Elia Bescotti's Blog

Proliferation of actors, authority crisis and systems of fragmentation

January 10, 2018

The advent of the era of globalisation has brought with itself several collateral effects, among which we can find the fragmentation phenomena. Generally speaking, we define as fragmentation a condition where the actors of the international system, sovereign or not, have significantly mushroomed in the whole international system, both at horizontal and vertical level, both quantitatively both qualitatively, and through their proliferation are increasing the density and the complexity of the international system. This proliferation of actors acts in two ways: following and fostering the savage globalisation of our times possible for many different reason, among which we must consider severe technological developments and economic integration, and, on the other hand, react to the globalising moment, trying to push an allegedly unified world towards, namely, its fragmentation. Kaufman argues that, in order to understand the consolidation or the fragmentation of an international system, we need to focus on four main driving forces: the first is anarchy and the “self-help” behaviour it pushes to adopt, which fosters the consolidation (but not the stability) of the international system; the second is economic interdependence, which operates towards expansion and consolidation; third we have the principles of unit identity, that are principles of legitimacy according to which a unit or actor is legitimated to act, interact or merely exist: one of the principle ruling nowadays is the principle of unit identity which defines the nature of an actor and according to which it behaves (for instance, States are considered to be sovereign within their boundaries and among equals without them) – the more the identities (especially disrespecting the accepted principle and, therefore, illegitimate), the higher the fragmentation; the fourth is administrative or “social technology,” such as bureaucracy, which can work for both consolidation and fragmentation, for units too big to adapt to these technologies tend to collapse and being overwhelmed both by external and internal forces[1].

Principles of unit identity appears to be necessary to understand fragmentation: it is not merely a proliferation of actors that determines fragmentation, but the proliferation of different regulating principles legitimising the mere existence of actors. For example, we should not treat the decolonisation process as fragmenting because of the mushrooming of new States. In fact, we should treat it as the moment where the principle of imperialism, conceived as “a political principle that justifies the formation and maintenance of empires incorporating many nations and groups”[2] has been challenged by the principle of self-determination of people, a switch to a nationalist paradigm, which has brought to the collapse of the last European colonial empires. With the transition from the Cold War to its end, communist regimes collapsed because the principle of socialism and internationalist revolution has been overwhelmed and contested, in the Eastern bloc, both by liberalism and nationalism. Nowadays, nationalism and its narrower development, “ethnicism,” are both contesting the principles of global and regional integration and/or the principles of non-ethnically “pure” nation-States. In this sense, we can recognise how fragmentation is not-independent from globalisation, but should be treated as a reaction against it: this is evident also in the economic sphere, where the global integration of economies is constantly opposed by economic nationalism, neo-mercantilism and radicals[3]. It is impossible to understand fragmentation if we do not consider it as a reaction to the globalising process[4].

In this sense, fragmentation does not seem to be a threat to sovereignty. In fact, fragmentation appears to stem from its claim: if integration processes and globalisation demand the States to devolve sovereignty, they can be treated as threats to States’ sovereignty and as questioning of their constitutive principles. State seems to lose its meaning when faced to globalisation, inducing claim of sovereignty to protect their own identity as States: if the principle of unit identity of State sovereignty is challenged, it is therefore possible to understand why and how the international system can be thought as falling into fragmentation because of the globalising process. Nevertheless, we must point out that claims of sovereignty do not arise only from the States, but also within them, as it happens with the cases of “ethnicism” and secessionist attempts we are going to discuss later.

Fragmentation does not directly question sovereignty, for it seems to vindicate it. What fragmentation questions is authority. Or, better, fragmentation acts towards authority by spreading it among its sources. To understand better this point, we should clarify where authority is located. Rosenau puts authority in what he calls “spheres of authority,” by addressing them as the place where authority is concentrated and it may undergo disaggregation[5]. There are several spheres of authority, countless. And they differ from one another in qualitative terms, being both territorialised or not, operating at different level, or at the same level but being completely opposite in their nature or their source of authority. Indeed, among spheres of authority we find both governments and non-governmental organisations.

