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Complexity and diplomacy

Published on 08 September 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

I know, Jovan has never forgiven me for this quip: “Diplomacy is where there are no rules” – yet there is more than a grain of truth inthis, and Pete’s question about “complexity and diplomacy” allows me to get nearer to the meaning of my dictum.

I’m wary of arm-chair descriptions of how “primitive” societies lived. Was life brutish and short? Who knows? And who says that all primitive societies were all the same anyway? Analogies have been drawn from territorial apes to the alleged territoriality of human apes. Given humanity’s unbelievably fast spread – about 60’000 years at most – from “out of Africa” to “all over the world”, the instinct “flight rather than fight” must have been pretty strong. Genetic diversity was no barrier to such “live and let live” attitude: there is mounting evidence that homo sapiens sapiens intermarried with homo neanderthalensis, and very recent computer simulations indicate that even our African ancestors were not adverse to the occasional crossing of the species. All archeological indications are that humans spread thinly over the landscape, gathering occasionally for rites and marriages, then moving away again.

And, yeah, nomadism is a tardy human differentiation. First we had to domesticate large animals: cattle, horses – camels were late accruals. “True nomadism” required chariots to move yurts, the old and weak, and chariots required metal axles – so true nomadism (roaming the endless steppes of Central Asia) in probably no more than 5’000 years old. Only learning to ride horses allowed “power projection at a distance”: before that, we had local affrays, if nothing else, because keeping a foot army in the field requires complex logistics.

Without getting theological: what differentiates humans from other animals is that adaptation to environmental change was no longer predominantly based on genetics, but on “culture”. “Culture” here is no more than the whole of the behavioural rules thumans were able to develop, share among each other, and transmit to their offspring – by word of mouth, rather than genes. Adaptation was increasingly a social (and fast), rather than a slow genetic process.

Of course, we are still influenced by genetics – how much we don’t know, for nature is subtle and supple. Of course we find traits of social behavior in animals too: after all, there must be a genetic basis for it all, so we would expect this or that species to have tinkered with the genes, so to speak. Such boundaries are vague and jagged. But we hit the jack-pot: we gambled wholeheartedly on sociality – and it worked. It took 100’000 years or so, but in evolutionary time this is less than nothing. We are now gobbling up 50% of all available energy or so. Had the dinosaurs survived, they may have reached such levels in 10-20 million years from the date of their demise – if at all.

Culture then is cumulative – from small beginnings – literally grunts and signs – it all grew. Haphazardly, so don’t expect a well-defined, coherent and constistent “top-down” structure. Multiple origins are also possible, with convergence toward the same solution. And we are programmed for analogies – “if any entities or phenomena bear some resemblance, in any aspect, the must be related”[1]. So expect an alert human to aply “known solutions to “unknowns” – as default working hypothesis.

Should we find traces of such “emergent” processes? Not necessarily, indeed, not likely. Communication is both time- and energy-consuming. Once the basics are in place, only changes are communicated explicitly (this is how image transmission in TV functions). So the “silence principle” applies: “When everyone is expected to know already is not explained in many words”. What was “commonly known” has long vanished:what have survived are a few shreds of “difference”. And in any case, concepts only emerge slowly, through reflection and differentiation[2].

If sociality is such an piece-meal, higgledy-piggledy emergent system, why should diplomacy be any different? Humans always lived in groups, mostly (open) clans. They would split into lineages over time – to match the carrying capacity of the land, and once separated, only to reunite at times for feasts and swaps. Rules developed for reunions. What to do when an unknown person or group arrives? Tinkering must have occurred, sometimes successfully, sometimes with catastrophic results. Someone must have hit on the idea to apply to foreigners existing rules for meetings with other lineages – to treat them as “honorary siblings” (we find this kind of analogy in the Odyssey).

Details may vary widely. The essential element is the emergence and crystallization of rules, and possibly their extended application by analogy, rather than a derivation from first principles. Roman law identifies authority – auctoritas – as “something that enhances what exists already” – because the Ancients could not conceive creation from nothing: small causes having huge effects (an “emergent” property of complexity).

One can follow such a process nicely in Western painting. At the beginning the perspective is purely ideological or religious: the relative size of figures in an early Christian painting reflects their social standing. Christ, or kings are big, vassals are small. Giotto introduces within a broader painting localised perspectives. And Brunelleschi systematizes it into one, overarching perspective encompassing the whole painting[3].

Sovereignty entails the “right to set the rules”[4] – it has freedom of action. If two states are sovereign with respect to each other, they have no common rules. Now, sovereignty is not holistic: it may exist in an area, and be circumscribed in another. Politically Switzerland is (mostly) sovereign, but in the economic field it is embedded in a network of treaties that “limit” her trade policies – that is its freedom of action is circumscribed, and its behavior in the treaty-circumscribed area becomes “predictable”. Predictability has its advantages and disadvantages, but in interstate relations it has mostly proven advantageous.

Diplomacy is at its “highest point” when the process of rule-making begins. Here there we have maximum “degrees of freedom”. One could have “bribed or bombed” Milosevic – the latter option was taken. In climate change, countries may go for a centralized or de-centralised treaty-making approach. A (false) analogy won ut. Once such strategic choices are made, however, the degrees of potential freedom are reduced as rules are derived from rules. In the end, to my sense, diplomacy slowly transforms into administration.

Diplomacy thus begins with a small or big “act of creation”, from which all follows. Of course total “arbitrariness” is never obtained, and many existing rules impinge indirectly on the rule-setting in the new area. Analogies and traditions may prevail. But the fact remains: the first step is the moment where we need good diplomats most – with no instructions, please. A negotiation room should always have the sign on the door: “Keep out, creativity at work”.

There is another reason for the “keep out” sign. Rules need to be shared between states. Principle positions need to yield to compromises, which, by definition, will be at odd with the instructions a diplomat has been given. This compromise, again, is a creative act – unless the negotiation is “leonine”, in which case it is a Diktat – or genocide.

We observe this process in nature also. 450 million years ago or so, multicellular organisms emerged – with different body plans. Three or so survived[5]. The infinite diversity of all the insect species that emerged since then can be reduced to its one body plan. And this body plan to a few changes in the genetic make-up we can still identify[6]. From small beginnings unending diversity emerges.


[1]           Elizabeth Weyland BARBER – Paul T. BARBER (2004) : When the severed earth from sky. How the human mind shapes myth. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

[2]           Piergiorgio ODIFREDDI (2004): Le menzogne di Ulisse. L’avventura della logica da Parmenide ad Amarty Sen. TEA, Milano. The author has a field-day with the verb “to be”: which is peculiar to indo-european languages (other language systems, other rules). “To be” has many meanings. Parmenides was the first to play around with it, and having failed to grasp such differences, made a hash of things. Aristoteles became aware of the problem, and called Parmenides’ philosophy “follies”. Philosophers are still chewing on these follies. Just to give you a small flavor of the problematic: in German you can substantivate the verb “to be” into “Sein”. You may not do so in English, where you have to fall back on “the being”. Total miscomprehension ensues.

[3]           Hans BELTING (2008):Florenz und Bagdad. Eine westöstliche Geschichte des Blicks. H. C. Beck, München.

[4]           Carl SCHMITT (1922): Politische Theologie. München. as well as Giorgio AGAMBEN (2003): Stato di eccezione. Homo sacer II, i. Bollati Boringhieri, Torino.

[5]           Stephen J. GOULD (1991): Wonderful life. The Burgess Shale and the nature of history. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

[6]           Sean B. CARROLL (2005): Endless forms most beautiful. The new science of evo devo. Norton, New York.

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