French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and UN Climate Change Official Christiana Figueres at the Paris Climate Conference, December, 2015.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and UN Climate Change Official Christiana Figueres at the Paris Climate Conference, December, 2015.

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 the world as if they lived in the seventeenth century, when the Peace of Westphalia created a framework of sovereign and equal states. They understand the reality of networked threats but lack strategies befitting the world of web actors. It is time to develop those strategies and to integrate statecraft with webcraft, the art of designing, building, and managing networks. The United States, for its part, needs a grand strategy that pursues American interests and values in the web as well as on the chessboard.

The next U.S. president should adopt a grand strategy of building and maintaining an open international order based on three pillars: open societies, open governments, and an open international system. The essential fault line of the digital age is not between capitalism and communism or democracy and autocracy but between open and closed. Alec Ross, a technology expert and former State Department official, lines up countries on an “open-closed axis.” As he argues, “the societies that embrace openness will be those that compete and succeed most effectively.”

Openness encapsulates the distinctive logic of networks. They are open in the sense of being participatory: networks accommodate the participation of the many rather than the few and derive power from that participation. They are open in the sense of transparency: they thwart efforts to control information, just as the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey was defeated by the ability of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters to use FaceTime, Facebook Live, and Twitter to circumvent the army’s domination of the television networks. And they are open in the sense of autonomy: unlike rule-governed hierarchies, networks encourage self-organization.

This is not the only view of networks, however. In his book The Seventh Sense, Joshua Ramo recognizes that a “new age of constant connection” has arrived, but he sees the openness of those networks as dangerous to the United States. He articulates a grand strategy of “hard gatekeeping,” based on the power to grant or deny access to closed networks he calls “gatelands.” Under this approach, the United States must construct physical and virtual “communities to manage everything from trade to cyber-information to scientific research.” Hard gatekeeping is a strategy of connection, but it calls for division, replacing the physical barriers of the twentieth century with digital ones of the twenty-first.

The historical debate over the essential nature of U.S. foreign policy thus continues into the digital age. On one side are the adherents of Nixon- and Kissinger-style realism, who see the championing of universal values as a recipe for harmful foreign entanglements. On the other are adherents of Wilson- and Roosevelt–style (both Franklin and Eleanor) liberal internationalism, who have a healthy respect for power but see standing for universal values as part of the United States’ national identity and as a source of power.

Open order building comes down squarely on the side of liberal internationalism, but updated for the digital age. It marries the worlds of the chessboard and the web, recognizing states as powerful while acknowledging individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions as actors in their own right. And it affirms the vision of a United States strengthened by deep international ties based on common values rooted in universal human rights.

Nothing but net: Asia at night from the Suomi NPP satellite, 2012.


The top priority of any U.S. grand strategy must be to protect the American people and safeguard U.S. allies. It is impossible, however, to guarantee security in a constantly connected age. The very promise of safety is an irresistible temptation to hackers, the invading hordes of the twenty-first century. So, too, with lone-wolf terrorists. Dictatorships fare little better than democracies at stopping such attacks, and at a far higher cost to civil liberties.

Better, then, to embrace openness and strive for resilience and self-reliance. People should expect their governments to develop webs of surveillance and protection but still uphold citizens’ civil rights. (Accordingly, much of the civil rights work of this century will entail championing digital rights.) And people must accept that their governments cannot guarantee absolute safety. A measure of insecurity is the price of liberty and democracy. It’s a price worth paying.

In this world, as Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, argues in her book Security Mom, citizens can and should do much more to provide for their own safety. “No government,” she writes, “ought to guarantee perfect security, because no government can provide it.” The government’s role is to “invest in creating a more resilient nation,” which includes briefing and empowering the public, but more as a partner than a protector. The government also benefits from this approach. Stephen Flynn, an expert on resilience, has pointed out all the ways that Americans armed with more information from the government, rather than less, would have been able to help stop or at least mitigate disasters.

What would have happened, Flynn asks, had U.S. authorities given a press conference in August 2001 apprising the public of intelligence about the threat from al Qaeda and the known risk of hijackers blowing up a plane or using one as a missile? Many would have called such a briefing alarmist. But some of the passengers on the planes that hit their targets in New York and Washington would have suspected that the hijackers were lying when they said they were returning to the airport. Perhaps some would have taken action, as did the passengers of Flight 93, who, because they took off later, had heard that other planes had been flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

The essential fault line of the digital age is between open and closed.

