Can the Web Save the World?

In her new book, Anne-Marie Slaughter argues networks may be more powerful than nation-states.

Anne-Marie Slaughter
Anne-Marie Slaughter

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for FORTUNE.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected president last year, Anne-Marie Slaughter would probably be holding a key government post right now. But Slaughter, who worked in the State Department during Clinton’s tenure there and is now the president of New America, instead faces life as a foreign policy observer and thinker during a time when the president doesn’t seem like someone much given to observing or thinking. (Slaughter’s writing extends to other areas as well; she is perhaps best known for her Atlantic cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”)

Slaughter’s new book is called The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World. In it, she calls on leaders to look beyond the “chessboard” of nation-state rivalries (which she acknowledges do still exist) and focus more attention on the “web”: the place where states and people must develop networks of communication and community, to prevent everything from terrorism to global warming.

I spoke by phone with Slaughter this week. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how networks can help combat fake news, the catastrophe in Syria, and the dangers of supporting military action when Donald Trump is president.

Isaac Chotiner: What got you interested in the subject matter of your book?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: I have been writing about networks since 1994, and have been struck for a long time by the absence of tools that really allow us to use networks strategically, and that was something I saw firsthand in government. So when I came out of government I returned to the subject.

What do you mean by networks?

A network is a collection of links and nodes, and those can be visible if you think of the internet. It can also be informal, like the “old boys network,” or shadowy if you think of global criminal networks. It’s really any collection of people or things that are linked together on an ongoing basis. But what I am mostly writing about are global criminal networks like terrorism or arms traffickers, or global and national corporate networks. And then civic networks of nonprofit organizations, or universities.

It seems like you have some hope that the latter type of network can help combat the former.

That’s exactly right. What we normally do when we are confronted with a network problem is we think, “Oh we need to bring people together.” So counterterrorism officials, or entrepreneurs, or members of a religious community have a meeting or a summit. But what we don’t do is keep people connected and keep them connected in a particular way with a particular architecture. There is a lot of theory out there about how you design a network to achieve a specific purpose. The military has done this, and I write about how Gen. [Stanley] McChrystal figured out how to create a counter-network to al-Qaida in Iraq. He was the head of Special Forces Command in Iraq.

Al-Qaida in Iraq has a flexible, adaptable network. They have people who are connected in ways that they could spread information to people who need to know it very, very quickly. But they are also separate enough that they are not centrally controlled. Different cells can undertake actions as they need to, as circumstances change. Special Forces, by contrast, have people who do intelligence and execution and communications, so you have all these different groups and they are quite hierarchical. They are supposed to be the most nimble group but the military is quite hierarchical.

So he creates a team of teams. That means connecting everybody so everyone in every small group had at least one connection to someone in another small group. And that network came together as a massive network, what I would call a star network with one center for communications purposes. But then it became what you would call a pod network, with different teams of people who are quite independent for operations. He essentially mirrored the structure of the al-Qaida in Iraq network. And you don’t just change the structure but how you operate and how you manage.

Have you thought about these issues in terms of the problem of fake news and misinformation online and how to counter it?

I have. Think about someone you trust and someone who everyone gets their news from.

The president.

Yeah yeah, OK, alright. How can you restore trust in some reasonable percentage of what you read? Probably the best way to do that given how much mistrust there is now is to find people who are trusted by the people who follow them. That could be in a community or on social media or it could even be some local papers. Those would become pods: one person who is a curator of news who other people get their news from. If they trust that person, they are more likely to trust the news that person sends out. Those people, then, you can either give them filters or essentially try to make sure they use more trusted news sites. But the network you would build is what I would call a pod or a hub network, because you can no longer rely on a couple of central sources.

Have you thought about your job, of giving advice and opinions about foreign policy, differently in this age of an unstable, erratic president?

The first thing to say is that this president and this foreign policy team are highly chessboard focused. You have to have both at the same time, but this team sees the world in terms of chess much more than the web. You see that: we are playing chicken with North Korea, or China, right now. We are playing a tit-for-tat game with Russia. In some things, at least on North Korea, they are doing probably what Secretary Clinton would have done if she had come into power. There are places I think they are doing what needs to be done. I don’t think they are very likely to embrace the web approach, the strategic long term. There are members of the military who really do get this and like this. Secretary Clinton was much more open to this kind of work.

Trump got a lot of praise from people, yourself included, for the Syria strikes, and I was wondering if you find a danger in applauding military actions undertaken without congressional approval by someone who has shown authoritarian tendencies.

I think that’s an interesting question, but on this one, this was the Chemical Weapons Convention. There’s a pretty clear set of constraints and there is very little appetite for more use of force. I think this was highly circumscribed and I think absolutely what needed to be done, even if I don’t think it is going to solve Syria. But it does maybe help the political negotiations somewhat.

But does him getting approval and plaudits for military action worry you because of the signal it sends to someone who so craves approval?

I think the other way to think about this is, “Who are the voices in the White House that you are supporting and who approved this?” Whatever you think of the administration as a whole, if you think you have a patriotic duty to support what you think is the right thing to do in national security, then you would want to second decisions that you think are made by people you are more likely to support.

Who are those people?

I have a lot of respect for the national security team: Gen. Mattis, Gen. McMaster. The traditional “America First” [approach] would be, “Why should we care if Syrians get gassed?” And that’s not a view I want to support.

There was a report last week that McMaster was perhaps going to push for up to 10,000 ground troops in Syria. As someone who has supported more action in Syria, does it worry you to back an undertaking like that with an unstable, Islamophobic president?

I think on Syria, unless you showed me that it is deeply counterproductive, I am going to support what I think is best for Syria regardless. It is a horrific problem that has gotten worse over the past six years, and for moral and strategic reasons I think we should take more action. It would depend on what the issue is, but I am going to evaluate on its own terms and reward it if I think it is right and critique it if I think it is wrong. I think it is different on various domestic policy issues. I don’t think I am legitimating an administration when I say I approve of this action in this country.

What have you made of the administration’s approach to some of the “women’s issues” you have written about, such as family leave and childcare?

I am not sure what that approach is. I think Ivanka Trump wants to do things but I haven’t seen any action, and the action I have seen on Planned Parenthood is dead wrong.

Have you been in contact with Ivanka or people in the administration about these issues?

Not recently.

When you were, did you think they were serious about them?

I think Ivanka Trump is serious. I think she really does want to make positive change. But there is a long way between wanting something and getting it done.

Well, apparently she wanted the Syria strike, so …

[Laughs.] We’ll see. We’ll see. You have to look at the package. You can’t just look at individual policies. If you have paid leave but roll back health care, I am not sure women are better off.