A state’s foreign policy is directed toward a variety of external actors.  Most understanding of foreign policy behavior, however, is derived from observations of states interacting with other states.  This study examines how foreign policy decision making during crisis differs when it is directed toward violent non-state actors.  A crisis is defined as an event in which a state perceives a threat to one or more of its basic values, along with an awareness of finite time for response, and a heightened probability of engaging in military hostilities.  Violent non-state actors are those non-state groups that pursue their political goals through the use of or threat to use violence. Additionally, the non-state actors of interest are those that threaten an external state’s national interests in such a way that it represents a crisis for that country, necessitating some form of foreign policy response.

This study argues that because non-state actors lack many of the structural characteristics associated with a state, such as a recognized foreign ministry or the lack of trust states have in a non-state leader’s ability to enforce agreements, states respond to these crises more violently than they do when responding to crises triggered by states.  International Crisis Behavior (ICB) data confirms that the major response by states toward crises triggered by violent non-state actors are more violent than responses to crises triggered by states.  Empirical results also show that non-state groups with more pronounced political and military structures are less likely to be responded to violently.  Other factors, such as the nature of the value threatened and type of violence used to trigger the crisis, do not have a significant impact on how states respond.

This study argues that a set of international norms have emerged that help mitigate the level of violence between states and that these norms do not apply as strongly to these violent non-state groups.  However, non-state groups that are able to establish institutional structures similar to those of states are more likely to lessen the level of violence directed toward them.

Chapter 1 Introduction: A Different Threat

When hijacked airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 there was a prevailing sense that the world was facing an entirely new challenge.  Instead of threats emanating from “rogue” states or a competing superpower, the world now turned its attention toward non-state actors seeking to advance their political agendas through violent means.  This type of threat, however, is not new.  From pirates on the Barbary Coast to groups such as al-Qaeda today, violent non-state actors have always posed serious obstacles to the interests of states.  However, in a shrinking and increasingly interdependent world with greater access to lethal weaponry and advanced communications technologies, these groups present an ever more complex challenge to contemporary foreign policy decisionmakers.  How policymakers assess these threats and subsequently formulate policy toward these groups constitutes an essential part of our understanding of how such decisions are made in a transnational era.

This study examines the threats violent non-state actors pose to states and how states respond to these groups.  While sharing some characteristics, violent non-state actors are fundamentally different from states and, therefore, pose a challenge for international relations scholarship.  The scope of this work is bounded substantively and conceptually in that it focuses specifically on those cases in which a state actor experiences a foreign policy crisis from the actions of a non-state actor.  This dissertation asks whether foreign policy responses to crises triggered by such groups mirror or differ from those that are made toward states that pose similar threats  Either outcome presents an interesting puzzle.  If policy outcomes are similar, then why is it that states develop similar responses to non-similar units?  If the policies are different, then how are they different and how does the structure of these asymmetric relationships determine those differences?

The study of international relations has devoted most of its attention to the behavior of states acting within a constrictive international system.  The state, which is generally understood to hold a monopoly on the legitimate use of organized violence (Weber 1964: 154), has been the primary arbiter of how change occurs within that system (Carnoy 1984; Jessop 1990; Poggi 1990).  It is considered the principal unit of analysis in international relations theory and, as a result, most theorizing has been directed toward state-state interactions (see Waltz 1979; Keohane 1986; Wendt 1999). While a state-centric research agenda has produced key insights into the power relations and mechanisms that exist between states, it tends to ignore another level of interactions that takes place between states and non-state actors.

Non-state actors, both violent and non-violent, have proliferated throughout the globe and their impact can be seen on numerous levels.  In fact, one could argue that two of the most significant historical markers of the last fifteen years—the fall of Eastern Bloc Communism and September 11th—were the result of the actions of nonstate actors, both violent and peaceful (see Evangelista 1999). 

Violent non-state actors are understood here as organized groups, not formally affiliated with any internationally recognized government, which seek to obtain their political goals through violent means. They can be motivated by ethnic, ideological, religious, or economic goals and include a wide range of groups with varying objectives, from those seeking to overthrow the government of an existing state to those hoping to gain greater regional autonomy. While non-state actors with purely economic motivations, such as transnational criminal organizations, are not included in this analysis, many groups with strong political, ethnic, or religious motivations include an economic component as well.  Groups such as the FARC and United Defense Forces of Colombia, for example, have both relied heavily on drug sales to fund their political activities—and enrich their members’ own personal coffers

(Manwaring 2002; Kirk 2003).  Because this dissertation is ultimately concerned with foreign policy decision-making, in contrast to domestic policy concerned with internal security threats, an additional component of the definition for violent non-state actors is that they are based outside of a state’s borders and are not indigenous threats to the state in question.

This research looks at three aspects of the interactions that take place between states and violent non-state actors, specifically during foreign policy crises.  First, it explores the specific ways in which a violent non-state group threatens the interests and values of a state and how the nature of the threat impacts the frame through which decision-makers formulate a response.  Second, it examines how the interactions states have with these groups differ from the types of interactions that take place between states.  Third, it looks at the dynamics of the interactions that take place between states and specific categories of violent non-state actors.

This research will add additional insight into how these groups fit into our broader theoretical understanding of the international system as well as how their activities affect the specific behavior of states operating within that system.  With a better knowledge of those dynamics, practitioners may be able to formulate better policies for responding to the challenges presented by such groups.

Violent Non-State Actors in Historical Context

Historically violent non-state actors have time and again played a prominent role in states’ foreign policies.  These non-state actors can be classified into two types of groups: first, those that are formally sanctioned by the state and used by the state to project and expand its power, and, second, those that oppose the state (or the elites who are working to control the state) and compete against its efforts to centralize and consolidate power.

At the outset of the Westphalian state system—before states had fully centralized and consolidated their capabilities to project power abroad—the activities of such non-state actors as privateers and mercantile companies were openly sanctioned by the state.  States used these non-state actors to pursue their political and economic goals, and, in turn, privateers and mercantilists used the acquiescence of these weak states to legitimatize their own activities.  From the thirteenth century until the war of 1812, privateers—ships that are privately owned but sailing under a commission of war from a state—played central roles in the outcome of numerous conflicts, including the American revolutionary war in which the Colony’s Continental Navy of sixty-four ships was supplemented by over 1,600 privateer ships.  In addition, mercantile companies, such as the English East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, and the Hudson Bay Company, were authorized by states to carry out many of the duties normally associated with the modern state.  The charter of the Dutch East India Company, for example, granted it the authority “to make war, conclude treaties, acquire territories and build fortresses” (quoted in Thomson 1994: 10-11).  Of course not all non-state actors were sanctioned by the state.  Pirates persistently contested states’ economic and political goals, and, as Sir Walter Raleigh eventually discovered, previously sanctioned non-state actors could later become enemies when they grew too ambitious or political alignments changed (Irwin 1998; Thomson 1994)