The Independent Diplomat
by Christine Flanagan
Some kids grow up dreaming to be doctors, teachers, chefs, musicians or actors. Some read swashbuckling action adventure stories or hair-raising science fiction fantasies. British-born Carne Ross is cut from a different mold. His childhood source for escape and fascination was the international newspaper. His dream for adulthood: international diplomat.
Naturally competitive, Ross was partially motivated into foreign service because his parents and sister attempted unsuccessfully to do the same. He recalls a famous family moment when he was 12 and announced to his family that he intended to become a diplomat and his father responded, “you have to be very clever to be a diplomat Carne.”
Ross was indeed clever. The British foreign service exam is notoriously difficult. During Ross’s year, some 5,000 people applied and only 20 people were accepted. “Going in I thought at best I would be a junior official tooling around in less important places,” recalls Ross. “Turns out I had quite an affinity for it and my ambition grew as I did.”
At 29, Ross became head of the Israel-Palestine Middle East peace section for the British government. From there he became a speech writer to the British Foreign Secretary; completed foreign service tours of duty in Germany and Afghanistan and, at age 32, moved to New York to be head of Middle East policy for the United Kingdom’s mission to the United Nations. “I was the British lead on Iraq negotiating international law on hard-core issues of national security like how to deal with weapons of mass destruction or how to respond to Al-Qaeda after 9/11,” he recalls. “I was catapulted to a position with real power, influence and status. It was brilliant and fascinating and I loved every minute of it.”
As a member of the elite ‘fast stream’ of the Foreign Office, Ross was well on his way toward his ultimate goal, ambassadorship. And then, in 2004, he resigned from it all.
The fundamental foundation of diplomacy rests with the idea that states identify their interests and then arbitrate them with one another. Engrained in the role of a diplomat is a belief – and presumption – that the diplomat embodies the expression and choices of his country.Diplomats negotiate between states on behalf of their country.
“The pervasive belief is that governments, with their diplomats and embassies, will sort out and solve all the problems of the world,” explains Ross. “It’s hard to question that and in fact, I didn’t question it for a long time.”
Known for his aggressive defense of British interests, Ross robustly argued for British policy. And then slowly, ever so slowly, cracks in the armor began to show. “I found myself seriously doubting the rightness of what we were doing—its efficacy as a policy and above all the pretenses and disconnection from the reality of what we were trying to arbitrate. Because the one major absentee in all of our discussions was the Iraqi people themselves.”
These private misgivings did not affect Ross professionally and he went on to finish his tour representing Britain at the United Nations, helping to chart a course that would eventually lead his country to war. It was 2002. He was both exhausted and disillusioned. After a year-long sabbatical teaching in New York he moved on to become strategy coordinator for the UN in Kosovo. While there he gave evidence to a British official inquiry into the use of intelligence on WMD prior to the Iraq invasion. “Everyone involved in policy making was asked to testify,” he explains. “I gave a long, detailed offering which led me to reflect on my past experiences. It was then I decided to quit.”
His resignation led to a very public outing through a book released in April, 2007 called Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. In it, Ross provides a compelling (and scathing) account of his years in foreign service, taking aim at the very limited range of evidence upon which diplomats base their reports and the closed and undemocratic nature of the world’s diplomatic forums. “I thought I would be a diplomat for my entire life,” he recounts. “But then again I also believed in my government’s ability to understand complex truths and then build policy around those truths.”On Iraq, he says, “People are dead, including friends of mine.” He goes on to say, “I am still angry because there hasn’t been a proper accounting what happened.”
Earlier, Ross had also founded a non-profit under the same moniker.Independent Diplomat (ID) aims to resolve or prevent conflict by “enabling disadvantaged and marginalized governments and political groups to engage effectively in diplomatic processes.” Essentially the organization is trying to teach the voiceless how to talk – on the international stage.
In the five years since the ID was founded, Ross and his team have helped fledgling states like Kosovo and Somaliland maneuver through the international diplomatic machine.They also advise “regular” states with their international problems.They’ve worked with the Polisario Front in its struggle for self-determination in the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara. “The work at ID is based on the belief that everybody has a right to a say in the resolution of their issues,” he says. “It’s a radical departure from my previous work and, for that matter, my previous way of thinking. It’s personally satisfying and we’re making a difference. “
So if Independent Diplomat the book is Ross’s reflection of his years in foreign service, is Independent Diplomat the organization his redemption? “Honestly, I didn’t set out to right a wrong. I felt I needed work and something to do with my life. ID came about because I didn’t want to leave international relations and diplomacy.”
Yet this time around it’s the Ross model of diplomacy. “Diplomacy is about government and states dealing with other states. That system is breaking down and becoming fragmented. More and more non-traditional players are acting within it. ID didn’t create this trend. But we are a part of it.”
A non-conventional actor in diplomacy? Perhaps this is the role Ross was born to play.