Global Actors

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An actor is anyone who may play a role within a given social system.  Individuals are the primary actors within all human societies.  Some would argue that individuals are the only actors.  Ultimately all decisions are made by individuals.  But, human beings belong to social groups and they form various kinds of associations.  Social groupings and organized groups have leaders who speak for the group.  These leaders have more power and influence than do the ordinary members of the group or association.  What we call the state or the nation-state is a complex organization; and, an international system made up of states is even more complex.  It is as we stated earlier "a system of systems."

An International Actor refers to any social structure, which is able to act and influence the global or international system.  Below is a list of different types of international actors.

Classifying International Actors by Level

VIII:  Global Actors
Check more detailed information see my Global Actors page

Global-Level Actors
    There is no world government at the present time

Interstate-Level Actors
    United Nations
    Other Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)
    Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
    Multinational Corporations (MNCs)
    Transnational Banks (TNBs)
    Central Governments of Sovereign States

Domestic-Level Actors
    Central Governments of Sovereign States
    Regional, Local, and City Governments of States
Private Bureaucracies
        Catholic Church
    Voluntary Associations
        Political Parties
        Chambers of Commerce
    Criminal Associations and Organizations
        Drug Cartels
        Terrorist Organizations
    Societal Communities
        Ethnic Communities
        Religious Communities
        Indigenous People

Individual-level Actors
    Traveling Businesspeople
    Ex-public officials
    Movie Stars and Starlets
    Public Officials


Trans-State Actors: 
        Inter-Governmental Organizations (IGOs) or International Organizations (IOs)
                Global or Universal IOs
                        United Nations Organization (UN or UNO)
                        International Court of Justice (ICJ)
                        World Bank
                        International Monetary Fund (IMF)
                        World Trade Organization (WTO)
                                formerly General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
                Functional Organizations
                        International Labor Organization (ILO)
                        Universal Postal Union (UPU)
                        International Telecommunications Union (ITU)
                        International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
                        World Health Organization (WHO)
                        United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP)
                        United Nations Economic, Social, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
                        United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF)
                        International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
                Regional IOs                               
                        European Union (EU)
                        North Atlantic Treaty Organization
                        Organization of American States (OAS)

        Private Not-Profit and Semi-Private Voluntary Associations
        International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGO) or sometimes misleadingly called
                       generically as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).

"An international nongovernmental organization (INGO) is a voluntary association of organizations or individuals for worldwide or regional action."

"The term nongovernmental organization or NGO is sometimes used to describe these groups, although it more correctly refers to a entity working domestically. Both terms, NGO and INGO, should be differentiated from intergovernmental organizations or IGOs."  See:

The United Nations Department of Public Information provides the following information regarding NGOs.

                    The following are examples of INGOs
International Committee of the Red Cross
Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières
                     Oxfam International      
                    Caritas, Catholic Relief Services       
                    CARE International    

It is estimated that there are more than 40,000 internationally operating NGOs.  Read the following article in Wikipedia on NGOs

Private For-Profit Transnational or International Corporations and Banks
Multi-National Corporations (MMCs)  and Transnational Banks (TNCs)


WAL-MART STORES                                            $288.0
BRITISH PETROLEUM                                         $285.1
EXXON MOBIL                                                        $270.8
ROYAL DUTCH/SHELL GROUP                        $268.8
GENERAL MOTORS                                              $193.5
DAIMLER-CHRYSLER                                          $176.7
TOYOTA MOTOR                                                   $172.6
FORD MOTOR                                                         $172.3
GENERAL ELECTRIC                                            $152.9
TOTAL                                                                        $152.6
CHEVRON                                                                 $148.0
CONOCOPHILLIPS                                                 $121.7
AXA                                                                              $121.6
ALLIANZ                                                                    $118.9


State Actors

Central Governments of Sovereign States
The most important actors within the global system continue to be the central governments of the sovereign states of the world.  Central governments are concerned primarily about the welfare of their own domestic state-societies.  But, through their foreign policies, these central governments impact on other central governments, other sovereign state-societies, and the global system.  Central governments are the only organizations which up to this point have a legal right to go to war.

Gross National Income (GNI) measures the total value of goods and services produced in a given country.  Obviously these amounts are not all available to the central government.  Total government expenditures would be a better measure for the relative importance of that central government both within its own society and in the larger world.  Nonetheless, GDI is often used to weight different countries.

COUNTRY                                             GROSS NATIONAL INCOME IN 2006
                                                                                    BILLIONS OF DOLLARS

UNITED STATES                                                    $12,150.9
JAPAN                                                                         $4,749.9
GERMANY                                                                 $2,489.0
UNITED KINGDOM                                                $2,016.4
FRANCE                                                                      $1,858.7
CHINA                                                                         $1,676.8
ITALY                                                                           $1,502.6
CANADA                                                                        $905.6
SPAIN                                                                              $875.8
MEXICO                                                                          $703.1

The figures for both the MNCs and the State GNI are taken from Kegley, World Politics, 11th Ed Rev, Table 6.2, p. 207.

