The Wilson Quarterly

Faithful service to Her Majesty’s government earned British diplomat Carne Ross the privilege of being a well-placed pawn during the disastrous exercise in Anglo-American self-deception that became the Iraq war. But he atoned brilliantly in 2004, testifying before a British commission about how intelligence reports were misused to fabricate an Iraqi threat to the United Kingdom. He then resigned from the civil service to found Independent Diplomat, an international organization that supplies diplomatic expertise to not-quite-states such as Kosovo and Somaliland.

In his memoir, Ross describes with elegant humility his 15-year apprenticeship in the British diplomatic service. The Foreign Office recruits presentable generalists. With no formal training even in diplomatic protocol, they must cope with trade policies, centrifuge technology, and knotty issues in international law. Despite the State Department’s vastly larger size and budget, U.S. diplomats are expected to do much the same, so Ross’s book is a fine introduction to the diplomatic profession for American readers. The best portions of Independent Diplomat are drawn from Ross’s years at United Nations headquarters, where he served from 1997 to 2002. There he was tasked with defending UN sanctions on Iraq against charges that they had caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. Those sanctions were imposed to compel Saddam Hussein to destroy his chemical and biological stockpiles and dismantle his nuclear program. High-level defectors confirmed that by 1996 he had done so. But by the time Ross arrived for his assignment, the presence or absence of "weapons of mass destruction" no longer figured in policy discussions. Washington demanded that sanctions continue until Saddam’s regime fell. As the faithful servant of a loyal U.S. ally, Ross crafted diplomatic doublespeak to prevent Iraqi reality from undermining U.S. policy.

In 2002, Ross took a sabbatical to study political philosophy on a fellowship at the New School University. There, he learned the rudiments of epistemology. Thus armed, he posits that his UN discussions were so detached from the real world because they were confined to a narrow subset of linguistic terms. Further, he concludes that diplomats are ignorant, arrogant, and unaccountable, and should be replaced by supranational parliamentary bodies and by direct negotiation between "lifelong experts" who understand their state’s interests on the issues they study better than any diplomatic generalist could.

If Ross had consulted primatologists instead of philosophers, he might have reached a less bleak verdict on his profession. At bottom, civil servants are social primates. They derive happiness from their standing within a competitive hierarchy. Parroting conventional belief is prudent proof of loyalty. In the competition for status, discordant facts (e.g., that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction) cripple their possessor. Most diplomats, therefore, edit their perceptions ruthlessly.

But societies do not survive long without accurate information about potential threats. A few genuine diplomats—and Ross was on the road to becoming one when he resigned—are tolerated for their ability to shed their social blinders and observe the foreigners around them. Through personal relationships built on mutual trust, they trade the information needed to craft politically viable alliances against common dangers.

Despite his conclusion that the diplomatic profession ought to be abolished, Ross’s own organization presupposes the value of diplomats’ skills. Perhaps even he would agree that only in rare moments of exceptional misgovernment is self-immolation the most honorable option for an experienced diplomat.

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Reviewed: "Independent Diplomat: Dispatches From an Unaccountable Elite" by Carne Ross, Cornell University Press, 2007. 

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

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