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Are Diplomats Necessary?


Diplomacy is one of the world’s oldest professions, although diplomatic practice as we know it is a relatively recent development. Using ambassadors and envoys, often distinguished personalities of the time (Dante, Machiavelli, Peter Paul Rubens), was an accepted practice throughout recorded history. It was also regarded, in Europe at least, as “a kind of activity morally somewhat suspect and incapable of being brought under any system.”1

The establishment of the international rules of diplomacy, including the immunity of diplomats,2 began with the Congresses of Vienna (1815) and Aix-la-Chapelle (1818). The rules were a European creation gradually adopted in the rest of the world. Further international conventions update them from time to time. Diplomats have enjoyed a surprising degree of immunity from criticism for the often violent and disorderly state of international affairs.

The history of diplomacy abounds with double-edged bons mots on the nature of ambassadors and diplomacy: “honorable spy”; “splendide mendax“; “a process of haggling, conducted with an utter disregard of the ordinary standards of morality, but with the most exquisite politeness”; and the sixteenth-century Sir Henry Wotton’s famous comment, allegedly in jest, that “an ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”In Independent Diplomat, Carne Ross has little patience with the qualified admiration and curiosity with which ambassadors have traditionally been regarded. He tells the story of the disillusionment and rebirth—also in diplomacy—of a fifteen-year veteran of one of the most internationally respected diplomatic establishments, the British Foreign Service.

Many Englishmen, particularly of my generation, have an ingrained distrust, mixed with reluctant admiration, for the British Foreign Office, now the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We remember the disastrous 1930s, the failure to impose preventive sanctions on Mussolini’s Italy when it invaded Abyssinia, or to oppose Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland, and the nonintervention policy in Spain. We recall the lack of response to members of the German General Staff who desperately sought British and French support in deposing Hitler while he was still relatively weak. My lifelong dislike of the word “unrealistic,” often used to discredit bold ideas, dates from that time. Perhaps equally unfairly, we criticize the Foreign Office for failing to head off hopelessly misconceived plans like the 1956 Suez expedition or the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Carne Ross’s book has a firsthand quality that deserves attention. Many of his criticisms and suggestions are by no means new, but his growing disaffection with diplomacy and diplomats should stimulate serious critical thinking about the conduct of international affairs. On the other hand, his use of generalized stereotypes does not inspire confidence.

To take one small instance, describing a coldhearted, hierarchical desert of diplomats and Secretariat members at the UN headquarters in New York, he writes that “to meet…an Under-Secretary of the UN, you must yourself enjoy an equivalent rank in diplomacy or politics….” I strongly doubt this. During the time of my mentor and predecessor, Ralph Bunche, and in the fourteen years that I was a UN undersecretary-general, we actively encouraged outsiders and junior officials to visit us, not least because they were much more stimulating and informative than most ambassadors or ministers. I know of subsequent under-secretaries who have done the same.

In the same paragraph Ross writes, “Like Versailles’ inner sanctum, the Secretary-General’s suite lies in the most remote and inaccessible part of the Secretariat building.” This is the purest flapdoodle. The UN headquarters building bears no resemblance whatsoever to Versailles. The secretary-general’s office is on the thirty-eighth floor of a modern thirty-eight-story structure, and is accessible by no fewer than six elevators that also serve the rest of the building. It is true that the secretary-general’s inhumanly busy program makes scheduling appointments very tight, but that is hardly a personal choice of the secretary-general.

Ross’s account of the quirks, attitudes, conceits, and habits of British diplomats and the Foreign Office echoes a favorite minor theme of twentieth-century British novelists—the use of diplomatic language to soften disagreeable truths: the “us” and “them” view of the outside world; the pervasive complacency that comes from the sense of “the Office’s” wisdom and superior judgment; the ritual significance attached to the drafting of telegrams; the carefully constructed barriers against confronting harsh realities; and the cherished illusion of a rational and essentially orderly world controlled by governments. Certainly diplomatic habit often blocks a forth-right approach to international crises. In times of violence and acute human suffering, diplomatic niceties and hypocrisies in the UN Security Council can be enraging and can lead to inexcusable inaction or delay. But in a world organization still based on sovereign nations, what is a better alternative?

Ross’s attempt to describe the stereotypical “ambassador” is the ironic climax of his indictment of his former profession:

His demeanour is friendly but grave. His expression says that he is a man to be taken seriously: he has much on his mind. He may frown but he will never grimace. He may raise his voice, but he will never shout. Measure is his mien. In all things, measure.

The quintessential quality of these paladins of their profession is, apparently, “balance,” “not going too far,” and not transgressing the borders of the state system and approved “facts.” The ambassador must be a “realist,” skeptical of moral enthusiasm or strong measures; he must also appear to be dedicated, in principle at least, to international law and human rights.

Ross describes his “slow descent from illusion to disillusionment.” His final British posting was in 1997 to the British UN delegation in New York and at the end of it, in late 2003, he was lent to the UN team in Kosovo. During the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq he earned, he writes, a “Rottweiler-like reputation…as the most effective and aggressive defender of British-American Iraq policy, sanctions and all.”

