If you want to get into “international relations”, here’s my advice (New Statesman, November 2013)

This is from the New Statesman’s “Guide to Political Studies”.  They asked me what I would say to someone wanting to get into “international relations”.  You can download the guide, including my bit, here.  And here it is in text form:



I was always fascinated by international affairs.  The dramas and wars of foreign places were far more interesting to me than domestic politics.  At an early age, I decided that I wanted to become a diplomat.  On my second attempt after university, I managed to join what was then called the “fast stream” of the Foreign Office.  I had postings in Norway, Germany, New York and Afghanistan.  I was for a while speechwriter to the Foreign Secretary, until he sacked me (fair enough: he didn’t like my speeches).  I worked on terrorism, climate change, the Middle East Peace Process (as it was then naively known), Libya, the Western Sahara, and Iraq.


This last was my undoing as a diplomat.  I had served at the UK Mission to the UN in New York as Britain’s Iraq expert, negotiating Security Council resolutions on weapons inspections and sanctions.  In 2004, I gave secret testimony to the Butler inquiry saying that the government had lied about the WMD threat and had ignored available alternatives to war.  I sent my testimony along with my resignation letter to the Foreign Secretary.  He never replied.  I quit the career of my dreams and a job I thought would occupy me happily until my index-linked pension.


Looking back, this was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally.  At the time, it felt like a catastrophe.  I loved diplomacy.  I had given up all security and indeed my professional identity, an identity that was fast becoming my personal identity too.  I realized that I wanted to remain in diplomacy, but how?  In the formal world of diplomacy, you had to work for a government to be a proper diplomat.


A problem came to my rescue.  I was working in Kosovo for the UN when I resigned, on secondment from the UK government.  In 2004, it was beset by political violence.  This violence was one result of the fact that Kosovo’s sovereign status was unresolved.  There was intense political and popular frustration that Kosovo’s future was undetermined, and Kosovars themselves had no part in the secretive diplomatic discussions to decide it, even though they had a democratically elected government to represent them.  I knew the Prime Minister of Kosovo.  I offered  to advise him on the diplomacy around Kosovo, which I knew about.  Over a glass of local raki, he agreed.


Kosovo was the first client of what became Independent Diplomat, the world’s first (and still only) non-profit diplomatic advisory group.  A group of former diplomats and other experts, we now have eight offices around the world.  As well as Kosovo, we have advised South Sudan on its independence process, Croatia on EU accession, the Marshall Islands on the ridiculously opaque UN climate change “process”, Somaliland, Moldova, Northern Cyprus, the Syrian Coalition (an umbrella coalition of moderate opposition groups), and the representatives of the people of the occupied Western Sahara, the Frente POLISARIO, as well as others.  We advise the legitimate representatives of the people whose problems are the stuff of international diplomacy.  Invariably they are cut out of the diplomatic discussion at places like the UN and the EU, where debate is confined to a few powerful countries. We help our clients find a way in, so that their people’s voices can at last be heard. The work is fun, interesting and difficult.


My life as a “proper” diplomat for Britain had been fascinating.  I visited the Gaza Strip, the Hindu Kush and Roma ghettos in eastern Germany.  I saw policy made at the highest levels (not a pretty sight, I fear).  I was involved in some of the most dramatic issues of the day: Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism.  I was in New York when two aircraft struck the World Trade Center, perhaps the worst day of my life.   I thought that I loved the job, but I was not free.  As a diplomat, you are always constrained by what “London” wants.  This is how diplomacy must work: you must represent your government, not yourself.  But for someone who is passionately political, it can be very frustrating.  I am ashamed of some of the things I worked on, like the sanctions on Iraq that helped cause considerable human suffering.


Today, I don’t really believe in governments as the solution.  The world has changed since the end of the Cold War, when I became a diplomat.  The most important problems are global and transnational: terrorism, climate change, inequality.  National governments are ill-suited to solve these problems, as the evidence is suggesting.  We seem to be in a permanent war against “terrorists” all over the world.  UN treaties have failed to halt growing carbon emissions, as the scientific prognoses for the climate have dramatically worsened.  Inequality is getting worse, fast, more or less everywhere.


I’ve become a kind of gentle anarchist.  I think that action directly by us, ourselves, is the best way to solve these problems.  Even democratic governments do not really represent what’s in the collective best interests of the people.  As power concentrates in the hands of a few, government has become increasingly co-opted by corporate interests. I saw it for myself in government.  Shell always got meetings with senior officials.  Human rights NGOs were barely let in the door.  And as inequality deepens, this problem is getting worse.  My philosophy is all about agency.  We have lost control of the things that most matter to us.  We need to take it back.  People spontaneously working together about the things they care about, non-violently and in consultation with those most affected.  This is the best and most fulfilling way to change things for the better, not asking others, particularly governments, to do it for us.


What would I recommend to a young person who, like me, is fascinated by the world?  There are many things to learn: economics, history, languages.  I found that understanding the terminology of power has been very important in helping understand it, and change it.  The neat but often inaccurate theorems of economics are often used by the powerful to bewilder and confuse everyone else.   History can help understand how we got here.


One lesson sticks with me from my work as a diplomat, both with the British government and today.  There are real, as well as philosophical, limits to all theory, and indeed all narratives whether of history or “the other”.  I’m often approached by students of “international relations” who have been taught all kinds of complicated theories of things like “realism” and “neo-realism” or game theory.  Diplomacy is in its essential form in fact very simple.  It’s about people talking to other people trying to sort stuff out.  All the terminology and procedure and protocol is basically bullshit, and are often employed to preserve the advantages of the powerful.  Learn these terms, but only in order to get past them.


Most important of all is this.  International relations is a fancy name for what’s going on in the world today.  The best way to learn about it is to live it.  Don’t study African politics or history in a rainy university in England.  Go to Africa, volunteer, travel, talk to people.  One term spent as a teacher in the West Bank will teach you more than three years studying “the Middle East”, and maybe one or two of your pupils might benefit a little too.  You will experience and learn extraordinary things.  It may be uncomfortable, but it will be unforgettable.  You will realize things you never expected about “abroad”, but also about yourself.  With envy, I wish you luck.  The world is yours to make.




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