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Professor’s Book Examines Non-State Actors in Diplomacy

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Agency Change Book Cover (Robert Kelley)

Assistant Professor Robert Kelley’s new book, Agency Change: Diplomatic Action Beyond the State, examines the rise and power of non-state actors in diplomacy.

Kelley, a former State Department official who is an expert on public diplomacy, argues that the “agency”or impetus for modern diplomacy is shifting from traditional institutions like the U.S. State Department to a new range of non-state diplomatic actors (NDAs). NDAs, which include humanitarian organizations, former heads of state, celebrities, religious leaders, and public intellectuals, can often mobilize more quickly than their State Department counterparts, thanks to advanced information and communications technologies, idea entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, and public influence.

“NDAs have developed particular capabilities that elude large, slow bureaucracies like the State Department, including shaping agendas, building action networks and transnational constituencies around issues of shared concern, and solving problems that lie beyond the reach of any single state. As with any process of innovation, NDAs are finding creative ways to compensate for government inadequacy and inaction in all those areas,” Kelley explains.

As an example, Kelley cites the handling of the Ebola crisis. While various bureaucracies including the World Health Organization debated over which agencies would respond where and when, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, worked to bring the situation under control.

Although MSF is a humanitarian-aid organization, other NDAs self-identify as diplomatic players. For example, Carne Ross, an ex-British diplomat who heads the private firm Independent Diplomat, consults with under-represented states like Kosovo on diplomatic strategies and techniques. NDAs can also include sub-state actors such as the Polisario Front, a Sahrawi rebel national liberation movement working to end Moroccan presence in the Western Sahara.

These developments indicate that diplomacy is de-centering, according to Kelley. In response, Kelley asserts that state officials and NDAs can -- and should -- collaborate on diplomatic affairs.

“I find there can be synergies between official diplomats and NDAs. For all their innovation and problem-solving, NDAs cannot match their state counterparts in the areas of accountability and responsibility. What this suggests is that neither competition nor compensation, but collaboration will sustain diplomacy as a pillar of world politics,” Kelley says.

In order for state and non-state actors to coexist, Kelley concludes that governments must innovate their diplomatic efforts while still maintaining accountability, legitimizing the use of state strength, and leveraging permanent presence in diplomatic relationships. His study shows how states can embrace change by first recognizing the sources of power in today’s diplomatic affairs, and the book presents a case for what states can do now to respond to a world in which diplomacy has gone public.

“NDAs can command a degree of credibility eluding most governments. More than any other time, today’s diplomacy requires gaining public support in order to be effective. Thus, one could surmise that there is no longer a ‘public diplomacy’ but in fact most diplomacy presumes public engagement,” Kelley says.

Follow Robert Kelley on Twitter at @agencychange.