The self-reliance necessary for open security depends on the ability to self-organize and take action. Society-wide, this approach requires limiting power, both public and private. Overly concentrated power, whether in public, private, or even civic hands, is an invitation to abuse. Ramo argues that the winner-take-all nature of network effects means that the current platform monopolies are here to stay. Nine of the 12 most popular mobile apps, he points out, are connected to American-owned companies, such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube all have more than one billion users.

But the strain of democratic republicanism that runs from President Thomas Jefferson to the Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis is reemerging in American politics, challenging concentrations of economic power on the grounds that competition is good for its own sake, no matter how well intentioned or beneficial monopolies may be. In a democracy, data about the people belong to the people. Users currently sign away their rights to that data in return for the wonderful free goods and services that big technology companies provide. Eventually, however, the people will insist on receiving a slice of the value of their data.

Smaller, more distributed hubs have many advantages. Over time, as Apple and Microsoft have come to realize, the key to competitive success will shift from dominating a platform to ensuring the interoperability of many platforms. Currently, competition functions through the intense rivalry of multiple start-ups all seeking to be bought by one of the big players. Those start-ups should instead be growing into midsize and large companies on their own, creating more competition and jobs along the way.

The United States and other powers will gradually find the golden mean of network power: not too concentrated and not too distributed. Paradoxically, strengthening Asian and European competitors in American-dominated industries will advance long-term U.S. interests—just as the Marshall Plan did, even as it rebuilt former enemies. Better to have robust competition on one Internet, for example, than multiple national internets, which would become the twenty-first-century equivalent of autarky.

The United States was famously founded as a government of limited powers; suspicion of concentrated private power has surged in periodic waves throughout its history. Size ultimately becomes oppressive, even to the big. Buildings and empires really do topple under their own weight. Moreover, the masters of new technologies cannot master the power of politics, even if they are right to challenge the current deep dysfunction of the U.S. political system. Washington and Silicon Valley, right and left, populists and elitists—all will have to find a way to forge a new social and political contract, one that marries new technologies with the principles of limited power.

The international order of 1945 was based on the principle of “embedded liberalism,” meaning that the insecurity of open money and trade was cushioned by domestic safety nets. Similarly, an open international order of the twenty-first century should be anchored in secure and self-reliant societies, in which citizens can participate actively in their own protection and prosperity. The first building block is open societies; the second is open governments.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Open Government Partnership conference, Brasilia, April 2012.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Open Government Partnership conference, Brasilia, April 2012.


In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama launched the Open Government Partnership with seven other countries: Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. By 2016, the group had grown to include 70 countries. All participants must sign the Open Government Declaration, a set of principles that they pledge to implement through a national action plan. So far, participants have made more than 2,250 specific commitments.

The declaration’s three major principles are transparency, civic participation, and accountability. Transparency means increasing the availability of information about government activities and making those activities open to as many people as possible, a commitment that is likely to lead to open data standards. It does not mean abolishing secrecy in all government deliberations, a step that would quickly bring a government (or any other organization) to a halt, but it does mean making information about what the government knows and does visible and usable.

The second principle, civic participation, follows from transparency: signatories to the declaration commit to “creating and using channels to solicit public feedback” on policymaking and “deepening public participation in developing, monitoring and evaluating government activities.” Making this commitment real will require a regulatory, as much as a technological, revolution. Instead of antiquated “notice and comment” procedures—in which legislatures and regulators deliberate for months or years about the text of proposed rules, taking input from vested interests and then ultimately passing what political forces will allow—governments must move to methods that alert all affected citizens in real time. In many countries, legislatures and government agencies have begun publishing draft legislation on open-source platforms such as GitHub, enabling their publics to contribute to the revision process.

The third major principle of the declaration is accountability, defined in large part as professional integrity. Participating countries commit to having “robust anti-corruption policies, mechanisms and practices”; transparent public finances and government procurement processes; and programs to strengthen the rule of law. In practice, governments must have a legal framework that requires the disclosure of the income and assets of all high government officials and must put in place a set of deterrents against bribery.

