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Welcome to the era of the non-state actor

Written by The Anand Market

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We can no longer hope that it is an AI-generated deep fake. Last fall, Rishi Sunak actually interviewed Elon Musk on stage. I repeat, a sitting head of government assigned the role of subordinate to a businessman at a public event. As piercing and Socratic as his questions were (“What are you particularly passionate about?”), Sunak belittled his office.

But he was also following the flow of world events. Musk is a rather innocuous example of a larger trend: the drain of state power. It has a space program larger than that of all but a few national governments. He got a sense of the scale of the war in Ukraine from his Starlink satellites.

The darker side of this phenomenon appears in the Middle East. Neither Hamas nor the Houthis are a state. Yet one has upended the region’s politics and the other occasionally attacks a chokepoint in global trade.

Whatever entity killed three American soldiers in Jordan this weekend was also not a sovereign power, even if it enjoys the support of only one, Iran, which itself exchanged fire with Sunni irregular forces in Pakistan. Four months ago, the United States hoped to lose priority in the Middle East. It now ensures that no terrorist is the Gavrilo principle of this century: the perpetrator of a larger war.

According to current data, the winner of the post-American world is not China. This is the non-state actor. Whether good, bad or difficult to place, they thrive when no nation is strong enough to dominate the global or even regional situation.

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The United States now accounts for about a quarter of nominal global economic output. China has a little less and, to the extent that it can be called singular, so does the EU. And before reaching our Gramsci, this state of affairs is also not an “interregnum”, in which “the old dies and the new cannot be born”. The “new” world order is expected to be even more fragmented, not less, assuming that India at some point joins the highest economic weight class. Calling this distribution of power “multipolar” seems increasingly outdated. It’s “non-polar”.

The Middle East is not the only country in chaos. (In fact, because its nonstate actors are often proxies for this or that sovereign government, events take a perverse turn.) Ecuador, once a model of order in its own region, is succumbing to gangs drug. The Sahel is so full of jihadists and secular bandits that France, little known for its timidity in its former colonies, has given up on a long counter-insurgency mission there. There is large-scale irregular migration across the southern borders of Europe and America.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the number of “humanitarian armed groups” worldwide has consistently exceeded 450 over the past five years. Some 195 million people live under the control – sedentary or “fluid” – of these informal forces.

We are supposed to experience the return of the State, remember. The major political events of the last decade – Brexit, Donald Trump, Xi Jinping – suggest a global desire for sovereign control after several decades of fashionable relaxation. Some of this has been confirmed. There is a new dirigisme in formerly liberal economies. But while some states are growing stronger within their borders (which is not the case for many, from Yemen to crime-ridden Sweden), they are increasingly unable to support others. elsewhere. None have enough influence, even in combination with allies. The result is an ungoverned space.

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For millennia, economic growth was low or non-existent. Then, from the late 1700s, it flourished. What happened? Industrialization, yes, but also the modern state, which transformed diverse lands into integrated markets and established the order in which trade could take place. The State, if we define it as that which has the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence in a given territory, is there with agriculture and electricity among the greatest inventions of the species. If it gives way to sub-state, non-state and anti-state forces, the consequences for a large part of humanity are disastrous.

The question is whether those who applaud the end of this American order will now see it as it always was: a kind of global public good. Iran? Unlikely. Russia too, a Western spy told me, sees “lose-lose” as a victory for it. But there are countries in the reluctant but not quite hostile camp that must find a decentralized world more palatable as an idea than as an experience.

janan.ganesh@ft.com