S+B: So, for instance, the wording of the Kyoto Protocol or Doha agreement turns out to be less important than getting the right people in the room and talking about the issues.
SLAUGHTER: I think so. Already, while the world is still dithering over Kyoto, the governors of different states in the U.S., led by [California] Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, are reaching out to one another and forming trading blocs. They can then also reach out to provinces in Canada and even to cities and provinces in the E.U. and China.
That’s a networked solution that works below the radar of formal international diplomacy. We could take it further by creating a global environmental network, with a few countries deeply involved, and start thinking about solutions. Maybe out of this network a treaty will eventually grow. But it’s better to start by implementing solutions and then let the policy emerge.
S+B: You have a new book this year on America’s place in history. The Princeton Project report was just released. And the importance of government networks is steadily more evident. Where do you think we are at this moment in history?
SLAUGHTER: I think we’re pretty much at a watershed. The world is changing fundamentally on so many different axes at once. Geopolitically, there’s a classic shift of the balance of power from Europe and perhaps the U.S. to China, India, and other emerging nations. Traditionally, the world has rarely accommodated rising powers of that size without major conflict — and we can’t afford that right now.
Meanwhile, non-state actors are more capable. A small group of terrorists can take out a city; we’ve never seen anything like that before. And the final change is the growing frequency of natural catastrophes and the threat of bacterial resistance.
It’s like moving from traditional chess to a three-level chessboard. What the U.S. does in the next 10 years is absolutely critical, because by 2020 we’re not going to have the options we have now.
I can imagine a world in which the United States leads in a way that restores its legitimacy. We have the ability to bring other nations together very differently from the ways other great powers have done it. I can see us marshaling our technology to create new drugs and cure disease, and to forestall the worst effects of climate change and make a more beautiful world.
S+B: Why is the U.S. so important?
SLAUGHTER: Because, although we’re not as indispensable as we like to think we are, no major geopolitical problem can be solved without strong U.S. leadership. That means both the government and the American people, but it doesn’t mean the U.S. acting unilaterally. I don’t think the U.S. should lead coalitions. It should lead from behind for a while. But there’s no solution without the U.S. — not in climate change, where we’re the biggest greenhouse gas emitter, in terrorism, or in any other major problem.
And the United States still has the potential to set a unique example of aspiration. When we were riding high in 1961, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” That sentiment brought a group of very talented people into government. But now, we need the same kind of sentiment more broadly — in corporations, in the nonprofit sector, and in governments around the world. The best leaders in all sectors will follow the model of a statesman, because they can't meet their goals otherwise. That’s how leadership changes in a highly networked world.
Reprint No. 07310