Review: Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite, by Carne Ross
When the news broke about the recent events in Japan, involving an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear crisis, it immediately hit the headlines across the world. In the process it replaced what had been the top international news story for many days – Libya.
It can well be imagined that the Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, was rather pleased with that. It took him out of the immediate spotlight just as his forces were about to attack and re-take rebel-held areas. At the same time there might well have been others who were also somewhat relieved to be no longer featuring in the world’s top news story – diplomats at the UN, in the US and in the EU.
Their (understandable and often justified) doubts and dithering about what to do in response to the Libyan crisis had also been making headline news, and for different reasons from different people’s perspectives it wasn’t good news.
As the Libyan crisis unfolded and failed to reach any type of even temporary conclusion, as had previously happened in Tunisia and Egypt, international diplomatic activity, with all its contradictions and uncertainties, came more to the fore. That was to be expected, and it can be expected again if other political crises erupt elsewhere and are not quickly resolved.
However, as Carne Ross argues in his controversial but very thought-provoking book, contradiction and uncertainty characterise not only diplomatic policies, but diplomatic activity itself.
Ross was a British diplomat who spent many years serving his country (though that’s one of the simplistic, oft-repeated notions he questions) in a variety of places, including Germany, Afghanistan and the US, where for a long time he worked as part of the British mission to the UN. He resigned in September 2004 in connection with the war against Iraq. He had testified (in secret) to the official inquiry into the use of intelligence about Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, known as the Butler Inquiry.
“I wrote down all that I thought about the war, including the available alternatives, its illegality and the misrepresentation of what we knew about Iraq’s weapons. Once I had written it, I realised at last… that I could no longer continue to work for the government.” In fact, as Ross recalls, this was just a breaking point, “after years of agonising”, and his book is essentially a tale of what all that anxiety was about.
It is a well-written, easy-to-read story that is both personal and political. We follow the stages of Ross’ career as he moved from one posting to another, and we can trace his journey from being an enthusiastic newcomer on the diplomatic scene to becoming a rather tired and jaded, though not entirely cynical, experienced officer in Britain’s foreign service. There is personal detail, including humour, as well as insight into the workings of what often appears to be a “hidden” world – the international world of diplomats.
Vacuum of authority
In fact, that secrecy is one of Ross’ main complaints, namely that too frequently decisions are made by relatively unknown, unaccountable personalities behind closed doors about “far-away” people who are not involved in the decision-making process. He adds, too, that often the decision-makers actually don’t know very much about the places they are supposed to be “dealing with”. The picture painted is rather dismal and very critical, but evidence is provided.
One of his pet themes involves the language employed in diplomat-speak. It is not only arcane and confusing, he asserts, but also mystifying in an ideological sense. Ross repeatedly criticises the use of terms such as “we think” or “Britain thinks”, questioning who this “we” or “Britain” really is.
At one point Ross took a sabbatical. During that time he studied the philosophy of knowledge, investigating such questions as how do we know what we think we know, and how is it that we claim that certain things are true. He says it was “an exercise designed to help answer my doubts about the whole discourse of diplomacy”. The result shines through this work. There are many references to thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, Isaiah Berlin, Thomas Kuhn, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Karl Popper. You could say these are often “throwaway” comments, handy quotes snatched out of context to fit an argument, but nevertheless they are stimulating, inviting us to question not only diplomatic practice, but also the ideas underpinning that activity.
Ross concludes with a set of proposals for reforming international diplomacy. Some of them are, as he admits, rather unrealistic and utopian in the present context, but they are all worth considering. Perhaps the most radical (and therefore the most interesting) is that diplomacy as we know it today, namely the purported representation of “interests of state” should be abolished altogether and replaced by something more democratic, more transparent, more directly involving those concerned, more honest and just – and less “statist”.
Ross describes a new initiative he has set up called “Independent Diplomat”, with the aim of assisting some “hidden voices” to get a hearing on the international scene. One case they have taken up is that of Western Sahara, invaded and occupied by Morocco in 1975. The Security Council in 1991 agreed to a referendum in the territory on self-determination, but in the face of opposition from the Moroccan government it has not happened. The international community (another example of diplomat-speak) has done nothing about it. Indeed some governments, such as that of the UK, have continued to allow arms to be sold to Morocco.
Few people have heard of this issue, writes Carne Ross. No wonder – Morocco isn’t making headline news… at least, not yet.
– For more about Independent Diplomat see: www.independentdiplomat.org.
Buy the book
Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite
By Carne Ross
243 pages, hardback
Hurst & Co, 2009