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Anne-Marie Slaughter Tries to Make Sense of the New Global Order

"The Chessboard and the Web," a new book by the New America Foundation president, has more questions than answers.

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When the Trump administration announced at the beginning of June that it intended to withdraw the United States from the December 2015 Paris climate accord, it met with widespread, bipartisan criticism. Economist Larry Summers contended that the decision was “probably [America’s] most consequential error since the Iraq War.” New York Times reporters David Sanger and Jane Perlez, meanwhile, argued that “Mr. Trump has created a vacuum of global leadership that presents ripe opportunities to allies and adversaries alike to reorder the world’s power structure.”

But few could have anticipated the speed and extent to which actors below the federal level would join forces to affirm the U.S. commitment to combating climate change. Chicago Council on Global Affairs President Ivo Daalder notes that “[m]ore than 30 mayors, three governors, and more than 100 business leaders are preparing a pact to be submitted to the UN, committing them to meet the U.S. greenhouse gas emission targets under the accord.” This coalition does not appear to be a one-off response to an imprudent national decision; instead, argue Daalder and a growing number of his colleagues, it is emblematic of an increasingly robust “[c]ity-to-city diplomacy.” Daalder concludes: “Mayors and governors [are forging] global networks to solve local problems.” 

Yale University Press, 304 pp., $26

Chronicling the growth of this kind of diplomacy is challenging; understanding its mechanics and reappraising the relationship between the city and the state are even harder. Indeed, few quests in international relations scholarship are both as imperative and vexing as that of rethinking power—how it is defined, what elements comprise it, who wields which types, and what strategies different actors pursue to accumulate it. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book The Chessboard and the Web—the culmination of a decade of work—is a significant contribution to that end, and may well emerge as a foundational text for subsequent efforts to understand this nebulous but essential concept. 

Long a prevailing metaphor for studying geopolitics, the “chessboard” focuses primarily on military, economic, and diplomatic competition between states. The “web,” by contrast, considers interactions and interdependencies among a far more chaotic ecosystem of actors. Slaughter, the President and CEO of the New America Foundation, highlights the growing importance of the latter by spotlighting “networks”—essentially systems of interconnected components, whether people, institutions, or threats. She contends that they are a more useful tool for understanding the challenges of our time—whether climate change, the spread of diseases, or human trafficking—which ignore borders and institutional conventions. While she bases her book on the judgment that the web is increasingly more important than the chessboard, she does not indulge the periodically fashionable proposition that states are obsolete; instead, she invites readers to analyze a world “where states still exist and exercise power, but side by side with corporate, civic, and criminal actors enmeshed in a web of networks.”

That nonstate actors are playing an increasingly important role in world affairs is clear. Slaughter cites “city officials [who] are essentially practicing urban policy”; notes that some “large global corporations have greater market capitalization than the GDP of many small countries”; contends that ExxonMobil “in some nations wields as much influence as any government”; and mentions a range of powerful nonprofits, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Doctors Without Borders, and the Clinton Global Initiative.

Slaughter worries that “students and practitioners of foreign policy … have no formal way of integrating [nonstate] actors into frameworks that are theoretically and legally structured only for states.” While it has become commonplace to observe that power is diffusing from states to nonstate actors, “foreign policy makers still focus primarily on state-based foreign policy tools.” One of the reasons is intellectual inertia. Observers of world order have treated the state as the foundational unit for close to 400 years; only in the past quarter century or so have they begun to weigh the role of nonstate actors more systematically.

Another reason is that “nonstate actor” is a far more capacious, complex category than “state.” Most would argue that any given state—whatever its size, location, history, strategic constraints, and so forth—is driven by some understanding of its national interest. But when one considers the variety of actors that fall under the nonstate heading—corporations, foundations, human rights groups, and terrorist organizations, to name just a few—it grows difficult, if not impossible, to distill a shared motivation. One of the central contributions of The Chessboard and the Web is to illuminate how impoverished our understanding of power remains.

First, the taxonomy of power is confusing. International relations scholarship features a standard triad for understanding what types of power an actor might wield—military power, economic power, or political power. While those categories are still widely employed, a cursory survey increasingly furnishes other concepts: “civilian power,” “convening power,” and “information power,” to name just a few. The trouble is that such categorizations do not often provide clear demarcations between one form of power and another. Complicating matters is that the boundary between “war” and “peace” is becoming blurred. Hence the focus on so-called “gray zone” strategies—whereby, explains the RAND Corporation’s Michael Mazarr, actors “employ mostly non-military tools” to pursue political objectives, taking care “to remain under key escalatory thresholds.”

