, India, China, South Africa, and Mexico — is evidence not simply of new powers coming into play, but also of the state’s resilience, including its ability to deploy soft power instruments, such as public diplomacy and cultural exports.[14]

Generally speaking, many International Relations scholars and practitioners have underestimated state resilience and diplomatic innovation in the international system.[15] The recent diplomatic studies literature is full of examples of state adaptivity.[16] In contrast to this perception of state resistance to change, transnational civil society actors, operating horizontally as “global issues networks” around the world, are generally seen as being unfailingly flexible and innovative.[17] However, norm and policy entrepreneurs are not confined to the non-governmental sector (witness the inventive governmental and intergovernmental work of Johan Jørgen Holst in Norway, Lakhdar Brahimi and Sergio Vieira de Mello at the UN, and Gareth Evans as Australian Foreign Minister). Consequently, nongovernmental activists may have missed opportunities that exist in state and intergovernmental organizations, even while sometimes mimicking state behavior.[18] The problem is zero-sum thinking. In short, the state does not need to go into decline for transnational civil society actors to play a stronger global role. It depends on the kind of state being discussed. Indeed, as I argue below, transnational civil society actors do better in democratic states. The goal should be to promote a democratic state environment in which both state and transnational civil society actors flourish.

In sum, rather than joining the clamor for the state’s demise, transnational civil society actors, including human rights advocates, would do better to recognize — and leverage — the innovative capacity in the state system.

2. Small and middle-sized state diplomatic institutions are more likely to innovate and cooperate with transnational civil society actors.

We would expect great powers to be less likely to innovate and to tend to co-opt, rather than cooperate with, transnational civil society actors, offering only token acceptance of polylateralism, on the grounds that great powers simply have less need for outside expertise.  Moreover, great powers tend to keep transnational elements at a distance, especially in the so-called high politics field of security and regional conflict (to which I return below). In contrast, we would expect small and middle-sized states to make the ideational shift more readily, to compensate for their relative lack of material resources.

The best example of this hypothesis at work is the anti-personnel land mines case, in which small and middle-sized states (e.g., Norway and Canada) worked symbiotically with an impressive ad hoc NGO network, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.[19] However, too many accounts of the Ottawa process campaign focused on the NGO role, overlooking the “new diplomacy” inherent in the high levels of state-nonstate cooperation. For my argument, the key question is whether Ottawa was exceptional or a precedent for a new, polylateral dimension of diplomacy.

In recent years, middle-power polylateralism has not quite lived up to the promise implied in the middle-power literature of the 1990s.[20] One reason is that expectations for policy innovation have shifted elsewhere in the international system — for example, to the emerging powers and to new groupings of sovereign states, such as the G20. It remains to be seen whether the BRIC states and the G20 will be sympathetic to transnational civil society actors or will rely, in the realist spirit, on state and market power. Moreover, key self-identified middle powers from the 1990s, such as Australia and Canada, elected conservative governments that were less welcoming to polylateral relations and more inclined to pursue traditional bilateral great-power connections, especially with the U.S.[21] State size may be less of a factor in explaining a disposition toward transnationalism than is the political disposition of the government in power.

3. Democracies are more likely than semi-democracies and non-democracies to innovate polylaterally.

Based on democratic theory and practice, we would expect fully functioning democracies to be more likely than semi-democracies and non-democracies to embrace and work with transnational civil society actors. There is evidence to support this claim — for example, from the strong Nordic democracies’ long tradition of involving parliamentary and non-governmental representatives in UN delegations. Effective polylateral diplomacy implies the involvement of diverse civil society groups in the policy process, many of which will be critical of the government. Since strong democracies understand the give-and-take of such an approach, we could expect that with greater global democratization, more countries will open up to polylateral diplomacy.

As for semi-democracies, the end of the 20th century saw over 120 countries engaged in building some form of democratic governance.[22] However, as Marina Ottaway argues, the 1990s also saw “the rise of a great number of regimes that cannot be easily classified as either authoritarian or democratic but display some characteristics of both.”[23] Noteworthy examples of countries that fit in the democratic-transition category and have shown some disposition toward diplomatic “glasnost” are Malaysia, Mexico, and Turkey. Singapore is perhaps indicative here, because of its high diplomatic profile. Alan Chong argues that in response to natural disasters in the Asian region, Singapore opened its door a crack to transnational civil society and accommodated “the operational logic of NGOs,” notwithstanding its unique development model, which is based on “corporatist authoritarian principles.”[24] Thus, as countries move toward democracy, they are more likely to engage in polylateral diplomacy with transnational civil society. Semi-democracies are also more likely to ease their way into the polylateral sphere via second- track diplomacy involving policy and academic elites closely linked to government.

