In response to:

Are Diplomats Necessary? from the October 11, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite [NYR, October 11], Sir Brian Urquhart suggests that I do not offer solutions to the problems of diplomacy I identify. He concludes that there is no alternative to the current practice of diplomacy.

The book offers several practical suggestions, some ambitious (such as wholesale democratic reform of the UN), others more achievable. For instance, the UN Security Council, or other diplomatic institutions, could give greater room to the views of those affected by their decisions. In the case of Iraq sanctions, where Urquhart claims I offer no remedy to the closed-room negotiations I attack, I argue that the diplomats could easily have given greater space and weight to those with knowledge of the conditions of real Iraqis.

Urquhart seems to assume that diplomats and international officials are basically well-intentioned, and that their role should not be questioned or scrutinized further. My book gives several examples from my direct experience which question this comfortable premise.

At the UN, to which Urquhart exhibits an understandable loyalty, I have seen disastrous officials actually compound the problems they are sent to solve; I have seen others perform heroically. In the Western Sahara, the indifference and bias of certain Secretariat officials have helped enable the Security Council to follow a grossly iniquitous policy, which has left Morocco in illegal and oppressive occupation of the territory for thirty-two years, and 150,000 Sahrawi refugees in desert camps for the same unconscionable period. In my work in Kosovo, where the UN is the supreme authority, I saw senior officials make decisions which contributed to instability and even violence, while others governed with exquisite sensitivity and good sense. Pretending that all such officials have the correct set of priorities does no service to the UN, which I and many others would love to see more effective and respected than it is.

Urquhart asks what Independent Diplomat, the organization I run, advises its clients. We advise our clients, small or disadvantaged countries and political groups, how to get their needs heard in the institutions of international diplomacy. The idea is that not only will this help them but it should also help better decisions to result from these organs. If the practice of diplomacy were remotely equitable, or even transparent, our work would not be necessary. Instead, we are overwhelmed with demand for our services (and we only help those committed to democracy and human rights).

There needs to more debate about the role of diplomats, and the way in which international decisions are reached. Sir Brian Urquhart himself has written eloquently about the latter problem too. Leaving British diplomacy and, with Independent Diplomat, going over to the “other side of the table” has opened my eyes to the very widespread disillusionment and indeed anger felt around the world about the institutions of diplomacy. It serves no one, least of all the worst off, to pretend that all is well.

Carne Ross


Independent Diplomat

London, England

Brian Urquhart replies:

My general feeling about Carne Ross’s book, Independent Diplomat, was not so much that he offered no solutions as that he offered solutions—the election of diplomats and international officials, for example—without explaining how, and by whom, such a delicate process could actually be carried out without making the situation worse. Nor does he explain why he and his fellow diplomats, when they were discussing the sanctions on Iraq, could not have called on “those with knowledge of the conditions of real Iraqis,” which would seem a rather obvious thing to do.

Of course it is unlikely that all diplomats and international officials, or members of any other profession for that matter, are “basically well-intentioned,” but that is no reason for writing them all off—“self-serving elitism and fake omnipotence,” “unwarranted and unscrutinized power,” etc. And in the very nature of the world’s problems, the performance of those who try to deal with them will be mixed, and there will be failures and derelictions, some of which can, and should, be corrected.

As to pretending “that all is well,” I wrote that Ross’s book “should stimulate serious critical thinking about the conduct of international affairs.” I also added some of my own ideas on this score, although space did not permit a summary of the various reforms that I and some of my contemporaries have put forward over the years for reforming the UN Secretariat.

Having spent a good part of my forty years at the UN working with liberation movements and others with a powerful sense of injustice, I am vividly aware of the “very widespread disillusionment and indeed anger felt around the world about the institutions of diplomacy.” I am glad that Mr. Ross has had this experience, and is now acting on it.

This Issue

November 8, 2007