Anne-Marie Slaughter: Why We Need Fewer ‘Tribes’ and More Networks

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Author Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses her new book on connection strategies in a networked world.

the-chess-board-the-webThe power of networking should not be underestimated, whether the goal is to find a better job or counter Russia’s hacking of U.S. computer systems. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the first woman to serve as director of policy planning under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, applies the science of network theory to handle amorphous and sometimes messy situations. 

In her new book, The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World, Slaughter argues that civic societies all over the world have an opportunity to rebuild their networks of relationships, especially in the digital age. Such networks can bring about change in the long run, supplementing geopolitical chess moves such as checking a Russian invasion. Slaughter, who is also professor emerita of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, recently discussed her book on the Knowledge@Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the balancing act of policy and this web world that you talk about in your book?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: We really need as many different tools as we can have to solve important public issues. Policy is one of those. Policy is generally law or regulation. Lots of people think we have too much regulation, but what I’m arguing is that we also need to be able to create action networks to accomplish various tasks or to defend ourselves or scale things up — and we really don’t have those tools the way we need them. This book is an effort to explain how to create them.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you think is the main reason for those tools not being there?

Slaughter: Everybody says all the time, “We live in a connected world. We’re all connected all the time. That is the nature of modern life, this connection.” What I’m arguing is that we are connected, but sometimes we’re not connected to the right people. Sometimes we’re not connected enough. Sometimes we’re too connected. There’s lots of theories about that. Network theory is a whole branch of science, but it’s relatively new in terms of the last 20 or 30 years. We haven’t had a chance to take all that theory out of the universities and apply it to ask, “What kinds of networks should we build, and for what purposes?”

Knowledge@Wharton: The chessboard piece of this is interesting. We have seen a little bit of that chessboard play out in the power game between some countries. How has that been affected by the fact that some of these networks are not there, especially over the last decade or so?

“I would say we have way too many tribes and not enough networks.”

Slaughter: The chessboard is still really relevant, right? If we’re engaging in politics with Iran or North Korea or China or Russia, we’re still playing chess a lot of the time. We’re trying to figure out, “All right, if we do this, then they’ll do that, and then we’ll do this.” It’s a strategy game and it’s important, but just think about our relations with Russia right now. We are playing great power politics, but the biggest problems we’ve got with Russia are that they’re hacking into our networks.

That is a web game, and it isn’t just the Russians. It’s the Russians leaking to WikiLeaks, and you’ve got private hackers and criminals who are all in those networks alongside governments. If you’re really talking about pushing back against Russia, there are things we can do on the chessboard. We expel their diplomats and impose sanctions, but really you need a counter-Russian network. You may need a network to find out their secrets and leak their secrets. You may need to be able to push back with your own network. That’s a good example where you need both approaches.

Knowledge@Wharton: There are so many other areas where having networks is a benefit, whether that is trying to solve the water crisis in Africa or problems in South America. There are so many different elements that you could probably touch on that could be improved with the proper networks in place.

Slaughter: Exactly. The one I always tell people is, “You need a particular kind of network to find a job.” Most people don’t understand. We know if you want to find a job, the best thing you can do is to not contact the people you know really well, but [instead to contact] the people you know just slightly — your acquaintances rather than your friends. There is a lot of theory that shows those are the people who will know about the job options you don’t know about, whereas your friends will only know what you already know about, because they all talk to the same people.

That’s a really concrete example, but if we want to think about something like fighting terrorism longer term, there’s an immediate counter-network to Al-Qaeda or ISIL. But then there is the need to address the lack of opportunity in lots of places that are hotbeds for ISIL or Al-Qaeda recruitment. And we need networks that really help people address water crises or create jobs or improve health. There are different structures of networks that will actually make that work better.

Knowledge@Wharton: President Donald Trump has said he wants to eradicate ISIL. One of the avenues discussed as a way to eliminate or lessen their influence is by looking at the networks that we have already in place, especially on the internet. In this case, networking does have a dual role in handling this problem.

Slaughter: Yes, and networks, like any other form or technology, are obviously not all good or all bad. They are just a form of modern life. One way you could think about this is that ISIL or other radical Islamic groups understood the potential of social media networks better than Western governments did. They understood that if you created a kind of template — like “here is how you murder people” — and put it online, that could inspire lone wolves, which is what I call a replication network. It has a particular kind of structure. We were slow to realize how effectively they were exploiting it, and we are now having to figure out how to counter it.

Knowledge@Wharton: We’re also seeing this run of nationalism in the United States and parts of Europe where there is this working together and building of these networks. It would seem that these are two areas that are butting heads to a degree.

