THE CHESSBOARD AND THE WEB
Strategies of Connection in a Networked World
Yale University Press
296 pages; $26
At the start of the 2015 Henry L Stimson Lectures at Yale, on which this book is based, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a distinguished political scientist, authority on international law and now president of the New America think tank, explained that the topic came to her while she was serving as director of policy planning at the State Department — in effect while she was practicing what she had preached in her academic career. The time-honoured exercise of international politics as a “great game,” an endless competition for strategic advantage among sovereign and equal powers, was in urgent need of a radical update for a world in which networks spawned by the internet and social media, both benign and malignant, were shaping a far different global order. “The Chessboard and the Web” is meant as a guide for foreign policy
in this new world.
Whether in human interrelations or terrorism, efficient businesses or nefarious crime syndicates, government services or governments meddling in each other’s politics, Slaughter declares, we are at the dawn of a “Networked Age” when “all humanity is connected beneath the surface like the giant colonies of aspen trees in Colorado that are actually all one organism.” Yet foreign-policy makers, she argues, still play on the two-dimensional chessboard fashioned by the 17th-century Peace of Westphalia, partly because they lack the strategies for the web.
The grand strategy she proposes is an international order based on three pillars: Open society, open government and an open international system. Open versus closed, she declares, is the fault line of the digital age, the way capitalism versus Communism was in the last century. In the new order, in which competing states have been replaced by networks, openness means participation, transparency, autonomy and resistance to controls or limits on information.
Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, develops her ideas in a detailed journey through existing research and scholarship, guided by numerous charts and graphs, on how new technologies and ever-widening webs have affected the behaviour of people and nations. The narrative is not always easy to follow, and I found myself longing for more concrete examples when confronting riffs like “A network strategy to build resilience across a society could start by searching for affiliation networks, with the idea that these repositories of social capital can be mobilised into civic capital.” But the fascinating complexity and consequence of the web that is enveloping the world certainly justifies a reader’s extra effort.
Slaughter’s government service was in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, and her book was evidently completed before the 2016 presidential election (there is no mention of Donald Trump); the grand strategy she outlines is described as something the next president should adopt. Granted, the book is about a continuing global shift in international relations and not about the political movements du jour that have led to the election of President Trump or to the rise of authoritarian and nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere, yet on reading The Chessboard and the Web and listening on YouTube to the lectures Slaughter gave, I found myself repeatedly yearning to ask her how the grand strategy she advocates would apply to these political realities.
Growing nationalism and authoritarianism, after all, are also in part consequences of the digital age and the echo chambers it has enabled, and if indeed the Networked Age is a clash of open and closed, many Americans and Europeans seem to be opting for closed in all the forms Slaughter outlines. That does not negate the need for a grand strategy of openness, of course, but exploring the consequences of choosing “closed” would make for a fascinating follow-up to a valuable study.
© 2017 The New York Times News Service