The four local worlds […] share an orientation toward situations, events, and trends that are close-at-hand, proximate, or domestic even as they differ in ways that their respective labels indicate. The four global worlds […] are oriented toward remote, distant, or foreign situations, events, and trends even as they differ along the lines their labels suggest. The four private worlds […] lack orientations toward any local or global world even as their lack of involvement stems from the different sources connoted by their labels.

According to Rosenau, the proliferation of spheres of authority is one of the main characteristics of the post-Cold war international system: “[s]ince 1991 global structures have undergone a transformation in which the state-centric system has been weakened by the advent of a new, multi-centric system that has expanded enormously.”[6] Rosenau has defined the contemporary international system as bifurcated, “in which the state-centric and multi-centric worlds sometimes cooperate, often conflict, and endlessly interact.”[7] Rosenau attributes the rise of this multi-centric world to many reasons but, in particular, he underlines the technologic development as one of its main causes: the technological progress has heavily encouraged the construction of transnational networks and made long-distances communication easier, building a de facto non-territorialised world. In fact, Rosenau advocates that up to twelve different non-territorialised worlds exist:[8]

Per se, these worlds do not include spheres of authority, but analytically they are necessary to define them, their formation and their proliferation, which directly brings to the fragmentation and questioning of authority itself. Rosenau analyses the relocation of authority as one of the parameters of what he defines as the “turbulence model,” together with the already mentioned bifurcation of the world system and the skill revolution. If this last one is the micro-parameter, acting at individual level, relocation of authority constitutes the micro-macro parameter, while the bifurcation of the world-system is the macro parameter[9]. The transformation of these three parameters defines what Rosenau calls a “fragmegrative world,” that is a world where integration and fragmentation are two overlapped tied phenomena.

Skill revolution refers to the upgrade of the knowledge and competence of the individuals. Individuals are not subject to unquestionable authorities anymore, for they are now able process determined information, and it is possible for them to participate more broadly and intensely to the change of their surrounding environment, which is also not limited by spatial distances anymore. Individuals do not constitute a unique group, with the same visions of the world, ideas and purposes: they can act one against the other. Nevertheless, they have become more capable to interact with each other and to “give voice” to their positions, decreasing the degree of alienation of the individual both at the horizontal and vertical level. The skill revolution has been possible for several reasons, but the technological development granted by the World Wide Web, the intrusive presence of the mass media in everyday life, and the increase of the degree of education are all concurrent to the change of the micro-parameter[10].

Relocation of authority is the change occurring at micro-macro level: this is happening because the sources of authority are switching from traditional to performance criteria. This is exactly what Kaufman meant by addressing principles of unit identity and, according to performance, administrative and social technologies too. “For a number of reasons, including the expanded analytical skills of the citizens,” Rosenau argues, “the foundation of [authority structures] have also undergone erosion.”[11] Nowadays, spheres of authority do not govern because they are legitimised by a “divine right” or other sources, but because they are able to obtain compliance because of their performances. Indeed, “compliance is the key to [spheres of authority] that manage to persist and move to toward their goals.”[11] It is not automatic, and it is relationally rooted. “The more the performance record is considered appropriate […] the more [individuals] are likely to cooperate and comply.”[13] This has brought to a large crisis of authority, pushing States and governments to re-orientate their goals, interest and structures, sometimes facing major consequences such as, in extreme cases, their total collapse. In some cases, the questioning of authority and the end of compliance can bring to a peaceful outcome, while in some others, the drivers for this crisis end into violence and war. This is particularly true in the cases of States collapse: for instance, communist regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed either peacefully or violently, bringing to the disintegration of multi-ethnic federations and degenerating in war when ethnic boundaries were not clearly defined or self-determination and sovereignty were claimed without juridical right to do it.

The rise of compliance as a source of legitimacy of authority risks to endanger and subvert the source of loyalty. Simplifying, compliance is nothing else than loyalty to the best performance perceived. If a sphere of authority ends to satisfy its subjects, it can easily incur into a crisis of authority, which will be distributed among those actors able to grab the more compliance or power they can. This is a devastating outcome of fragmentation, because harmful spheres of authorities can easily arise from a situation where no higher authority is present.