Slaughter: Yes. I think that, indeed, many people who are angry and voting for nationalist or populist candidates perceive that they’ve been left behind as various elites have built global networks. I think there is this sense that there are these global networks and, “I’m not part of them, and I want to take my country back.” That’s something bigger than just building a counter-network. It’s part of saying, “Wait a minute, when is it legitimate to put your country first?” It’s fine to put your country first, but when does putting your country first in a particular way hurt people more than help them?

“We are connected, but sometimes we’re not connected to the right people.”

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you mention areas of strife, such as Syria and Ukraine, that could benefit from building up these networks.

Slaughter: One of the things they need is continual contact with people in Europe, in the United States. After the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, many people in Europe and the United States created civic networks, so lawyers and judges and journalists all went to eastern and central Europe, and they didn’t just fly in once. They built ongoing webs of support that helped people — who had come out of living under communism for 50 years — find their way.

It’s similar to how you have a mentor network, right? We still need that for countries like Ukraine. They can’t just create the more developed, liberal democratic society or prosperous society that they see in Europe without that kind of sustained help.

One of the things I write about is, what would that kind of network look like? What does it take? We have done it before and need to be still doing it, particularly for places on our borders.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does the U.S. have a mindset about the need to have these networks, on any front?

Slaughter: I think there is, when people realize what a great investment they are. It’s so much cheaper to fund regular meetings, regular contacts and discuss exactly what the networks should look like and how they need to be managed. That’s cheap. And when things fall apart, putting them back together is far more expensive and far more difficult.

Think about a small town and the networks that make it work. I write about a town like Allentown, Pa., as compared to Youngstown, Oh. When networks get broken, they’re really hard to re-establish. When the folks who ran the Little League, who ran the unions, who ran the companies, who ran the banks knew each other, you had a kind of civic capital there that made for resilience and energy. I think if you make the case for networks, it’s cheaper, it’s easier and it’s effective.

A lot of what used to happen in small towns was that there were civic institutions. Little League is a great example where everybody participated. You would be there with the lawyer, the doctor, the plumber, the steelworker — people who knew each other and were able to provide help and come together when there were challenges to the town — whether it was needed for charity or infrastructure, whatever it might be. We’ve lost that civic fabric. But it can be rebuilt.

Knowledge@Wharton: You said we need to have the chessboard and the web world working together, but do they butt against each other at times?

Slaughter: Sometimes it’s a question of timing. If you were in a crisis, you can’t just build a network. Networks are a longer-term strategy. When you have them, they’re extremely valuable. But if a country invades another country, or if China does something in the South China Sea, you’re not going to be able to just create the network. You’re going to be playing chess.

My point is, really particularly for longer-term policy and prevention and resilience and scale, we need to be thinking both on the chessboard and about the web at the same time.

Knowledge@Wharton: But the timeframe ends up being very important because of the potential long-term benefit that could be there from the network, compared to short-term moves such as playing chess.

Slaughter: Absolutely. A good example is when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she really understood that we needed ambassadors to other countries who go to their embassies and meet with government officials, but that we also needed ambassadors to different social groups.

She created an ambassador to women, an ambassador to civil society, or an ambassador to Muslim communities — so when the government gets overturned, like in the Arab Spring, we have the ability to shape how another country sees us or the ability to mobilize people or businesses or civic groups when we need them.

“If we’re engaging in politics with Iran or North Korea or China or Russia, we’re still playing chess a lot of the time.”

Knowledge@Wharton: Does the building of networks become even more of a challenge right now because of this fracturing in American society among different people with different backgrounds?

Slaughter: Yes, I would say we have way too many tribes and not enough networks. In other words, we’ve got plenty of people who are deeply and closely connected to people who think like them. It is well documented that as we are more segregated into red and blue communities and more segregated by class, we are less likely to come into contact with people who think differently than we do. Some of these more old-fashioned civic networks– Little League, the United Way — brought us together in ways that we were connected to others who were different. We need to rebuild a lot of that. It’s harder now.

Again, lots of people will say, “I know I need a network.” But my point is, not just a network — we need different networks for different purposes. You need to think strategically: “If I want to do this, then I need this kind of network.” You should have one center and lots of people around it. There are ways of thinking very strategically about building a network, just like you would think strategically about a chess game.

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there a generational element to this — is strategic thinking a component that millennials will bring to the table?

Slaughter: I think there’s a generational and a gender component. I say that because when I have given lectures on these two approaches, these two ways of seeing the world, I have found that the people who are most often nodding their heads are women and people under 35 — the digital natives who have grown up completely connected. They don’t know how to think of themselves separate from their networks. They may need some chessboard training.

But also women, who have rarely had direct power over others and are accustomed to thinking about how to get something done. Well, you activate your network. If you think of the volunteers that you may have grown up with or your mother’s generation grew up with, those networks of volunteers were often the way women got things done in communities when they didn’t have direct power.

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