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CHAPTER I - The Nature of Networks

In her 2017 book, The Chessboard and the Web, Anne-Marie Slaughter offers a visual comparison to illustrate two different ways of looking at how the world is organized:

Think of a standard map of the world…showing the borders and capitals of all of the countries. That is a chessboard view. Now think of a map of the world at night, with the lit-up bursts of cities and highly concentrated regions and the dark swaths of rural areas and wilderness. Those corridors of light mark roads, cars, houses and offices; they mark the networks of human relationships where families and workers come together…this is the web view. It is a map not of separation, marking off boundaries of sovereign power, but of connection, of the density and intensity of ties across boundaries.i

Slaughter, who was formerly director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department and now is President and Chief Executive Officer of New America, describes the map view as emblematic of how diplomats and world leaders traditionally viewed their mission: to represent the interests of their nation against all of the other countries on the globe. In this classic “chessboard” view of international relations, “states are the ‘dominant actors’ in world politics and act as ‘coherent units’ or unitary actors; force is both usable and effective as a policy instrument; and military issues trump economic, social, and environmental issues in a strict foreign policy hierarchy.”ii In such a world, the primary role of a diplomat is “to negotiate agreements between nations.”

Of course, a standard world map does not provide a full picture of how the world is organized. Over time, countries have created many international organizations—the UN and its many specialized agencies, the World Trade Organization, NATO, OPEC, OECD, the G8 and the G20, the International Monetary Fund, the European Union—that transcend national boundaries and play important roles in world affairs. Moreover, multinational corporations, propelled by global supply chains, global trade, global financial flows and global communications systems, represent powerful forces that often operate without regard for national boundaries. Beyond these political and commercial entities, there are many other forces that help to connect (or divide) people and shape world events: religions, languages, ethnic identities, professional affiliations, even sporting competitions such as the Olympics and the World Cup. And the rise of insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS demonstrate how non-state actors can self-organize and operate across political boundaries to provide formidable challenges to the existing order.

As Slaughter notes, the key characteristic of all of these “web” phenomena is that they provide connection across borders. They are, in fact, different types of networks, which Slaughter describes as “the most important means of organization today.” Many of these networks are non-technological, but technology has greatly facilitated the ability of individuals and groups to connect across borders, and has accelerated and magnified the power of all kinds of social and political networks. In particular, the Internet, which spread all over the world in the course of a few decades, has become a pervasive digital platform that dramatically lowered the barriers to creating or operating a [human] network on a global scale. For example, Facebook has more than two billion active users worldwide, and is just one of many tools available for network builders.

Because of their importance, networks are the subject of a growing body of research that explores the ways in which they are structured and how they operate.iii And in the past few years, studies have begun to appear that specifically address the implications of networks for the practice of international relations and diplomacy.iv These studies explore the challenges that the proliferation of networks represent for the practice of diplomacy and try to identify how diplomats who understand the power of networks can use them to further their own goals.

Taking note of this shift, the 2017 Aspen Dialogue on Diplomacy and Technology (ADDTech) focused on the topic of “Diplomacy in the Age of Networks.” Participants included current and former officials from the State Department and other government agencies, academics, researchers, leaders from advocacy and philanthropic groups, and technologists. The group first considered the fundamental characteristics of networks and their role in world affairs. Participants further explored the ways in which networks operate and, particularly the issue of power in networks. They grappled with the problem of “memetic warfare” that involves a struggle between “viruses of ideology” able to rapidly proliferate through networks, and they then discussed efforts to contain or neutralize them. The final sessions turned to the question of how countries can assert their national interest in a networked world and, more specifically, what skills “networked diplomats” need to leverage the power of networks in carrying out their jobs.

The Nature of Networks
A network can be defined simply as “a collection of nodes and links.” A node is an intersection point within a network, while links are the connections between nodes. In a computer network, nodes can be terminals, routers, file servers or other “peripherals” attached to the network. In a social network, nodes are people who are connected to other people.

Networks can take many different forms, but they all consist of nodes and links and are organized horizontally: no one is “above” anyone else. The importance of a node depends on its location in the network in relation to other nodes, its centrality, and how connected it is to other nodes.

Historically, most human institutions—governments, military organizations, corporations, NGOs—have been structured as hierarchies: They have a leader at the top and ranks of staff below who carry out orders that come down from above. Power in hierarchies is distributed vertically, with the leader at the top having the most power.

In non-hierarchical networks, however, power depends on centrality and the intensity of connectivity, with those (nodes) who are most connected having the most power. In such networks, power does not mean the ability to command or control others, but rather the ability to communicate with and therefore have the opportunity to influence others. According to Anne-Marie Slaughter, network analysts identify four different types of centrality:

  • Degree centrality is the most basic and simply indicates how many links a node has. Thus, the power of Internet celebrities is typically described in terms of how many friends or followers they have.
  • Closeness centrality describes the average distance between a given node and all the other nodes in a network. As the story of Youngstown vs. Allentown (below) demonstrates, having nodes with different degrees of closeness can sometimes be an advantage.
  • Betweenness centrality measures a node’s position between other nodes; a node with high betweenness centrality sits at the intersection of the shortest paths between other nodes. Functionally, betweenness centrality reflects the amount of control that a node exerts over interactions and the flow of information among other nodes in the network.
  • Eigenvector centrality represents the average degree of connectedness of a node’s neighbors. By this measure, the importance of an individual is not based on how many friends he or she has, but rather on how well connected those friends are (e.g., someone “who knows all the right people”).

