By Mathieu Labrèche, Contributing Correspondent
Carne Ross was a rising star in the British Foreign Office and was on the fast-track to becoming an ambassador. A shrewd, worldly and enthusiastic young diplomat, he navigated the uneven landscape of international diplomacy and global affairs with remarkable expertise and sharp insight. He previously worked at the UK embassy in Bonn, Germany before moving to the UK delegation on the United Nations’ Security Council, where he was the mission’s Middle East expert.
Ross resigned from his post after four and a half years in the delegation because of Britain’s decision to go to war in Iraq. The experience seemed to have set off a crisis of conscience that proved more than he could stand for in a frustrating, although distinguished, 15-year diplomatic career. He also gave evidence in secret to an official inquiry into the Iraq war which directly contradicted the British government’s justification for the war and intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. In 2004, he founded Independent Diplomat (ID), a non-profit diplomatic advisory group — the world’s first.ID aims to resolve or prevent conflict by enabling disadvantaged and marginalized governments and political groups to engage effectively in diplomatic processes. They offer professional services, including: political analysis, diplomatic technique, international law and media strategy. The group has no political agenda of its own and its advice is driven solely by the needs of its clients. It is not connected to any government or international institution — it funds its operations through a mix of donor contribution and client fees.
Ross’s most recent book, “The Leaderless Revolution: how ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century” will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2011 in the UK, and by Penguin in early 2012 in the US. His personal blog is at CarneRoss.com, his weekly column “Power & Nations” is on the Guardian website, and you can follow him on Twitter.
He recently discussed a wide-range of contemporary geopolitical issues with The Toronto Review.
What are you up to these days and what’s new at Independent Diplomat (ID)?
We’re very busy with all of our projects. There are climate change talks going on at the moment in Bonn, where one of our advisors is a member of the delegation of the Marshall Islands and is helping the small island states make their way in that very complicated and difficult negotiation.
We’re also very engaged in Sudan where we’re advising the government of South Sudan — which is obviously at a critical moment with independence imminent. The North occupied the province of Abyei a few days ago, ejecting its permanent residents, and so there continues to be conflict between north and south just as the former is expected to become independent in July. Those are just two projects where we’re very busy.
Could you give me an anecdote about how Independent Diplomat’s negotiations actually work? Do you usually take on a new client; do research; fly out; settle out terms; fly back to New York; and advocate your client’s position to the UN? In other words, how does a typical ID case work?
It’s always different. Sometimes we’re approached directly by a government or a country. Sometimes we’re introduced through a third-party. More and more, other governments, former clients and political groups are recommending us to people who might benefit from our services.
One of our most recent clients was South Sudan, which heard about our work advising the Kosovo government before Kosovo’s independence — they approached us some time ago to ask if we could advise them. I flew to Juba and met with various leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and together we discussed their diplomatic needs. After some consideration, Independent Diplomat decided to take them on as a client.
I should stress that we will only take on those who adhere to the principles of democracy, international law and are not engaged in unlawful violence. So, in general, we’re trying to help the ‘good guys’ rather than the ‘bad guys’ — though that’s not always a straightforward choice.
It seems to me that Independent Diplomat is not a lobby in any way. If I understand correctly, you provide expertise and strategy in order for clients to represent themselves and their interests?
Yes, that’s correct. We don’t lobby for our clients. We’re not their advocates; they’re their own best advocates. We simply advise on the diplomatic scene as it affects them. We will also advise them about how best to insert their views into the international discussion about their country. Sometimes we will offer assistance with specific diplomatic tools to help our clients, perhaps communications at the UN Security Council or things like that. But we’re very much driven by the needs of our clients and their own requirements — we work for them.
On July 9 South Sudan will become a newly independent state. Indeed, it may be the most important test awaiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon this summer. However, the new state will need a huge amount of UN support to get it going, which, hitherto, has not brought out the best in the organization with its huge bureaucracy, competing priorities and so-called “integrated” planning process. How should the Secretary-General cut through the endless turf wars at the UN to offer the Security Council a compelling vision of what it can achieve in South Sudan?
The situation is indeed challenging and fast-moving as the situation on the ground is fluid, not least in Abyei and South Kordofan – another border area where the North has used violence. The UN is not very good at fast-moving situations and there’s evidence of clear failures recently — for instance peacekeepers in Abyei stayed in their barracks rather than confronting Northern troops and ensuring the protection of civilians.
