Opinion | Anne-Marie Slaughter

Networks, not nation-states, will solve global crises

Andy Martin for the Boston Globe

The pomp and pageantry of state visits are a foreign policy staple. Where new heads of state should take their first trip is hotly debated among staff members, the destinations designed to send messages to allies and adversaries alike. Plans are laid, agreements are signed, speeches are given. The red carpet processions and 21-gun salutes play well back home.

Real business can get done on these trips. Particularly later in an administration, the need for “deliverables” on an impending trip creates the kind of deadline that pushes the wheels of diplomacy forward. Stories of Jared Kushner driving the conclusion of a US-Saudi arms deal in time for President Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia are a classic example of this process.

Yet this kind of foreign policy only skates the surface of the international system. It depends on agreements and understandings between states, when so many of the global threats and challenges we face arise from forces deep within them. As the machinery of foreign affairs is presently constructed, presidents, kings, and ministers can do little to block, contain, or shape these forces.


Consider radical Islamist terrorism, currently emanating from an entire network of individuals and groups pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. On the chessboard of traditional international relations, the United States can assemble a coalition of allies to increase direct military action against the physical territory of the Islamic State, most notably by taking back their proclaimed capital, Raqqa. The politics of a successful military drive are complicated, with an effort versus a common enemy splintering on rivalries between purported coalition members: the Turks vs. the Kurds; Syria-Russia-Iran vs. the United States and the Sunni states. But even if all these governments succeed in depriving the self-proclaimed caliphate of physical territory, the death and destruction involved will create countless martyrs and new recruiting videos for ISIS and its associated groups to use in a continuing networked jihad.

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The deeper causes that give rise to this violent perversion of Islam, comparable to extremist distortions of religions from Christianity to Hinduism, are many: dictatorship, corruption, lack of useful education, widespread youth unemployment, oppression of women, a demographic bulge of young men with no prospects or purpose in the life they see ahead of them. Yet how can heads of state address these problems?

They could conclude a treaty, taking years to negotiate and even more years to implement, but even allowing for time, these issues are largely domestic matters. The only way is to leave the realm of traditional law and politics and to design, build, and manage regional and global networks. These networks can include government officials, particularly at the sub-national level, such as governors and mayors, but must also engage corporate and civic actors.

Two examples illustrate the point. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (Gavi) has been a game-changer in global health. Many small organizations and some larger ones have been working on vaccination and immunization for decades. But Gavi was founded by the Gates Foundation to bring all the players in the field together in a coordinated way. Today Gates and other foundations provide the funding, pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines, the World Health Organization regulates vaccine quality, and civil society organizations implement immunization programs. The alliance is essentially a network of networks tackling a complicated behavioral issue with global consequences.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has had a similar impact on efforts to fight and mitigate climate change. Over the past decade it has created multiple networks of cities dedicated to reducing carbon emissions for the sake of their citizens, which it has now brought together under the umbrella of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. The covenant connects and mobilizes government and nongovernment actors in more than 7,100 cities across the world, all of whom will continue implementing the Paris climate agreement regardless of what national governments do.


Gavi calls itself the Vaccine Alliance. It is the kind of alliance that will be just as effective at addressing 21st century problems as NATO. The Global Covenant of Mayors is the 21st-century equivalent of a 20th-century climate agreement like the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The long-term fight against violent religious extremism, whether Islamist or from any other political-religious ideology, will require regional and global networks focused on strengthening local civil society groups preaching separation of church and state, connecting women’s organizations in ways that can make change on the ground, linking entrepreneurs with each other and with capital and established businesses to create and exploit new local markets, bringing mayors and civic leaders together to make cities hubs of opportunity for young people.

The impetus to create these networks should not rest only with philanthropy, but also with corporate leaders and governments themselves. Instead of practicing statecraft, they can learn the ways of webcraft. Hillary Clinton began this process in the State Department, from 2009 to 2012, appointing ambassadors and special representatives to women, civil society, youth, Muslim communities, technologists, and business around the world. None of that provides the immediate gratification and publicity payoff of a red carpet welcome. But it is ultimately much more important.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is president and CEO of New America. She was director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011. Her book “The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World” was published by Yale University Press in March.