Table of Contents



Over the past ten years, the sharpening of geopolitical rivalries and tensions has come to dominate political, diplomatic, and analytic attention. Many analysts have mapped out the emergent era of great power competition. The ever-heightening U.S.-China rivalry is a primary area of concern, while friction between Russia and the West has now exploded from a smoldering worry into a raging war. Still other geopolitical rifts and contests, involving powers such as India, Pakistan, Turkey, the Gulf states, Iran, and others, are widely present across the international landscape.

There is widespread agreement that rising geopolitical competition is the defining feature of contemporary international relations. While interpretations differ over exactly what types of geopolitics are now most determinant and how they play out, few would question the trend toward less harmonious interstate dynamics. One aspect that has not received sustained attention, however, is what this trend implies at a nonstate or societal level.

More particularly, a crucial open question is how the geopolitical era affects global civil society. The geopolitical zeitgeist has focused analysis on government actions and tactics, and it has tilted much analysis of international relations back toward state-oriented concepts and frameworks. While analysts give some attention to the role of armed nonstate actors in geopolitical struggles, the broader role of civic actors in contemporary geopolitics is underanalyzed. It is generally taken as read that the emergent dynamics of a reshaped global order are driven mainly by states and security actors, with commercial entities adding a sharper geoeconomic logic. This report widens the lens and asks how far civic actors also need to be seen as part of the shifting geopolitical landscape. It examines the civil society dimension of geopolitics and delves into what might be termed an emergent civil society geopolitics.

The volume assesses this issue across several countries and regions. Two chapters look at Chinese cooperation with part of civil society in Taiwan and the rapprochement between China and conservative civil society in Thailand, respectively. Another chapter examines non-Western support for civil society across Africa and how African civic groups are reacting to this trend. Other contributions probe how the Turkish government attempts to use civic actors for strategic goals; how several powers have sought to use nonstate groups in conflicts in the Middle East; and how the broader range of local civil society organizations (CSOs) stands in relation to geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). A further contribution details the ways in which crises involving Belarusian and Ukrainian refugees have shifted civil society relations and agendas in Poland. The volume also considers the increasingly internationalized activities of U.S. conservative groups and the de facto export of U.S. political polarization to other countries. Another chapter explores perhaps the most dramatic case of all: the role of civil society dynamics in the war on Ukraine.

Of course, framing the volume in terms of civil society geopolitics immediately raises the question of what is meant by geopolitics. A huge amount of academic work over many years has offered differing understandings of this concept. Fairly narrow classical definitions centered on territorial control contrast with more modern or even postmodern conceptualizations that bring in a range of power strategies. This report adopts a relatively wide framework: it understands geopolitical activity as covering instrumental actions directed toward perceived strategic interests and the geographic extension of influence—involving the enhancement of both military and nonmilitary power.

To this end, the volume examines governments’ use of civil society for strategic reasons and civil society’s reactions to state geopolitics. The aim is not to develop a normative framework for how governments or CSOs should act in this changing international context but, rather, to develop the first incisive global look at the new realities of civil society as it lives and works in the shadow of great power competition.

Forms of Civil Society Geopolitics

Across the very different case studies, we do not suggest there is one type of civil society geopolitics, nor do we presume the civil society dimensions of geopolitics are becoming especially far-reaching in any uniform sense. Rather, we seek to uncover different kinds and degrees of change through which global civil society is becoming geopoliticized. The case studies demonstrate that civil society geopolitics has multiple meanings in different regional and political contexts. Three particular aspects stand out.

Governments using civil society actors: While Western governments have long engaged with civil society to further their own interests, non-Western powers are now beginning to follow suit. They are moving to support civil society initiatives and actors for geopolitical purposes. For many years, civil society support was almost exclusively about Western donors funding civic groups as part of efforts to bolster democracy, rights, and development; now, other governments are engaging in such support for a very different set of values. Governments embroiled in geopolitical tensions and rivalry are seeking to employ civic actors as tools to advance their strategic goals. Civic groups face new pressures of being enlisted as adjuncts to interstate contestation.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
More >

The case studies distinguish between two different ways in which governments use civic actors. Some of these policies may be fairly direct, while other support is only indirectly geopolitical. Governments sometimes point their civil society support toward contributing to their goals in conflicts or crises in a directly instrumental fashion. Other times, they pursue more diffuse forms of influence through educational and cultural efforts.

Civil society links: In addition to government actions in relation to civil society, a different dynamic concerns the way civic actors relate to each other in response to geopolitical tensions and challenges. Some of the case studies focus on new links across borders among civic actors related to geopolitical dynamics. In an overlap with the first category, governments often support their national civil society partners expressly to build their own links with civil society in other countries. In other cases, civil society networks are relatively autonomous of direct government involvement and yet have clear repercussions for geopolitical interests and power relations. If the geopolitical era is about enhanced state power, it also entails politically oriented and thickened nonstate networks across borders.

