Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Crises in World Politics) Review

Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Crises in World Politics)
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Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Crises in World Politics) ReviewDiplomats shouldn't read Wittgenstein. Or Popper. The first will teach them that they deal in fictions, and that their language puts a distorting filter between themselves and reality. The second would have condemned the closed and undemocratic nature of the world's diplomatic arena.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once violently scolded a colleague who, commenting on a news that Britain had instigated an assassination attempt on Hitler, considered that such a covert act was the opposite of fair play and therefore incompatible with the British "national character". For the exacting philosopher, the notion of national character was more than an abstraction: it was an insult to intelligence. The concept of national interest, still the bread and butter of international relations theory and practice, would likewise have been dismissed as a childish fiction.
Karl Popper would certainly have counted the diplomats, with their culture of secrecy and unaccountability, among the enemies of the open society. Sustained by mechanisms of transparency, accountability, and fair elections, Popper's open society is another name for a healthy and striving democracy. It allows for the correction of mistakes when things go wrong, and reinforces positive trends in cases of success. Unfortunately, there is no feedback mechanism in the field of international policy. Simply put, "those affected in country A by the policies of country B have no means of informing the policymakers of country B what is going wrong."
After five years as First Secretary at the UK Mission to the United Nations in New York, busily spent negotiating sanctions against Iraq at the UN Security Council, Carne Ross felt he needed to recover from exhaustion. He took a one-year sabbatical and enrolled in an international policy program at the New School University. There he complemented his general education with readings from Wittgenstein and Popper, and he saw the light. It occurred to him that he had stood on the wrong side of the fence, enforcing sanctions that did little but inflict misery on the Iraqi people. Worse, he participated in a cover-up operation for a preemptive war that had been decided long in advance. He had failed in his responsibility under the UN charter to maximize security and minimize suffering.
This was only the beginning. His awakening to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language and to Popper's advocacy of the open society led him to reconsider assumptions he had always considered as self-evident. This is how he recalls his conversion: "As I reflected on the process that allowed us as diplomats to say "Britain wants this" or "the US wants that", the more I realised that this was an arbitrary and manufactured process, with little grounding in reality, and certainly only very rarely discussed with those in whose name the whole discourse was being practised. In other words, something of a sham."
So Carne Ross resigned from the Foreign Office and created Independent Diplomat, a human rights advocacy outfit whose mission is to "provide diplomatic services for those who need it most". He collected his thoughts in a volume, and published them as "Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite". His recollection of the debates surrounding UN Security Council's resolutions on Iraq is particularly valuable, because it provides an insider's account of the negotiations' dynamics and of the mindsets of the experts who stood at the table.
Because he sat on the opposite side of the debate on Iraqi sanctions, Carne Ross had to fight blow by blow against the positions and negotiating tactics of his French counterparts. The level of animosity between the two camps, one led by the US and the UK, the other by France and Russia, had risen to a stage where hard feelings were involved. National differences had become personal feuds. As Ross recalls, "When the American delegate spoke, the French would stare at the ceiling and smirk. When the French had their turn, the Americans would shuffle their papers and whisper to one another."
But the animosity between French and British diplomats ran even deeper. Whereas Anglo-American negotiators stood ready to credit the Russian ambassador for acting in good faith and for defending his country's national interest, suspicions about cynicism and shady commercial interests always lurked behind the perceptions of French's stated goals. British officials took it as a personal goal to outsmart the French, to teach them a lesson in the art of diplomacy. The mistrust was probably reciprocal.
A few years ago, it is said, Britain's permanent EU representation invited diplomats to craft a mission statement for their work. One acclaimed (if unsuccessful) submission was: "Sticking it to the French, every day." Likewise, I know of a French senior official who always taught junior trainees the "golden rule of international negotiations": Never, never, never trust the British.
The opposition between "la perfide Albion" and "those treacherous French" has a long political history. This past hasn't passed out: not for nothing are the walls of British ambassadors' residences throughout the world lined with prints of Waterloo. Despite their supposed anti-Americanism, the French like to remind people of La Fayette's contribution to the War of Independence, and they revel in the celebration of "l'amitié franco-américaine". But "l'Entente cordiale" that was concluded in 1904 between the United Kingdom and the French Republic has few contemporary supporters, and Joan of Arc, who stood against the Anglo invaders and kicked them out of France, is still a celebrated figure.
The reality, of course, is that diplomats and public officials from both countries should see through national stereotypes and beyond entrenched egotistic feuds. France and the United Kingdom have so much to share, and if they supplement each other, their diplomatic machines and talented negotiators are a tremendous force to count with. Carne Ross mentions in his book that he is sometimes invited to address gatherings of the diplomatic body in various countries to give them inspirational lectures. I wish he could lecture young French civil servants from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration and correct the mistrust, resentment and acrimony that are sometimes ingrained in them by prejudiced elders. He could also teach them a thing or two about Popper and Wittgenstein.Independent Diplomat: Dispatches from an Unaccountable Elite (Crises in World Politics) OverviewAlthough diplomats negotiate more and more aspects of world affairs--from trade and security issues to health, human rights, and the environment--we have little idea of, and even less control over, what they are doing in our name. In Independent Diplomat, Carne Ross provides a compelling account of what's wrong with contemporary diplomacy and offers a bold new vision of how it might be put right.For more than fifteen years, Ross was a British diplomat on the frontlines of numerous international crises, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Afghanistan, and the buildup to the invasion of Iraq, over which he eventually resigned from the British civil service. In 2005, he founded Independent Diplomat, a nonprofit advisory firm that offers diplomatic advice and assistance to poor, politically marginalized or inexperienced governments and political groups, including Kosovo, Somaliland, and the Polisario movement in the Western Sahara, as well as to NGOs and other international institutions.Drawing on vivid episodes from his career in Oslo, Bonn, Kabul, and at the UN Security Council, Ross reveals that many of the assumptions that laypersons and even government officials hold about the diplomatic corps are wrong. He argues passionately and persuasively that the institutions of contemporary diplomacy--foreign ministries, the UN, the EU, and the like--often exclude those they most affect. He exposes the very limited range of evidence upon which diplomats base their reports, and the profoundly closed and undemocratic nature of the world's diplomatic forums.As a diplomat, Ross was encouraged to see the world in a narrow way in which the power of states and interests overwhelmed or excluded more complex, sophisticated ways of understanding. As Ross demonstrates, however, the reality of diplomatic negotiations, whether at the UN or among the warlords of Afghanistan, shows different forces at play, factors ignored in reductionist descriptions and academic theories of "international relations." To cope with the complexities of today's world, diplomats must open their doors--and minds--to a far wider range of individuals and groups, concerns and ideas, than the current and increasingly dysfunctional system allows.

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