Civil Societies within States.
Central governments are only one type of actor within a given country or state-society.  There are millions of individuals, families, private businesses, corporations, voluntary associations, organized interest groups, and political parties.  Some of these intra-state actors also impact on the global system.  Private individuals who travel to foreign countries as tourists can, under certain circumstances, become international actors.

Corporations, banks, labor unions, religious organizations, and political parties may have branches, affiliations, chapters, associations outside their main place of location.

Many state-societies are multi-ethnic, multi-national, and multi-religious.  Ethnic and tribal areas may straddle more than one state. 

Civil war is a condition that exists in many countries of the world.  Insurgents, rebels, guerrilla movements, organizations practicing terror to gain their ends, and outlawed political movements do in fact play a role in international politics. 

Societal communities can become important international actors.

Individual Actors.

 Ultimately all human societies, including the global system, are made up of individuals.  And ultimately, only individuals act whether as part of a social grouping, an organized group, or a formal, bureaucratic organization.

Individuals as private individuals do not usually become international actors.  Former leaders of countries, kings, and very rich persons sometimes become international actors as single individuals.

Ordinary citizens may become actors if abducted by terrorists, trapped in some natural catastrophe, or accused on crimes in a country other than their own.  Tourists, businesspersons in foreign countries, citizens of one country visiting their relatives in another country may find themselves unexpected as objects of international disputes.

But most people reside most of their lives in a single country and do  not become international actors.

Individuals become important as international actors when they play roles within organizations.  The individual, the role occupied by the individual, and the organization on whose behalf the individual acts tend to become conflated. 

Classifying International Actors by Type of Organizational Structure

Bureaucratic Actors:  Almost all international actors are bureaucratic in their organizational structures.  Bureaucracies or formal organizations are the most powerful institutions on this planet.  All central governments and their local subdivisions are bureaucracies.  All large private for-profit business corporations (MNCs and TNBs) are bureaucracies.  All IGOs or IOs are bureaucracies. Many, but not all,  INGOs and NGOs are dominated by their bureaucratic, professional staff..  Bureaucratic Actors predominate in the global system.

Voluntary Associations:  Most mass membership organizations are voluntary associations.  They may have a small staff or secretariat of paid, full-time employees, but the bulk of the membership are volunteers who, usually, pay a membership fee to the association. What we generally call interest groups or pressure groups often fall into this category of voluntary associations. Political parties are often this kind of mass membership organization.  The organization is often headed by a national leadership who are elected.  The leadership and the paid professional staff may come to dominate the organization.  If the voluntary organization has a large staff, more than several hundred, we may come to look at it as a bureaucratic organization.  The head of the professional staff is often called the General Secretary of the organization.   Most NGOs and INGOs fall in this category and have a bureaucratic component to their voluntary membership base.

Individuals and Families:  Ultimately all human societies, including the global system, are made up of individuals.  Individuals are born into and live in families.  Extended families may form clans and tribes.  Bonds of blood may produce ethnic communities or what I have called societal communities. 

Societal Communities.  Societal communities refers to social groupings that share common cultural characteristics based on blood relationships, common ethnicity, common language, common religion, and common national identity.  They share common cultural traits.  There may be traditional positions of leadership recognized by the community.  There may be a recognized tribal chief, elders, wise persons, witch doctors, priest, or other authority.  Max Weber described these leadership positions as "traditional." 

But, societal communities may also generate charismatic leaders.  Charisma is a quality of leadership which seems to arise spontaneously.  It is difficult to define rationally but can readily be observed.  Some leaders attract large crowds of followers and others do not.  Whatever it is that makes them popular may be summarized as charisma.  These leaders are neither traditional authority figures, nor do they occupy any official position of authority.  They may ultimately become elected to some position of legal-rational authority.

Social groupings are groups that are culturally bound together.  They do not have formal, legally-defined authority structures.  But social groupings can form voluntary associations, which in term generate a formal leadership.  Social groupings become organized social groups.  Not all Irishmen belong to the Ancient Order of the Hibernians.  But this fraternal organization was originally established to assist Irish immigrants to the United States facing discrimination.   The organized group helps the broader, culturally connected social grouping. 

Other Classification of International Actors          

Individuals, Organized Groups, The Central Government, Society as a Whole, the State, Regional Balances, The Global System

Societal Components: Public Opinion, Interest Groups, Political Parties, Iron Triangles, Military-Industrial Complex, Think Tanks, Public Officials as Foreign Policy Makers

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Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Prof. of Government and History
Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016
August 24, 2007
September 11, 2009