Civil society repositioning: A final category refers to the way in which CSOs are changing their outlooks and strategies toward states and governments’ geopolitical agendas. The case studies chart how CSOs are switching alliances and partners. As civil society becomes part of the geopolitical battleground, civic actors are shifting their strategies and even their core agendas. The nature of these shifts varies significantly across regions. Many civil society actors are becoming more cautious in their long-standing rights-oriented work because of geopolitical considerations. In other instances, they have moved to do the opposite: to harness geopolitical dynamics as a way of solidifying and projecting their focus on liberal and democratic values. In still other cases, they are trying to attenuate or simply keep out of geopolitical arenas.

Each of these dynamics has a different measure of relevance to each of the case studies, in the following ways.

Ming-sho Ho uncovers the tightening links between the Chinese regime and religious actors in Taiwan’s civil society, in a case of combined direct and indirect strategies of government influence over civil society for geopolitical ends.

Janjira Sombatpoonsiri shows how royalist civic actors in Thailand have become more hostile to the United States and pro-U.S. policies and veered toward China and, latterly, Russia—an example of civil society repositioning that reflects a changed geopolitical context.

Nic Cheeseman examines how China and Russia have begun to broaden their activities across Africa to include the civil society sphere—a significant geopolitical change, even if this engagement is still fairly indirect and even covert in nature—while funding for religious groups is also becoming an externally fueled battleground.

Özge Zihnioğlu shows how the Turkish government increasingly uses civic actors in ways that indirectly further geopolitical aims and how Turkish CSOs are repositioning themselves as they row back from well-established agendas in reaction to the government’s changing geopolitical stances.

Kristina Kausch looks at how the major powers in the MENA region have increasingly sought to instrumentalize civil society for geopolitical purposes and how CSOs have repositioned their strategies in response. Hafsa Halawa provides an additional MENA account to show how great powers have used nonstate actors with particular geopolitical intent in the region’s conflict theaters.

Paweł Marczewski charts how geopolitical factors squeezed Polish CSOs’ humanitarian operations to assist refugees at the Belarusian border but, in the case of Ukrainian refugees, gave the organizations’ work a fillip. This provides an example both of geopolitics affecting government strategies toward civil society and of CSOs repositioning themselves in response to geopolitical crises.

Kateryna Zarembo details how Ukrainian civic actors have adapted their identities to play a more geopolitical role in the context of Russian attacks. While this has entailed some degree of instrumental use by the government, civic actors have needed little prompting in this geopolitical shift.

Finally, Ben Press shows how conservative-illiberal civic actors in the United States have built links with counterparts in other countries, often against U.S. government aims, in an example of civil society links with international political ramifications.

Geopoliticization Lite

The case studies illustrate various ways in which geopolitical tensions are having an impact on civil society around the world and point toward what could become a taxonomy of civil society geopolitics. Strategic competition between governments is leaving its mark at the societal level. The age of competitive and fractious international politics plays out not only in relations among governments but also in the civic sphere. While nondemocratic and non-Western powers traditionally confined themselves to building relations with governments, they have begun to seek out alliances with civil society. Many civic actors are being drawn into geopolitical competition. At the same time, some of them are adjusting their focus and activities in an effort to attenuate the negative impacts of great power rivalries.

Yet, the chapters reveal that this trend is in many places only embryonic and partial. Civil society is not fully geopoliticized. Indeed, in some cases, it is perhaps surprising it has not become more deeply geopolitical. Trends are for the moment balanced. Key powers are moving to increase their presence in and influence over civil society but do not fully see civic actors as assets in their geopolitical rivalries. China and other authoritarian powers have not yet harnessed civil society partnerships in any highly instrumentalized manner. In many instances, civil society is becoming geopoliticized but in relatively indirect ways.

Still, there are signs that civil society may be heading in a more political direction. This implies that civil society may become another layer of global geopolitics in the future. An emerging paradox is that nondemocratic regimes engaged in quashing civil society internally are using civic actors abroad. Related to this, trends point toward less liberal forms of civil society gaining traction—that is, a global civil society that is not so much about limiting the state as about working with it on geopolitical aims.

Global civil society came of age in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when democracy was rapidly expanding and, globally, great power competition was at a dramatic low after many decades of bipolar superpower rivalry. These features strongly marked both transnational and domestic civil society groups as they mushroomed across the world. Both the spread of liberal values and the relatively open international terrain shaped how these groups organized themselves, how they carried out their work, and what goals they pursued. As these overarching features have given way to more combative international relations and struggles over values, the contours of global civil society have begun to shift.

Yet, these new realities of civil society life in the shadow of heightened geopolitical competition have not yet been systematically charted. The aim of this study is to probe this emerging situation with analytic clarity and empirical detail, looking across a wide range of regional and country contexts. The trends are not yet defined with any precision, but it is clear that there will be more crossover in the future between geopolitical and societal developments. Geopolitics will shape civil society, and civil society will influence geopolitics. Global civil society will be both an object of great power competition and a subject that is itself more deeply involved in geopolitics.

The Carnegie Endowment thanks the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation for generous support that helps make the work of the Civic Research Network work possible. The views expressed in this publication are the responsibility of the authors alone.