Interview: Carne Ross
August 2014, Volume 70, Number 4
The former Foreign Office high-flyer talks about his new career as a diplomatic entrepreneur, the need to give a voice to the voiceless, and how he helped John le Carré create a fictional whistle-blower
You resigned from the Foreign Office a decade ago over the Iraq war. What is wrong with diplomacy?
The state-based system of global power is in terminal decline. The institutions of international cooperation need to include not just states but all of those affected by their decisions and all of those who influence the outcome. These are so-called non- state actors – private companies or civil society or others. The criteria for participation need to be legitimacy, in that they genuinely represent a group of people, and having a stake in the issue.
If you bring in all these people, it could end up as the Tower of Babel.
Obviously one wants to avoid that, but the truth is a state-based system is not producing adequate solutions, partly because it is designed for 20th century problems, not for the problems of globalization. Take cli- mate change: even if there is a UN climate treaty agreed in Paris next year as planned, it will not be sufficient to keep us beneath the two degree centigrade threshold which scientists regard as the point after which the runaway, dangerous consequences for the world’s atmosphere may follow.
You have to conclude that the state- based mechanism is not sufficient. It’s set up in a very similar way to multilateral negotiations from earlier phases of history, where there is a lowest common denominator approach, a bargaining approach to something that is essentially a common problem.
Where else does this apply?
It certainly applies to economic issues. Global economic institutions are both exclusive in that the ones that really matter exclude a lot of people. Secondly, we don’t have effective global legislation of financial issues. For instance, on tax havens, which are a huge contributor to inequality.
Since resigning you have set up the NGO, Independent Diplomat, to give a voice to the voiceless. How much have you achieved in those years?
Among others, we have supported Kosovo and South Sudan to achieve independence, and the Syrian National Coalition. We helped the states most affected by climate change have an impact at the UN climate negotiations.
We have been able to help them speak to bodies where decisions are taken, such as the UN Security Council, from which normally they are excluded. The organization is extremely lean – 22 permanent staff in five offices around the world. Smallness has been part of our success in that we have an effective system for discussing everything together, which creates a real sense of teamwork.
You spent four years working for Britain at the UN in New York, but now you’re a diplomatic outsider. Do you now feel you could achieve more inside the structures of power?
Not at all. The higher you progress inside the system, the more you have to become part of the system. I felt diplomacy was changing me, not me changing diplomacy.
You describe yourself as an anger-driven ‘gentle anarchist’. Is that a good basis for a diplomatic career?
I wasn’t like that when I applied to the Foreign Office. It took years in the diplomatic service to make me lose faith in government and representative democracy.
WikiLeaks revealed a trove of diplomatic cables. Has this changed the way the ‘unaccountable elite’ works?
I don’t think WikiLeaks in itself has changed much. If anything, governments have tightened up their control of information. I think the internet has opened up diplomacy simply because of the vast amounts of information available to non- government actors.
What about the Twiplomats who are always on social media?
Any openness is welcome, but I don’t think the social media aspect of opening diplomacy has made a dramatic difference. Some ambassadors are communicating directly with people. But the nature of the job means that generally their tweets are bland in the extreme, and the more senior, the blander. One notable exception – Carl Bildt says what he feels.
You have a low opinion of the media’s ability to hold foreign policy practitioners to account
One of the very significant advantages I felt in government was the extraordinary amount of good quality information I had, both from intelligence sources and the network of embassies around the world. When I was working on Iraq I never felt that either civil society or Parliament or the media had the understanding to scrutinize and question us in a way that would have made a difference. To hold government and diplomats properly to account, you have to develop an extremely sophisticated understanding of the policy issue. I still don’t see that. One of the troubling things is the way that journalism is developing and being financed. The major organs of the media have fewer resources to devote to these investigations.
So what can take the place of the under-resourced media?
We need centres of deep expertise on particular policy areas. An NGO or a university can develop expertise to challenge the government on policy in a way that government would have to take seriously. One example is the Fourth Freedom Foundation’s work on sanctions policy. This would be a better use of university resources than arcane theories of International Relations.
