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  • Writer's pictureLuka Radičević

Can An ''Apple'' Bite Be Poisonous?

Significance of Transnational (Tech) Enterprises as Actors in the International Community: Example(s) of Apple’s Soft Power

International community consists of various actors or subjects, starting from states, international (non) governmental organizations and institutions, transnational enterprises, lobby groups, individuals etc. International relations theory, especially realism, teaches us that states are the main actors within the international community, as well as that security has been in the midst of their focus from the beginning of the Westphalian international community. [1] This has proven itself true, as one follows the developments in the international arena over time, where biggest changes are clearly state-driven. However, one should not disregard the growing role of non-state actors in the international community, which is assessed in this opinion paper through analyzing transnational (tech) enterprises, specifically Apple, which has recently been demonstrating significant soft power.

The concept of power is one of the key notions in political and international relations theory, which is conventionally defined as the ability to influence the results that an actor wants to achieve (even) by altering the behavior of others. [2] Between states, that is, actors in the international community, there is a so-called balance-of-power relationship, the aim of which is to support the desired (preferable) meaning within the discursive construct of ''importance''. Constructivist theory in international relations sees the global position of individual states within the scope of their »importance«, which is the product of ideologies, perceptions and (discursive) narratives. Although maintaining the balance of power is a win-lose game for individual states, power is often perceived as means to an end, rather than a goal by itself – the goal therefore being achieving and maintaining security of a state. [3] [4]

In order to keep their citizens safe and their sovereignty intact, states have traditionally been reliant on military power, which (neo)realists still see as the most important form of power today. Over time, it became obvious that this kind of view on power in international relations is incomplete, and that power is far from the mere number of warheads a state possesses. Namely, it roughly differentiated between two types of power – hard and soft power. [4] Hard power, consisting mostly of military and somewhat of economic power, was already well known to most when Joseph Nye first introduced the concept of soft power in 1990. Soft power represents one's ability to influence other actors with the aim of achieving own goals by connecting with them using same or similar values, therefore ''nudging'' them towards the effort to maintain international peace and security. While hard power obliges to consider the interests of those who have it, mainly in terms of costs and benefits, soft power uses the persuasiveness and appeal of ideas and values, therefore representing a nominal promise to other actors. Nye makes a clear distinction between the use of soft and hard power. Hard power is more obvious and is exercised in practice through threats, coercion, sanctions, payments and inducements, while soft power manifests itself in attraction, persuasion and co-optation. [5]

Achieving and maintaining the security of a state successfully using hard power depended to a large extent on the technology available at the time. However, 21st century has brought us exponential technological development, and we now live in a world permeated by (digital) technology – increasing human capacity to cause harm more than ever. On the other hand, international law has fallen behind, not being able to successfully address novel security threats. [6] States are already well acquainted with cyber-attacks, and the effects of 5G technologies both on economies and the life of people have shown itself significant enough to find its place in the trade war between China and the USA [7]. Although hard power is nowadays usually used when soft power itself is insufficient, soft power is generally more effective, which is simply exaplined by Nye: »When you can get others to admire your ideals and want what you want yourself, you don't have to spend so much on sticks and carrots to move them in your direction« [5]. In essence, soft power represents the peaceful use of capabilities to increase attractiveness and persuasiveness between actors within the international community [8]. While states have always relied on hard power for problems soft power cannot solve, other actors in international relations do not have that option. However, it is evident that transnational (tech) enterprises make very good use of their soft power – usually to aid their state's position in the international arena.

Capitalism has namely helped transnational enterprises like Apple grow into such significant actors in the international community that we might soon start questioning the predominantly state-centred international politics [6]. Namely, as international relations become progressively more permeated by (digital) technology, transnational tech enterprises' potential to reshape the international community as we know it increases as well. The pace of advancement in technology and its ever-so-seamless integration in people's everyday lives on one hand, and the time needed to adopt new and relevant international legislation to regulate it on the other hand, is inversely proportionate – seriously threatening to turn the world from a ''technological utopia'' to a ''globalization dystopia''.

Apple Inc. (formerly Apple Computer, Inc.) was established in 1976 and is now the biggest tech enterprise in the world, followed in revenue by Samsung Electronics, Alphabet, Foxconn, Microsoft and Huawei [9]. Being both a hardware and a software company, it manufactures personal computers, smartphones, smart watches, tablets, operating systems for each of the stated product categories, as well as computer/smartphone/tablet peripherals [10]. Apple's contempoprary significance does not originate from it being the first successful personal computer company and the popularization of graphical user interface, but rather from the variety of their products and services and, more importantly, the number of people actively using them. There is namely almost 2 billion Apple electronic devices actively in use today, ranging from the iPhone, which revolutionized the entire mobile phone industry back in 2007, MacBook, iPad, Apple Watch, AirPods, HomePod and even the iPod (Touch), which was recently discontinued [10] [11]. In practice, that means that there is on average more than a dozen Apple electronic devices per block in the world's most densely populated cities, which gives Apple impressive market penetration. Combined with the famous so-called Apple ecosystem, that has given Apple the power to (almost) put certain companies out of business when entering a new product niche. [12]

