A Middle East expert (he admits that he does not speak Arabic, though his German "is pretty good") Ross was part of the British delegation at the United Nations in 1997, and later an eloquent defender of Britain's (and America's) sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. He took part in the negotiations over Afghanistan -- but during a six-week stay in Kabul in 2002, he realized that the "minutes" his colleagues were sending back to HQ bore little resemblance to reality. The diplomats were sealed in the embassy compound, behind "high walls topped with coils of razor wire and sack-cloth netting, the latter to trap the rocket-propelled grenades that were feared as the greatest threat to our safety," he writes in his memoir, Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. "Naturally, this was not the best way to detect the complex and powerful forces sweeping that country."
The disillusionment that first stirred in Kabul grew into bitter disappointment by September 2002, when America and Britain started their saber-rattling over Iraq. Their formal excuse for the invasion was Saddam Hussein's presumed weapons of mass destruction. Yet Ross knew that there was scant evidence of their existence. In fact, his friend and colleague David Kelly, an expert in biological warfare, had felt compelled to warn the press anonymously that claims of WMD were exaggerated; when his identity was leaked the government turned against the respected scientist. Kelly killed himself. Ross watched politicians and diplomats instantly retreat behind a wall of silence; later, in 2010, he testified to the Chilcot Inquiry, the official British commission charged with investigating the intelligence scandal behind the war. As he puts it, "the closed nature of our work allowed us to get away with Iraq." Suddenly diplomacy struck him as "a pact between the unaccountable and the irresponsible."
The young man who'd aspired to the glamour of foreign postings and challenging negotiations now dreamed of revolution. Independent Diplomat (which now consists, in addition to Ross, of a team of 18, based in New York, London, Brussels, Juba and Hargeisa) would apply their knowledge of the inner workings of diplomacy to give even non-states a say on the international stage. Size, influence, wealth, tactical alliances would no longer be a bar to admission to the big boys' club.
Independent Diplomat promises its "clients" -- a term derided by Paul Whiteway, head of ID's London office, who says it "smacks of commercialism" -- access to the power-brokers, but it refuses to play the ventriloquist: "Our clients are their own best spokespeople," Ross emphasizes. "They don't need us to write out their script or even lobby. We just make sure they're heard." With his 15 years' diplomatic experience, Ross knows how to navigate the system: which official to speak to, meeting to attend, above all which issues to raise. He prides himself on the "full and unorthodox service" ID can offer its clients: Given that the controversy over South Sudan centered on its boundaries, the ID team in London spent a day poring over 19th-century maps in the Royal Geographic Society, to study where the original border lines had been drawn.
ID's clients confirm that Ross and his team are facilitators rather than puppet-masters: "They did a fantastic job for us," Fatmir Sejdiu, the former president of Kosovo, tells me. "Independent Diplomat opened the doors. They had me speak to the Security Council members, even though Kosovo is not a member of the Council. I am very grateful."