Editor's Choice

The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World

April 07, 2017


In her new book, Anne-Marie Slaughter gives us a new both/and paradigm with which to view the world.

The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World by Anne-Marie Slaughter, Yale University Press, 304 pages, Hardcover, March 2017, ISBN 9780300215649

Xi Jinping, leader of roughly twenty percent of the world’s population, landed in Florida this week for a two-day summit with the American president. Last night, in the midst of those meetings, the U.S. military fired more than 50 tomahawk missiles into Syria.

Watching news of the attack, you heard people describing the “chessboard” of Syria, and ponder if the strike made strategic sense, and what would happen next. But, throughout the conversations and consideration of events, something else emerged—the web of interests at play, the interconnected, influential, sometimes opposed networks of nations, humanitarian organizations, business interests, rebel fighters, and terrorist organizations. And, of course, all the while the President of the People's Republic of China was still in Florida. 

I am not interested in critiquing the president’s moves or motives at the moment. What I am interested in is a pragmatic and progressive worldview, and ideas that will help bring about lasting peace and stability. And Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, The Chessboard and the Web, offers it. She begins the book with a brief account and analysis of the U.S. opposition to the formation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or AIIB, created in 2015 by the Chinese government and forty-nine other nations—many of them our closest allies that ignored our pleas not to join what is ostensibly an alternative to the IMF and World Bank (i.e, the current economic world order):


In the traditional terms of geopolitical competition, China 1, United States 0. Unfortunately, that frame of reference is what led the U.S. government to the wrong stance toward the AIIB in the first place. What if we had started from the proposition that more investment in infrastructure, wherever it comes from, is a positive development for the people affected and for regional and ultimately global economic growth? The starting point here is not competition between states but the well-being of citizens globally. 


The second topic she broaches in the book is Syria. I won’t go too far into her critique of the Obama administration’s response to the civil war there, but suffice it to say that her policy prescription would be to use influence and bring force to bear in a ways that focus on protecting people rather than projecting power. It is an opinion that arises out of a viewpoint that considers both the “chessboard” of traditional strategy and the “web” of interconnected networks and interests in the world. To (perhaps over)simplify, you can think of the chessboard as the nation states in attendance at the United Nations General Assembly, and the an example of a “the web” would be the select network of powerful people invited to place like Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum. As Slaughter notes, “That map looks very different from the United Nations roster.” But it is just as influential.

To be sure, the web is not the World Wide Web, or the internet, though it is perhaps enhanced and expanded by it. And the network theories of the world Slaughter discusses in the book have been around since the 1970s, more en vogue since the ’80s and ’90s when they came into debate and conflict with game theorists’ chessboard view of the world.


Let’s not pretend, then, that the web is new. It is the lens through which many social scientists, businesses, and civic groups—not to mention criminal—already see the world.


But Slaughter’s view of the world is not an “either/or,” interpretation it’s a “both/and” understanding. She believes we need to be able to “see in stereo,” to understand moves on the chessboard as well as movements in the web. But she focuses more on the latter, as it is less understood at the same time it is becoming increasingly important. It is also cross-disciplinary and complicated, and it’s important not only to understand networks, but know how to create them.

Speaking of network science and its relation to, and distinction from, complexity theory, she states:


It is impossible to summarize or even survey all these bodies of work. But we can draw on them for principles and insights that will help us think about how to create networks for specific purposes. We can learn not only how to see the world in terms of networks but also how to operate more effectively within it.


(I would like to point out that she actually does a pretty magnificent job of summarizing these bodies of work in “a cheat sheet” on them from pages 63 to 65.)

Although it is based in applications to international relations and foreign policy, there are many also many broad lessons for business—on corporate anthropology and the networks of organizations, and how many multinational companies are transforming themselves from “vertical bureaucracies” into “horizontal corporations.” Speaking to that, Slaughter writes:


Silos of top-down control became networks of “multifunctional decision-making centers:” different units or indeed different businesses within the same corporation operating and interacting as equals in a decentralized structure under a common strategic framework.


But even decentralized networks have vulnerabilities, because there are inevitably some nodes (i.e., people) in that network that hold great sway. This is due to the “power law” of networks, in which most nodes have very few links, while a very few have a great number, meaning that a small change to the most important nodes can have a dramatic effect on entire networks—even destroying them altogether—while complete destruction of most nodes will leave the overall network relatively unchanged.