For the future UN mission, they key thing for the South is that the mission continue to observe and ensure the implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan – particularly to monitor the borders. That should provide a very compelling case to the UN and to the international community for how the mission should be oriented in the future. Nobody wants to see a resumption of civil war and the UN can help prevent that — that should be its goal. But it will need continued close attention and serious resources; some countries want to take the chance of a new mandate for the UN to cut down the mission. I think this would be a mistake and would send a dangerous signal to Khartoum that the world is backing off.
A new breed of diplomat is slowly beginning to emerge — equipped with a backpack and a Blackberry instead of a briefcase and a private chauffeur. Sometimes referred to as the “guerrilla diplomat”, he possesses autonomy, agility and adaptability to perform complex tasks with an ear-to-the-ground on Main Street instead of pomp in the banquet hall. Is this the kind of diplomatic technique you advocate at Independent Diplomat?
I know that mainstream and conventional foreign ministries like to present themselves as very much “with the times.” But, from what I see, orthodox diplomacy at foreign ministries has not changed very much — it can’t. The idea of a diplomat being autonomous with a Blackberry and a backpack, well, that’s just not possible in the way that orthodox government diplomacy operates. Any diplomat has to refer to their capital and they have to reflect the wishes of their government. So that sort of romantic notion of an autonomous diplomat on the ground is somewhat unrealistic.
At the same time, there has always been diplomats running around on the ground and, in some ways, they had much more autonomy in the past than they do today. Modern communications mean that diplomats can communicate in almost real-time with their capital, and the capital often demands that they do so. Therefore, diplomats are in some ways even more tied to the center than once they were. Ironically, old fashioned, slow communications allowed diplomats greater autonomy. If you can only report by a despatch sent home by sea, you get a lot of room to decide policy yourself on the ground. That’s a luxury denied modern diplomats who are required to tell their capitals of almost every detail of their activities, and reflect their capital’s views to the letter.
The Internet has deterritorialized social, economic and political spaces. While not happening at the same pace everywhere, time and distance, as barriers to human interaction and exchange, are disappearing. How can modern diplomats operate in these unstructured horizontal spaces as opposed to the familiar vertical mosaic of foreign ministries, where official designations and hierarchic social relations are the norm?
First off, I think that the observation about the Internet is absolutely correct — there is a deterriotorialization of these spaces. But I think some qualifications are necessary.
Number one, the Internet is only one territory and there are many real territories still out there which operate according to very much more established rules. But for diplomats to operate in these unstructured spaces, as you call it, I think it’s very difficult for them. I can think of several examples of diplomats that get into trouble through their personal blogs or tweets where they’re trying to sound authentic and up-to-the-minute in a very fast moving Internet conversation. It’s increasingly difficult for hierarchical structures to allow diplomats that kind of freedom, which inevitably brings with it the risk of mistakes or people taking something other than the official line. For instance, a British ambassador to Lebanon got into trouble when, in her blog, she seemed to praise the former head of Hezbollah when he died — this happened a year or two ago. There were immediate protests from Israel and others around the world that she had said this. Ultimately, she was forced to retract the statement and the British government had to apologize for what she said.
The Internet is inherently personal, de-institutionalized, fragmented and does not lend itself to official communications well. I think there’s a lot of nonsense being talked about “e-diplomacy” and tweeting diplomats which doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. An official spokesman sending out official statements via Twitter or on Facebook is very little different from the official spokesman doing so by press release or press conference of the old kind.
Are these hierarchic social relations still the norm in the “e-world”?
It’s very interesting because it’s really up to the leadership or foreign ministries to determine the tone of “e-communications” like Facebook posts and tweets. The Swedish foreign minister, for instance, tweets very interesting, authentic, clearly personal and up-to-minute thoughts. He obviously has the confidence to do that. But the tweets from other foreign ministers and ministries tend to be much more bland, conventional and really don’t add much to the traditional discourse of diplomacy. All foreign ministries are intrinsically and stiflingly hierarchical, offering little genuine autonomy to the “lower-downs” to communicate their real thoughts. Foreign ministries, and governments, are required to be hierarchical.
The notion of a disaggregrated, free-flowing organization with highly autonomous officials is inimical to our contemporary notions of national government. There is no fit between these ideas.
I think that the Internet, by its very nature of pluralism and many voices, clashes with the rather more simplified world that governments used to think they inhabited.
The so-called “Arab spring” has shown the world that revolutions can occur without prominent or charismatic leaders. Indeed, the only necessary pre-condition in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, to some extent, was the shared feeling of ‘enough is enough’. What kind of future do you see for leaderless revolutions in the twenty-first century?
