Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Draft of a review of 'Independent Diplomat' by Carne Ross. Should appear in the next issue of International Affairs.

Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite. By Carne Ross. Hurst and Company, London. 2007. 243pp. Index. £15.00 ISBN: 978 1 85065 843 6

Carne Ross’s resignation from the British Foreign Office following his evidence to the Butler Inquiry will be familiar to anybody interested in Iraq or British foreign policy. As he outlines in Independent Diplomat what drove him to give his evidence and eventually resign was his increasing disillusionment not only with policy towards Iraq but with the very nature of diplomacy. This book, therefore, is not simply a memoir and discussion about events leading up to the Iraq War. It is part memoir and confession; part essay on the nature of contemporary international relations and diplomacy; and part manifesto for Independent Diplomat the organisation.

As a memoir the book is at times enthralling and at others banal. It is Ross’s experiences at the British Mission to the UN in New York, specifically in dealing with Iraq that he gives attention to. He provides an insightful and candid discussion of how the UK and the rest of the UN approached the issues of Iraqi WMD and the Oil for Food programme. In doing so he explores whether or not the British government lied over Iraq. As Ross notes, the situation regarding WMD is a blurred and difficult one where we come across what some would term ‘noble half-truths’; but it is clear that in the run up to the conflict there was nothing to suggest significant rearmament or intent to attack Iraq’s neighbours (p73). This is woven into discussion of the ludicrousness of how policy was discussed and agreed. He describes the drawn out and nauseating work drafting impenetrable documents that were more about abstract diplomatic games in New York than the reality on the ground. The secrecy and lack of accountability Ross and his fellow diplomats enjoyed in playing this game is set out in forthright terms.

It is this strange world of diplomacy that is the main target of the book. This is a world where the complexities of a globalised world are reduced to factoids used to wage diplomatic wars in some realpolitik zero-sum game. There is no objective truth with terms such as ‘interests’ banded around without much thought as to what they actually mean: economic (trade and maximum growth, rarely anything else); security (always realist reinforcing a cycle of unstable competition); values (always vague, contradictory and often abused) (pp116-125). In exposing this diplomatic circus he in turn takes a shot at the study and theories of international relations. Here he perhaps takes too narrow an approach to IR theory doing many people who work in IR a disservice. But his critique goes to the very nature of theory itself, arguing that the world is far more complicated than anybody – be they diplomats or academics – can begin to measure or understand. Beyond this his central concern is with how the structure of international diplomacy disadvantages the weak; that in a globalised world the need for a more inclusive and open format of diplomacy is more urgent than ever.

This is where the book tends more towards a manifesto than analysis. Ross outlines what drove him to establish Independent Diplomat the organisation, a consultancy for democratic entities such as Kosovo, Somaliland and the Saharawis of Western Sahara; entities that lack the resources to engage in diplomacy on a par with other actors in international relations. The book outlines why such an organisation is needed, providing a view of diplomacy from the poorer and weaker side of the negotiating table, the opposite side to which Ross was accustomed to sitting on. Independent Diplomat is an interesting venture, but a key weakness of the book is that little is actually said about it. Most of the detail about the organisation can be found on pp191-198. Beyond this there is little discussion of how it deals with the arcane and irrational style of diplomacy that Ross outlines in most of the book.

This absence is the key weakness in this book, especially for readers of International Affairs. Discussing the experiences of Independent Diplomat in more detail could have added something new to the debate about the nature of contemporary international affairs and diplomacy; instead the book actually says very little that’s new. Certainly Ross’s insight into how policy was made over Iraq is new and of interest to those who study the conflict, but his analysis and discussion of the nature of international relations and diplomacy has been well rehearsed elsewhere. Frustratingly the reader will struggle to find substantial reference to this; I for one wondered why there was no reference to the work of Shaun Riordan, another former and disillusioned UK diplomat whose book ‘The New Diplomacy’ (Polity, 2003) provides a far more nuanced discussion of how diplomacy might develop. Perhaps Carne Ross has in mind a second book outlining the experiences of Independent Diplomat the organisation; one can only hope so as it is an interesting exercise that can only helps shed light on the current state of international relations and diplomacy.