Transnational Social Movements, International Nongovernmental Organizations and Our State-centric World
The 1999 Seattle protests brought the apparent proliferation of anti-globalization grassroot sociopolitical movements into the limelight of the world stage. Transnational social movements (TSMs), international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs), as well as the loose transnational activist networks (TANs) that contain them—all these came to be seen as an angry and no less potent backlash that's directed at the powerful states and increasingly towering economic IGOs such as the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank. In the field of international relations, some regard this as a prophetic watershed event that signals the weakening and perhaps even collapsing of the state-centric system of international relations, while many others insist that Seattle is but an eventually insignificant episode in the book of globalization and state power, as evidenced by the Doha success.
This paper attempts to address two questions that are at the heart of this dispute: Do TSMs and INGOs have any real power in today's international political arena against the traditional view of state dominance? And, if the answer to the previous question is yes, then does such a change merit a fundamental revision of the state-centric model of international relations?
My answer to these two questions is threefold: First, I assert that TSMs and INGOs can and have posed substantial normative challenges to state hegemony, most commonly the notion that the state enjoys a monopoly on representation of its citizens and their interests. Furthermore, TSMs and INGOs that employ the use of violence (particularly terrorism) breach the conventional notion that states are the only legitimate or consequential users of coercive force. Secondly—and quite ironically, considering the significance of the TSMs and INGOs in question—it may be argued that the TSMs and INGOs are a part of the state-centric model due to their inherent nongovernmental nature: real political changes are implemented by the state, and TSMs and INGOs are defined through their interaction with the state. This leads to the concluding third point, which is that if one breaks away from the traditional conception of “the state” that regards the states as the fundamental indivisible units of the state-centric model, then a reconciliation and indeed complementarization between the non-state actors and the states in a state-centric system would be both feasible and necessary.
To survey the position of TSMs and INGOs in today's international relations political arena, one must first ask what exactly constitute as these actors. Sidney Tarrow defines TSMs not according to their goals but “by the kind of action in which they routinely engage—contentious politics”; and as such, TSMs are identified as “socially mobilized groups engaged in sustained contentious interactions with powerholders in which at least one actor is...