It is worth noting that any node can be described by all four of these factors, and that different types of centrality may be more or less important for different purposes.

Networks vs. Hierarchies. It seems plausible that when people need to be organized to accomplish a specific task or a series of tasks over time—whether it is to build a car, run a railroad or win a war—that a hierarchical structure would be the most effective way to ensure goals are clearly established, that everyone knows their assignments and carries them out in a reliable, predictable way. In fact, hierarchies are very good at achieving efficiency of operation.

Networks would seem to be much less effective than hierarchies in accomplishing these kinds of structured tasks. But there are several examples where networks have been remarkably successful in competing with more traditional organizations. Consider Wikipedia, which mobilized volunteers to create an online encyclopedia that proved to be more useful than traditional encyclopedias and essentially replaced them. Wikipedia is far more comprehensive and up to date than any printed encyclopedia. As of November 2017, the English language version of Wikipedia contained more than five and a half million articles and was growing at an average of 650 new articles per day. Wikipediaes now exist in 299 different languages, and of these, 13 have more than one million entries.

Another example of the power of networks is open source software. The Linux computer operating system is collectively maintained by a vast community of users and developers who are committed to its survival. Although it is owned by no one and controlled by no one, it competes very successfully with conventional commercial software.v

Although hierarchies have clear benefits, they have drawbacks as well. As they get larger, they tend to grow more bureaucratic and become more rigid and rule-bound. The predictability that is the hallmark of hierarchies tends to make it difficult for them to respond quickly to unexpected developments or the emergence of a new challenge. In an environment of rapid change, this can be a serious, even a fatal flaw.

Anne-Marie Slaughter points out that virtually every significant organization combines aspects of hierarchies and networks. Organizational charts provide only a partial view of how power is distributed in corporations or other hierarchical groups. Studies that trace the way that work actually gets done inside organizations invariably reveal the critical role of informal networks through which information is distributed and problems are solved. Slaughter notes that when the McChrystal Group, a consulting firm that “specializes in transforming hierarchies into networks,” begins each new engagement, it conducts an analysis of a client’s organization to identify the existing networks that represent “the veins and arteries through which the lifeblood of the organization actually flows.”vi

It is also true that most groups that function primarily as networks rely on some measure of hierarchical organization. While the content of Wikipedia is generated by tens of thousands of volunteer contributors, the project is dependent on a much smaller cadre of unpaid administrators who have been granted access to special editing tools and given the authority to correct problems they find. Behind (or above) these volunteers is a core group of approximately 50 paid staff “with real power” that set and implement policies and keep the enterprise running.vii Similarly, at the heart of the Linux open source movement is the Linux Foundation that provides training, hosts conferences and supports projects to advance the use of Linux. In addition, many users of the software depend on commercial distributors (including Red Hat, IBM and Dell) to deliver and support their Linux installations.

What these examples show is that all hierarchies use networks and most effective networks have some sort of hierarchy. But as social networks become more pervasive and powerful, it is time to “add network design to the toolkit of diplomats,” which means that diplomats, who have traditionally functioned in a hierarchical “chessboard” world, need to understand what networks can accomplish, how they operate, and how they can be used to further their goals. Slaughter cautions that she is not advocating for an “either/or” choice between the two types of structures, but rather for development of a “both/and” strategy that seeks to incorporate the strengths of each form.

i Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), p. 7.
ii Ibid, p. 31.
iii See, for example, Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Networked Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); Mark Newman, Networks: An Introduction (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2010); Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in an Age of Networks (New York, Little, Brown, 2016).
iv In addition to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s book: David Singh Grewel, Network Power: The Social Dynamics of Globalism (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2008); Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, Miles Kahler and Alexander H. Montgomery, “Network Analysis for International Relations,” International Organization 63, no. 3 (2009), 559-592; Jorge Heine, “From Club to Network Diplomacy,” The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy, March & August 2013; Charlie Firestone and Leshuo Dong, “Netpolitik: What the Emergence of Networks Means for Diplomacy and Statecraft,” The Aspen Journal of Ideas, March/April 2015. Available online:
v According to an estimate from the volunteer Linux Counter project that tracks Linux usage, there are approximately 92 million users of Linux in the world today. Available online:
vi Slaughter, p. 58.
vii Wikipedia has struggled with balancing its reliance on open, voluntary contributions with the need to set and maintain standards. For a review of some of challenges the organization has been facing, see Tom Simonite, “The Decline of Wikipedia,” MIT Technology Review, October 22, 2013. Available online:
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