Taken together, these principles entail a much more horizontal relationship between a government and its people than the traditional vertical relationship of either democracy or autocracy. Open-government experiments currently under way around the world are reenvisioning government with the people rather than merely for the people. The result is a side-by-side relationship between officials and citizens that offers a template for how chessboard and web actors can coexist in the international system.

Open-government experiments are reenvisioning government with the people rather than merely for the people.

Writing about “connexity” 20 years ago, the British author and political adviser Geoff Mulgan argued that in adapting to permanent interdependence, governments and societies would have to rethink their policies, organizational structures, and conceptions of morality. Constant connectedness, he wrote, would place a premium on “reciprocity, the idea of give and take,” and a spirit of openness, trust, and transparency would underpin a “different way of governing.” Governments would “provide a framework of predictability, but leave space for people to organise themselves in flatter, more reciprocal structures.”

Mulgan was prescient: in many ways, the Open Government Partnership and similar initiatives are operationalizing the new social contract he envisioned. But people are not only organizing themselves; they are also working directly with government officials to coproduce government services. Coproduction embodies a philosophy of self-government that is very different from the republican form of representative democracy that the American founders envisaged. Instead of governing themselves through those who represent them, citizens can partner directly with the government to solve public problems.

Networks of citizens are already participating in contests over how best to use open data in cities around the world; they are assisting with crisis communications in disasters; and they are helping draft government budgets, legislation, and even constitutions. That domestic role for citizens in open government will penetrate the international system, as well. As foreign, finance, justice, development, environment, interior, and other ministers—not to mention mayors—take a greater role on the global stage, they will bring with them the corporate and civic networks they are accustomed to engaging with as coproducers of government services at home.

The evolution of open governments illustrates the ways in which common values give rise to common structures, aided by the enormous potential of digital platforms. Nations willing to join the Open Government Partnership are embracing values and developing structures that will allow them to knit their societies and economies closely together. A strategy of open order building starts from a community of allies and partners woven together by many different government, corporate, and civic relationships. Imagine a set of school friends on Facebook who stay connected to one another and add connections to their life partners, their business associates, the parents of their children’s friends, their fellow churchgoers and volunteers, fellow sports fans and hobbyists, spreading out but also binding the most connected members ever more closely together.

The United States should thus maintain and deepen relationships with its current allies, assuming that they are willing to embrace the principles of both open societies and open governments. The alliances that the United States built in the second half of the twentieth century were not just bulwarks against the Soviet Union; they were also anchored in a common commitment to the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Neither the United States nor any of its allies has fully lived up to those values, but they struggle to do so openly, through a free press and freedom of expression, along with a willingness to respond to citizens’ demands, even when those demands include changing the government.

The United States should not serenely contemplate Japan’s or Europe’s creation of its own gated communities for finance, industry, services, communications, education, medicine, or other vital economic and social transactions. Washington should of course recognize its allies’ desire for autonomy and self-protection, but it should encourage integrated networks and work to ensure that interoperability ripens into community.

More fundamentally, U.S. policymakers should think in terms of translating chessboard alliances into hubs of connectedness and capability. Many of the world’s most farsighted leaders are already doing just that. NATO, as Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then the organization’s secretary-general, explained in 2010, has sought to transform itself into “the hub of a network of security partnerships and a center for consultation on international security issues.” In Asia, which is much less connected in security and economic terms than Europe, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has proposed a “principled security network” that is designed to deepen the connections between nations on the periphery of a security web and those at its core.


The final pillar of open order building is the maintenance and expansion of an open international system. It must be open to both chessboard and web actors and to shifting power relationships among them. According to systems theory, the level of organization in a closed system can only stay the same or decrease. In open systems, by contrast, the level of organization can increase in response to new inputs and disruptions. That means that such a system should be able to ride out the volatility caused by changing power relationships and incorporate new kinds of global networks.

The current international system, however, is fixed and hierarchical. Some nations are more equal than others. The permanent members of the UN Security Council, the founding members of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—these nations, which ruled the world in 1945, designed an international order to preserve peace and prosperity and to secure their own interests. Although they had a far more universalistic understanding of international order than many of their predecessors, they created a set of inevitably self-interested arrangements for a world of what was then just 73 recognized sovereign states, including empires with scores of colonies.

