Archive for March, 2017


Octopus Intelligence and the Tentacle State

March 31, 2017

I’ve mentioned Karl Lamprecht’s discussion of the tentacle state before

In 1903 Lamprecht was writing about the ‘tentacle state’ that national influence could no longer be thought of in terms of the narrowly defined territorial nation state but one also had to include overseas political organization, the diaspora, investment and ‘atmospheres of exports and ideas’. In writing a history of foreign public engagement it’s pretty clear that 20th century states have been ‘tentacle states’ (given that the octopus is a staple of propaganda posters maybe network state is better).

This fits very much with what I see in studying public diplomacies:  states are networks of networks and rather than seeing inconsistency as a malfunction it’s the odd occasions where things work together that needs to be explained – they work along multiple lines at the same time.

With that in mind I came across this discussion by Daniel Little of Peter Godfrey-Smith’s book on octopus intelligence, discussing how the octopus addressed not having a shell Godfrey-Smith says:

Octopuses have not dealt with this challenge by imposing centralized governance on the body; rather, they have fashioned a mixture of local and central control. One might say the octopus has turned each arm into an intermediate-scale actor. But it also imposes order, top-down, on the huge and complex system that is the octopus body.

This was done through developing a decentralized system of intelligence

much of a cephalopod’s nervous system is not found within the brain at all, but spread throughout the body. In an octopus, the majority of neurons are in the arms themselves— nearly twice as many as in the central brain. The arms have their own sensors and controllers….Even an arm that has been surgically removed can perform various basic motions, like reaching and grasping

So maybe it’s less that the rational actor model was wrong but that it was the rationality of the octopus we should have been seeing a model.



Public Diplomacies and the Pathologies of Liberal Statecraft

March 29, 2017

Judy Dempsey at Carnegie Europe has offered some suggestions about what the EU can do in response to the cycles of protest and repression in Belarus and Russia, she calls for a public diplomacy response: broadcasting, internet freedom, student exchanges and preparing for the day after Putin and Lukashenko by supporting opposition movements.

Seems reasonable but it also seems to reflect the basic patterns of Western statecraft over the past 25 years: make some tactical responses and wait for history to do its job.  The problem is that is precisely what has produced situations like Syria or Libya.  It’s like the plan of the underpants gnomes: phase 1: steal underpants  phase 3: huge profits while  phase 2 is a blank.

It also reflects an older realist critique of liberal statecraft and its displacement of politics. Reinhart Koselleck makes the point that enlightenment political thought shifted the moral and political burden of revolution onto History ie revolutionaries don’t kill people, History does.  Max Weber’s demand for an ‘ethic of responsibility’ is for politicians to deal with the consequences of their choices and not to retreat behind empty formulae or abstract categories.

In confronting the situations in Russian and Belarus the position is effectively we support regime change and we’ll take some steps that possibly push things in a regime change direction but we don’t want to take responsibility for this. What we don’t want to do is to think through possible consequences, for instance Russia deciding to ‘help’ in Belarus, or to recognize that not all values are consistent with each other and that choices need to be made about which should be prioritized.  It is this refusal to recognize, let alone fill, the space between the present and History that creates the impasse of Western statecraft.