Iraq is in crisis today. What policies before the invasion in 2003 might have resulted in a better outcome today?
Before the war, I advocated along with other officials, for much more sustained and systematic attempts to undermine the Saddam regime by cutting off his supplies of illegal oil revenue. But there was never a properly resourced systematic campaign to do that. That was an alternative to war and was never really attempted.
There were certain submerged interests which stopped it. In particular, the US ad- ministration’s worries about a blockage to Iraq’s oil exports kicking off an oil price spike which would have had political consequences. But this was of course a very short-term approach.
What about Iraq now? Should foreign powers try to hold the country together?
It is not an issue for the big powers to decide. For 100 years they have tried to determine the fate of countries in the region. It should be up to the Iraqis to decide their own fate. Of course Iraq’s neighbours including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have a clear interest in what happens. You have to remember how much Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war.
John Kerry spent a year trying to end the Israel-Palestine conflict. What needs to change?
It’s unclear that Israel in its current dispensation actually wants a deal that allows for a credible Palestinian state and a full end to the occupation. That deal has been available for a very long time and does not re- quire a fantastically difficult calculation to create it. I think it’s been a mistake to leave to the US the role of the sole arbiter of the Israeli-Palestine dispute.
Europe has basically given up on Israel- Palestine and has for a decade or so. Tony Blair was partly responsible for it, but not solely him. There used to be a unique European position separate from the Americans, and the Europeans seem to have accepted that they should have no role, partly because Israel has been ferocious in resisting any attempt by anybody other than the US to be involved directly in any negotiations. The whole dispute has been constructed to allow politicians and governments to pretend they are involved.
People seem to be losing faith in the ability of their governments to get things done. What’s the future of democracy?
The model of simply participating by voting every five years is one that doesn’t work. Representative government, particularly in the US but also elsewhere, has been corrupted by interests that do not reflect the collective popular interest. The answer is more direct democracy and more mass participation in decision-making about things that matter.
Doesn’t that require a smaller entity, a sort of Athenian-style polity rather than 200 million people?
It’s increasingly clear that very large countries are dysfunctional in democratic terms. The US is having extraordinary difficulty governing itself effectively. China is pulling off this feat, but only by adopting a much more authoritarian model. India’s democracy is highly corrupt and inefficient.
I think democracy and governability work much better at a smaller scale. But again, it’s not impossible to devise a scheme where large-scale participatory processes, at for instance a city or province level, could be scaled up to national scale decisions.
Let’s look at some of your clients. Kosovo is in crisis. Was independence a mistake?
If Kosovo had not been given independence, I think there would have been considerable turmoil inside Kosovo but also a possible resumption of conflict with Serbia. So it was the right decision. I think Kosovo is actually doing okay. One could criticize the government and certain politicians, but I think basically it’s on its feet and will eventually become part of the European family.
And South Sudan?
If there had not been independence, it would have meant the resumption of the North-South civil war which caused catastrophic casualties. A few individuals in their lust for power have triggered the destruction of the country and it’s a disgrace and a tragedy. But I don’t think it means that the decision to make them independent was the wrong one.
The trouble is, in South Sudan you have extremely weak or non-existent institutions. The Western idea of state-building has been extremely naïve in that it’s not just about parachuting in a few experts and putting a label on a door saying the Ministry of Finance or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I’m caricaturing it, but the point is that building up effective states is a much longer-term process of building up a culture of government from top to bottom.
How does that work?
Any new institutions have to reflect local traditions. If you look at Somaliland, which is another of our clients, they have set up robust democratic and legal institutions without outside help at all. Somaliland has run itself as an independent country ever since 1991 in a way that the rest of the world ignores when it looks at the so-called failed state of Somalia.
In his latest book, A Delicate Truth, John le Carré thanks you for your advice and example of speaking truth to power. Are you the model of his whistle-blower?
I advised him on how people speak in the Foreign Office – or did when I was there. But the whistle-blower is his own creation. I resigned with great care, after I was asked to give evidence about my experience working on Iraq. I don’t see myself as brave at all.