Netpolitik: What the Emergence of Networks Means for Diplomacy and Statecraft

March 1, 2015  • Leshuo Dong & Charles M. Firestone

In the current century, the digital revolution has changed the music, publishing, banking and retail industries, as well as corporate and civic governance. Passive listeners or viewers have become active creators. The world today is more social, mobile, interconnected and active. This is fostering more informed transactions, greater connections with peers, and more opportunities in every aspect of life.

As this movement ripples through society’s institutions, there is no reason to think it has or will avoid the world of diplomacy. The new information and communications technologies (ICT) are not only transforming the way people communicate, but also how they think about and conduct international relations. Indeed, the traditional vocabulary used to describe diplomacy and public communication no longer fits the players or actions. Today, we have moved beyond the world of “realpolitik” to encounter a world of “netpolitik.”

In turn, the players in this new world of complex interactions will need to understand network principles and how to increase, in David Grewal’s words, “network power.”[1] As diplomacy moves to the masses, with public and citizen diplomacy – seen as so important in the Arab Spring and other hot spots – diplomats will need to immerse themselves in the tools, principles, culture and mindset of netpolitik.

Since the Peace of Westphalia, the nation-state has been the relevant unit of sovereignty. For centuries nations predominantly considered how they related to other nations as a whole. What went on within those countries was the sole domain of the other country’s sovereignty. As Max Weber put it, sovereignty is the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a country’s borders. A modern version of this view would put communications alongside violence as a sovereign’s domain within its boundaries[2].

Diplomacy is the engagement between nations to solve international problems in a peaceful way. Over time two broad approaches to diplomacy have emerged: realpolitik and international liberalism.

Realpolitik is the approach taken by masters such as Prince Metternich in 19th century Austria or Henry Kissinger more recently. These practitioners sought to serve their country’s interests by maintaining a balance of power among nations, often playing one country against another to their own strategic advantage, all on an ad hoc and pragmatic basis.

International liberalism takes a more communal approach to world politics and often looks to international organizations to find solutions to the world’s problems. Under this approach, countries would, in effect, give up some of their sovereignty for a regional (European Union) or global (United Nations) good.

Inadequate Models.

Realpolitik contemplates a world where war could break out between countries if diplomacy fails. International liberalism contemplates a world where countries come together as a community of nations and settle their differences peacefully and reasonably.

Unfortunately, neither of these worlds adequately describes life in the 21st century. Countries do have disputes, as we see unfolding in Ukraine, but the greater threat to major countries these days comes from terrorism, insurgencies, or other non-state actions, not inter-state warfare.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the global balance of power has been askew leaving the United States as the sole remaining or unipolar superpower. The U.S.’s major fears today are the emergence of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and loss of global economic clout. It fears disruptions from international events in migration, climate, crime, cyber-security or the economy.

Meanwhile China leads a cadre of emerging powers which will soon exceed the U.S. economically, and form significant blocs diplomatically. China’s emergence on the world stage is significant in many ways, especially in promoting economies of developing countries. But China is not creating a new bipolar world, nor apparently does it want to. Although it has been engaged in territorial sea disputes with its neighbors, China’s most pressing problem is internal: how to develop a system that ensures both economic development and political stability. To face that challenge, China is dealing with problems such as corruption, violent terrorist attacks, and environmental issues.

The states of Europe, the cradle of realpolitik, have a hard enough time inter-relating among each other, maintaining a union with rising nationalistic and regional/ethnic sentiments, and solving the economic crises that arise almost annually. It is not a likely venue for inter-state warfare, nor has the formation of the EU solved each country’s diplomatic problems.

As a result, the world can no longer adequately be described as unipolar or multipolar. Diplomacy is no longer a question of whether one nation is at war or peace with another. The opinions and sentiments of internal populations are significant and can play a powerful role in global politics. The techniques of realpolitik need a new global map and lexicon.