Non-democracies are the least likely to innovate in a polylateral direction,[25] although there may be evidence to the contrary. Constructivist theorists make a strong, if contested, case that second-track type actors (such as scholars and scientists) played a major role in ending the Cold War.[26] In the post–Cold War era, second-track polylateral approaches are being used to reach out to isolated or adversarial regimes in countries that have hostile, less than full, or even no diplomatic relations. There are important historical antecedents here, such as the U.S.-Chinese “ping pong” diplomacy of the 1970s. Many different forms of these approaches — based on entrepreneurial transnational civil society actors — are currently being used in attempts to improve relations with “outlaw” authoritarian states, such as North Korea.

4.  States will welcome transnational civil society actors more in low politics than in high politics

We would expect governments and their diplomatic representatives to be more open to transnational civil society actor engagement in low politics issues, such as human rights, than in high politics issues, such as national security.

While some norm theorists have tackled the hard cases of high politics directly,[27] this is less true of research on transnational civil society and transnational advocacy networks. Keck and Sikkink’s pioneering Activists Beyond Borders is an example of this weakness in the literature. Similarly, Betsill and Corell’s new book, titled NGO Diplomacy, is tellingly subtitled “The Influence of Nongovernmental Organizations in International Environmental Negotiations” (emphasis added). And The United Nations and Civil Society, a book by Nora McKeon, is largely about food and agriculture. These are, of course, important issues in their own right, but the risk here is that too much is being claimed for half a solution — the low politics, but not the high politics, of global policy issues.[28]

That said, there is evidence that transnational civil society actors are injecting their way into some aspects of high politics, such as nuclear non-proliferation. Drawing on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty case and the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty extension conference, Rebecca Johnson shows how a plethora of expert and activist transnational groups “played a significant role in influencing the decision making of some governments.”[29] In contrast, however, President Obama’s April 2010 summit on nuclear security and terrorism was a state-based affair of some 47 world leaders.

Regional conflicts, which proliferated in the 1990s, provide examples of state-nonstate polylateralism at work. One successful, often-cited case is the leading role of the Italian NGO Comunita di Sant’Egidio in Mozambique in bringing the warring parties together.[30] Another much discussed regional case is the facilitating/second-track role of Southeast Asian research centers and think tanks in institutionalizing the security dialogue in the Asia-Pacific region (described below). The high-profile transnational work that the Brussels-based International Crisis Group does in conjunction with national governments, the EU, and the UN system in several regions is also an example of polylateral diplomacy in the service of major security problems, such as Iran’s nuclear program. However, there are many less successful cases. Diana Chigas and others have noted the sometimes ineffectual, even counterproductive, role of NGOs in certain regional conflicts.[31] Clifford Bob has theorized these roles critically, suggesting that NGOs from the Global North are motivated by what he calls “market forces” rather than altruistic concerns for the Global South, where NGOs tailor their activities to suit the Northern market of causes and funds.[32]

Transnational civil society actors have wisely directed much of their effort to international governmental organizations, the thin edge of the state system’s wedge, notably the UN and the EU in Brussels.[33] The UN has a record dating from the 1940s of accrediting NGOs, but here again, tellingly, under the low-politics Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) umbrella.[34] The “Cardoso Report,” which was put out by the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations–Civil Society Relations (appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan), recommended wider participation of civil society in the UN’s work, at headquarters and in the field. In Peter Willetts’ view, however, the report failed to make an impact.[35]

Attempts have even been made to open up the Security Council, the star chamber of high politics, to nonstate voices. For example, under the so-called Arria formula, developed by a former Venezuelan permanent representative, NGOs and experts could be invited to address Council members in informal sessions. In September 2006, the film actor George Clooney addressed the Council on Sudan, but these small concessions to outsiders have been limited, and views about their impact have been mixed.[36]

Others have argued that transnational civil society actors (e.g., those advocating for developing-country debt relief and environmental protection) have been better integrated into the major international financial institutions at the World Bank and the IMF.[37] But are the issues of such actors to be considered high or low politics? They seem to fit neither category comfortably, making a case for adding a “middle politics” layer of global issues.

