Carne Ross: 'Diplomacy only works if it includes those affected – and it often doesn't'
From The Guardian
I wrote Independent Diplomat shortly after resigning from the Foreign Office. I had worked on Iraq and WMD for more than four years at the UN security council, but resigned in 2004 after giving secret testimony to the Butler review on the Iraq war. It was a difficult time for me. My future was unclear; I had thought I would be a diplomat all my life.
Independent Diplomat is a short and precise little book and I wrote it quickly, fired up by my anger at the lies and the war, and my frustration with the system of diplomacy itself. I knew there was something very wrong about the way that diplomacy was practised. I had seen and felt it. But what was it, and how could I convey that to readers who might know nothing about an unnecessarily obscure, but crucial, function?
Diplomacy has remained largely the same as it was in very different eras, but the problems have changed. There is a glaring deficit in diplomacy that I realised only after my time in the UN security council, the world’s supreme body to prevent and resolve conflict. Almost without exception, when the council discusses a conflict – in Iraq, Kosovo or Western Sahara – the people from those places are not present. At best, their views may be relayed through the politicised and thus biased prism of the UN’s own reports. As I was later to learn, reported views are usually very different from the actual opinions of people “on the ground”. Their voice was entirely absent.
This exclusion is unfair. It is also foolish to expect good, enduring decisions about anything, let alone the complexities of war, to be made when those most concerned are ignored. This came home to me when I was posted to the UN mission in Kosovo, where the democratically elected government was expressly excluded from the diplomatic process to decide the future of … Kosovo. I saw directly how this stupidity helped fuel the political frustration that blew up into deadly riots in March 2004. It wasn’t the only reason for the violence – there never is a single reason – but it was a big one.
Writing the book clarified my own way forward. I set up a non-profit organisation to address that “diplomatic deficit”, also called Independent Diplomat. Its first “client” was the then-prime minister of Kosovo Bajram Kosumi, who I took to watch the UN security council discuss his country. It was the first time he had been allowed to do so. Today, Independent Diplomat, which is staffed with former diplomats like me, regularly arranges meetings between security council diplomats and parties affected by conflict, everywhere from Mali to Myanmar. Dictators and repressive governments get to speak at the UN, because they are the state. But we bring other leaders, those heading up democratic opposition parties, women’s groups, leaders of guerrilla armies – all of the dismissively-named “non-state parties” – to the UN, to tell the diplomats what’s really going on. And, to their credit, the diplomats listen.
The discussion is intense. One opposition leader, his voice shaking, warned the council diplomats that there would be genocide in his country. I have only belatedly learned that those on the ground usually have the best idea about how to solve conflict. Ultimately, such realisations led to a belief in a very different kind of politics: anarchism.
Today, diplomacy’s public face has changed: diplomats must now scrutinise Donald Trump’s tweets as much as they do wordy treaties. But the private exchange between governments at places such as the UN or EU has hardly improved since my book was written a decade ago. The reforms that the book demands remain essential. But this alone will not be enough to solve the world’s manifold problems, from political violence to climate change. For that epic challenge, no one should rely on the creaking machinery of formal diplomacy or the governments that run it. A wider mobilisation is necessary.
Ambassadors and diplomats tends to emphasise their intimate relations with the local authorities, as a mark of how well they are doing their job. When I was a diplomat, ambassadors took great care to relay to London detailed accounts of every mutter and hint of their late-night conversation or round of golf with the president or prime minister. Usually, these accounts would be given a high classification and restricted circulation, in order to underline the unusual access the diplomat has secured (even if the information contained was banal). They were often spiced with little personal details (the president’s favourite whisky; his fondness for the British royal family, etc) in order to demonstrate the intimacy and uniqueness of the exchange. The product of such behaviour is to reinforce the sense that diplomacy offers a rarefied and unique level of communication, where one élite talks to another, elevated from the cacophonous hordes beneath.
More about the book
“This is a rare and honest book about real-life diplomacy, reported from the coal-face. Ross diagnoses much that is wrong with the way diplomacy is practised today, and offers some cogent – and urgent – solutions.” George Soros
Buy the book
- Independent Diplomat: Despatches from an Unaccountable Elite by Carne Ross is published by Hurst, £9.99.
- Accidental Anarchist, a documentary about Carne Ross, airs on BBC4 on Sunday 23 July.