I think they’re the way of the future. My book talks about the decline of governments as effective actors in a globalized world. Governments are less and less able to control and arbitrate the forces that most affect our lives and I think the evidence is very clear of that. Economic and commodity price volatility, rampant climate change, borderless wars, you name it — most of the important phenomena that concern us are clearly less and less in the grip of governments, whether national or in multinational institutions.
What then is the answer? Do we just give in to emerging chaos? No. We have to take action. Spontaneous individual action is, as ever, the most powerful way to change our immediate circumstances and to influence others. Social science is very clear that the most influential agents on our behaviour are those around us. Also, network researchers have shown that the actions of one person or group can very rapidly influence the whole system. This offers a real promise of political change, but only if people take action into their own hands.
Intrinsically, and most effectively, these actions should not look to form hierarchies or institutions — they have to be spontaneous responses to concerns that are deeply felt; spontaneous networks. Equally, their objectives should be negotiated with those affected and above all they should be non-violent. I’m not proposing violent anarchism, but I am proposing that effective change will come less and less from governments and more and more from individuals and groups acting and co-operating spontaneously: self-organized government, if you like.
If a prominent figure or grouping would act as leaders would that, in essence, replicate the status quo political order?
I think there’s a belief in a certain model where if we imagine that we have all the right politicians everything will be all right. I think it’s clear that this dream is bankrupt and we’ve given ourselves a free pass. We’ve committed ourselves – quite foolishly – to the idea that the only real political action required of us is to vote once every five years or whenever. Politicians feed this presumption, which is seriously mistaken.
Is Independent Diplomat doing any work on the Arab spring and the swell in popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East?
Unfortunately, I can’t talk about that in public.
NATO’s effort in Libya risks slipping into a messy and prolonged stalemate. The West’s very vocal pressure on Muammar Gaddafi to step down, together with a fractured coalition and a weakening rebel movement, leaves no end in sight. How can an impasse be averted and what kind of negotiation strategy should be employed to create mutually beneficial opportunities?
I’m not sure what realistic opportunities there are at this point. At the same time, the stability and the overall well-being of the Libyan people would be best served through a peaceful negotiated outcome whereby the leadership in Tripoli agrees to step down and allow democracy. If that is not clearly agreed there will be prolonged instability even if there were a ceasefire to temporarily stop the current conflict. At the moment, the rebel forces are saying very clearly they will not accept any outcome which allows Gaddafi to stay. Given his record and treatment of all opposition – which has been violent and inhumane to the extreme – one could understand that position. At the same time, the belief that Gaddafi will be overthrown and that peace and democracy will break out all over Libya is clearly based as much on hope as realistic expectation.
The ideal should be an agreement rapidly to be reached after which Gaddafi were to step down. This would allow both of the best long-term outcomes for Libya — mainly democracy, but also more immediately the preservation of stability. The latter could be endangered by a violent overthrow.
There seems to be a certain reticence in imposing measures on Syria in response to the government’s crackdown on its own population — in particular, because China and Russia refuse to condemn the Assad government. Are the UN and the broader western world suffering from a “Libya hangover”, or are there legitimate concerns in drawing up binding resolutions to restrict the Syrian government’s belligerent behaviour?
I certainly think that the UN Security Council’s inability to agree a substantive – or indeed any – resolution for Syria is largely due to Russian, Chinese and indeed others’ reservations that seem largely to be based on Libya rather than what’s actually going on in Syria, which is perverse. The Russians clearly feel that the Western allies overstepped the military authority that they were given by the Security Council on Libya — which, by the way, I don’t think is a legitimate complaint as the Russians knew very well what they were signing up to. I think it’s illegitimate to use the decision over one country as a way of making a point about an earlier decision concerning somewhere else.
At the same time, the Chinese and Russian reservations are based on a fear that any resolution might eventually lead to further resolutions authorizing military intervention. I have to say there’s no evidence that justifies such a fear. The Western allies have been very clear that military intervention is not on the cards in the case of Syria and the pro-democracy demonstrators on the ground have been equally emphatic in rejecting it.
All that said, I think these are poor excuses for the Security Council not to send a very clear and robust message to the Assad regime to stop its repression of its people. There’s no reason why the Security Council cannot pass targeted measures sanctioning members of the regime and thus indicating very clearly that their repressive behaviour is unacceptable. But maybe there is a secret behind this too. Perhaps China and Russia – by no means perfect democracies – are unwilling to see a precedent or trend emerge in the Security Council of so-called “interference” in a state’s sovereign internal affairs.