In some unfortunate ways, the heightened security environment in many countries following the 9/11 terrorist attacks sharpened the high-low politics distinction, intensifying the idea of the national security state and presenting yet another barrier for NGO influence in the security field. Equally regrettably (as already alluded to above), the raising of this barrier prompted deep concerns about the U.S.’s ability to balance its counter-terrorism efforts with respect for human rights and civil liberties consistent with its own stated values, a problem that the Obama administration continues to wrestle with.

In sum, the hypothesis that high politics polylateralism is generally resisted by governments is historically true, but by no means absolutely. Over the past decade, transnational civil society has made progress in penetrating the high politics of national and international security, but 9/11 served as a reminder that this trend is reversible and that the state’s strongest sovereignty claims remain in the security domain.

5.  State diplomats are more likely to engage with transnational civil society actors involved in long-term policy influence (a “cooperative” model) than with those pursuing highly politicized, short-term campaigns or protests (a “conflict” model).

The land mines case notwithstanding, polylateral state-nonstate engagement remains likely to be more appealing to diplomats when the process involves low-key, systematic, long-term relations, and less appealing when the process is confrontational. Most transnational civil society actors lean toward the cooperative end of the cooperation-conflict spectrum and seek long-term policy cooperation. The ICRC is an exemplar cooperative case,[38] and service NGOs are situated near the cooperation end. Transnational advocacy networks, with their reliance on naming and shaming, lie near the middle of the spectrum.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the networks of think tanks and research institutes that have been instrumental in initiating and promoting a new, slow-developing norm of regional security dialogue represent a modest example of incipient polylateral relationships. Shankari Sundararaman argues that their impact as independent diplomatic actors on several major policy problems — such as terrorism and the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s — has been disappointing, but that the state remains a main referent for second-track initiatives promoting regional security dialogue.[39]

Another group of actors at the cooperation end of the spectrum has thus far received too little attention. This group could be classified as “norm enablers,” by which I mean organizations, groups, and individuals that share the normative goals of those they support actively or financially, but that desire a degree of public separation. A good traditional example here is the major American foundations that operate internationally and about which there is literature, but philanthropic entities in Europe and in the Islamic world are worthy of closer study.[40] Good emerging examples of norm enablers are the advisors, agents, and organizations that enable celebrity activists to conduct their own form of public diplomacy. Another group that could be added to the cooperation category is what I call “norm torchbearers,” by whom I mean individuals or groups prepared to keep an idea’s flame alight during long periods of international inattention. A good example of such an idea is nuclear disarmament, whose flame has waxed and waned in the public mind over many decades.

In the quest for much needed access and much wanted respectability, cooperation-minded transnational civil society actors risk compromising their values. Mary Kaldor criticized the growing respectability of NGOs in the 1990s, accusing many of them of “cosmopolitan myopia” and suggesting they bore no resemblance to the social movements that helped bring down communist governments in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s.[41] Greenpeace’s direct action approach puts it on the conflict side of the spectrum; and the anti-globalization Seattle and Genoa street protests, both of which involved violence, lie at the extreme end. In their quest for public attention, groups inclined toward publicity and conflict risk alienating publics and governments alike. And in a networked world galvanized by new technologies, the future of “protest” itself should be examined. A fascinating case is the social networking group on Facebook known as “A Million Voices Against FARC,” a public response to violence perpetrated by the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) that generated massive protest marches throughout Colombia and worldwide in 2008. Is it possible to imagine an online virtual global protest affecting policy? Or do campaigners and protesters need to go into the streets and, in some cases, risk life and limb for their cause? Finally, it has been argued that state diplomats will have to meet the challenging and sometimes combative culture of civil society actors partway, toning down their excessive respect for formality and civility.[42]

6.  State responsiveness to transnational civil society actors will vary significantly with decision phase.

A state’s responsiveness to transnational civil society actor participation in the transnational policy dialogue will likely depend on the phase of the immediate decision-making process — i.e., issue framing, agenda setting, issue mobilization, negotiation, or final implementation and monitoring. Evaluating transnational civil society actor influence has always been a difficult matter, and developing methods to evaluate influence in the various phases of the decision cycle is even more vexing.