The Security Council negotiations leading up to the US invasion of Iraq were the catalyst for Ross’s final disillusionment. He recalls the intensive discussions about the draconian sanctions imposed on Iraq in early 1991. There was a basic inability to agree on the facts of the case. Britain and the United States held continued sanctions to be essential for international security; France and Russia maintained that sanctions were causing unnecessary suffering, particularly shortages of food and medical supplies, to the inhabitants of Iraq. UNICEF had calculated that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of sanctions.

Ross was in the group of mid-level diplomats appointed by the Security Council to work on this problem. With no Iraqi representatives present and no accurate sense of what was going on in Iraq, the group was reduced, in Ross’s words, to the “absurd spectacle of each side quoting supposedly impartial UN reports at one another.” “There is,” he writes, “something very wrong about sitting around a table in New York arguing about how many children are dying in Iraq and whose fault it was.” He does not, however, suggest a better method of resolving the conflicting political and humanitarian problems involved in sanctions.

Ross is not reticent about the fact that he was good at his job. He mentions that most ministers did not understand the fiendish complications of sanctions. One British minister, who was trying to sell a British proposal to the Russian foreign secretary, asked Ross for a written brief; Ross responded with twenty pages. “He read it that night and the next day deployed it to devastating effect. [Russian Foreign Minister] Ivanov appeared completely stunned.”

Ross increasingly felt that “all of us were failing in our responsibility under the UN charter to maximise security and minimise suffering.” “It is,” he writes,

far too disconcerting a prospect for governments or the diplomats who represent them to analyse or talk about the world as it really is, one shaped and affected by multitudinous and complex forces, among which governments are but one group of many involved.

Can the UN Security Council, still largely controlled by the original five permanent members, be relied on to deal justly and expeditiously with really critical problems? On Iraq, and on many other questions, mutual trust, especially among the permanent members, tends to evaporate quickly. France and Russia, although they based their case on humanitarian grounds, also had strong economic motives for lifting the Iraq sanctions, and both soon concluded that the Bush administration would never allow that to happen.

In 1998 the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iraq had fulfilled all its obligations relating to nuclear weapons except for two minor issues. The United States and Britain refused to agree to any public statement on this important development. According to Ross, the Americans told the British that, for domestic political reasons, the administration could not agree to any public suggestion that Saddam Hussein was doing what he was supposed to do.

The Russian ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, felt that he had been lied to. Richard Butler, then head of the UN inspectors in Iraq (UNSCOM), had stated in Moscow that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with the UN inspectors, but in New York he had issued a report saying exactly the opposite. In 1998 the US and Britain insisted on yet another Security Council resolution demanding Iraq’s full cooperation with UNSCOM. Lavrov asked the British if they regarded the resolution as authorizing the use of force if Iraq did not cooperate. The British replied that they did not, but when the UK and the US, in December 1998, launched Operation Desert Fox, an intensive aerial bombardment of targets in Iraq, the British quoted the resolution in legal justification of the bombing. The Chinese, French, and Russians, not unnaturally, saw such obfuscations as evidence of bad faith.

Carne Ross left the Foreign Service in September 2004. His account of this event is surprisingly meager. David Kelly, a British biological warfare expert who had been advising the British mission in New York, had told a British journalist that there were professional misgivings about Prime Minister Tony Blair’s intelligence dossier on Iraq’s alleged WMDs—the so-called “dodgy dossier.” Confronted with an official investigation, Kelly committed suicide.3 Ross was “appalled and enraged” by this tragedy. In June 2004, he submitted, from Kosovo, secret testimony to a British commission of inquiry into the use of intelligence on Iraq’s WMD4 :

I wrote down all that I thought about the war…. Once I had written it, I realised at last, after years of agonising, that I could no longer continue to work for the government.

It is puzzling that someone who felt so strongly did not reach this conclusion in March 2003, when the UK enthusiastically joined the US in invading Iraq. Ross sent the transcript of his testimony to the foreign secretary and the head of the Foreign Office; neither replied, and that, it seems, was that.

While working at the UN, Ross had been appalled by the disparity between the diplomatic resources of the rich and powerful countries—with their experienced officials and advisers, information, intelligence, and secure communications—and the hopelessly overstretched and inadequate resources of the poorer ones, particularly those, like Kosovo, which are trying to establish their claims to legitimacy through the UN. He also notes that groups who are ignored, or discriminated against, or cannot get a hearing often resort to violence. (The early treatment of the PLO, and its consequences, is an example of this tendency.) After leaving the British Foreign Service Ross set up a nonprofit advisory group, Independent Diplomat, to remedy this imbalance—“a diplomatic service for those who need it most.” The only qualifications for receiving this group’s assistance are respect for international law and human rights, and a democratic philosophy.

  1. 1

    Walter Alison Phillips, of Merton and St. John’s colleges, Oxford, in a lively contribution to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, eleventh edition (1910), Vol. 8, p. 294.

  2. 2

    On the need for this most vital of diplomatic rights, Phillips mentions in the Encyclopaedia Britannica “the habit of the Ottoman government of imprisoning in the Seven Towers the ambassador of a power with which it quarrelled,” p. 299.

  3. 3

    See my article “Hidden Truths,” The New York Review, March 25, 2004.

  4. 4

    Ross’s testimony was published in December 2006 by The Independent, London.

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