Dolphin diplomacy

Paul Raven @ 23-03-2011

In a passably neat segue from yesterday’s post about the potential personhood of higher animals, here’s news of some research that purports to say not just that dolphins have their own language, but that they can use it to talk their way out of fights [via, not surprisingly, George Dvorsky again].

Now, I’m no marine biologist (and nor do I play one on television), but I rather suspect the conclusion here is a speculative one, especially given that the lede of the piece mentions that “[t]he study reveals the complexity and our lack of understanding about the communication of these marine mammals”. That’s not to say I don’t think it’s possible, but that I’m not sure there’s any way we could prove the assertion without having someone who spoke dolphin like a native… and given that a fair bit of their communication is based on body-language as well as sound (or so I was once told), I think that’s probably a fair distance in the future.

That said, if dolphins really can talk their way out of fights, they’re doing better than a lot of the humans I knew in my late teens, and we could probably do with a few of them on the UN security council.


Free speech or frank speech? A Wikileaks counterpoint

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2010

Via Tobias Buckell, here’s a piece by Anne Applebaum at Slate that deflates some of the more optimistic rhetoric around Wikileaks, Cablegate and all that:

This is certainly embarrassing for those who made the remarks. I am less sure whether their revelation gets us anywhere: On the contrary, it seems that in the name of “free speech” another blow has been struck against frank speech. Yet more ammunition has been given to those who favor greater circumspection, greater political correctness, and greater hypocrisy.

Don’t expect better government from these revelations, expect deeper secrets. Will the U.S. ambassador to Country X give Washington a frank assessment of the president of X if he knows it could appear in tomorrow’s newspaper? Not very likely. Will a foreign leader tell any U.S. diplomat what he really thinks about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad if he knows it might show up on WikiLeaks? I doubt it. Diplomatic cables will presumably now go the way of snail mail: Oral communication will replace writing, as even off-the-record chats now have to take place outdoors, in the presence of heavy traffic, just in case anyone is listening.

Hmmm. I see where that’s going – a forced return to state diplomacy of the old school – but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad direction. Secrets are inevitable; it’s the nigh-industrial scale of confidential information exchange that will suffer from diplomatic paranoia, rather than confidentiality itself, and I remain to be convinced that a world with less backroom dealing wouldn’t be a better one for everyone other than the backroom dealers.

However, Applebaum’s point about Wikileaks’ choices of targets is harder to pick holes in:

… the world’s real secrets—the secrets of regimes where there is no free speech and tight control on all information—have yet to be revealed. This stuff is awkward and embarrassing, but it doesn’t fundamentally change very much. How about a leak of Chinese diplomatic documents? Or Russian military cables? How about some stuff we don’t actually know, like Iranian discussion of Iranian nuclear weapons, or North Korean plans for invasion of South Korea Korea? If WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange is serious about his pursuit of “Internet openness”—and if his goal isn’t, in fact, embarrassing the United States—that’s where he’ll look next. Somehow, I won’t be surprised if he doesn’t.

I get the feeling that Assange and company would happily leak stuff from totalitarian regimes*, but it’s probably harder to come by; the great advantage of being a dissenter in a democracy – however flawed a democracy it may be – is that you’re less likely to pay the ultimate cost for your dissent. Indeed, you could probably argue that leaking Western secrets may encourage dissenters in totalitarian regimes to leak in sympathy… but I’m not sure that would hold a lot of water.

Perhaps it’s just that totalitarian nation-states are better at keeping their secrets… or simply shrewd enough to not let hundreds of thousands of people have access to a “secret” electronic network of diplomatic communications. Whether pointing out the dangers and consequences of global-scale hubris also counts as “embarrassing the United States” is left as an exercise for the reader. 😉

[ * At times like this I have to remind myself that Assange is as much a political animal as those he’s trying to unsettle. As a dissident of sorts myself, I want to believe what he says at face value… and that’s probably the best reason for me not to do so. Trust in nothing, beware of strangers bearing gifts, etc etc. ]


Cablegate: the morning after

Paul Raven @ 29-11-2010

Well, here we are: no one yet dead as a result of the latest WikiLeaks release, so far as I can tell, but a lot of egg on political faces. I remarked to a friend on Saturday that it’d probably contain depressing proofs of things we’d long suspected, and it looks like I wasn’t far off the mark… though that’s hardly an act of staggering insight and prescience on my part.

I’m going to leave the punditry and predictions to the professionals (or at least those with far more of the pertinent specialist knowledge than myself), but the one thing I’ll assert without any hesitation is that, while it may cause friction and difficulty in the political short- and medium-term, this leak – and others like it, past and future – is a good thing for us, the people of the world. Sure, nothing’s going to change overnight, and the removal of the public facades of diplomacy from the theatres of contemporary conflicts – be they physical, ideological, economic or all three – will certainly make things more difficult for all parties involved in them… but maybe that’ll mean said parties are less willing to start such conflicts in the first place.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” in other words. But what do you lot think?


UK General Election 2010: live lessons in political horse-trade plotting

Paul Raven @ 07-05-2010

I’m a little nusy again today, so in lieu of posting anything more substantial, I’ll suggest that those of you who aren’t already might want to keep half an eye on the post-election wrangling here in the UK, for many reasons. First and foremost, the result was unexpected, and unusual in that it sees the UK dealing with the sort of horse-trading on policy that many European governments (and, I believe, Canada) have to go through almost every time they hold a election.

But there’s more: the turn-out is way up, echoing the recent US elections; the markets are jittery, because the economic stability of the UK is on the line; serious procedural cock-ups have portrayed the electoral process to be at best flawed, at worst broken; and finally, no one really knows what’s going to happen, which is a weird place for a traditionally two-party nation to find itself in.

And finally, it’s your chance for a masterclass in spin, razorblade diplomacy and hidden double-bluff messages in public announcements. Great fuel for writers, and (I imagine) pretty fascinating for anyone with an interest in the actual mechanics of political process. I’ll leave your choice of news source down to your personal preference, but with the suggestion that trying a channel you don’t usually plug into will bring a whole new meta-level of lessons about politics into the frame… 🙂