It is time for reform. The institutions built after World War II remain important repositories of legitimacy and authority. But they need to become the hubs of a flatter, faster, more flexible system, one that operates at the level of citizens as well as states. That means finally tackling the job of opening up the postwar institutions to newer actors. It also means flattening the hierarchy between the UN and regional organizations, so that the latter can act more autonomously, with either advance or subsequent Security Council approval of their actions.

If the current international order proves too brittle to change, it will simply crumble.

Revising the UN Charter would open Pandora’s box. Substantive changes in the past have required a cataclysm, which the world cannot afford. But rising powers will not wait forever. They will simply create their own orders, with their own regional institutions and security networks. If the current international order proves too brittle to change, it will simply crumble. Like the once great European dukedoms, it will keep the buildings and the pageantry, but the power will have moved on.

A power shift must take place between twentieth- and twenty-first-century states, accommodating the rise of Africa and Asia and giving voice to countries that existed only as colonies (or not at all) in 1945. But as the scholar Jessica Mathews wrote presciently in these pages in 1997, it also must take place between states and nonstate actors—the people and organizations that should be thought of as web actors. Networks of bad web actors threaten global security and well-being on a daily basis; the best response to them is to create integrated networks of good web actors, corporate, civic, and public.

Some of the existing networks link only national government officials, and they should thus be reformed. The Proliferation Security Initiative, for instance, enables its more than 100 endorsing nations to interdict weapons of mass destruction and related materials going to and from states, groups, and individuals that present a high risk of proliferation. An updated version of the institution should retain its voluntary character and its decision-making rules but be docked with some part of the UN—a change that would help counter criticism from India and other nations that the initiative is illegitimate. Many other regulatory, judicial, and legislative networks should likewise be formally anchored to global or regional institutions. To that end, among the most promising new developments are networks of mayors, men and women who have both the authority and the ability to make policies that affect 54 percent of the world’s population.

Moving beyond government officials, networks of global charitable organizations already enjoy close connections to international institutions. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees works with more than 900 nongovernmental and UN organizations. The vaccine network Gavi relies on funding from industrialized states and helps developing countries secure predictable, self-sustaining financing for immunization programs. And Bloomberg Philanthropies has funded international climate change networks, most notably the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, which connects governmental and nongovernmental actors in more than 7,100 cities worldwide in efforts to combat global warming.

These examples are only the beginning. For every nongovernmental organization that has been granted hard-won observer status at a UN meeting, thousands more have been shut out by the state gatekeepers of the current international system. The chess players are still firmly in control. For networks to nest within or have formal connections to traditional hierarchical organizations, those organizations must flatten. They have to open up their hierarchies and formalized routines to allow for more flexible arrangements among their members and to allow for interactions with a mix of citizen, corporate, and civic networks. After all, if Facebook—at 1.7 billion members, more populous than any country in the world—can function as a network of networks by providing a platform for individuals to connect spontaneously to one another, then networks connected deliberately and strategically can certainly contribute as decisively to global order as a group of often weak member states can.

To see the difference between the twentieth-century international system and a twenty-first-century open system, consider the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and those for the Paris agreement on climate change. The TPP negotiations were conducted in private and involved only national trade representatives. This secrecy generated mistrust among U.S. citizens and lawmakers and cast an elitist pall over the TPP that has contributed to the intense opposition to its ratification it now faces. The Paris negotiators, on the other hand, recognized that business, academia, civil society, and ordinary people all have a role to play in tackling climate change. And so the talks, as sprawling and messy as they were, involved everyone from corporate leaders to activists to billionaire philanthropists. Although the resulting agreement does not set binding targets under international law, it will do far more than a state-centric agreement would to save the planet, since states will be joined by many different actors in implementing it.

Over time, the shells of twentieth-century interstate organizations can become global and regional platforms for multiple types of associations among both chessboard and web actors. The UN, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, the Organization of American States, the African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and a host of other organizations can all build on and perhaps even transcend their original functions.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and UN Climate Change Official Christiana Figueres at the end of the Paris climate talks, December 2015.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and UN Climate Change Official Christiana Figueres at the end of the Paris climate talks, December 2015.


A U.S. grand strategy along these lines would advance U.S. interests by building an open global order composed of open societies, open governments, and an open international system. The goal is a world in which both American citizens and their foreign counterparts are safe, prosperous, and endowed with opportunities to live full and productive lives. That is a world in which Americans can protect and advance themselves as Americans but also pursue the universal values that define the United States.