Drawing on international environmental negotiations, Betsill and Corell seek to develop more rigorous methods for assessing NGO influence at different stages of the bargaining process. It is noteworthy that they regard NGOs as acting diplomatically in the sense that they participate in international negotiations. Recommending such methods as process tracing and counterfactual analysis, Betsill and Corell focus on influence on negotiation outcomes (e.g., a treaty text), but also on the process of negotiations (e.g., the agenda).  They argue that NGOs’ influence on the negotiating process, at least in this low politics area, can be measured by evaluating evidence in the issue framing, in the agenda setting, and on the positions of key actors.[43] Such systematic attempts to evaluate influence are to be welcomed; they promise findings that are more evidence based than many of the advocacy- and normative-based claims that have characterized this field of study.

A focus on the decision-making phases, however, has its limitations, as a great deal of social interaction, in general, and of diplomacy, in particular, does not involve macro-level decisions. John Ruggie, a scholar with experience at the senior levels of the UN, said that in addition to macro practices, “micro practices that may have transformative effects must be identified and inventoried.”[44] The norms literature does this somewhat, but pays inadequate attention to the practices of traditional diplomacy and, indeed, the emerging field of public diplomacy.[45]

Conclusion

Today, sovereign states almost universally conduct bilateral diplomacy with other sovereign states and multilateral diplomacy in groups of three or more states, but a good deal of the world’s political activity no longer falls within these two dimensions of state-to-state diplomacy. That is why a third dimension— what I call polylateral, or state-nonstate, diplomacy — is needed. The evidence produced in the past decade on what future relations between sovereign states and transnational civil society actors will be is decidedly mixed. But even if polylateral diplomacy has not yet been fully conceptualized, it captures this important category of interactions in world politics that flows logically from the bilateral and multilateral categories. What we do not know is whether transnational civil society actors will be absorbed and socialized by territorial, state-based diplomatic culture, or whether — driven by their concerns about global issues from human rights to climate change, and connected by “borderless” technology-enhanced networks — these actors will cumulatively shape and socialize the prevailing diplomatic culture.[46]

My examination of six hypotheses to test and assess the robustness of polylateralism led to a number of conclusions helpful in understanding the evolving role of norm entrepreneurs, enablers, and torchbearers operating in transnational civil society. First, we should recognize not just the disadvantages of the state’s role as the primary organizing unit in world politics, but also its adaptive and therefore normative potential. Second, a state’s size does not necessarily predetermine its openness to polylateral relations. States of all sizes, including great powers, have opened up to transnational civil society actors under certain conditions. Third, state type is a strong indicator of openness, with strong democracies being the most likely to embrace transnational civil society actors. But even with and within semi-democracies and non-democracies, polylateral actors have complemented and even expanded the bilateral and multilateral forms of diplomacy. A big lesson here may be that if we had to choose one over the other, it might be better to promote democratization rather than transnationalization. Four, high politics polylateralism involving issues of international security is an especially tough norm to establish, but there is evidence of change. Fifth, cooperation-minded transnational civil society actors are more likely than their conflict-minded counterparts to influence the world of states on global policy issues. Intriguing here is the possibility that a new form of diplomatic culture will emerge from transnational civil society’s interactions with the prevailing state-based diplomatic culture. Sixth, we need to look closely not only at the role of transnational civil society actors in the immediate decision-making phases of international policy, but also at routine, micro-practices that can ultimately be just as transformative.

The overall conclusion I offer to transnational civil society theorists and activists remains cautionary and encouraging.  On the one hand, I hold out Hedley Bull’s cautious words about “premature global solidarism,” roughly the idea that too much should not be asked too soon of the many actors — state and nonstate — that make up world politics.[47] On the other, the evidence I have provided here is grounds for optimism that new ways of thinking and practices are evolving in the transnational public sphere that are suggestive of a future global civil society.



[1] Jean-Francois Rischard, “Global Issues Networks: Desperate Times Deserve Innovative Measures,” The Washington Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 1 (Winter 2002–03), pp. 17–33.

