There are precious few people in government who are saying, “Instead of creating a treaty, or instead of convening a coalition of the willing to go to war against terrorism, let’s design a network for collaborative action. Let’s make it open to many different countries, but not so inclusive that we undermine its speed and flexibility.”
S+B: You portray the networks as growing fast, but you say that people aren’t using them. Which is true?
SLAUGHTER: That’s the funny part: Both statements are true. The transgovernmental networks have grown organically and under the radar of many officials. They represent a dramatic change, but they’re still small enough that they’re easy to ignore. It’s my proposition that we could be much more efficient and effective if we take the networks that exist, build on them, streamline them, and make them more inclusive.
S+B: How would that work — especially in such thorny areas of international relations as responses to terrorism?
SLAUGHTER: Imagine if George W. Bush had stood up in 2001 after 9/11 and said, “OK, we’re in a post-1945 kind of moment. We have a threat; we face it; we see it. Today, the world has come together behind the United States. We are going to do what we did in the late 1940s. We’re going to fight a specific terrorist group — al Qaeda — but we’re also going to fight the deeper forces that gave rise to it. We’ll do this by creating a set of global institutions, just as we did once before with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Marshall Plan, and the United Nations. But this time we’ll create a different kind of institution. We will have a global network of law enforcement agencies. A global network of health officials and education officials working to create real opportunity for poor and humiliated populations, who would otherwise be drawn to extremist religion and violent ideologies. And we are also setting up a new global network of transport officials to make travel safe everywhere.” The aftermath might have been very different.
S+B: Presumably, politicians resist that approach — not just in the U.S., but everywhere — because they assume it would constrain their independence.
SLAUGHTER: Well, it’s the antithesis of cowboy geopolitics. Although to be fair, the [United States] State Department is now much more open to this kind of multilateral engagement. But for a network to work, you actually have to be willing to engage, and that means to possibly change the way you do things. And to be persuasive, you have to be willing to be persuaded, and that’s a risk.
S+B: Is it so important for government officials to take that risk?
SLAUGHTER: If you’re confronting an incredibly complex world and you’re only thinking in official terms, then you’re using the thinking of the 20th century to solve 21st-century problems — problems like money laundering, climate change, and global epidemics.
Above all, you don’t see the world as other people inhabit it. For example, criminal organizations are all networks. That’s why they’re so hard to fight. Corporations are all generally operating through networks, both within corporations and in their supply chains. And certainly nongovernmental organizations are significantly networked. Yet the formal side of government operates through stovepipe hierarchies that come together on a formal basis. If you don’t recognize the emerging networks in government and deploy them effectively, then you don’t really have the tools to realize government’s potential.
S+B: It sounds like you’re envisioning a government of agencies that are, in effect, like business units, each with its own agenda.
SLAUGHTER: That’s a great image. And it’s exactly what I saw happening. In A New World Order, I called it the “disaggregated state.” Power isn’t going away, but it’s operating in a more diverse fashion.