Xenia Wickett
Head, US and the Americas Programme; Dean, The Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs

Last week at Chatham House, former US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and winner of the Chatham House Prize 2013, appeared to suggest a new definition of American global leadership: networked leadership. The doctrine she laid out, if truly representative, is a vital explanation of America’s changed role in the world and, as such, would have significant implications for how its allies and adversaries respond to today’s global crises.

The common perception today among international policy-makers watching the political battles being fought in Washington is that America has become dysfunctional and weak. America's allies are increasingly concerned that the US will be unable to back them if the need arises. Its adversaries from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, are testing America’s will.

However, if Hillary Clinton is right, an alternative interpretation of America's role is necessary. And this new definition could have profound consequences.

So what does the concept of networked leadership actually mean? The term draws from the work of Clinton's former director of policy planning at the State Department, Anne-Marie Slaughter. Simply put, a nation's power is defined by how networked it is. Nations that are more connected, that are the central node for other networks, are the most powerful.

Secretary Clinton described the world as one for which traditional solutions or forms of leadership will no longer work. There needs to be 'more shared responsibility and there should be more multilateral leading on a range of issues', she said. While the US still had to accept a primary responsibility on the global stage, others also were needed and would have to contribute. This explained the US approach to Libya, to Mali, and today, to Syria.

Clinton also made another important and profound point in this context. She noted that solutions would only be found when states partnered with non-state actors. In her words, 'We are never going to deal with the problems of cyber security unless there is a partnership between business and government.' Other organizations and entities also have a responsibility for leading. 

So, America's strategy under President Obama is to help create new networks encompassing not just the traditional state actors, but others – the private sector, civil society, and NGOs; and, using new tools – social media as well as economics, diplomacy and the military – to build coalitions to lead change.

This is not a denial of US leadership, but a new type of role for America, one which its allies (and adversaries) are unused to and are discomforted by. It will require others to step up and invest their sometimes limited resources, which they may find tough. But it creates a world in which more participants are invested and contributing to the solutions. It is a more transparent world, and one in which many bear the burdens, and opportunities, of leadership. It is more reflective of the challenges and complexities we face today.

The strategy that Secretary Clinton briefly laid out is a tough one to follow, both for the US and for its allies. It will require the US to give up some control, and America's allies to take some. In doing so they will take on more responsibility. But it is the right strategy for the environment in which we now live.

Unfortunately, there is no one in Washington who is explaining this doctrine to the outside world, which is leading to confusion and misperceptions that are negative for the United States and for global stability. It is potentially very dangerous. The repercussions of such misunderstandings could lead to either a vacuum as the US takes the time to build coalitions, or, worse, adversaries who, thinking the US is weak and will not act, become more assertive. 

If President Obama is truly conducting a new 'networked leadership' for the US, his administration urgently needs to take the time to explain and define it. The consequences of continuing along this ambiguous and, to the outside world, weakened path, could be disastrous. 

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback


Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton at Chatham House

Audio, transcript and video of Hillary Clinton.