China’s creeping assertion of control over disputed territories in the South China Sea is perhaps the paradigmatic example. For the most part, no one step China has taken in recent years would seem provocative enough to warrant a forceful military response by the United States. Through incremental steps, however, China has altered the naval balance of power in the Western Pacific; all told, it has reclaimed over 3,200 acres, which now feature deepwater harbors and a range of military capabilities. Consequently, the New York Times explained last March, “American officials are increasingly worried that the buildup, if unchecked, will give China de facto control of an expanse of sea the size of Mexico and military superiority over neighbors with competing claims to the waters.” It is easier to mobilize against sudden large-scale provocations than to dissuade a series of seemingly inconsequential steps whose cumulative alteration of strategic realities only becomes clear in retrospect.

Second, experts do not agree on what kind of power is most useful, and to whom. Eliot Cohen, director of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, argues that “the United States will need more and better military power in the future.” Former Council on Foreign Relations President Les Gelb urges the United States to adopt “a foreign policy fitted to a world in which economic concerns typically … outweigh traditional military imperatives.” Parag Khanna, senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, contends that “[t]he paramount measure of power in the 21st century is connectivity.” As world order grows more complex, it will become increasingly difficult to assign respective values to different forms of power, let alone attempt to distill the multiplicity of power into a single index.

Finally, as Slaughter notes, there is an ongoing “shift not only in who holds power and how best to exercise it, but in the very essence of what we think power is.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Distinguished Fellow Moisés Naím, for example, concludes that power has become “easier to get, harder to use, and easier to lose.”

For Slaughter, the critical distinction exists between “power over”—which “can be wielded, like a weapon”—and “power with”—which “can only be practiced, like a discipline.” “Power over” denotes the power of an individual, group, or institution to impose its will on another. “Power with,” however, cannot be exercised by a sole agent, only in conjunction with other agents. Slaughter offers this illustration: 

Think of the difference between the power of a mayor and that of the mob. The mayor can order things to be done in her city; she can call out the police in case of trouble, hire and fire officials, and propose a budget. No one member of a mob has that power. But the mob can topple the mayor.

Slaughter ultimately comes down on the side of “power with,” proposing networks of actors that can address the kinds of challenges that she categorizes as matters of “resilience” “execution,” and “scale.” She anticipates that readers may occasionally find her diagnoses of challenges and her proposed cures a tad formulaic, conceding that a “healthy dose of humility is required” in developing the problem-solving networks she proposes: “No form of human organization can escape power and politics; no purpose-built organization can escape the need for some form of leadership.” And no matter how carefully they are constructed to guard against underperformers and saboteurs, networks face the challenge of collective action. 

Still, The Chessboard and the Web is one of the few books in recent memory that goes beyond perfunctory nods to the role of networks in addressing contemporary global challenges. Slaughter offers a range of operational insights that states and nonstate actors alike can use when considering how best to organize themselves for a particular challenge.  

Slaughter advises the world to address an increasingly web-based landscape through “Open Order Building,” rooted in a liberal tradition of “open society, open government, and an open international system.” Many forces are attempting to thwart it, some of which—terrorist organizations and “autocratic governments [that] seek to block and contain networks and the technologies that enable them,” for example—are unsurprising. Perhaps more concerning, though, are the challenges to openness emanating from “historically open nations like the United States and those of Western Europe,” where leaders are increasingly “call[ing] for building walls, expelling immigrants, restricting trade, and withdrawing from the alliances and organizations that have underpinned global stability for generations.” The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman noted last May that “border walls and fences are currently going up around the world at the fastest rate since the Cold War.”  Likewise, the revolutions that began convulsing the Middle East in late 2010 have, tragically, deferred the realization of Slaughter’s vision: While the ouster of authoritarian regimes may eventually pave the way for a more democratic order, it has, for now, yielded a region-wide paroxysm of chaos and bloodletting. 

It may be, as Slaughter predicts, that “the masters of the chessboard [will], willy nilly, make room for the web.” But her suggestion that “[t]he logic is inexorable” is perhaps too deterministic. Still, it is impossible to deny the growing salience of network power and the increasing influence of subnational actors. Indeed, on a growing array of issues—climate change being perhaps the most apparent—they are actively mobilizing while states dither. Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Alyssa Ayres made the point forcefully in June: “Call it paradiplomacy, protodiplomacy, constituent diplomacy or any number of other names, the decentralization of international interactions across levels of government is here to stay.”