This is very much a foreign policy book, but because of the web view it embraces, it includes civic and corporate leaders as foreign policy actors. And for good, practical policy making reasons:


In straight power terms, many large global corporations have greater market capitalization than the GDP of many small countries. Of the world’s 175 largest nation-states and private firms, 112 are corporations. Their CEOs are more important global players than most prime ministers and foreign ministers …


And its not just private companies that wield power alongside nations:


Organizations like Care, Doctors Without Borders, and Amnesty International wield similar power on the global stage; they are much of the global humanitarian infrastructure.


So Slaughter’s interpretation includes leaders from the philanthropic and corporate world, as well as civic leader like mayors who are increasingly making connections and agreements amongst themselves across borders. And it is not a book of theory alone, but of practice, as it brings real-world examples of small world networks and what we can learn from them. Being a foreign policy book, it will get into topics like defense networks, but it will also teach you how McKinsey and Company uses a biological metaphor of systems—a web of life approach—in its Connectedness Index that “measures global flows of goods, services, finance, people, and data.” You’ll learn how another consulting firm, McChrystal Group, does a network analysis of each organization it is hired by to see how information and influence actually flow through it in an effort to assist them in a transformation from hierarchal bureaucracies to networked organizations. You’ll learn how government, NGOs, and business can come together to build networks in advance of disasters, not just in response to them, so that they and people on the ground have a robust system in place to quell the chaos that accompanies natural catastrophes. You’ll learn, as organizational theorist Sean Safford documents in Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown: The Transformation of the Rust Belt, that “The key to rebuilding mature industrial regions lies in whether and how they have rekindled the fabric of civic participation” and why a diversity of ties in that participation is so important.

It is why city-to-city connections may be more powerful than top-down diplomatic efforts to improve economic ties that stabilize poorer, less developed economies while benefitting richer, advanced ones. It is why forming cross border, international task-oriented networks to cooperate on common problems can help bridge an understanding amongst traditional adversaries. You’ll learn different ways to structure open innovation networks and how to use scale networks to expand upon and spread small, successful experiments and movements. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll learn about the nature of leadership in networks, how it is more “musical” than “military,” based on consent and support rather than command, control, and obedience.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is the President and CEO of New America, a non-partisan think tank. She served for over two years as the Director of Policy Planning for the U.S. State Department. You may know her primarily as the first woman to hold that position, or for her Atlantic article about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” that went viral when she left that job to be closer to her family. Her further exploration of that topic, of the need to update and advance the notion of feminism and how it affects the working lives of men and women in this country in general, Unfinished Business, is one of the best books I’ve read on working life since I’ve had a working life. Her diagnosis of the systemic challenges faced not only by working mothers, but any working person, and the changes that need to occur to support them and bolster our economy is rigorously thought out and right on. It is an extremely important work. But the work of international relations and foreign policy is her life’s work, and this book is an important addition to that work—her own work, and in the field of foreign policy thought more generally.

I don’t know what to think about the move to launch 59 tomahawk cruise missiles at the “chessboard” of Syria. But reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s The Chessboard and the Web, I found myself worried that the current administration is working with a skeleton staff, and that a network of career diplomats and dedicated civil servants were dismissed upon the 45th president’s arrival in office. Rather than viewing them as nodes of influence and expertise in an interconnected and interdependent world, they were feared as a so-called “deep state” that would undercut his own power.

I also find myself wishing Anne-Marie Slaughter had her hand in helping shape our policy. Her ability to detail the differences between two different worldviews, and then masterfully put them together to form a more complete picture, is inspiring.

Rather than simply placing sanctions on states, how can we form commercial, educational, and social connection with its citizens that make us more valuable to them than the protection or pension their government might promise? How can we do it in a way that is mutually beneficial, that helps bring stability, peace, and growth to all? What does that look like?


It is the power of many to do together what no one can do alone. Consider the drop of water. Each drop is harmless; enough drops together, moved by sufficient energy, create a flood that can level a landscape.


It is a shift in thinking from merely exercising power over others to exercising power with others for the benefit of all, and that is very powerful. In her conception and proposition of a new grand strategy of Open Order Building, we shift from a government for the people to government with the people.

And, whether it be family or business or civic life or international relations, doesn’t it always feels better to do something with others than for them, or even against them?

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