International liberalism’s perspective is also challenged by today’s reality. Yes, the 2013 Nobel Prize for Peace went to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, but the United Nations carries little clout with terrorists or splintered internal factions within nations. The 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) resulted in only 89 of 152 countries agreeing on a proposed ITU regulatory amendment, and disputes over issues like Iran’s nuclear ambitions or the Arab-Israeli conflict are mediated through non-UN negotiations among selected coalitions or groups of countries.


Indeed, the concept and workings of sovereignty itself are being challenged daily. A country cannot control environmental encroachments across borders, nor prevent pandemics from reaching its populace. It is subject to the machinations of global currency and market fluctuations, international crime and drug cartels, and, with the possible exception of only the toughest regimes of censorship, it is extremely difficult to keep outside information from reaching internal audiences.

In the United States the challenges of realpolitik and international liberalism are particularly strong. Again, the U.S. sees terrorism as the primary threat to the homeland. After all, terrorists initiated the only foreign strikes on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor. The UN is particularly disliked by a vocal conservative element within the country, resulting in Congressional skepticism about participation in various UN agencies and missions. Over the past two decades Congress has refused to ratify several international agreements — some the U.S. even negotiated – such as the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Law of the Sea, and the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.

All of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are emerging economic and diplomatic powers on the world stage. China, the largest and wealthiest one, has its own set of problems with the old world order. It questions why Western political norms are used to define “universal” or “human” rights. That is, why it is expected to conform to values it does not necessarily hold. And, some would argue, China’s diplomatic decisions are more determined by internal issues than by a desire to make friends or by realpolitik machinations. For example, the Crimean episode carries sensitive implications for China as it deals with its own separatist issues in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

In Europe, the interaction between nation-states and regional organizations has pushed the bounds of sovereignty for many years. While Europe has led the world in balancing these forces, tensions are always present, and remain unresolved. The principle of subsidiarity, for example, gives nations more lip-service than power, and NATO decisions brought countries to military actions that many of the countries, individually, would likely never approve.

Digital Disruption.

To this discordant global diplomatic environment comes the “digital disruption” — the use of information and communications technologies to disrupt traditional practices of business, culture and governance. The trends are best characterized by the use of digital technologies to make almost everything faster, cheaper and closer. Mobile technologies have spread connection and two way communications to about three billion people across the Earth, and the number is growing rapidly. By 2017, experts suggest, there will be more mobile devices in the world than people, and the Internet of Things (machine connectivity) will be a reality.

Reinforcing this direct connectivity is social networking, where people link to family, friends, co-workers, customers, and many others through an ever-expanding list of networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, WeChat, Alibaba, and eBay. Cloud computing puts a massive catalogue of applications at a consumer’s fingertips. And advances in network speed, software power and storage capacity means institutions can deliver massive amounts of information anywhere almost instantaneously. Big data applications allow for increased granularity in connecting people to interests, or connecting businesses to consumers. It allows for sentient analysis and feedback loops to recognize, predict and suggest solutions. The aggregation of these technologies and techniques also enable the state or commercial entities to learn more about an individual’s comings and goings, preferences and dispositions.

The combination of these forces — digital connectivity, mobility, social networking, cloud computing and big data — means that the workings of the more mechanistic, industrial world of the 20th century have given way to the high velocity, volatile roller-coaster, rich-get-richer, sometimes winner-take-all ways of the 21st century. A life that was nasty brutish and short, in Hobbes’ view, is now networked, volatile and complex.

Moises Naim in The End of Power describes the “more,” “mobility” and “mentality” revolutions as leading to a decay of power for institutions of the state, the church and the market[3]. However attributed, the trends are here and likely to continue for a while.

These trends in ICT and people’s mentality are bringing about a centrifugal movement to the edge, devolution of authority with an increasing role for emergent groups and individuals. They are leading to a flattening of the organization chart, cutting out layers of middle management.

If the processes are not disintermediating, then they are at least creating new intermediary functions. The old processes required editing, filtering and interpreting, which together were a kind of curation of the vast information available so the broadly-defined public would receive only that which is potentially germane, as in print newspapers or local retailing. The new processes move throughout the network by agenting, crowd-sourcing, annotating, data-mining and connecting what is directly relevant to the individual user, as in search engine suggestions or recommended items in an online store. This is bringing us all to a more refined yet more complex reality.

