The Age of Webcraft is Upon Us

In her new book, The Chessboard & The Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the president and CEO of New America, argues that foreign policy makers still overwhelmingly rely on an outdated paradigm; one that views nation-states as sovereign actors engaged in a security dilemma that ends in zero-sum moves. Slaughter advocates for flipping over the proverbial chessboard and replacing it with something more modern, precise, and fluid: the so-called “networked web.” Slaughter posits that academics and practitioners need to understand the links between nation-states and non-governmental organizations (NGOS) to realize that complex interdependence demands a nuanced understanding of the various players, institutions, processes, and norms developed in the last half century.

We are no longer in a zero-sum world of top-down ”direct[ion] and control” but rather a world of networks that “are managed and orchestrated,” writes Slaughter. Think of it, Slaughter continues, as “the power to evoke rather than to impose.” The actors, state or non-state, that can act as the choirmaster on the world stage, dictate the direction of the international order.

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Slaughter read and was fascinated by the seminal work Power and Interdependence, written by the scholars Joseph S. Nye Jr. and Robert Keohane, former Dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Professor of International Affairs at Princeton, respectively. Their idea of “complex interdependence” illuminated the world for her. However, that book simply described the web; Slaughter’s goal is to begin crafting strategies beginning with understanding the links between the myriad actors on the global stage.

This work is a summary and synthesis of extant studies of networked solutions. In Slaughter’s ideal world, we would see “network experts work[ing] with foreign policy practitioners and other problem solvers to design and create networks that they will then learn from, modifying both theory and practice.” Slaughter shows an adept understanding of network theory from various disciplines, distilling the important theoretical and empirical findings from seemingly disparate fields, including biology, physics, and industrial organization, among others. Her preferred operative definition of networks that she derives from organization scholars, is that networks “are emergent properties of persistent patterns of relations among agents that can define, enable, and constrain those agents.”

The classic academic paradigm of analyzing international affairs posits that the world is a chessboard, in which each state finds itself in a perpetual game of strategic advantage, engaging in a game of statecraft. Nye Jr., and Keohane updated that image and view in their book Power and Interdependence, released in 1977, by arguing that it is more helpful to think that nation-states are playing a game of three-dimensional chess, in which states have multiple goals instead of only security. Further, they argue that interstate cooperation is possible, with multiple parties winding up better off as opposed to a situation that requires one party to lose for other parties to gain.  By contrast, Slaughter maintains Nye Jr. and Keohane  did not go far enough to explain the world’s relationships accurately. The world we are living in is more like the Internet, the web, argues Slaughter.

To visualize the difference, Slaughter suggests envisioning a standard classroom world map showing borders and capitals as a “chessboard view” of the world. This is a map of “separation,” she muses. Think of a map at night that highlights “the lit-up bursts of cities and highly concentrated regions and the dark swaths of rural areas and wilderness.” This is “the web view,” and a map of “connection, of the density and intensity of ties across boundaries.”

The two dominant international relations theories, realism and liberalism, assume that the main unit of analysis is the “state” and that the state of nature is “separation” and the focus should be on “static equilibria,” for example. The “state of nature” in international relations theory is simply referring to the fact the world is made up of individual sovereign states acting in self-interest. “Static equilibria” is the goal of organizing the world into a relative balance of power that allows for increased trade, commerce, and diplomatic relations. Slaughter argues that global actors must transcend older notions of statecraft.

Statecraft should be complimented by webcraft, argues Slaughter. A state with careful understanding of the various nodes and links between state and non-state actors, will be able to adeptly situate themselves to “maxim[ize] [its] number of valuable connections.” The strategic necessity of maximizing valuable connections, for one, enables countries to take more risks and to diversify their economies, and diplomatic partnerships. Webcraft acknowledges the precariousness of isolationism and having few allies around the world.

Slaughter argues that global problems can fit into three broad categories: resilience problems, execution problems, and scale problems. First, resilience problems require resilience networks to solve them. These networks should aim to “strengthen, deepen, react, respond, bounce back, stabilize, and assist” in solving problems. An example of a resilience problem is climate change; an example of a resilient solution would be the 2015 Paris climate accord, where nearly 200 countries agreed on states-specific targeted reductions of carbon emissions.

Second, execution problems require task networks to solve them. Slaughter describes task networks as “designed to perform more precise and time-bound tasks carried out by small, diverse, but cohesive groups.” This type of network was applied in Iraq under General Stanley McChrystal, who directed the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) activities in Iraq. Al-Qaeda is a networked organization. McChrystal knew that in order to defeat al-Qaeda, the U.S. military had to transform from a highly hierarchical and bureaucratic institution into a more flexible “team of teams.” This networked-strategy helped weaken  Al-Qaeda and was utilized to take out its its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Finally, scale problems abound when considering topics like alleviating poverty, improving health, and increasing literacy worldwide. “Many hands make light work, but how to create the global equivalent of a barn raising or a quilting bee?” is the poetic way Slaughter illuminates this challenge. Scale problems, she continues, should be thought about in three basic ways: replication, gathering in, and parceling out. A successful scale network would be the Bolsa Família Program (BF), an anti-poverty program of remarkable success implemented by Brazil in January 2005.

President Lula was able to replicate the problem; coordinate; streamline; and parcel out the program to the rural and urban poor of Brazil. Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs describes the program as immensely popular. Brazilian voters on both sides of the political spectrum support the program since it has work requirements which satisfy conservatives, and programs that directly target extreme poverty with explicit poverty reduction goals, which satisfy liberals. The BF program cost less than half a percent of the country’s total gross domestic product; this amounts to costing “30 percent less per person than more traditional aid programs.” Moreover, the program has cut extreme poverty by 15 percent and has “helped lift a total of 36 million people of our general poverty,” summarizes Tepperman in Foreign Affairs.

Slaughter promises  in the beginning of her book that in the final three chapters she would lay out exactly how network strategies could be implemented globally. She fails to do this with any depth, however. But she does propose that the new international order must be built on three pillars: open governments, open society, and an open international system. This “open global order” must be one in which “states must be waves and particles at the same time.” Slaughter uses the physics metaphor to capture the fact that states have to be more flexible in terms of their capacity; states that can maximize their hard and soft power simultaneously will control the web, for example.

This book is a deceptively challenging read. It covers a vast number of fields in an attempt to explain the world as it is, alongside attempting to establish a new paradigm of thinking, with the goal of becoming this generation’s The Strategy of Conflict. The reader is treated to fascinating overviews of chaos theory, network analysis, and social physics. However, there could have been more specific examples of how to tackle the world’s biggest problems. With that being said, I highly recommend this book for it is a work of great ambition, importance, and scholarship.

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