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Review of The Chessboard and the Web

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Title: The Chessboard and the Web

Author: Anne-Marie Slaughter

Publisher: Yale University Press

Copyright: 2017

ISBN13: 978-0-300-21564-9

Length: 296

Price: $26.00

Rating: 92%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

The first step to winning a debate is to define the terms used to discuss the issue. In The Chessboard and the Web, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. Department of State, characterizes international relations as a series of interconnecting relationships. Rather than pursue a statist realpolitik strategy, she argues in favor of a cooperative, supportive approach.

Games in Theory and Practice

Dr. Slaughter starts her argument by comparing the traditional view of competition described by Thomas Schelling’s classic text on game theory, The Strategy of Conflict, with operations on a chess board. Chess is a zero-sum game, meaning that if I win, you must lose. Of the classic two-by-two matrix games that Schelling describes in his book, the game of Chicken comes closest to the risk of nuclear war. In 1950s teen movies, two boys drive at each other at high speed. The first one to swerve is the “chicken” and takes a small loss, but if neither swerves there’s a head-on collision and both players suffer a huge loss.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma, perhaps the best known of the classic games, demonstrates how a games payouts can be constructed to convince individuals to violate their best interests. The idea is that two criminals have been apprehended, separated, and offered a choice. If a criminal testifies against the other (defects) and the other refuses to testify against them (cooperates), the one who testified will go free and the other will go to prison for ten years. If both testify, they will go to jail for five years. If neither testifies, each will go to jail for one year. Even though the best choice for both criminals is to refuse to testify and serve a little time in jail, the fact they can’t communicate with each other means they can’t trust the other’s intentions. The penalty for unmatched cooperation is a long jail term while the other goes free, so the logical choice is for both to defect and accept a suboptimal outcome.

The third game Slaughter mentions, the Stag Hunt (also called the coordination game) allows for scenarios where two players can achieve better outcomes by cooperating than by competing. In the Stag Hunt, two hunters can choose to go after a hare or a stag. If a player goes after a hare, they will always get it and win one point. If both players go after a stag, they will each get three points. If one player chooses hare and the other chooses stag, the player choosing hare gets one point and the player choosing stag gets zero. Even with repeated play, it’s easy for players to fall into the trap of getting a steady payoff of one point per round without discovering that cooperation yields better results. As with all of the classic two-by-two games, the main limitation is the lack of communication between the players.

Networks and Connections

After introducing game theory, Slaughter describes networks and basics of network analysis in the context of international relations. For example, she mentions different measures of connectedness, such as the number of connections leading to and from a network node (its degree), the node’s place in the network (its centrality), and the number of times it serves as a connection between two other nodes (its betweenness). She then explores the strengths and weaknesses of the standard network topologies: star, hub-and-spoke, and mesh. Networks appear throughout international relations, whether among states (such as the European Union) or in non-governmental organizations and terrorist groups. Some networks are tightly interconnected (have a high density), while others are more sparse.

Slaughter describes several major types of international networks, starting with resilience networks. Resilience networks can serve as defense, recovery, and stabilization tools. Doctors Without Borders is one example of a networked organization that provides health care in recovery and stabilization roles. Task networks are similar to resilience networks in some respects, but one distinction is that they are temporary groupings assembled to complete work through cooperation, collaboration, or innovation. Cooperation comes with significant risks. If a partner defects, such as when an OPEC member nation produces more oil than its quota allows, then the strength of the network depends in large part on the effectiveness of punishments administered by other group members.

The final category of networks, scale networks, describe how solutions that work well in microcosm can grow. In a replication network, a solution can be repeated with little or no modification at a new location. One such network is the Global Alliance for Vaccination and Immunization (GAVI). GAVI coordinates transport and delivery of vaccines to vulnerable populations to help restrict the spread of disease. Finally, cumulation networks bring knowledge and expertise into a single entity. One example is GitHub, the online source code repository that programmers around the world rely on.

Network Power

As you might expect, Slaughter argues strongly in favor of a networked approach instead of following the realist’s emphasis on states with interests rather than allies. She cites former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s adoption of Joseph Nye and Suzanne Nossel’s concept of “Smart Power”, where states use all means at their disposal, from military power to trade, diplomacy, and foreign aid, to influence allies, institutions, and international norms. At some point the distinction between “smart power” and the traditional realist view becomes moot; realists use all of those tools as well, they just do so with different intentions.

Near the end of The Chessboard and the Web, Slaughter compares her liberal internationalist (she would say humanist) approach to Joshua Ramo’s “Hard Gatekeeping” (statist) approach. As she notes, the discussion has raged between proponents of a power-based foreign policy versus those advocating a values-based foreign policy for centuries. Her ideal scenario is an Open Order where states remain important and powerful but operate within an international network charged with “acknowledging and validating individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions not simply as state subjects but as actors in their own right through global networks.”


