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What it means to be a diplomat in a digital age

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When we think of diplomacy, we may think of talking — people in a room, face to face.

But that world of diplomacy is changing and the connected world is playing a much greater role, according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, who worked for the State Department during the Obama administration.

Slaughter’s new book is called “The Chessboard & the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World.” She spoke with us about what it means to be a diplomat in the digital age. Below is an edited transcript of our interview.

Ben Johnson: So tell me about this analogy of the chessboard in diplomacy. It’s one that’s been used for a long time. How has it traditionally functioned?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: When people think about states engaging with each other — great powers —the chessboard is the oldest metaphor. Henry Kissinger says the Chinese prefer Go. But the point is you’re playing to win and it’s all about you make a move, they make a move, you try to anticipate what they’re going to do, and counter it before they make it.

Johnson: So how has all of this changed in the digital age?

Slaughter: That chessboard is surrounded by a vast web of networks. Think about criminal networks. We spend as much time thinking about al-Qaeda or ISIS, or any terrorist network as we do any great power. On the positive side, think about corporate networks, global supply chains, and then we have global civic organizations, so if you think about Oxfam or Care.

Johnson: At the end of the day, don’t a lot of agreements still come to fruition because it’s really just a couple of people — the right people — in a room, talking to each other face to face?

Slaughter: That’s certainly what the government would like you to think. That’s a State Department view of the world. It wasn’t Secretary Clinton’s view. It was a little more Secretary Kerry’s view, which is: to really make things happen in the world, you’ve got to get a bunch of us in an oak-paneled room talking to like-minded people and we’ll cut a deal. It’s certainly the current president’s view. That’s not true. We don’t just need those few people in a room. Indeed, we can do it without them entirely. We can all essentially engage in our own kind of foreign policy that I call webcraft. Webcraft is the art of identifying a problem, figuring out how you solve it first locally, but then at scale, then thinking “who do I need to connect to to be able to create the network that can actually make a difference?”

Johnson: Is there a particular digital tool that you’ve used before that you’re a huge fan of that is a kind of specific application for a lot of the big picture stuff we’re talking about here?

Slaughter: Twitter is a good example of something that is part way there. So on the one hand, it allows me to connect to people I could never connect to otherwise. The downside of Twitter is that it’s almost impossible to turn that into a network of action. And I need a tool — we ultimately need tools that help us connect to all the people who are interested like us. So then you can mobilize the network as a whole and you can shape the network in a way that will work for whatever purpose you need.

Johnson: Your last book was called “Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family,” which stemmed from your Atlantic article titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” What has made you shift gears for this book?

Slaughter: You know, I spent my whole life as a foreign policy person. I started writing about networks in 1994 and I published a book on networks in 2004. There is one connection, though, which is that when I talk about webs and webcraft and networks and horizontal power, women get it. Because we have traditionally not had vertical power, we weren’t in those oak-paneled rooms. We were not statesmen. So a lot of women, not all, but a lot of women immediately respond to the idea of power with how you mobilize people and networks, rather than telling them what to do and hierarchies.

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