How does this tie into the balance of power in the international community? Having become one of the most influential and recognisable brands on the planet, Apple receives certain protection from the US Government (mostly because of its global position and still predominant cultural narratives). Of course, Apple is not the only American enterprise that the US governent offers protection to, and it is not strange that states support their enterprises in varous ways. The 2019 5G technology »clash« between China and the USA (at a larger scale) showed us how far states are willing to go in order to protect their perceived global position and therefore, security. Even though Huawei, a transnational tech enterprise from China, has positioned itself as the leading 5G infrastructure supplier, American administration has not only banned them from selling in the USA, but also prohibited any American suppliers from doing business with Huawei – all on the basis of that representing a threat to national security, and without any foreign policy evidence to back it up. [7] The real reason, however, lies in mutual mistrust and suspicion that burdens US-Chinese relations, creating a potent security dilemma and making it evident (and yet, completely understandable) that states are unwilling to give control of such an important piece of infrastructure to a foreign enterprise.

The US Government has therefore indirectly protected American tech enterprises and allowed them the space and time for innovation required to overtake foreign enterprises both domestically and globally. Apple has demonstrated its soft power by making very good marketing use of the situation, more specifically by how they introduced their iPhone 12 series of smartphones. Namely, iPhone 12 was released under the slogan ''5G just got real'' – not because Apple had anything to do with 5G infrastructure or because iPhone 12 was the first 5G smartphone (it was not even close), but simply because with new iPhone models from that point onward all supporting 5G, the number of people around the world with 5G capable smartphones was about the increase significantly – and it did. [13] Using such a slogan has definitely influenced people's perception of which enterprise stands behind 5G technologies and, perhaps even more importantly, which state that enterprise originates from. Therefore, it can be argued transnational (tech) enterprises use their soft power to contribute to the (perceived) global ''importance''of states, hence aiding their significance as central actors in the international community.

In the still state-predominant international community and the current era of technological progress, the role of transnational (tech) enterprises in international relations is constantly increasing. While a different approach to managing technology is crucial to ensure the future of international community, whether transnational (tech) enterprises will become as or even more significant actors than states or international governmental organisations is yet to be seen. For now, the EU is setting a good regional example of managing technology by adopting the Digital Services Act and revising the Radio Equipment Directive (which will obligate all electronic devices to use a common USB-C charger by 2024) [6]. However, as was evident from the assessed 2019 US-Chinese 5G situation, individual states still rush to adopt legislation on the national level in ''times of crisis''. Since leading transnational (tech) enterprises, such as Apple, obviously possess significant soft power, and such legislation has strong implications on them, the main question this opinion paper raisesis whether transnational (tech) enterprises are capable (and if yes, how capable) of increasing their significance as actors in the international community, or is their role merely to support the position of the state they originate from in the international political arena? Or if summarized – are they genuine actors or mere instruments in International Relations?


[1] Daddow, O. (2017). International Relations Theory. Sage Publications.

[2] Gray, C. S. (2011). Hard power and soft power: The utility of military force as an instrument of policy in the 21st century. Strategic Studies Institute.

[3] Radičević, L. (2021). Doprinos kritičkih teorija međunarodnim odnosima – perspektive poststrukturalizma i normativizma. Politeuma – stručni časopis studenata društveno-humanističkih nauka i umetnosti, III(5), pp. 107–118.

[4] Yarger, H. (2008). Strategy and the National Security Professional: Strategic Thinking and Strategy Formulation in the 21st Century. Praeger Security International.

[5] Nye, J. (1990). Bound to lead: The changing nature of American power. Basic Books.

[6] Radičević, L. (2022). Technological Development: Merely a Tool for States or a Threat to the International Community? In 2nd International Student Conference on International Relations. University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Sciences. katedra-za-mednarodne-odnose/vsebine-katedre/tudentska-konferenca-o-mednarodnih-odnosih-(2022)

[7] Ristić, D. (2020). Da li je Huavej spoljnopolitičko pitanje? Politeuma – stručni časopis studenata društveno-humanističkih nauka i umetnosti, II(4), pp. 225–246.

[8] Li, M. (Ed.). (2009). Soft Power: China's Emerging Strategy in International Politics. Lexington Books.

[9] Fortune. (2021, n. d.). Global 500.

[10] Levy, S. (2022, August 31st). Apple Inc. – American company. Britannica.

[11] Curry, D. (2022, October 28th). Apple Statistics (2022). Business of Apps.

[12] Marques Brownlee. (2021, April 30th). Apple vs The Paradox of Choice! [Video]. YouTube.

[13] Marques Brownlee. (2020, October 25th). iPhone 12 Review: Just Got Real! [Video]. YouTube.

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