[2] My original paper was written in 1999 as Discussion Paper No. 59, Leicester: Leicester Diplomatic Studies Programme. It was later published as “‘Polylateralism’ and New Modes of Global Dialogue,” in Christer Jönsson and Richard Langhorne (eds.), Diplomacy, Vol. III, London: Sage, 2004.

[3] Fen O. Hampson and Christopher K. Penny, “Human Security,” in Thomas Weiss and Sam Daws (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the United Nations, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 552.

[4] Robert Cooper, The Breaking of Nations: Order and Chaos in the Twenty-first Century, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2003.

[5] Ann M. Florini (ed.), The Third Force: The Rise of Transnational Civil Society, Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2000. For the Florini and Simmons quotation, see “What the World Needs Now?” in Florini (ed.), The Third Force, p. 7. Emphasis in original.

[6] Richard Price, “Reversing the Gun Sights: Transnational Civil Society Targets Land Mines,” International Organization, vol. 52, no. 3 (Summer 1998), p. 615.

[7] Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

[8] P. J. Simmons, “Learning to Live with NGOs,” Foreign Policy, Fall 1998, pp. 82–96.

[9] Manuel Castells provides an excellent statement of this perspective in Communication Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

[10] Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink, “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change,” International Organization, vol. 52, no. 4, 1998, pp. 887–917.

[11] I argue elsewhere that bilateral and multilateral diplomacy had become so deeply internalized that we no longer appreciated their regulative, evaluative, practical, and constitutive effects.  See Geoffrey Wiseman, “Norms and Diplomacy: The Diplomatic Underpinnings of Multilateralism,” in James P. Muldoon, Jr., JoAnn Fagot Aviel, Richard Reitano, and Earl Sullivan (eds.), The New Dynamics of Multilateralism: Diplomacy, International Organizations, and Global Governance, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2010.

[12] Fred Halliday, “The Romance of Non-state Actors,” in Daphne Josselin and William Wallace (eds.), Non-State Actors in World Politics, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001, pp. 21–37.

[13] Lisa Jordan and Peter Van Tuijl (eds.), NGO Accountability: Politics, Principles and Innovations, London: Earthscan, 2006.

[14] Timothy M. Shaw, Agata Antkiewicz, and Andrew F. Cooper, “The Logic of the B(R)ICSAM Model for Global Governance,” in Andrew F. Cooper and Agata Antkiewicz (eds.), Emerging Powers in Global Governance, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2008, p. 19.

[15] For two competing views, see Samy Cohen, The Resilience of the State: Democracy and the Challenge of Globalization, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2003; and Paul Wapner, “The State or Else! Statism’s Resilience in NGO Studies,” International Studies Review, vol. 9, no. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 85–9.

[16] For example, Jan Melissen (ed.), Innovation in Diplomatic Practice, Basingstoke, UK:  Macmillan, 1999.

[17] Rischard, “Global Issues Networks.”

[18] Hans Peter Schmitz, “Being (Almost) Like a State: Challenges and Opportunities of Transnational Non-Governmental Activism,” unpublished paper.

[19] Price, “Reversing the Gun Sights.” Another possible example is the campaign leading to the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

[20] For an update on the middle power theory, see articles in PD Magazine, Issue 2 (Summer 2009).

[21] On the Australian return to bilateralism under a conservative government, see Michael Wesley, The Howard Paradox: Australian Diplomacy in Asia 1996–2006, Sydney: ABC Books, 2007.

[22] W. Andy Knight, “Democracy and Good Governance,” in Weiss and Daws (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the United Nations, p. 620.

[23] Marina Ottaway, Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism, Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003, p. 3.

[24] Alan Chong, “Singapore and the Soft Power Experience,” in Andrew F. Cooper and Timothy M. Shaw (eds.), The Diplomacies of Small States: Between Vulnerability and Resilience, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 78.

[25] Finnemore notes, however, that Prussia, “one of the least democratic states in Europe,” was an “enthusiastic supporter of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention,” whereas Britain, “perhaps the most democratic, was one of the most recalcitrant.” Martha Finnemore, National Interests in International Society, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996, p. 73.