That open global order must be anchored in an international legal order that recognizes and protects both states and people. The legal order of the chessboard recognizes only sovereign states as both the agents and the subjects of international law, with a separate and untouchable sphere for domestic law. The legal order of the twenty-first century must be a double order, acknowledging the existence of domestic and international spheres of action and law but seeing the boundary between them as permeable.

In this order, states must be waves and particles at the same time. They must continue to serve as the principal actors when it comes to dealing with interstate war, weapons proliferation, state-sponsored terrorism, criminal networks, ethnic and religious conflict, boundary disputes, and many other issues. But states must also be viewed as the places where web actors reside, reaching across boundaries as they engage in commercial, civic, political, and criminal pursuits that reverberate in global affairs just as much as state actions do. It is impossible to say what form that double order will ultimately take. Astonishingly enough, however, it is emerging before our eyes—slowly, painfully, but inexorably.

The origins of this shift lie in the human rights movement of the twentieth century, beginning with the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, which laid down rules of war for both soldiers and civilians. But human rights themselves became politically polarized during the Cold War, with the West championing civil and political rights; the East championing economic, social, and cultural rights; and both sides tending to ignore violations in their client states. When many frozen conflicts thawed and then exploded in the 1990s, the world turned once again to the urgent question of what is owed to citizens who are suffering atrociously at the hands of their own governments.

The first step was the development of international criminal law, moving from the victors’ justice of the postwar Nuremberg trials to a fast-growing body of law and courts holding individual officials accountable for their actions. Then came a sea change in the law of humanitarian intervention.

In 2000, responding to an appeal from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Canadian government gathered a group of distinguished foreign policy practitioners and international lawyers to determine when states could and should take military action to protect at-risk people in another state. The group, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, came up with what it termed “the responsibility to protect,” later shortened to “R2P.” In its final report, the commission argued that signatories to the UN Charter had accepted certain “responsibilities of membership.” Specifically, when a state abrogated its responsibility to protect the basic rights of its people, other states had a responsibility to protect those citizens, if necessary through military intervention.

In 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted a watered-down version of the R2P doctrine. The resulting resolution declared that “each individual state has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Should states fail to do this, the responsibility shifts to the international community, which should employ “peaceful means” to protect a population and, if necessary, “take collective action . . . through the Security Council.” Since then, the doctrine’s application has proved controversial, most acutely in regard to the UN-sanctioned intervention in Libya in 2011.

The wheels of international law grind slowly. The principle of sovereign equality enshrined in the Peace of Westphalia took hundreds of years to implement. Yet R2P has managed to take hold remarkably fast: the UN Security Council has already invoked the doctrine 50 times in the past decade. Today, as the Obama administration nears its end, R2P has gone deeply out of fashion, but that is surely temporary. What is important is that 68 years after the adoption of the revolutionary Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the relationship of a sovereign to its subjects is receiving yet another level of international scrutiny. International law is recognizing states and citizens at the same time. The double order is emerging, as the masters of the chessboard, willy-nilly, make room for the web.


The logic of that shift is inexorable. Even the chess master Henry Kissinger might agree. In World Order, he points out that the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War—a holocaust that killed perhaps one-third of the people in the German lands—was meant above all to create a better system that would protect people from “forced expulsions and conversions and general war consuming civilian populations.” Furthermore, although “the right of each signatory to choose its own domestic structure and religious orientation” was affirmed, “novel clauses ensured that minority sects could practice their faith in peace and be free from the prospect of forced conversion.” In other words, the Westphalian world order mandated the sovereign equality of states not as an end in itself but as a means to protect the subjects of those states—the people.

The people must come first. Where they do not, sooner or later, they will overthrow their governments. The technology that is fueling the transformation of the social and economic order within nations—from hierarchies to networks—gives the people more power to destabilize politics than ever before. Their governments also have more power than ever before, but borders and walls, whether physical or digital, cannot ultimately contain the power of a connected citizenry. Open societies, open governments, and an open international system are risky propositions. But they are humankind’s best hope for harnessing the power not only of states but also of businesses, universities, civic organizations, and citizens to address the planetary problems that now touch us all.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now