The visitor from overseas, a scholar retired from a friendly intelligence service, spoke at a private dinner in Toronto this week. His comments to about 50 business people, newspaper publishers, scholars and diplomats were upbeat but, shall we say, sober. He didn't think the world was necessarily going to hell in a hand-basket, but he did seem to caution that "realists" weren't being very realistic.

In political science jargon, people who believe that states are the only real players in the international arena are often referred to as realists. In their view, non-state actors are either proxies for states or don't really amount to a hill of beans.

The visitor strongly hinted that this view was mistaken. I say "hinted," because spooks and scholars often say more between the lines than in them, and this is doubly true of scholarly spooks. The visitor, a scholarly spook if there ever was one, seemed to be of the view that not-state actors in our times had the capacity to wreak as much havoc as rogue states, if not more. The corollary, implied if not stated, was that non-state actors have the capacity for doing some good as well.

This was only one of several points to emerge from the visitor's remarks, but it caught my attention. If we reject a model of international relations that dismisses non-state actors or views them as mere nuisances, what model do we adopt? How do we deal with the scores of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) infesting the United Nations? What about the NGOs that were accredited to, say, the 1998 Rome Conference on the International Criminal Court, or the ones that have fastened themselves like limpets to climate change conferences and, some say, hijacked their agendas?

And what about the pirates, terrorists, transnational criminal organizations, the Talibans and al-Qaedas? What about the entities that are bandits today but may, like Hamas, become virtual or actual state actors tomorrow? For that matter, what about private military and security companies (PMCs) that do a fair bit of the heavy lifting in places like Iraq and Afghanistan under contract to the U.S. or other states? What about cartels that have been trafficking mainly in drugs and contraband until now, but have the capacity to traffic in nuclear material if the corruption that characterizes such states as Russia, China, or Pakistan opens the door for them?

The visitor isn't alone in the view that these groups matter. In a piece published in Foreign Policy earlier this year, a University of British Columbia scholar, Benjamin Perrin, suggested that "the out-dated theoretical assumptions of realism that ignore non-state actors" ought to be "cast aside."

Casting aside the state's assumptions of its unique relevance is easier said than done, though. I doubt if states are ready for that, even when urged by scholars and spooks in unison.

Some non-state actors can be greater threats than sovereign countries, even rogue states, with fewer defenses against them. Can't very well bomb pesky NGOs. In a sense, a band of fifth columnists with box cutters are harder to stop than an invading army.

More precisely, we know how to stop armies. We know how to defend the periphery. What we have to learn is how to protect the core. At least, that's what I heard the visitor say between the lines.

Which leads me to a direct quote from a correspondent. "Hey, George, what will the second decade of the 21st century bring?"

Pundits practice prophecy without a permit. We try to extrapolate the future from current trends, which requires two assumptions: (a) that current trends will continue and (b) that we can tell a trend from an apple strudel. Both assumptions are wildly optimistic.

We know that prophecy is a mug's game, yet we can't help waxing oracular. We seem unable to pass a crystal ball without gazing into it. We sit there, shuffling tarot cards, stirring avian entrails, and talking through our hats.

What will the next decade bring? I don't know. Ask, though, if I can see a non-state actor carrying a suitcase with a nuclear device in the cards.

The answer is yes.

More importantly, we've had a visitor here who could see him, too.

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