The Role of Interest Groups in International Relations

are major actors in the field of international relations. An interest group is “an organized body of individuals that share some goals and who try to influence public policy." These groups can have effects on the international stage either by directly influencing international actors or indirectly by garnering public support and influencing domestic foreign policy. Interest groups try to influence actors and policies through means ranging from lobbying to bribery and protests. The economic resources of interest groups have also become formidable and Non Government Organizations, many of which serve primarily or have the dual function of a interest group, alone comprise of an economic sector worth over one trillion dollars. This combination of political and economic strength has made interest groups very powerful and a determining factor in how decisions in the area of international relations are made.

The Rise of Interest Groups in International Relations

Interest groups have grown in power and strength for three main reasons. The first reason would be the rise in democracy that occurred during the 20th century that was accompanied by an increase in legislatures, freedom of speech laws and publically accessible forums. With the freedom of speech protected and access to politicians easier to gain, citizens and groups could lobby their opinions freely and with less fear of reprisals or censorship.Before such freedoms, governments could have little accountability towards their citizens and thus lobbying would be somewhat pointless. Another reason for the dramatic increase in the number of interest groups is the major advances in information technology and telecommunications. Telephones, satellites, televisions, computers and the internet all enable communication and the spreading of information to be faster and cheaper. For example, with the click of a mouse an email can be sent to dozens if not hundreds of people. Such advances have enabled interest groups to organize, as well as advertise, their causes much more effectively. Telecommunications technology also enables groups to organize members and resources globally.The third reason for the increase in the number of interest groups would be . Globalization consists of many phenomena ranging from monetary coordination and multinational scientific development to expansions in diplomacy between nations and migration. Basically, the world has become more integrated and both nations and people are much more willing to work with one another. Such changes have benefited and created interest groups in multiple ways. With integration arises more issues, such as whether or not NAFTA should exist. These issues provide a rallying point around which groups can form. The transnational nature of certain issues also enables groups to expand their membership base. For example, an interest group supporting NAFTA could draw support from citizens in Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Globalization has also allowed the benefits of telecommunications to take full effect. For example, most nations host some sort of Internet service, enabling citizens to access a plethora of information and communicate globally. With globalization also come a shared culture and universal values such as human rights. As citizens of various nations begin to identify with one another, it has become even easier to foster cooperation.

Types of Interest Groups

Interest groups have existed for centuries in the form of organizations such as guilds or trade unions. In recent years, however, the roles and number of interest groups have expanded immensely. Every day in the world, new interest groups are being created, adding to the tens of thousands of groups already in existence. There are five main categories of interest groups: cause, economic interests, public interests, public and private institutional interests, and non-associational groups. Cause groups are usually not focused on financial topics, instead they are usually nonprofit organizations that advocate change because of a certain social issue or crisis. Economic interest groups are financial institutions and businesses of various sizes that advocate for the position that is most beneficial to their venture. Mainly multinational companies and industries act as lobbyists due to their large amount of resources and the international scope of their operations. Public interest groups try to influence issues concerning public welfare, such as environmental or educational issues. Government or public institutions advocate and put forth policies under the pretense of serving national interests. However, sometimes these policies are made to benefit bureaucratic organizations rather than the nation or government as a whole. For example, during the Cold War the CIA and the US State Department backed different sides during the Laos civil conflict. Private institutions consist of organizations such as think tanks, media providers or universities that advocate certain positions. Non-associational groups organize in an ad hoc manner and lack a permanent structure. These groups are also basically unorganized and are often created spontaneously to address a recent issue.

How Interest Groups Influence International Relations

Interest groups can influence others through various means, most of them based in reciprocity or a philosophy of quid pro quo. As most interest groups focus on influencing politicians, many groups use the promise of votes as a means to influence. Groups can also use their resources to donate to a politician’s campaign cause, or go so far as to bribe the official. In counties with the freedom of speech and the right to petition, many interest groups also lobby officials. Lobbying is “the process of talking with legislatures or officials to influence their decisions on some set of issues”. Although some groups have little to offer, they can use moral debates and sympathy to influence officials. Besides politicians, interest groups also try to influence public opinion and the media. Public outcry can sometimes be more potent than the influence of public officials. Swaying public opinion and the media can be achieved with measures ranging from protests to celebrity endorsements. In order to affect international relations, interest groups can either try to influence domestic foreign policy or international or foreign organizations themselves. On a domestic front, for example, Christian fundamentalists have successfully lobbied Congress and prevented the United Nations from receiving aid for a family planning project. However, the same groups also present the United Nations with large petitions, trying to influence the organization directly.


Examples of the activities and the effects of interest groups after their post WWII rise are numerous and varied. Some groups have made little headway towards their goals. For example, despite a major public outcry against the conflict in Darfur, genocide and war still ravages the region. On the other hand, a small group of activists from Berkeley were able to halt a major dam project in Uganda with relatively little public support from the people in Uganda. Thus the experiences of groups focused on moral issues seem to vary.

Economic interest groups, however, seem to have greater ease in achieving their goals. During the Cold War, for example, multinational corporations were able to set up puppet governments, or “banana republics,” in unstable Latin America that would protect their economic interests. Even today economic interest groups can dictate the regulatory and economic policies of stable first world governments. For example, American tobacco companies pressed the US government into making “unethical” and controversial decisions that went against public opinion and caused international outcries. Even non associative groups that are focused on economic issues seem to be very effective. In 1992, for example, French famers organized on a ad hoc basis to set up roadblocks and riot in order to prevent a agricultural agreement between the US and France, succesfully leading to a delay in the agreement.

A textbook case of the activities and effects of interest group could be the defeat of the World Bank’s Qinghai project. The project, which was designed to dramatically improve the standard of living for thousands of nomads, was no small feat and was backed by millions of dollars, the World Bank and the Chinese government. However, a small British group that was opposed to the Qinghai project, the Tibetan Information Network, was not daunted by the size of the project, which it believed was an attempt to relocate ethnic Tibetans. In a matter of weeks the group created a coalition of 59 organizations across multiple countries using modern telecommunications. These groups eventually gained endorsements from famous entertainers and a great deal of media attention. Eventually the US government, as well as other governments, was persuaded and lobbied into challenging the Qinghai project. Despite the irrationality of the interest groups’ case, the project was eventually defeated by a wave of international outcries. Although a somewhat exceptional case, the Qinghai project incident goes to show what a powerful ripple effect a small group can have.
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