Finally, the bifurcation of the global structures is the macro-parameter according to whose change turbulence occur. As already mentioned, the State-centric world has incurred in a bifurcation, with a new multi-centric world based on sovereignty-free actors arising. States are still relevant to the international system, yet, according to Rosenau they are not the only key actors. States are the only actors in some framework where sovereignty-free actors have not the right capabilities to participate. However, this is not a grant for these actors are constantly developing, due mainly to the skill revolution, and proliferating, because of authority erosion[14].

Summarizing, Rosenau questions the centrality of the State as the key actor of international relations since the end of the Cold war: he disputes (neo)realism and (neo)liberal institutionalism by proposing a new model of analysis or “worldview,” “fragmegration,” where the main units are diverse, as they are the issues, the boundaries of the States are porous and permeable and the international structure is determined by citizen skills, authoritative relations and structural bifurcation. The engine of this model, from which the theory is named after, is turbulence. And turbulence is driven by many factors, as Rosenau argues, among which, for our purpose of analysis of fragmentation, we need to underline three: the already mentioned proliferation of actors, the weakening of States and sub-groupism, which behave according to the attitude to develop deep in-group relations at the expense of the out-group or, in other words, the inclination to extremise the identification of the outside as an “other.”[15]

Proliferation of actors needs to be considered because some of them directly threat the legitimate monopoly on violence owned by the States: on the one hand, security governance structures and integration of security communities deprive the States if not of the monopoly of violence, of the use of war as a mean to settle disputes or, in the words of Clausewitz, as the “continuation of policy by other means;”[16] on the other hand, the rise of  terrorist groups, criminal organisations, paramilitary formations but also legal structures such as contractors and mercenaries are pushing towards not monopoly but “competition”[17] on violence, basically posing the base for its privatisation. Sometimes those organizations are more efficient and usually morally disinhibited, yet what we should address is their relative or absolute autonomy from State structures and their transnational acting, which contributes to the permeability of the boundaries between States. Clearly, the disintegration and fragmentation of the monopoly of violence is a threat to every kind of State, but most of all to weak ones, for they are not able to control violent organization neither within nor through their boundaries.

If weakening of States is a source of fragmentation, it is clear how much fragmentation can threaten security. States have not become leftovers of the international system: they are still the key actors. Nevertheless, globalisation and fragmentation are stretching the States in two directions, narrowing their fields of actions or, better, putting them to compete in an environment in which they are not the only actors anymore. Moreover, as we said, their authority and sovereignty are disputed, undermining their stability in terms of identity too. Yet, it is possible to consider the States “as a process,” especially if we adopt a constructivist analytic point of view: they can adapt or transform their identity and structures to interact better with the surrounding environment, which has heavily changed from the modern period and the treaty of Westphalia. This is what post-modern States are doing, and for this reason they still lie on the strongest edge of the weak/strong continuum. However, as we argued, power and strength are not synonyms, because if the former can be better understood if aligned to resilience, power does not fit in this description. Of course, the definition of power it is contested, but we can assume that power is the ability of A to get B to do something that B would not otherwise do[18]. It follows, therefore, that power is clearly relational. Nevertheless, to be maintained, power should produce permanent or long-lasting outcomes, and it is usually possible to determine this according to the capability of deterrence that power gives. And deterrence is aimed both to protection from threats and defection. But when facing a situation of proliferation and fragmentation of actors over which it becomes harder to impose power exactly because of this, is defection still avoidable?

This is one of the key problem of the relation between security and fragmentation: the rise of systems of fragmentation. Diametrically opposed to integration, systems of fragmentation are characterised by three main differences with the “ordered” international system: the marginality of the State and its loss off monopoly on violence, the undefined division between the internal and external dimension and the proliferation of actors. None of these is new to our analysis.  These three parameters, according to Colombo, involve, respectively:

  • competition over the monopoly on violence, lack of shared values and a low threshold to the joining of politics;
  • multiple sovereignty, incompatibility of visions and goals, sub-State diplomacy;
  • extreme degree of equality among the actors, which leads to instability due to increase of variables, high defection and crisis of negotiation processes[1].