Foreign policy, diplomacy, and statecraft require careful planning and execution to advance one’s interests. As with all such debates, it’s a matter of striking a balance between a state’s interests and those of its allies, competitors, and neutrals. Advocates of the Hard Gatekeeping approach would argue that the “Smart Power” approach isn’t so smart because it would leave the U.S. exposed to defectors. Even so, I find Slaughter’s arguments in The Chessboard and the Web to be convincing if not quite compelling. States can benefit from well-applied connections, but deciding on the extent of that connectivity and exposure is a devilishly tricky prospect. Highly recommended.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 50 online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Review of Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

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Title: Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies

Author: Kristie Macrakis

Publisher: Yale University Press

Copyright: 2014

ISBN13: 978-0-300-17925-5

Length: 392

Price: $27.50

Rating: 91%

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.


Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies, a book by Christie Macrakis, provides an interesting look into the history of invisible ink and other forms of secret writing. Much has been written about cryptography, including such classics as David Kahn’s The Codebreakers and Bruce Schneier’s Applied Cryptography, but relatively little had been published about invisible writing.

Prof. Macrakis is a professor of history, technology, and society at Georgia Tech. She’s written a number of other books on espionage-related topics, so it makes sense that she would turn her attention to invisible writing.

More Complicated than You’d Think

The problem with this sort of book is that everyone thinks invisible ink is a simple topic. Everyone who has ever owned a beginning magic book or a chemistry set knows that you can use lemon juice and a toothpick to inscribe a message on a piece of paper that only appears when the paper is heated over a flame or a lightbulb. For many years, the science of invisible writing was in fact limited to a number of easily obtained substances and the use of heat or simple developing fluids that reacted with the ink.

The study of natural magic, instituted in the Middle Ages and a precursor to the Scientific Revolution, led to number of discoveries that were of use to the prisoners, lovers, and spies named in the book’s title. During the late 16th century, the partisans fighting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary, and even Queen Mary herself, used invisible ink in their attempts to communicate secretly with their supporters.

Skipping forward a few centuries, invisible ink played a huge role in every war from the American Revolution to World War II and beyond into the Cold War. The scope and breadth of mail censorship and interception, all with the goal of discovering both indiscreet and discreet communications, was staggering. Even with the tens of thousands of letters going through the British Imperial Censorship office in Bermuda and the American stations in Miami and Puerto Rico, a total of 339 letters with secret writing were intercepted.

After the end of World War II, the Germans instituted a new means of secret communication: the microdot. These tiny circles, which could be hidden in a book as the dot on an “i” or a period, could contain a substantial amount of information for the time. As World War II ground to a close and the Cold War started, microdots played a significant role in covert communication. That’s not to say that invisible ink and secret writing went away. In fact, the author leads off the book with the story of how she came to acquire a carefully hidden East German Stasi formula for invisible ink through an archive request at the German Cold War library collection. It was a story worth waiting for.

Further Considerations

Macrakis covers specific historical periods in each chapter. She states in the introduction that she wrote the book so that anyone could dip into it and read about the time they were interested in. That choice, which is eminently reasonable, means that there is some noticeable repetition when you read the book in one go, but it’s not too distracting.

What I find particularly interesting, in addition to the art and science of the writing itself, are descriptions of the organizations put in place to detect, develop, and exploit information from secret writing. The scope of the mail interception effort during World War II is impressive. Although the author doesn’t make this comparison explicit, I can’t help but wonder what the level of effort would be in relation to current National Security Agency efforts to intercept secret communication.

The last chapter of the main part of the book gives a brief overview of steganography, which is the process of hiding a message within another file. For example, one could use the least significant bits of an image file to encode a message without changing the image’s appearance to the casual observer. Of course there are tools to detect steganographic writing, but experts in the field are extremely reluctant to talk about what they do. That means the chapter on steganography is a bit disappointing, but it’s hard to blame the author for her sources’ lack of forthrightness.

The appendix contains a number of formulas that can be used to create and reveal invisible ink. Some of the substances can be harmful to humans, so creating any of the inks or developing agents would be done strictly at your own risk. I’m glad the publisher didn’t shy away from providing these recipes, though—they’re an important part of the subject’s history and the book would be incomplete without them.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Prisoners, Lovers, & Spies is a worthwhile book for anyone with an interest in espionage tradecraft or who just thinks that secret writing is a fun and interesting subject. I fall into both camps, so I enjoyed Prof. Macrakis’ work. Recommended.


Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.