Age of Complexity.

Over the past two decades, scientists and economists have been finding common ground in trying to understand the worlds of complexity. They look at the emergence of self-organized complex adaptive systems as commonalities among the structure of fractals, cells, viruses, economies, social networks, and even the Internet itself.

The global environment has moved to a complex canvas of countries, businesses, non-government organizations, international governmental organizations, global governance networks, expert standards bodies, informal coalitions, diaspora communities, and just individuals at a computer terminals — all vying for the hearts, minds and patronage of the world’s populations.

The new “Market for Loyalties,” as Monroe Price explained in the Yale Law Review[4], or “networked public sphere” as Yochai Benkler chronicles in Wealth of Networks[5], will challenge nations, media and all other interested organizations alike. The Arab Spring was the most obvious example of the importance of winning public sentiment in the new market for loyalties, but there are and will continue to be many others.

A World of Networks.

In this new 21st century environment the network has emerged as the dominant organizing principle. This is the culmination of the societal evolution from tribes to institutions to markets to networks that RAND’s David Ronfeldt identified two decades ago[6]. It is the connectivity-centered edge that Anne-Marie Slaughter identified in her 2009 Foreign Affairs article[7], and that Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen highlight in their recent book on the digital disruption to the networked world[8].

As the world’s first true common medium, the Internet forms the planet’s connective tissue. It connects the craftsman in Ecuador to a global market of buyers, a farmer in Bangladesh with regional grain prices, and the dissident in Tunisia to the world, watching.

Other indicia of this movement appear in all corners: corporations are moving more and more to flattened, networked organizations; the U.S. military now speaks of net-centric warfare; and many of the largest nation states’ main enemies are networks. In a cyberwar that could occur, the network itself could become a weapon. Indeed, it has already been used as such in the Stuxnet episode. As the U.S. National Intelligence Council recently wrote, “Power will shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.[9]

Even education, something that has stayed in a somewhat rigid form for centuries, is moving to the network. The concept of “connected learning” has students of all ages using networks to follow their interests, learning from resources and peers on the net, and connecting to new and deeper subject matter available to them at the touch of the screen. The pre-Gutenbergian lecture is giving way to “blended learning” where students see videos at home and interact on a more personalized basis in the “flipped” classroom. The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is enabling the creation and sharing of educational resources that learners can access and participate in through the Internet.

If the mechanistic clock characterized the Age of Enlightenment, it is the dynamic network that describes the new Age of Complexity.

The outstanding characteristic of networks is the existence of a “power law” as opposed to the Bell Curve in describing distributions — that is, a kind of rich-get-richer phenomenon where the “haves” are attractors for more of whatever they have. In the case of networks, which AlbertLászló Barabási in Linked calls the “architecture of complexity,” the popular nodes attract more links, becoming hubs. Networks have a robust architecture, resiliency and at the same time, because of their connectivity, a certain vulnerability.

Understanding the principles that make networks grow, work or die will be extremely important to the complex world of international relations and communications in the years ahead.

The New Diplomacy

These developments will inexorably lead to new approaches to diplomacy, pulling from the lessons of realpolitik and international liberalism, yet needing more. The world of diplomacy saw the inklings of this when the United States invaded Iraq and George W. Bush called for a “coalition of the willing.” This was the right idea of diplomacy of the future — countries swarming in ad hoc networks or clusters to accomplish a particular purpose — if perhaps clumsily executed. We see it again in the coalitions fighting the Islamic State.