Systems of fragmentation are not easily manageable and governable. The claims and purposes of the actors participating in the system is a direct challenge to the idea of management and governance itself. It is almost impossible to build any network of trust in a system of fragmentation: the actors are so many that any defection is almost impossible to punish. Security does not seem to be an issue anymore in systems of fragmentation. Or, at least, for its units, for they have nothing to lose. But, as the threshold of involvement in politics can be easily bypassed, the crisis of authority and its spreading at horizontal level can easily bring not only to a proliferation of violent actors, but to a proliferation of successful securitisation claims. This is particularly critical, because those claims are also motivated by the chaotic environment provided by fragmentation and the heterogeneity of the values and identifications adopted by the different actors, among which mutual distrust rules.

But this does not affect only the horizontal level or the near spatial dimension: it has repercussions at structural level. Systems of fragmentation do not directly threaten the security of great powers or stronger States, yet they strongly reduce their effectiveness in managing and governing. Colombo and Rosenau address this problem from two different sides of the medal: the instability of the unipolar system (which differs from hegemony because the sole pole is unable to establish its leadership over the whole system)[20] and the “the severe limits on the ability of a superpower to generate the compliance necessary for it to maintain order on a global scale” due to the proliferation of spheres of authority[21]. The result is what Rosenau address as the problem of “governing the ungovernable,” in an environment where the globalising and integrating forces are threatened by their creations. This is a complicated issue while dealing with security: the action of security governance structures and security communities, albeit not necessarily globally integrated, is undermined not only by problems of decision-making occurring within themselves, but also when the decision undertaken is impossible to be applied due to the extreme crisis of authority incurred to by acting in a system of fragmentation.

Finally, the third relevant driver of fragmentation is sub-grouping. Although we are going to discuss sub-groups behaviour [in a separate analysis][22], namely in the case of ethnocentrism, we can consider sub-groups as communities acting (hence, actors) in rivalry towards the out-group and in cooperation within the in-group. If the monopoly on violence is scattered among the actors of the system of fragmentation, the competitive attitude of subgroups, the lack of any effective authority or deterrence and the low threshold to participation in politics (and in war) can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Civil wars arising from failed states usually belong to these cases.


Elia Bescotti, The issue of security in the processes of integration and disintegration of the contemporary international system. The case study of the post-Soviet space, Master Degree thesis in World Politics, MGIMO, Moscow, December 2017, pp. 70-76

1 S. J. Kaufman, “The fragmentation and consolidation of international systems,” in International Organization, 51, 2, 1997, pp.174, 177-184

2 Ibidem, p. 182

3 Gilpin, quoted in B. Stefanachi, “Globalization and Identities – A Constructivist Approach,” in The Scale of Globalization. Think Globally, Act Locally, Change Individually in the 21st Century, Ostrava, University of Ostrava, 2011, p. 313

4 Clark, quoted in Ibidem, p. 315

5 J. N. Rosenau, “Governing the Ungovernable: The Challenge of a Global Disaggregation of Authority,” in Regulation and Governance, 1, 1, 2007, pp. 88-90

6 Ibidem, p. 89

7 Ibidem. See also J. Rosenau, Turbulence in World Politics: A Theory of Change and Continuity, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1990

8 Ibidem, p. 91. See also J. Rosenau, Distant Proximities: Dynamics Beyond Globalization, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2003

9 J. Rosenau, Along the domestic-foreign Frontier. Exploring Governance in a Turbulent World, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1997, pp. 57-65

10 Ibidem, pp. 58-61

11 Ibidem, p. 61

12 J. Rosenau, “Governing the Ungovernable,” p. 89, emphasis of the author

13 J. Rosenau, Along the domestic-foreign Frontier, p. 62

14 Ibidem, pp. 64-65

15 For an exhaustive list and explanation of the sources of turbulence and “fragmegartion” see Ibidem, pp. 65-77

16 C. von Clausewitz, On war, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 28

17 A. Colombo, La Disunità del Mondo, p. 325

18 R. A. Dahl, “The Concept of Power,” in Behavioral Science, 2, 3, 1957, pp. 202-203

19 A. Colombo, La Disunità del mondo, Dopo il secolo globale. Feltrinelli, Milan, 2010 pp. 325-327

20 S. Kaufman, “The fragmentation and consolidation of international systems,” p. 201

21 A. Colombo, La Disunità del Mondo, pp. 323-325, J. Rosenau, “Governing the Ungovernable,” pp. 90-91

22 In the original text, the author wrote “later”

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