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Chessboards and webs: Former Clinton advisor Anne-Marie Slaughter talks blindspots in geopolitics

Anne-Marie Slaughter, former advisor to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and president and CEO of New America, thinks that conventional geopolitical thinking misses half the story.

Slaughter, who was also the first female director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department’s internal think tank, spoke to an audience in Page Auditorium about the world’s foreign policy challenges Thursday evening. She emphasized that the United States' approach to world affairs represents the need for a new way of understanding geopolitics—being able to see the world as a web in addition to the traditional idea of the world as a chessboard.

“We need to be looking at the world in stereo,” Slaughter said. “We need two lenses, if we're ever going to analyze the problems we have or come up with solutions.”

Slaughter’s “web” highlights the role of interconnected networks, including businesses and organized crime syndicates, in shaping the world. Although the U.S. has developed "tools of coercion" and knows "how to combine carrots and sticks" in formulating policy responses to threats, she said that the U.S. lacks a comparable set of tools to respond to challenges defined by our interconnectedness.

Yet Slaughter cautioned against a complete dismissal of the “chessboard” model of diplomacy, as she discussed current challenges in Ukraine, Syria and Venezuela.

“You do need the chessboard, but you equally need the web, and if we cannot grab hold of how to think in web terms and develop tools for web problems, we are not going to be able to tackle many of the geopolitical crises, much less those long term problems like scarce resources, global crime, those very difficult interconnected problems,” she said.

Understanding geopolitics as a web is also powerful because it liberates those who want to be engaged in global problem solving to act in their own capacity, she said. 

Audience members were generally engaged by Slaughter’s proposed way of thinking about geopolitics. Senior Mariana Calvo said that her interest in foreign policy led her to attend the talk, particularly in light of current global crises.

Anna Mayer, a second-year graduate student on exchange from the University of Vienna, said she was impressed by Slaughter’s perspective,

“In terms of her argumentation and thinking, I think she’s a brilliant person, and you can be very proud to host such brilliant thinkers here,” Mayer said.

Slaughter’s visit to Duke was sponsored by the Baldwin Scholars Program's Jean Fox O’Barr Distinguished Speaker Series. Program director Colleen Scott said the event met the Baldwin Scholars Program’s mission of highlighting women’s voices in politics.

“She’s been on our list for several years, but in light of the elections, this is one way we could contribute to intelligent political discourse on campus,” Scott said.


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