Yes, there are and will remain alliances, the kind that pushed the world into World War I. But, as birds flock in different formations, countries will increasingly be in a group of 8, 20, 22, or 80 to tackle one issue, and then take itself out of the group confronting another challenge. They will increasingly look for ways of networking, building quick alliances around issues, using new tools in the process. They can be in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). As Tom Friedman presciently concluded, “America’s ability to build coalitions is as vital today as the exercise of its own power.[10]

Networks have often been the bases for intra-national conflicts, regional disputes, and global movements. But if networks are the architecture of complex world affairs, diplomats and other players on the world stage would be well advised to understand network principles. Indeed, we propose that henceforth nations will need to approach diplomacy — whether work by traditional diplomats, governments seeking to reach foreign publics (public diplomacy) or other forms (cultural, relational, virtual, business, fringe or citizen diplomacy) — by adopting network principles and immersing themselves in sound network practices. We call the new approach, “Netpolitik.”

The Rise of Netpolitik

Netpolitik is the optimization of the network form to engage in international affairs, particularly international communications. It overlays a network mentality to the more traditional approaches of realpolitik and international liberalism for greater effectiveness. That is, as world players think about how to get others to act consistently with their interests and values, they need to be ever conscious of the network form as a means or medium to achieve their goals. They need to adopt, adapt and apply network principles in the process of doing so.

The world of diplomacy has moved from one of diplomats speaking candidly behind closed doors and cabling back to their ministries, to a multidisciplinary business of influencing publics within countries via public diplomacy if the actor is a government, or a host of other categories (citizen diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, business diplomacy or fringe diplomacy) when performed by non-state actors. Netpolitik will be performed by all these actors, in one form or another, using a new set of tools on a significantly different canvas. Ultimately, the formal or informal diplomats who succeed will be the ones who become part of the Net: active, transparent, respected members of the global community coordinating, encouraging and empowering others to act.

A network is a set of interconnected nodes, as Manuel Castells defines it. The nodes are connected by links. On the global stage, nodes are players, organizations and hubs. Links are both the physical and relational connections among nodes. To gain usage they need to be trusted. And to be trusted the links need to be reliable, transparent, and credible.

Increasingly, non-state actors are becoming nodes in global diplomatic networks. Jessica Tuchman Mathews long ago chronicled the emergence of non-governmental organizations as significant players on the global stage in “Power Shift” (Foreign Affairs, Jan.-Feb. 1997). Later, in A New World Order, Anne-Marie Slaughter showed how the world’s nations are disaggregating and reforming into global governance networks to address cross-border issues (as well as inform internal ones). And in her “America’s Edge” article (Foreign Affairs Jan.-Feb. 2009) Slaughter demonstrated the important relationship of connectedness to power.

The ones who succeed in this new world of complexity figure out how to become a connected hub, a supernode, a node that others want to link to, a node that can understand, foster, manage, influence and even manipulate networks.

That means, Barabási would explain, as new nodes join a network, the fastest and most efficient way for them to connect to others is to start by linking to the most connected or attractive hubs. Nodes in the world of public diplomacy, then, need size or other attractors such as narratives or resource value. This, we contend, is what Joseph Nye presaged in Soft Power[11].

More recently David Grewal in Network Power showed the importance of developing relational links through “mediating or membership standards” in creating “network power.” That is, there are networks that require certain capabilities to be a member, e.g., speaking English, which he called “mediating standards” and networks where gaining membership is the gating factor, e.g., the World Trade Organization. Controlling or manipulating those standards brings network power. These can also be analogized to network protocols and organizing principles such as commonalities of mission, culture or values.

Businesses, too, have developed major platforms that have to be understood and used, Facebook and Weibo being two obvious examples. But with the use of predictive analytics and other techniques, businesses are taking networks and platforms to new dimensions of usability. Understanding the various relationship among nodes and links, hubs, platforms and networks is the basis of netpolitik.

Netpolitik Principles

The question then arises, how do governments, NGOs, communities, and others use network principles to gain advantages in the global diplomatic and communications worlds?

First, they need to immerse themselves in the world of networks, and understand the complex map of the world, shown in network flows rather than in static national boundaries. Yes, governments can protect their borders from crime syndicates, environmental degradation, pandemics, currency fluctuations and outside communications, but only rarely and at great costs.