The private sector poses a serious challenge to state-run diplomacy. There is a general trend of ‘disintermediation’ where multinational corporations – empowered by new communication technologies and budgets larger than those of many sovereign nations – can create their own foreign policies and deploy representatives in offices around the world. Will the privatization of foreign policy and diplomacy eventually hollow out the state’s control over these areas?
Well, I think that the word privatization is a little bit confusing. Diplomacy is a broad umbrella term; but ‘conventional’ diplomacy is still very much about government-to-government interaction, both bilateral and multilateral. There’s a great deal of that still going on and there’s no sign of it being privatized or contracted out to private companies to conduct on government’s behalf, as has been the case, by contrast, in some military affairs where, more’s the pity, private contractors have become almost commonplace. So I think the phraseology that diplomacy is being privatized is a little bit misleading.
At the same time, you’re quite right that commercial companies or multinational companies play a very important political role in their interactions around world, both with populations, other companies and states. In the diplomacy on Sudan, which we’ve been observing very closely through our work, there is no doubt that large multinational companies have had a significant influence. The border areas between North and South Sudan, for instance, hold large oil deposits and some of the oil companies are very active there and wield considerable political influence with both parties. Everywhere large multinational companies wield influence and their decisions have great political consequence. Yet, by and large, they’re not held to account for those decisions and of course their decisions are not transparent either.
As non-state actors, banks and financial institutions have exerted an impressive amount of influence over nation-state policies and legal frameworks, for instance, with deregulation and resisting capital control. How can states re-assert control over transnational banking institutions whose power and influence has grown exponentially?
That’s a complicated question which requires quite a long answer. In a recent article I wrote for The Guardian I argued that national authorities aren’t able to exert sufficient control over multinational entities. Banks or financial institutions are able to move their operations from state to state according to where the laws are most convenient and are able to threaten the removal of their business from any particular state if laws the banks regard as too onerous are imposed. That is notwithstanding the undoubted influence that large corporations and banks already have on their national legislatures in any case through their own lobbying and influence — this is well-known.
I don’t think that multilateral governmental institutions are yet able effectively to tackle this problem. The legislation emerging from bodies like the G20 or the Basel Committee, in terms of financial regulation, is inadequate. It has been judged so by impartial experts who assess the systemic risk in the banking sector — a vulnerability which revealed itself through the 2008 crash.
So what’s the answer? I think part of the answer is identifying what is not the answer, namely national or multilateral legislation. Instead, we should think of better solutions — these might include individual consumers making their own choices about where to deposit their money and choosing more responsible institutions over others. There are banks which operate far more responsible lending systems, or where they may be co-operatively owned by their customers. These types of models offer a greater prospect of long-term stability than the large commercial banks, inadequately regulated by the state, with which we’re more familiar.
But this question needs further examination, including by those more expert than me. However, by and large, the current regulatory system is not sufficient.
What is the main takeaway from the WikiLeaks experience and how has it changed state-run diplomacy?
I’d argue that the WikiLeaks release of the diplomatic cables is a very significant moment in the history of diplomacy. I think it sends a message to governments that no data stored electronically – and there is almost no other kind of data – is ultimately safe.
Electronic data “wants to be free”. It is now that much easier to transmit this kind of data into leaks than the forms of data that preceded it. My hope is that this will send a message to governments that if they have to presume that their data may ultimately become public, then the consequence of that should be that they must ensure the private facts of what they have done diplomatically measure up to their public rhetoric about that diplomacy. No longer can governments’ private actions diverge from what they’re publicly claiming, as undoubtedly the WikiLeaks cables do show in several instances.
I don’t think that governments have got this message yet. I think that a lot of them still think that if they work a bit harder and glue up their USB slots in their computers or classify documents more strictly then they will prevent this happening to them. But I have no doubt there will be more of this and I think eventually governments will realize that transparency will be enforced upon them, if not chosen by them. It might be preferable for them to choose sensible, responsible models of transparency before the scourge of leaks affect them. But this means that they have to change.
My experience in diplomacy is that it is far too secret — the worst decisions are made in secret, often by very small and under-informed groups of people. Above all, officials and governments should be held accountable for what they do. I’ve been involved in several conflicts including one – Iraq – where gross distortions were presented to the public to justify a war that did not need to be fought, and to which there were very plausible alternatives which were not properly considered, let alone debated in public. I think that is a pretty clear argument for greater transparency. Equally, I think that we should demand greater responsibility from those leaking the data. The responsibility to do no harm applies as much to them as it does to governments. I think much greater care should be taken by WikiLeaks and others to review data before it’s released and to do so in a responsible manner.