Democracy Lab

Can You Save Diplomacy From Itself?

Carne Ross's quixotic crusade to help emerging nations get their seat at the table.

The chamber of the Security Council spreads out, airless and dimly lit, at the heart of the United Nations complex in New York. This is the inner sanctum of world diplomacy: Council members are responsible for maintaining peace and security across the globe, no less. A huge oil canvas mural, painted by the Norwegian artist Per Krogh, decorates one wall: A phoenix rises from its ashes, symbolizing the world's rebirth after World War II; and a group of farmers weigh out grain for all to share, showing how the international community values equality. This sense of bounty and fairness fills the big room with its large U-shaped table surrounded by welcoming blue chairs.

But the appearance of inclusivity is deceptive. The blue seats, center-stage, are reserved exclusively for the 15 Security Council member states. Other U.N. members must sit farther away from the decision-makers' table, on an incline. Even farther from the diplomatic action hangs the "public gallery," for mere onlookers.

The Council decor captures the real-life divisions of the world order. Only a handful of nations truly control the international agenda; others must make do with a spectator's role. This hierarchy is as fixed in the U.N. protocol as the blue chairs are fixed to the chamber floor. No diplomat, minister, or head of state would dare challenge it.

When Carne Ross, a former U.N. diplomat, begged passes from a "friendly" government in order to sneak his client, a delegation from South Sudan, into the public gallery, he knew this was a brazen breach of convention. It was 2010, and South Sudan had yet to be recognized as a state. Its right to a referendum on independence, won at the end of Sudan's brutal and prolonged civil war in 2005, was in doubt. Council members were set to discuss the referendum but South Sudan, whose future was at stake, was not invited to take part in the discussion.

Thanks to Carne Ross's subterfuge, the delegation, led by former guerrilla leader Pagan Amum, listened in on the Council discussion. Later, by door-stopping former colleagues at the United Nations, Ross managed to secure his client a seat at the table at the Security Council. Amum spoke eloquently about South Sudan's desire for peace and self-determination before an audience that included Hillary Clinton, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague. His speech made an impact: the United Nations approved the referendum, which was held a few months later. South Sudan became independent in July 2011.

Carne Ross, more than anyone, appreciated that with his ruse he had not only destroyed a taboo, but established a new way of doing diplomacy: Independent Diplomat was born. Forget the old-style diplomacy. In its place he would establish a transparent, inclusive, unpretentious service that would help the marginalized to the decision-making table.

From the outset, Ross was determined to distinguish his new outfit from the typical lobbyists. Independent Diplomat is different, he explains, because the firm only does "diplomatic process," helping its clients to navigate the tricky business of getting something done on the international stage. It does not "represent" them the way that conventional lobbying firms do; they have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

"The power of the state is declining," Ross argued in a TED talk two years ago -- before going on to liken the world situation to a Jackson Pollock painting, "complicated and fragmented." With the declining power of states, someone has to tackle the problems that the nation-states can't resolve: "Who is left to deal with them," asks Ross, "but us?"

Ross tells me that "we only help the good guys -- the legitimate democratic representatives, not any scumbag who will pay us." Such high-sounding aims could set a trap for ID: Many a client, determined to access the influence-brokers, might whitewash their record to look like "one of the god guys." Can Carne Ross really tell the difference between the genuine article and the phony?

Ross spent 15 years -- most of his professional life, in fact -- as a rising star in Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). A bright boy from the London suburbs, he had been on the fast-track at the FCO, and "despite speaking his mind, was seen as ambassador material," remembers Gerard Russell, a former colleague there. Ross loved the traditions that still dominated diplomatic life in the 1990s: the countless embassy parties whose gossips provided crucial nuggets of local opinion; the terminology that decreed diplomats never spoke with the individualist "I" but always as patriotic, collective "we"; the minutes (never memos) that had to be written on "blue" paper that in fact was green. He admired the ambassadors, with their veneer of charm and reasonableness; and felt at ease with the subtle distinctions of international diplomacy, whereby the British delegation could meet with top officials, but even the most junior staff could turn away a request from South Sudan, Kosovo, or Western Sahara. Statelets, with no status, they had no claim on anyone's time.

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."

So is the Georgian Dream Coalition, which won the general elections in Georgia last October, ousting President Mikheil Saakashvili. "They are not patronizing." Tedo Japaridze of the Georgian Dream Coalition tells me. "They steer, they don't dictate. I trust them."

Does ID's client list pass the litmus test? Ross and his London associate Paul Whiteway insist that ID checks clients thoroughly and will only draw up a contract when satisfied that they are above board. Yet some would argue that the Dream Coalition, led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, has behaved like a vengeful victor since its election. Ivanishvili and his colleagues have pledged to pursue former officials for "wrongdoings" and have already arrested a former minister -- prompting criticism from NATO, of all institutions. Georgia-watchers brand this a "witch hunt" and claim Carne Ross cannot be surprised: It is difficult, if not impossible, to make billions in Russia, as Ivanishvili has done, and keep one's hands clean.

Other clients with the potential to dent ID's reputation for discernment are the Polisario Front, the politico-military organization of the indigenous nomadic inhabitants of theWestern Sahara under Moroccan control; and, yes, even South Sudan. Both have been accused of human rights abuses; and earlier this month, the United Nations condemned South Sudan for expelling one of its human rights investigators.