A majority of the world will soon have access to smarter and cheaper phones, thus they will be informed. They will communicate among themselves, these billions, meaning that they will shape content as well as receive it, thus they will be engaged. And they will form groups of friends, supporters, colleagues, ideological compatriots, expert communities, and social classes, thus be networked.

With the world’s informed, engaged and networked population more active in all aspects of that word, nations, diplomats, and others (citizen diplomats) will need new tools and skills to influence the market for loyalties. These will include a true recognition of the two-way nature of networked communications, and thus a proclivity to listen as well as to speak. It will include recognizing and empowering every person’s innate capabilities. And it will involve having relevant nodes easily accessible to global networks so that one who wants to access your values and messages can find and connect to them. Just as a diplomat needs to become immersed in another country’s language and culture, he or she needs to become immersed in the network culture.

The same principles that allow for great impact emanating from the node, however, will also create vulnerability within that node, as, for example, Jacob Shapiro found in the Terrorist’s Dilemma[12]. (Effective terrorist networks needed efficient information management systems which also made them more vulnerable.) Widespread networks can create conceptual frames, memes, and viral ideas. They can also create a medium for viruses and negative reactions. To play in the world of netpolitik the actor must not only appreciate the complexity and structure of the environment it is acting in. The actor must become immersed in it, and take action consistent with network norms.  This includes precautions, defenses and reactions against bad actors.

Second, actors on the world stage will need to create or use major platforms, and become a major hub. Being a large hub allows your message to reach more people instantaneously, and to gain feedback quicker. And, as long as it retains relevance, the bigger a hub one becomes, the more likely it is to grow bigger still – essentially, the “rich get richer” principle. This is why the U. S. and China have an initial advantage, as does Brazil and to a certain extent India. It is why Europe is stronger as a coalition, where the sum of the parts creates a power as big as or bigger than the other major players in the world. To become a major hub, one needs to have attractive attributes to gain followers, members, connectors. These can be power (the world has always been drawn to the powerful), authenticity, economic incentives, and narratives.

If one cannot be a major hub, then the next strategy is to have influence with major hubs, i.e., influence the influencers. Every network has its influencers, and the messages with the greatest resonance will be those that receive third party validation from sources people trust.

Execution of this strategy is the hard part. Recently, the U.S. Agency for International Development launched an ill-fated Twitter-like social networking system, ZunZuneo, to attract Cubans and eventually expose them to pro-democratic messages. This was a creative use of Netpolitik, though the project lost funding before it got full momentum. The real problem, however, was its inauthentic nature. The net breeds transparency, and setting up a hub with false premises is not going to work in the long run.

Thus, at least in the public diplomacy realm, the narratives need to be authentic, compelling and attractive in the literal sense of the word: attracting others to your node. And one cannot always control them. During the Iraq War, the United States did not understand why the “Arab street” did not like them. No matter what messages they sent, or how much they spent to convey the message, the underlying narrative of the Iraq War was that of a country invading another to impose its will. The U.S. could not control the narrative.

Narratives provide a story that gives meaning to a person, country or idea. Under the “transmedia” approach, the best narratives are those that people help create themselves, using various media in the process. When a comic book hero’s story reaches the big screen, its narrative has been influenced by a host of interactions from chats and games to contests and social media analysis, reinforcing the narrative created by interactive participants at the lower, smaller screen level.

In the world of networks, some of the major currencies are identification, recognition, and a sense of belonging. Allowing people to be creators, to be members of a common community, to be able to contribute to the reputation of others, and to be recognized for what they contribute are all strong components of a netpolitik strategy.

Every actor in the world of Netpolitik needs to understand and convey an effective narrative.  The American Dream has long been a narrative that inspired others — to go to a land of opportunity. And it in turn was shaped by those who followed and reinforced that inspiration through diaspora networks.

The Chinese Dream, evoked more recently by President Xi Jinping, offers a new opportunity/challenge for that country to establish a narrative that will be attractive to foreign as well as domestic audiences. What is the European narrative today?  Or the Russian one?