[26] An early statement of this position is by Thomas Risse-Kappen, “Ideas Do Not Float Freely: Transnational Coalitions, Domestic Structures, and the End of the Cold War,” in Richard Ned Lebow and Thomas Risse-Kappen (eds.), International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War, New York: Columbia University Press, 1995, pp. 187–222.

[27] For example, Peter Katzenstein (ed.), The Culture of National Security:  Norms and Identity in World Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

[28] The problem could be conceptually sidestepped by defining security in human security terms, but that is avoiding the issue.

[29] Rebecca Johnson, “Advocates and Activists: Conflicting Approaches on Nonproliferation and the Test Ban Treaty,” ch. 3 in Florini (ed.), The Third Force, p. 53. See also Johnson’s “Rethinking the NPT’s Role in Security,” International Affairs, vol. 86, no. 2 (March 2010).

[30] Andrea Bartoli, “Mediating Peace in Mozambique:  The Role of the Community of St’Egidio,” in Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall (eds.), Herding Cats:  Multiparty Mediation in a Complex World, Washington DC:  United States Institute of Peace Press, 1999.

[31] Diana Chigas, “Capacities and Limits of NGOs as Conflict Managers,” in Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela Aall (eds.), Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2007, pp. 553–81.

[32] Clifford Bob, The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[33] For an account of polylateralism in the EU, see Christer Jönsson and Martin Hall, Essence of Diplomacy, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, pp. 152, 157–63. Florini notes moments of backlash by member states at the UN; see The Third Force, p. 215–6.

[34] Paul Wapner notes other forms of accreditation in “Civil Society,” Weiss and Daws (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the United Nations, pp. 254–63.

[35] Peter Willetts, “The Cardoso Report on the UN and Civil Society: Functionalism, Global Corporatism, or Global Democracy?” Global Governance, vol. 12 (2006), pp. 305–24.

[36] For a brief account of the Clooney meeting, see John Bolton, Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad, New York: Threshold Editions, 2007, pp. 356–7.

[37] Ngaire Woods, “Bretton Woods Institutions,” in Weiss and Daws (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the United Nations, p. 239.

[38] For a discussion of the tensions between the ICRC’s private and public diplomacy, see Ivan Cook and Martine Letts, “A Twilight Zone? Diplomacy and the International Committee of the Red Cross,” in Andrew F. Cooper, Brian Hocking, and William Maley (eds.), Global Governance and Diplomacy: Worlds Apart? Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 104–7.

[39] Shankari Sundararaman, “Research Institutes as Diplomatic Actors,” in Cooper, Hocking, and Maley (eds.), Global Governance and Diplomacy, p. 130.

[40] For a recent book on U.S. foundations, see Helmut K. Anheier and David C. Hammack (eds.), American Foundations: Roles and Contributions, Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2010.

[41] Mary Kaldor, “Transnational Civil Society,” in Tim Dunne and Nicholas J. Wheeler (eds.), Human Rights in Global Politics, Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 1999, pp. 212.

[42] On this general theme, see Daryl Copeland, Guerilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2009.

[43] Betsill and Corell, NGO Diplomacy, chap. 1, esp. pp. 19, 27.

[44] John Gerard Ruggie, “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge,” in Peter Katzenstein et al. (eds.), Exploration and Contestation in the Study of World Politics, Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1999, p. 236.

[45] An interesting exception is Cesar Villanueva Rivas, “Cosmopolitan Constructivism: Mapping a Road to the Future of Cultural and Public Diplomacy,” PD Magazine, Winter 2010, pp. 45–56.

[46] Geoffrey Wiseman, “Pax Americana: Bumping into Diplomatic Culture,” International Studies Perspectives, vol. 6, no. 4, 2005, pp. 409–30.

[47] See Andrew Hurrell’s Introduction to Hedley Bull, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics, 3rd ed., New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, p. xxii.

Geoffrey Wiseman teaches International Relations at the University of Southern California. He has previously worked as director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy; principal officer in the Strategic Planning Unit of the Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General; peace and security program officer at the Ford Foundation; and as a diplomat – with postings to Stockholm, Hanoi, and Brussels – in the Australian Foreign Service. His publications include Concepts of Non-Provocative Defence: Ideas and Practices in International Security (Palgrave Macmillan). He co-edited, with Paul Sharp, The Diplomatic Corps as an Institution of International Society (also Palgrave Macmillan).