Foreign policy experts have long been taught to see the world as a chessboard, analyzing the decisions of great powers and anticipating rival states’ reactions in a continual game of strategic advantage. Nineteenth-century British statesmen openly embraced this metaphor, calling their contest with Russia in Central Asia “the Great Game.” Today, the TV show Game of Thrones offers a particularly gory and irresistible version of geopolitics as a continual competition among contending kingdoms.
Think of a standard map of the world, showing the borders and capitals of the world’s 190-odd countries. That is the chessboard view.
Now think of a map of the world at night, with the lit-up bursts of cities and the dark swaths of wilderness. Those corridors of light mark roads, cars, houses, and offices; they mark the networks of human relationships, where families and workers and travelers come together. That is the web view. It is a map not of separation, marking off boundaries of sovereign power, but of connection.
To see the international system as a web is to see a world not of states but of networks. It is the world of terrorism; of drug, arms, and human trafficking; of climate change and declining biodiversity; of water wars and food insecurity; of corruption, money laundering, and tax evasion; of pandemic disease carried by air, sea, and land. In short, it is the world of many of the most pressing twenty-first-century global threats.
In this world, problems and threats arise because people are too connected, not connected enough, or connected in the wrong ways to the wrong people or things. The Islamic State, or ISIS, can motivate so-called lone wolves to massacre their officemates. A deadly virus can spread across the globe in a week. Meanwhile, the disconnection of millions of young people from the possibility of a decent education, a job, and a fulfilling life fuels violence that spills across borders.
Despite this new reality, most foreign-policy makers reflexively act as chess players, seeing