Third, actors — diplomats, organizations, countries, causes — need to become part of the underlying operational aspects of the network they are trying to affect. That is, they need to embrace the capabilities of modern networks: sentient analysis, feedback loops, protocols if possible, and expansibility, to create movement in the actor’s interest. For example, it is not enough for a diplomat to use Twitter and Facebook to promote ideas. He or she needs to become an authentic member of the network community, engage in dialogue, standards setting, or whatever the relevant element is to impact the network.

Challenges to Netpolitik.

This is the emerging world of netpolitik. What are its challenges? First, to have meaning, it should have applicability to the U.S., China, Europe, the other BRICS, and other countries as well. Given the dominance of the network as an organizing force of our time throughout the world, netpolitik clearly applies everywhere, even as an advanced element of realpolitik and international liberalism.

For direct or formal diplomacy (as opposed to public diplomacy) it will take longer to understand and apply netpolitik. It is essentially coalition-building, recognizing that the world of tomorrow is likely to see more self-organized swarming of some countries around one issue and another swarm of countries on a different issue.

Second, with respect to public diplomacy, it should have the capabilities for addressing the “market for loyalties.” Can use of netpolitik win hearts and minds? Netpolitik requires two way communication, listening as well as speaking: a “pull” approach, empowering people to connect their own values to those of the country or entity engaging in diplomacy. To do so, it is becoming increasingly important to use the tools of social media to understand the people and communicate with them, not just at them. That is not likely to change. But social media are only the beginning. Becoming part of the network governance structure, influencing its operational protocols, standards and values, and utilizing advanced analytical techniques of big data will be more and more necessary and normal.

And finally, the new netpolitik needs to address how it can be used by traditionally hierarchical organizations and nations. In short, is a country well advised to fight against network trends and maintain a more traditional approach to international relations? Or would it be better off recognizing the advance of network and digital technologies and using new approaches to serve their diplomatic interests? We believe the trends are irreversible. Yes, hierarchical institutions will remain, but unless they adapt to the networked structure, principles and tools, they will eventually be sand castles washed away by the relentless waves of the sea.


While the social and technological trends and techniques all move in the direction of netpolitik, there are significant barriers ahead. The first relates to the global common medium, the underlying physical network that allows other networks to operate. It is the global approach to governance of the Internet.

The split among countries at the 2012 WCIT was an indication of the differences in attitudes towards the Internet. Is it more important that the Internet be run by multi-stakeholder organizations and networks, with little or no national governmental interference, as the U.S. and Western European countries wanted? Or should it be the subject of a global body dominated by governments that condones more internal controls over the Internet within borders, as Russia, China, India and certain other developing countries preferred? It is a significant debate that cuts to the heart of the future of the Internet.

The Edward Snowden revelations have significantly affected this conversation. The United States lost much of its moral leadership on the issue, having spied on Internet traffic going through private companies’ servers. Many do-good American companies lost their luster when revelations of their (mostly unwanted) complicity came to light. These developments have increased the boldness of authorities who want more control over Internet communications within their countries, for good or for sinister reasons, and the drumbeat is not likely to diminish in the near future. The NETmundial meeting held in Rio de Janeiro in April 2014 indicated a movement towards the multi-stakeholder solution, but the devilish details are still in development.

In Europe, the challenges are twofold: on the one hand there are no European competitors to rival Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Amazon or Google in the U.S., or Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent or Sina Weibo in China. This has led to concern that foreign companies are victimizing Europeans. At the same time, European sensitivities towards privacy and data protection have created tensions, at least with U.S. companies. The European Commission is trying to honor these greater sensitivities, for instance by enacting a right to be forgotten, while staying strong on the global communications grid and taking advantage of the many opportunities that the global communications platforms offer. The politics are there but the economics may not be.