Another challenge: How is freelance diplomacy supposed to finance itself? When Carne Ross first set up Independent Diplomat in 2004, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation awarded him a £40,000 special centenary fellowship "for visionaries." The honor brought attention fromGeorge Soros, and the billionaire philanthropist now funds one-third of ID's budget on a rolling basis. (Several countries and foundations also support the outfit: Norway, Switzerland, Finland, and even Britain, through its support of the Climate Development Knowledge Network.

Ross is open about taking money from George Soros and has written about the key role private organizations like Soros's Open Society Institute can play. They, like NGOs, and even celebrities like Bono, are the new non-state actors on the stage, whose emergence is blowing apart the inner circle who commands geopolitics.

Charles Crawford, former British ambassador to Moscow, is wary of Ross's enthusiasm for such agents of change. "Who, after all, is George Soros?" Crawford wrote in his blog, in 2009: "Who gave him a mandate to stick his nose and his money into so many places? Who elected Greenpeace? What possible claim does Bono have to speak sense on anything? Should not the fact that he rubs shoulders with world leaders at Davos embarrass all concerned? This all boils down to a deep and dangerous proposition: that the strength of feeling (and the feeling of strength) matter far more than the strength of reason." Yet even Crawford admires what he calls Ross's "idealism": "No one" he admits to me, "can fault Carne's faith in more democracy and more transparency."

Is Ross's Independent Diplomat on a moral mission? After all, this is the man who, when the late Robin Cook was British foreign secretary, wrote the first draft of a famous speech Cook delivered in 2007 on the need for "ethical foreign policy." Ross squirms at the mention of "good" and "evil." "Cheesily, I chose a compass as our logo," he says. Listening to him speak, it is easy to conclude that it is moral indignation that fuels him -- a presumption borne out by his books, which lay out his vision of diplomacy (Independent Diplomat) and radical democracy (Leaderless Revolution). Phrases like "the injustice of what passes for democracy," "the gulf between the astronomically rich and everyone else," and "the shame of 40 million Americans living below the poverty line" pepper his conversation with me. Indeed, there is something of a crusader about Ross, with his clean, Clark Kent features, lantern jaw, and thick-rimmed glasses. As befits the unpretentious image of his new outfit, Ross opts for jeans and a polo neck rather than stuffy diplomat tailoring -- though a suit and tie hang in a cupboard in his office, for those unexpected meetings at the United Nations.

"Carne believes in opening up the elite decision-making and having more bottoms-up organizations -- in other words, a utopia." That's according to John Ashton, the British Government's special representative for climate change, who came across Independent Diplomat at the U.N. climate change negotiations. Here ID was helping small island states, whose very survival is at stake, voice their concerns. "They did some first-class work," says Ashton. "But none of this guarantees the organizations will be run by good people with good motives," Ashton notes. "Populism and incoherence are not a recipe for success. For that, we need a small group of people at the top making the right choices." Ashton's viewpoint would sit uneasily with Ross, who sees nothing inevitable about a self-perpetuating elite which he regards as self-important and out-of-touch.

Gerard Russell, who worked with Carne Ross at the FCO in 1995, likens him to a lawyer who takes on the cases no one else will. "The fact that his clients can't pay doesn't make them good but it does mean they deserve a lawyer."

Not that ID is a charity (though it does have non-profit status). Ross stresses that although he draws financial support from diverse sources, ideally he would like to make his clients pay: "If people don't pay for your advice they don't value it -- as aid agencies have learned."

Eight years on, ID has been employed by Somaliland, Croatia, Moldova, the Marshall Islands, the Western Sahara, as well as South Sudan and Kosovo. They themselves have employed a number of former diplomats from both sides of the Atlantic: "When I set it up," Ross explains, "I was genuinely surprised that regular diplomats would talk to us. I had expected that they would shun us. But they didn't. It is regular diplomats who have been most ready to accept ID, perhaps because they ‘get' us in a way that non-diplomats do not. One German ambassador exclaimed to me that ID should have been established 30 years ago."

Despite such ringing endorsement, ID's new model of diplomacy may not prove as contagious as Carne Ross might hope. "Non-western actors -- China, India, and the Association of South East Asian Nations, as well as the Economic Community of West African States -- are concerned with preserving sovereignty and doing so using traditional diplomacy," says Dr. Randolph Kent, former U.N resident and humanitarian coordinator in Somalia. "The West may see the concept of nation state as fraying at the edges, but emerging powers aspire to strengthen their national identity, not dilute it. They believe old-fashioned protocol, with its ‘us and them' distinctions, supports their aim."

Indeed, given the economic downturn, even the West may have to hold on to the concept of "nation-state" and "national government" for a while yet. Intervention is visible everywhere, as the only means to kick-start economies. And given that governments need to talk and negotiate with each other, "they need people to do it," says Charles Crawford. "And we know who they are."

While it may be premature to write off the traditional diplomacy of Talleyrand, Castlereagh, and Metternich, it would be downright foolish to write off Carne Ross. His vision of the "anarchist diplomat," as a French magazine dubbed it, has earned him attention worldwide as a thought leader; aside from his TED Talk about ID, he has appeared on American public TVto make the case for re-engaging the electorate at the community level and contributes regularly to newspapers. Ross may have tried, and failed, to dismantle the institution of diplomacy. But isn't he, as his old colleague Gerard Russell puts it, "in danger of becoming an institution himself?"

Photo by Emily Kasriel/BBC

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