The chessboard and the networks

The chessboard and the networks. Anne-Marie Slaughter. Photo: New America / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).Elcano Blog.
The chessboard and the networks. Anne-Marie Slaughter. Photo: New America / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).Elcano Blog.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of “The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World”. President, CEO, New America. Photo: New America / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Joseph Nye described the complex post-Cold War world as akin to three chessboards on which one has to play simultaneously: a chessboard of military power, dominated by the US; an intermediate multipolar board of economic power; and a more diverse realm of non-state actors. Anne-Marie Slaughter, in a book that is rewarding but not an especially easy read, The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, theorises on the basis of her practical experience about the need for modern diplomacy and foreign policy to act on the classic chessboard, which has not disappeared, and at the level of networks, the new ecosystem in which countries also try to vie for influence. This goes much further than having good websites, or an active presence on Twitter or Facebook. It is the search for a new strategy.

Slaughter has an impressive CV: Professor of International Law, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, Director of Policy Planning at the State Department under Hillary Clinton (a post she had to leave to devote more time to her children, a decision she wrote about to subsequent controversy) and now President of New America, one of the most dynamic think tanks around.

As she herself acknowledges, networks are nothing new and humans are social animals. But their scale and scope are new, as the sociologist Manuel Castells, liberally quoted by Slaughter, has been highlighting for years. She endorses the idea that the denser the network of relationships that a person, group, organisation or government has, the greater its influence will be. But, she argues, there is no strategy for this, or at least there is none in the US. Justin Trudeau in Canada has dubbed his foreign policy a ‘Global Networks Strategy’. And the EU, in its 2016 Global Strategy, declared that it ‘will act as an agenda-shaper, a connector, coordinator and facilitator within a networked web of players’ and that ‘it will partner with states and organisation, but also with the private sector and civil society’.

To illustrate the importance of networks, Slaughter gives the example of how the US is able to assemble a coalition of nations to impose sanctions on Iran and secure an agreement to halt its nuclear weapons programme, but is not able ‘to build commercial, educational and social networks with the Iranian people’ that would help to increase the resilience of such citizens against their government’s propaganda. But as another example she could have cited the network Spain has built up with the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, which has helped its diplomats make new connections in the region, and also to control irregular migration, in what Brussels now refers to as ‘the Spanish model’.

Ultimately what Slaughter is proposing is complementary to Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy (1994). Although she admires Thomas Schelling and his The Strategy of Conflict, she argues that US diplomacy is not skilled in this world of networks, because ‘networked threats demand networked responses’ and this requires, above all, connectivity in an open world (although some parts are less open). ‘We have no playbook for strategies of connection, or for crafting the tools we need to implement them’.

Moreover, ‘network position and degree of connectedness can give participants bargaining power and social power that can offset inequalities of material power’. This has positive aspects, but also negative ones (as is the case with Daesh, or Islamic State, which knows how to use networks). When it comes to ‘spreading ideas, the structure of the network is more important than the characteristics of the individual’ she argues, citing Paul Adams, along with another recommended book, which argues that the organisation that is not present in the networks, that lacks a ‘seventh sense’, loses out: The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks by Joshua Cooper Ramo (the sense in question is a sense of networks; the sixth is the Nietzschean rhythm of history).

On the classic chessboard, explains Slaughter, to make a person behave in one way or another, it is necessary to create incentives or disincentives to change their conduct. In networks it is not a question of focusing on the individual, but trying to change the connections between people.

Five skills or attributes are needed for this, the five ‘Cs’: clarification (of goals); curation (choosing who we connect with); connection; cultivation (of leadership skills, which should include a capacity for delegation and empowerment, among other capabilities); and catalysis (connection in itself is a catalyst for action).

Foreign policy and geopolitics are not what they used to be, and they have to be guided by new rules. Is this business of networks a new Great Game that, rather than replacing its predecessor, adds new territory to it? Probably. The control that is levied through and on networks is also part of this digital era, whether in open systems, like that of the US, or closed, like that of China. Slaughter has pulled off a great feat of theorising by writing a guide that many administrations could learn from. Although it may be that Trump –the book was written prior to his victory– has other ideas about what networks are for.