In China the challenges are different. Its strengths at home are perceived poorly abroad. Through censorship in at least three areas: threats against the state, pornography, and disparagements of public officials, the Chinese Communist Party believes that control of the press, including online communications, is a necessary way to maintain the political stability of the country. In 2013, furthermore, it created a campaign against Weibo “Big Vs” (popular microbloggers) spreading false rumors. However, these restrictions, while consistent with the “Internet Sovereignty” doctrine, are perceived abroad as censorship, overly controlling, and contrary to the human right to free expression — all somewhat counter-balancing the economic clout that China brings to the global arena. This affects China’s standing in the international community, in dealing with Western democratic countries one-on-one, and with the broader netizen community.

Finally, concerns over cybersecurity have raised problems for all parties to international communications. Malicious hacking by rogue individuals, organized networks such as Anonymous, or even governments can create user fears of accessing the Internet.  This includes governmental overreach on surveillance or other intrusions into a person’s identity or privacy. Just as every activity has a dark side, cybercrime, cyberwar, and identity theft are all threatening the positive use of the Net. Security is always a concern in a network, and its role in the world of netpolitik will not lessen. People will look more and more to trusted institutions, including in many instances governments and large corporations, for protection.

The New Opportunity.

Perhaps, though, the greatest challenge of netpolitik is also its most promising opportunity: the emergence of a netizen culture that on the one hand would appear anarchic, chaotic and threatening to a governing body, but on the other hand can be a restorative force in society. As mentioned above, an idea and message from one person can turn into a global movement, a worldwide treaty and earn a Nobel Prize (Jody Williams and the land mine ban treaty). Citizen protests on the net against local officials in China have resulted in positive actions by their government, and in the United States the anti-SOPA campaign stopped legislation in its tracks[13].

James Moore called the Internet “the world’s second superpower.”[14] Whether one agrees or not, the connected people of a community, a state, or the world can form a significant force for transparency, accountability, and personal engagement. It will be up to the governments of the world to react, harness and leverage those forces for the best interests of their countries, and that of mankind.


The network is emerging as a dominant form of organization for our age of complexity. This is supported by technological and economic trends. Furthermore, enemies are networks, players are networks, even governments are becoming networks. It makes sense to understand network principles and apply them for use in the world of diplomacy. Accordingly, governments, organizations and individuals should heed these recommendations:

  • Understand and apply two-way communications and network principles to all forms of diplomacy with the aim of earning the sympathy, empathy and where applicable, the loyalty of future generations. This is a mindset shift for governments, diplomats and citizens around the world.
  • This means engaging the world’s populations to communicate with each other. That will entail physical connections to the global common medium, an ability to have what you send be received by others in the form you send it, end to end, and literacy in the communications methods of the day. The world’s population should have a meaningful right to connect.
  • Of course, if there is to be a global communications network, it needs to be safe, so governments remain in the role of protector of the environment needed for users to trust in their networks. States have a role to protect against cyberwar, cybercrimes, and loss of a person’s identity, i.e., security and privacy online. But these protections cannot be a screen for illegitimate governmental controls over or unwarranted surveillance of its citizens. Nor can governments be expected to shoulder that burden alone. Everyone will need to practice a basic level of Net hygiene and literacy as an element of their digital citizenship.

As networks proliferate, principles of netpolitik will emerge. Governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and every citizen would be well advised to be thinking in these terms in the years ahead.

[1] Grewal D S. 2008. Network power: the social dynamics of globalizationYale University Press.

[2] Price M E. 2014. Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Naim M. 2014. The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be. Basic Books.

[4] Monroe E. Price, The Market for Loyalties: Electronic Media and the Global Competition for Allegiances, 104 Yale L.J. 667 (1994)

[5] Benkler, Yochai, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006)

[6] Ronfeldt, D, “Tribes, Institutions, Markets, Networks: A Framework About Societal Evolution,” RAND P-7967 (1996)


[8] Schmidt E. & Cohen J. 2014. The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives. Vintage.



[11] Nye, Joseph, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2004)

[12] Shapiro, Jacob, Terrorist’s Dilemma: Managing Violent Covert Organizations (2013)

[13] Wortham, Jenna (January 17, 2012). “A Political Coming of Age for the Tech Industry”The New York Times;

[14] Moore, James, The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head, a paper of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University (2003)(paper not available by Internet search)