S+B: Isn’t it a legitimate concern that all this networking will distract leaders from their own constituents and undermine their own mandate?
SLAUGHTER: That’s an interesting question. Yes, it is a risk, but only if you, as a leader, see yourself as an autonomous agent who has charted a course and doesn’t want to be deflected. If you’re comfortable with letting your perspective evolve, then you can be much more effective leading a network.
And should we, as leaders, be so afraid of being persuaded? It’s not clear that this is a danger if you have a more free-form approach to getting results.
S+B: For example…?
SLAUGHTER: I was thinking about Google and other creative workplaces where people brainstorm easily, and where work is fluid. That’s a cultural shift from plan-and-control leadership to being able to react and adapt. I recently heard a senior executive of a major engineering firm say, “We don’t plan anymore.” The pace of change was accelerating so fast, he said, that the best they could do was react faster than everybody else. So why bother planning? You see what’s coming down the pike and you go with it.
It takes a certain personality type to become comfortable with this type of leadership. I don’t imagine our governments are suddenly going to be populated with folks like the founders of Google. But some issues require it.
Take water scarcity. There’s a lot of politics in it, it’s complicated, the stakes couldn’t be higher, and it’s changing rapidly. You might imagine creating a European–Middle Eastern–American network for the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf watersheds, and saying to the officials, “We want you to come up with some solutions.” In other words, you empower the actual officials who must implement those solutions to be more creative in developing them.
Similarly, right now there is a proposal to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] to include Israel. But we could think more broadly about linking officials on a project basis. In the Middle East, that type of approach could use networks to help change the culture.
You have to define that space pretty carefully. You can’t just go letting networks make decisions without accountability or oversight. But it’s a far better way of tackling these global problems than establishing a world water authority or another security council — or a world environmental organization or global financial authority, for that matter. Those are not real solutions. Even if people wanted them, they would be unwieldy and clunky to administer.
S+B: What, then, would the downside of networks be?
SLAUGHTER: First, their power isn’t always checked — or perceived to be checked. Nobody is ever quite sure what’s going on in their private meetings, and outsiders think that these are technocrats making decisions on their own without any democratic oversight or accountability. This comes up in the U.S. in controversies over the meetings of judges across international boundaries. Observers see judges sharing information about international law and worry, wrongly in my view, that those same judges will make decisions that aren’t faithful to American precedent. You hear the same thing when environmental officials or financial regulators get together: “They’re colluding and it will shape the domestic outcome.”
It’s very hard to know how much of that collusion is happening. I think some is, but not nearly as much as the public reaction would suggest. The answer is to provide a framework of accountability that makes it clear how much leeway the specialists should have and should not have.
S+B: Wouldn’t that be very hard to put into place?
SLAUGHTER: It is a big challenge, particularly in an era of rising distrust of government. Unless we’re thoughtful about the parameters within which our officials can operate with their counterparts abroad, we could witness a big backlash. On the Web site of Public Citizen, the NGO founded by Ralph Nader, there is a “Harmonization Handbook” that targets global networks of food and environmental safety regulators. I see those networks as relatively benign and even as ways to raise the capacity of less-empowered countries. But Public Citizen sees them as places where government officials get together with corporations and sell out the people on a technocratic basis.